Ergogenic Aids. Is it possible to boost performance with food?
As competition gets tighter and the stakes higher, athletes, coaches and sports scientists are spending more and more time looking for legal ways to improve performance and hasten recovery. Things that are taken or done to improve performance are known as Ergogenic Aids and can act to improve performance by directly influencing physiological capacity, by removing a psychological constraint such as anxiety or by speeding up the recovery from training and competition. Studies have shown that around 76% of young athletes, and 100 percent of young body builders take some form of supplement.
Legal Ergogenic aids don’t just include foods and supplements. There are also mechanical aids (altitude training, the use of parachutes, elastic cords and downhill running to develop strength and speed, compression garments, footwear, computers, videos etc), psychological aids (music, centering, toughness, meditation, mindfulness, CBT, relaxation, hypnosis) and physiological aids, (acupuncture, homeopathy, sports massage, osteopathy, physiotherapy, sauna, ultra-violet). Food and supplements fall into two different categories of ergonomic aid, pharmacological and nutritional. The distinction between the two is foggy but generally something will be considered to be a nutritional aid if it is essential to life or part of a normal balanced diet and a pharmacological aid if it artificially manufactured or needs to be taken in a dose that is far higher than normal.
Banned Ergogenic Aids – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has drawn up a list of banned substances and doping methods that most sports governing bodies have accepted. The use of drugs to enhance performance is considered unfair and may put the health of the athlete at risk. The Drug Information Database provides easily accessible and accurate responses to queries about the status within sport of licensed pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medicinal products available in the UK. The status of the substances in this database reflects the current prohibited list which is also available from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The research literature on ergogenic aids is vast. In the table below I have attempted to give an idea of what has been found to be an effective nutritional (or pharmacological aid) and what, despite what you may read, has little or no supporting evidence to back its use. There are studies coming out all the time and I will attempted to keep this as current as possible.
|ERGONOMIC AID||CLAIM||SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE||NATURAL SOURCE|
|Antioxidants(vitamins)||Strenuous exercise can cause oxidative stress, which ‘damages’ muscle tissue. Taking antioxidants in the diet has been thought to help optimize training by lowering tissue damage and post exercise stiffness.||Evidence is very mixed and the latest theory is that some muscle damage is necessary to achieve training adaptation.||Fruit and vegetables.Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta-carotene and selenium.|
|Bee Pollen / Royal Jelly||Increases energy levels, enhances physical fitness improves endurance and boosts immunity.Royal jelly also contains B-complex vitamins such as vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine||No strong supporting evidence.Bee pollen came to the attention of sports medicine researchers after Finnish marathon runners (1972) claimed that it improved their performance. Subsequent testing failed to confirm their beliefs.Royal Jelly has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and insulin resistance in animals. No human studies.||Allergy to royal jelly and bee pollen is common, and can be life threatening.|
|Beta-alanine||Increases muscular strength and power output, increases muscle mass, boosts aerobic and anaerobic endurance and delays fatigue.||Research has shown positive results in a wide variety of studies but dose is uncertain. 10mg/Kg body weigh is general recommendation. Even single small doses can cause side effects (tingling in the skin).||The greatest natural dietary sources of beta-alanine are the beta-alanine dipeptides found in meat of protein rich foods such as chicken, beef, pork and fish.Supplements are not regulated for and not tested in children.|
|Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) – Leucine, isoleucine and valine.||Stimulate the building of protein in muscle and possibly reduce muscle breakdown. Also thought to prevent fatigue, improve concentration and improve performance.Leucine metabolite beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) has been extensively used as an ergogenic aid; particularly among bodybuilders and strength/power athletes, who use it to promote exercise performance and skeletal muscle hypertrophy.||Data shows that BCAA supplementation before and after exercise is beneficial for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis. Found to be effective preventing delayed onset muscle soreness that occurs 24-48 h after intensive physical activity and can inhibit athletic performance. Leucine – Possible small effects on lean-body mass and strength.Some evidence that BCAA can help reduce muscle wastage during injury..Research on HMB very mixed.||Meat, Dairy Products, Legumes (peas, beans, lentils, peanuts).Supplementation may trigger hypoglycemia particularly in younger people.BCAA affect blood sugar levels.|
|B vitamins||Many of the B vitamins are involved in the metabolism of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Their ergogenic potential has been studied individually and in combination.||Athletes who lack B-vitamins have reduced high-intensity exercise performance and are less able to repair damaged muscles or build muscle mass than their peers who eat a diet rich with B-vitamins but evidence that supplementation is a benefit to an athlete on a well-balanced diet is not strong.||Whole and enriched grains, dark green vegetables, nuts, and animal and dairy products.Exercise may increase an athlete’s requirement for riboflavin and vitamin B-6, however, the data for folate and vitamin B-12 are limited.|
|Caffeine||Increases performance, strength and alertness||Evidence on the benefits of caffeine to performance is vast. International Society of Sports nutrition lists benefits as:- 1)effective for enhancing sport performance in trained athletes. Dose ~3-6 mg/kg (higher dosages ~ 9 mg/kg are not more effective). 2) enhances vigilance during bouts of extended exhaustive exercise and sleep deprivation. 3.) ergogenic for sustained maximal endurance exercise & is highly effective for time-trial performance. 4.) supplementation is beneficial for high-intensity exercise, including team sports such as soccer, hockey and rugby. Effect of supplementation on strength-power performance is not conclusiveBenefit of caffeine is highly dependent on the person.||Per 100mgTea= 20mgCoffee=40mgCoke=8mgDiet coke=15mgRedBull=30mgProPlus 1tablet = 50mgLarge Latte= 63-175mgJolt=339mgJelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans = 122mgClif Shot Bloks = have 25mg and 50mg packs.Caffeine exerts a greater ergogenic effect when consumed dry rather than in a drink.
Manufacturers of caffeine products say they are not tested and not suitable for individuals under the age of 18yrs.
IOC banned caffeine in 1962. Removed total ban in 1972.
The effects of caffeine last 4-6hours and peaks at around 1hr but for susceptible people they may still be buzzed after 12hours or more.
Research does not back theory that caffeine is dehydrating.
|Carbohydrate||Carbohydrate is a primary fuel source during exercise particularly during endurance exercise. Benefits performance, endurance and mood.||Very strong evidence backs the use of carbohydrate during sport. Carbo-loading, ingesting carbohydrates during activity and using carbohydrate mouthwashes have all been found to improve performance. Most research has been done in endurance sports and exercise over 2hours but in well-trained athletes carbohydrate has also been sown to improve performance in shorter bouts of intense exercise.||Sports drinks Raisons/fruit Jelly beans/sweets GelsCurrently, for prolonged exercise lasting 2-3 h, athletes are advised to ingest carbohydrates at a rate of 60 g·h⁻¹ (~1.0-1.1 g·min⁻¹)There is some evidence that it is beneficial to mix sugar types as they are digested more easily.|
|Carnitine / L-carnitine||Involved in fatty acid transport and thought to improve fat oxidation, weight loss and VO2max||Dietary supplementation of 15-25g/d can improve muscle creatine but benefits remain uncertain.||4oz steak contains 56-162mg Carnitine. Red meet is the best source. Small amounts in whole wheat and asparagus. Supplementation can cause increased body water, muscle cramping and possible renal damage.Not banned but in US not allowed in college teams.|
|Cherry Juice||Anti-inflammatory & antioxidant. Beneficial for muscle recovery and for sleep||High in flavonoids and anthocyanins. Reasonable evidence that tart / sour cherry juice prevents symptoms of exercise induced muscle damage and post run inflammation. Some caution should be given though as new research shows this may also lessen the beneficial effects of training.||Cherries|
