Nutritionist Ms. Yvonne Batson, who teaches Nutrition & Dietetics at U.W.I., recently invited WellnessConnect’s Robert Taylor to speak to her students on the use of ergogenic aids. Robert has over 15 years experience in weight training, and has competed at the national level in bodybuilding — without the use of illegal substances.
We thought ergogenic aids would be a useful topic to cover in the magazine.
What is an ergogenic aid?
Firstly, let’s not get the words ‘ergonomic’ and ‘ergogenic’ mixed up! Ergonomic deals with the design, usually of a workplace, that intends to provide optimum comfort while avoiding stress or injury, e.g. a mousepad with a raised pad to protect against wrist strain.
An ‘ergogenic’ aid, on the other hand, is any external influence that can be used to enhance an individual’s strength, speed, endurance or speed of recovery. While this definition immediately calls to mind nutritional supplements, an ergogenic aid can also include mechanical aids, pharmacological aids, physiological aids, and psychological aids.
Stretching, weight training and exercise in general is considered to be a physiological ergogenic aid, because it enhances performance through muscular and cardiovascular systems, which in turn will lead to a more efficient physical performance.
Many forms of ergogenic aids are regularly incorporated into an athlete’s training — for example, nutritional aids like high-protein diets or carbohydrate-loading practices, physiological aids such sports drinks to replace lost electrolytes, and mechanical aids such as weighted vests and compression clothing.
Psychological Ergogenic Aids
For athletes, psychological aids are just as important as physiological ones. Many psychological techniques are used to help athletes overcome the limitations of their body to excel. These include:
- Cheering: cheering often encourages an athlete to try harder to please their supporters.
- Hypnosis: hypnosis can help reinforce self-belief and positive thinking, focus the athlete on success, and overcome mental blocks.
- Imagery/Visualisation: ‘cognitive specific’ imagery involves seeing yourself perform specific skills, such as a tennis serve, to help you learn it.
- Music: music can be used to aid relaxation, or to help get someone into a workout rhythm.
- Psychology: psychological techniques are often used to help athletes counter the stress of competition, to help them to relax and focus. Many techniques are based on the four “C”s – concentration, confidence, control and commitment.
- Relaxation: techniques for physical relaxation are useful to promote recovery after training or competition, remove stress-related muscular tension, and establish a more receptive and positive physical and mental state.
- Tai Chi: tai chi works every muscle, joint and organ of the body, using smooth, balanced movements, and can increase the body’s power and efficiency, as well as aiding relaxation.
While mechanical, physiological, and some psychological ergogenic aids are common practice in the training of athletes, the controversy about ergogenic aids arises when it comes to nutritional supplements.
The use of Nutritional Supplements
Many substance are illegal and/or banned by most major sporting organisations. These include anabolic steroids, androstenedione, blood doping, DHEA, and ephedrine.
The availability and use of nutritional supplements as ergogenic aids have risen dramatically in the past two decades. New products appear on the market almost every week, and being labeled as a ‘supplement’ means that the contents of the product and the claims put forth on the label have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
This should be a concern for anyone thinking about taking dietary supplements, as the burden of evaluating any claims made on the label by a manufacturer now falls on the consumer. Many such claims include a statement either that the FDA has not evaluated the claim or that the product is not intended to ‘diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease’ (a type of claim that can only legally be made by a drug).
Athletes often look for a ‘magic bullet’ that can give them an advantage over their opponents. However, while they tend to be highly disciplined regarding training, they are not always careful in their use of dietary supplements. The important points about supplement usage include:
- Supplements are not one size fits all
- Natural and safe are not synonymous terms
- Supplements may be age- and gender-specific
- Supplements are sports-specific
- The efficacy of supplements is contingent upon the underlying hydration, diet and training of the athlete
- The issue of ‘stacking’ (using many different supplements) may create results that can endanger the health of the athlete
- Supplements may interact with both prescription and over-the-counter drugs
- Ergogenic aids are not a substitute for food, fluid, or activity.
If you decide to take a supplement, do your due diligence:
- Ask a health care professional who is knowledgeable about nutrition and supplements.
- Do a literature search, being wary of articles or publications funded by the manufacturer of the supplement.
- Determine the reputability of the manufacturer. Have they been in business for a long time? Do they have quality control standards? Do they publish their own research? Is their research cited in peer-reviewed journals?
- Note any side effects associated with the supplement.
- Is the proposed benefit worth the cost or risk?
- Are there any illegal or banned substances contained within the supplement?
- Will the supplement interfere with or otherwise affect any medications or other supplements you may be taking?
The most frequently and widely used category of ergogenic aids is those with supposed anabolic effects; that is, they mimic the benefits of steroids (in a legal manner).
Creatine is the most widely used supplement taken by both recreational and professional athletes. Creatine is an amino acid in the skeletal muscle, kidneys, pancreas, and liver. It is also found in meat, fish, and poultry.
The ergogenic effect of supplemental creatine is attributed to its ability to increase tissue creatine levels beyond what the body can synthesize on its own, resulting in increased work capacity during intense activity requiring maximal or near maximal effort. It can also expedite the recovery rate following exercise.
A common side effect is weight gain, which can make athletes feel sluggish. Other reported side effects include diarrhea, muscle cramps, and dehydration. For the most part, however, creatine is considered safe when taken in recommended dosages. Individual responsiveness to creatine may vary.
HMB: Beta-hydroxy Beta-methylbutrate
In clinical studies, HMB has resulted in an increase in muscle mass. Some evidence also suggests that taking HMB supplements might signal the body to slow down the destruction of muscle tissue.
Boron is a trace mineral involved in cellular functions, but it does not increase testosterone levels as some claims would suggest. It can suppress appetite and impair digestion in doses higher than 50 mg per day.
Yohimbe is a supplement derived from the tree bark of a South American plant that confers a stimulant effect, not an anabolic effect. Ingestion of this product can cause dizziness, nervousness, headaches, nausea , vomiting, and an elevated blood pressure.
Keep in mind…
Bear in mind that there is a whole industry around supplements, and a lot of the evidence for their effectiveness is unsubstantiated and they can be very costly. Another point to note is that there can often be a placebo effect, but an effect is still an effect.
Athletes at all levels should have their supplement use carefully monitored. Coaches, parents, or others working with athletes should ask what they take and in what dosage and frequency. Labels should be examined, and all information should be documented in the medical record.
It is best if athletes try only one product at a time, and supplement use should be discontinued if any unusual dizziness, stomach upset, or headaches occur. All coaches should be familiar with the available supplements and their dangers. Just because a supplement is legal does not mean that it is safe.