Ergogenic aids are performance enhancers that fill the shelves of body building shops and are sold as essential supplements for anyone seriously considering weight training. The basic logic makes some sense; muscle is protein; if you want to build more muscle then eat more protein! When looked at objectively, however, the actual need for protein does not turn out to be all that great. Although research has been able to establish a positive link between rigorous athletic training and a higher need for protein intake, the maximum amount of protein that is absorbed and actually has some anabolic effect is 1.76 grams per kilogram body weight per day. It turns out that most people already eat that much in their diets anyway. Pilling a protein shake on top of that only ends up releasing the extra protein from the kidneys, or not even being absorbed in the first place. It further can put people at risk for osteoporosis and kidney disease later on.
Nevertheless, for those few athletes who do actually consume less than optimal amounts of protein from their diets, research points to the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) as the amino acids particularly active in triggering protein synthesis. BCAA’s include the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAA supplements may reduce muscle loss and speed muscle gain. One supplement that has been found to have a significant amount of BCAAs is whey, a protein isolated from milk.
A specific BCAA that weight lifters also take in isolation to promote healing of bone and muscle tissue is leucine. To be noted out of precaution about this amino acid is that it must be balanced with isoleucine and valine. Leucine can lower blood sugar levels and hypoglycemia can result in an overdose.
Some experts have claimed that creatine monohydrate promotes muscle-building activity in the body. Creatine is actually stored in the muscles as phosphocreatine, a quick energy source during the initial phase of exercise. Although the exact correlation of high phosphocreatine stores and increased protein synthesis is not clear, it is believed to be associated with polyamines, a group of powerful growth promoters. Despite the lack of physiological understanding of how creatine works though, all body builders who have used creatine will testify to the apparent bulk that it added to their muscles. This muscle swelling is a result of increased fluid that creatine assists in retaining in the muscles, fulfilling a relatively cosmetic goal. One potential problem with supplemental intake of creatine is that the body’s production of creatine may be reduced when large amounts of supplemental creatine are taken.
Another time that athletes can benefit from supplementation is during high stress training. Oxidative stress, which is damage causes by the production of harmful substances called free radicals, leads to inflammation and the various other aches and pains of a hard work-out session that we are all familiar. Although regular training actually makes the body more efficient at its ability to process free radical damage, athletes in the beginning of the season can benefit by decreasing their recovery time. By taking antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E, that help neutralize the free radicals being produced the body gets an extra boost for quicker healing. Antioxidants do not, however, enhance performance. It is therefore only useful to take antioxidants during the beginning stages of exercise training; later on the body is able to recover quickly on it own by increasing its own production of antioxidants. Side effects of vitamin E and vitamin C are rare, but some individuals may experience diarrhea when taking more than 5 grams of vitamin C per day.
Antioxidation, however, is not the only way to decrease recovery time. Carnitine, pyruvate, ornithine, and other endurance and strength aids have also been found to increase the rate at which the muscles can repair themselves from high stress activity and subsequently handle a greater degree. Carnitine has not been consistently linked with any toxicity symptoms. High intakes of pyruvate can trigger gastrointestinal upset, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Intense exercise has been found to alters the body’s use and requirements for several vitamins and minerals as well. The B vitamins, for example, can be quite useful for athletes because they are needed to unlock the energy from carbohydrates. A good quality B-complex can be very helpful when taken during times of high stress training and especially around competitive events. Similarly, as exercise can decrease blood levels and increase urinary losses of chromium and zinc, supplementation with these minerals can be of particular assistance. Low levels of these minerals interfere with blood sugar regulation, energy production, tissue repair, and resistance to colds and infections.
Chromium, in a form called chromium picolinate, can help to stabilize blood sugars providing a steady amount of blood sugar at all times. Even though an athlete may not have a deficiency in chromium, taking a chromium supplement may help stabilize their blood sugar levels. Symptoms of low blood sugar can include feelings of fatigue, being unmotivated, lethargy, and repeatedly craving sugary foods.
The amount of B vitamins found in a B-complex will more than likely be within very safe limits. Individually, however, people should be careful before supplementing with certain B vitamins and leaving out others. For instance, although Vitamin B6 and B12 side effects are rare, they can one another’s deficiency symptoms and/or precipitate nervous system changes with dosages above 200 mg per day. Chromium has not been linked consistently with any toxicity in humans. Zinc intake in excess of 300 mg per day may impair immune function and should also be balanced with copper if taken regularly.
Another quite crucial mineral is Iron because it transports oxygen to and within the muscle cells. Deficiency results in reduced endurance, muscle soreness, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, and poor concentration. Nonetheless, it is unwise to supplement with iron unless a deficiency has been diagnosed. The difficulty with iron is that once it enters the body it stays there for a very long time. Taking iron when you do not need it will cause it to accumulate in the liver and can be fatal.
Athletic performance can be enhanced tremendously with proper nutrition and a little know-how about how supplements can be used in particular situations. They do not do anything abnormal to the body, rather prevent deficiency, make necessary raw ingredients readily available for high stress activity, and often can push the body into particular metabolic pathways. These pathways, which increased recovery speed is one, is a matter of helping the body run as an efficient fine tuned machine. Although the body should always be treated as a whole, using nutrition and supplementation to attain particular results at certain times and under the guidance of a fitness coach can make that little difference when every little edge over one’s competitor counts.