|Choline||Precursor of neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Thought to improve performance and decrease fatigue||No supporting evidence||Meat, seafood, nuts, cauliflower, spinach, soya, lettuce and eggs. Supplements have side effects.|
|Cinnamon||Cinnamon is thought to imitate insulin, enhancing its effectiveness and improving blood sugar metabolism.||As little as half a teaspoon of cinnamon can significantly lower blood sugar readings and in animals has been shown to improve performance.||Cinnamon BUT don’t go overboard Coumarin in cassia or Chinese cinnamon can cause liver damage. Ceylon cinnamon has lower coumarin but also lower benefit.|
|Coconut Oil||Supplies energy, reduces muscle glycogen breakdown and improves performance||MCTs once digested go straight to the liver and are used as a quick source of energy.No supporting evidence for performance||Coconut oil|
|Co-enzyme Q10||Part of electron-transport chain in the mitochondria. Thought to improve performance, decrease fatigue and improve VO2max||No supporting evidence but is a powerful antioxidant.||Meat, poultry & fish, soya bean, almonds & spinach|
|Colostrum||Enhances immunity and recovery. Promotes fat burning and muscle growth and health. Reduces gastric stress during exercise.||Not sufficient evidence. Activities that seem to benefit are jumping and bicycle sprints, but not running on a treadmill.||Colostrum is a milky fluid produced by mammals the first few days after giving birth and before true milk appears.Colostrum powder is available in health food shops.|
|Creatine||High-energy phosphate carrier. Thought to improve strength reduce fatigue and increase protein synthesis||Good evidence. Improves performance in single and repeated sprint bouts and improves recovery between bouts but effect does depend on the individual and some people find no benefit.No benefit in endurance exercise.||Wild game is considered to be the richest source of creatine, but lean red meat and fish (particularly herring, salmon, and tuna) are also good sources.High doses can cause kidney damage. Not recommended or properly tested in children.|
|Ginseng||Improves strength, performance, stamina and cognitive functioning. Reduces fatigue||Very few good studies.||In a number of sports foods and drinks.|
|Glutamine||Antioxidant, aids muscle recovery, brings down inflammation, boosts immune system.||Does no effect on immune system. May be beneficial in rebuilding glycogen stores.||Glutamine is found in many different foods with the highest levels found in grass-fed beef, bison, chicken, & free-range eggs.|
|Iodine||Improved energy levels. Iodine is essential for the maintenance of normal metabolism.||Iodine deficiency is common and losses in sweat can be significant. Iodine supplementation in deficiency has been found to boost performance.||Seaweed, fish, fortified salt, milk (more in normal than organic), egg.|
|Lecithin||Increases VO2max and performance. Improves brain function.||No supporting evidence||Egg yoke. Wheat germ. Avocados|
|Omega-3||Associated with faster recovery, lower inflammation, reduced muscle soreness, greater fat loss, lower anxiety, better mental focus, joint health and lower injury.||Research is strong.Benefit may be greatest in amateur sports players and in instances of over training or injury.Also some research suggesting omega3s beneficial in regulation /control of blood sugar.||Oily fish. Flax oil, Cod-liver oil, walnuts.Omega3 and Omega6 share the same digestive pathway so lowering amount of Omega6 in the diet increases Omega3s.Supplements.|
|Magnesium||Improved endurance, lower fatigue, beneficial for muscle camps, better muscle recovery. Increased VO2max.||Good evidence. Muscle cramps up to 86% lower. Very common deficiency.||Dark leafy greens. Nuts and seeds (sesame, brazil, almonds), fish, beans/lentils, avocado.|
|Maltodextrin||Improved endurance, lower fatigue.||Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide food additive made from starch and widely used in processed food. It has been shown to be a particularly good source of carbohydrate during exercise. It has a high glycemic index, low osmolality and is very easily digested.||No natural sourcesNo known health risks to taking maltodextrin and it is in most sports drinks and foods but where possible it is better to eat low glycemic whole grains and foods that have other beneficial nutrients.|
|Nitrates||Improved neurotransmission, improved vascular compliance, reduced oxidative stress. Improved running speed, strength and endurance.||Small benefit in time trial speeds and quite impressive increases in time-to-exhaustion (15-25%). Greater benefit in untrained individuals.||Beetroot & beetroot juice. Celery, rocket, spinach.There has been food scares about the nitrates in cured meat. This research has been largely discredited.|
