Athletes looking for even the slightest edge often turn to a wide variety of supplements—called ergogenic aids—that are supposed to boost performance. Many weekend exercisers, seeking to enhance their workouts, also try such supplements. We’re not talking about anabolic steroids, which enhance strength and performance but are dangerous and thus banned in most sports. Rather, these are ordinary dietary supplements; two of them— caffeine and baking soda—are found in many foods. Just how “ordinary” are these ergogenic aids? Are they safe? Effective? Here’s an update.
Keep in mind that the great majority of studies on ergogenic aids have been small and short and have involved highly trained athletes or at least young fit subjects, usually men. So it’s not known if, or how much, the results apply to casual exercisers and older people as well as to different types of exercise. It’s also not known whether any benefits would persist with longer use or if adverse effects would increase.
Caffeine: can give a boost
Many, but not all, studies have found that caffeine, consumed in a beverage or a pill, can boost endurance, reduce fatigue and/or improve sprint performance. It may allow people to exercise longer by helping the body break down fats for use as energy, thus sparing carbohydrates. Some of caffeine’s chief effects are on the nervous system—it works with various brain chemicals to improve alertness and reduce perceived effort during exercise. That is, it can make a workout feel easier, so you’re able to do it more strenuously or longer.
People respond differently to caffeine, however. For instance, those who regularly consume caffeine build up a tolerance for it and thus may not derive as much benefit from it. On the other hand, in people not used to caffeine, high doses can cause jitteriness that may hurt performance and may boost heart rate and blood pressure excessively.
Creatine: holds promise
Made from three amino acids (building blocks of protein), this compound is found in meat, poultry and fish. It is also made in the body, mostly in the liver, and is stored mostly in muscle, where it helps replenish a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which supplies quick energy.
Creatine supplementation has been likened to carbohydrate loading, except that the latter boosts performance in endurance (that is, aerobic) events such as marathons, while creatine primarily helps in activities involving repeated bursts of high-intensity exertion that last less than a minute (anaerobic). Most studies have found that it has some benefit for sprinting, jumping, and weightlifting. A 2010 review paper from the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that creatine is the most effective nutritional supplement to boost muscle mass and strength and increase capacity for high-intensity exercise. If your creatine stores are already high, however, supplements may not help.
Creatine appears to be safe—up to five grams a day—in healthy people, though there are lingering concerns about its effects on the kidneys, especially in older people and people with kidney problems. It can sometimes cause gastrointestinal upset.
Sodium bicarbonate: probably not worth It
Some athletes consume sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) hoping to neutralize the lactic acid that builds up in blood and muscles during intense exercise, causing fatigue and impairing performance. Researchers have studied these proposed benefits of sodium bicarbonate for decades, mostly for sprint-type exercise but also for endurance events. An analysis published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in 2012 concluded that the evidence is conflicting. If sodium bicarbonate has a beneficial effect on performance, it’s minimal. Besides being very high in sodium, it can cause severe bloating and abdominal cramps, which can be a problem during a race or any activity. If you have kidney problems, it can be dangerous.