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Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes

Supplements (md)

Sharon Denny, MS, RDN

Athletes train hard to reach their peak performance, so dietary supplements that claim to make you faster, stronger, more energized and slimmer can be enticing. But, buyer beware. Effectiveness and safety do not have to be confirmed before supplements hit store shelves. Learn how to spot a fraud and where to find trustworthy information. A sports dietitian can assist you in evaluating sports supplements and ergogenic aids — a substance that claims to generate or improve work or capacity to exercise.

Dietary Supplements: Who's Watching?

Dietary supplements are under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are regulated differently than conventional foods and drugs. Manufacturers are not required to prove a supplement is safe before it is sold, or even that it works. The FDA can take action to remove or restrict the sale of a supplement only after it has been on the market and been shown to be unsafe.

Fact or Fraud?

To determine if a supplement is safe and useful, well-planned and controlled research is required. But, there are some red flags of junk science to look out for. To help protect your body and your wallet, be wary of any supplement that:

  • Boasts that it is quick and easy.
  • Uses testimonials from "real users" to promote its benefits.
  • Claims it's right for everyone.
  • States it has been used for millions of years.
  • Belittles the medical or scientific community.
  • Has a secret formulation.

Popular Sports Supplements at-a-Glance

Several sports supplements have been the subject of well-controlled research studies and have supporting evidence for their use. However, research has also shown many sport supplement claims to be misleading or false. Use the table below to learn about the evidence to date.

Dietary Supplement


Claim for Use




Beta-Alanine: acts as a buffer in the muscle

- Improve high-intensity exercise performance

- Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): leucine, isoleucine and valine

- Delay fatigue

- Boost the immune system

- BCAA can provide fuel for endurance activity, but has not been shown to delay fatigue as a result

- Growing research suggests it may play a role in supporting immune function

Caffeine: mild central nervous system stimulant

- Helps you burn fat and protect carbohydrate stores

- Makes you feel energized

- Caffeine increases alertness and acts as a central nervous system stimulant

- Although caffeine promotes fatty acids release, fat burning does not appear to increase during exercise and carbohydrate stores are not protected

- Caffenie is considered a banned substance by the National Collegiate Athletic Association if too high an amount is found in urine

- Helps with mental sharpness; decreases perceived exertion

Carnitine: found in muscles and used for energy production

- Helps you burn fat

- Does not increase fat burning when taken as a supplement

Chromium Picolinate: a mineral found in foods that plays a role in glucose utilization

- Weight loss aid

- Body composition changes

- Insufficient support for use in weight loss and body composition changes

- May cause oxidative damage, therefore not recommended

Creatine: found in muscles and used for energy production

- Increase lean body mass

- Increase strength

- Improve exercise performance, especially for high-intensity workouts

- Positive results have been found for increasing total body mass and lean mass

- Some athletes have found to be non-responders

- Improves short-term intense exercise performance

- Aids with recovery

- Increases strength gains with exercise

- Appears to be safe but not effective in some individuals

Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT): fatty acids

- Increase endurance

- Promote fat burning in long duration exercise

- Does not enhance endurance performance

- May increase blood lipid levels, therefore not recommended

Pyruvate: end product of carbohydrate metabolism

- Increase endurance and decrease body fat

- Promote weight loss

- Does not enhance endurance performance

- Insufficient evidence for weight or fat loss

- Side effects may include adverse gastrointestinal effects, such as gas and nausea

Trusted Resources

While manufacturers may have useful information about their products, it's good to take a balanced approach. Review unbiased sources as well. You can find sound information about dietary supplements from many online resources, including:

Reviewed November 2014