|Peppermint oil||Thought to promote higher motivation, greater energy and alertness and lower fatigue.||Has been shown to quicken heartbeat in sleeping individuals, improve concentration & vigilance, hand grip strength and sprint speed but sport studies not very solid and other well designed studies have found no effect sports performance.||Peppermint oil is sold in most pharmacies and can also be bought in inhaler form.|
|Phosphate Salts||Increases ATP, provides energy and buffers lactic acid||Possible ergogenic effects. Improves performance in events 1hr or shorter.||Important to note that high fructose diet can result in increased losses of phosphorus.Dairy products, meat, and fish are good sources. Also in nuts and seeds, carbonated drinks and lentils.|
|Protein||Increases muscle protein synthesis during exercise.||Good results in the laboratory but trials in cycling have not shown benefit of taking protein during exercise.||Meat, Fish, Dairy, Soy , Beans, Nuts, Seeds, cheese.|
|Pyruvate||Improves endurance capacity, insulin sensitivity and recovery. Increases glycogen storage.||Limited supporting evidence||Red apples, red wine, cheese.|
|Sodium Bicarbonate||Buffers lactic acid and improves high intensity performance||Large doses have been found to improve performance. Best evidence is in exercise lasting less than 7minutes or during interval training.||Most baked goods. Carbonated drinks & waterRecommended dose is 300mg/Kg body weight for men and 250mg/kg for women. Needs to be split into smaller doses. Side effects are very common and explosive. It is not recommended for children and should definitely no be taken for the first time in competition.|
|Sodium Citrate||Buffers lactic acid and improves high intensity performance||Large doses can improve performance.||Citrus fruits, lemons, oranges, pineapples. Lots of lemon-flavoured drinks also have sodium citrate as an ingredient. Also in jam.|
|Taurine||Improved performance, energy and stamina||The Red Bull energy drink mixture (with caffeine, taurine and glucuronolactone) was proven to have positive effects on mental performance, mood improved attention and verbal reasoning.Taurine supplements shown to cause significant increase in VO2max but studies weak.||Fish and meatRed bull|
|Vanadium||Helps weight loss, improves insulin sensitivity and recovery.||Some evidence in obesity / insulin resistance but no good studies in sport.||Mushrooms, shellfish, black pepper|
Sports drinks are classified as a nutritional ergogenic aid.
Sweating during sport results in the loss of body fluid and electrolytes (minerals such as chloride, calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium) and if unchecked will lead to dehydration and eventually circulatory collapse and heat stroke. Research has shown that just 2% water loss will result in a drop in performance and 4% in lower muscle strength. Drinking water is very important during exercise to maintain optimum performance.
Manufactured sports drinks also contain electrolytes and carbohydrate. In adults a litre of sweat will contains around 0.02g Calcium, 0.05g Magnesium, 1.15g Sodium, 0.23g Potassium and 1.48g Chloride, though this composition varies from person to person. The Scientific Committee on Food recommend that individuals include sodium (460-1150 mg/L) and carbohydrates (0-350 kcal/L) for optimal rehydration during prolonged exercise. It is thought that the loss of sodium could play a role in the development of muscle cramps, or weakness, though actually the research is weak. However, sodium is known to stimulate the thirst mechanism and it also improves the rate at which the small intestine can absorb water and carbohydrate which helps rehydration and saves glycogen stores. Adding sodium to a beverage poses very little, or no risk at all to health.
I don’t recommend the use of processed sports foods, supplements or performance aids in children, however, there is sometimes a very thin line between a performance enhancing ergogenic aid and something that is a normal part of the diet. Eating a diet that is higher than average in fruits and vegetables (especially beetroot), includes lots of fish, eggs and meat and is cooked by someone who is slightly heavy handed with the bicarbonate of soda in their cinnamon cakes or makes their own elderflower cordial (citric acid), could mean that you are already boosting your performance with your natural diet.
For more information on diet, or references for the above research please do not hesitate to contact me.