Performance-Enhancing Supplements: What You Should Know

Performance enhancing supplements: running athlete

Performance-Enhancing Supplements: What You Should Know

As an athlete, it’s common to take performance-enhancing supplements to support your athletic goals. Known as ergogenic aids, these dietary supplements may enhance strength and endurance while helping keep your body as healthy as possible.

While the term “performance-enhancing” carries negative connotations, there is no need to shy away. Any supplement you take to help you in the gym, at the office, or in daily life is inherently performance-enhancing. It’s about finding safe, clinically-validated options.

Many athletes rely on supplements designed to improve exercise performance and recovery. These are generally referred to as pre-workout and post-workout supplements, and they often include nutrients designed to support your body’s natural functions. 

In this article, we’ll review five safe performance-enhancing supplements. But first, we’ll look at the potential risks of certain ergogenic aids, providing you with the information you need to make smart choices.

Should You Take Performance-Enhancing Supplements?

Ergogenic aids can safely enhance and support sports performance, helping everyone from bodybuilding competitors to endurance athletes (such as cyclists) achieve better physical performance. 

Many athletes take one or more performance-enhancing supplements to get a competitive edge. And according to the evidence-based fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, supplements may offer a safe way to improve performance and endurance safely. 

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to see the benefits of supplement use, either — you just need a consistent and challenging workout routine. If you regularly engage in any form of high-intensity exercise, nutritional supplements could be the answer to breaking through a plateau or getting the results you want. 

Whatever your goals, from increasing muscle mass to improving weight loss, you’ll find many sports supplements designed to help you reach them. Just be sure to choose your supplements carefully to avoid wasting money or facing health risks.

Staying Safe With Performance Enhancing Supplements 

Before taking performance-enhancing supplements, it’s best to seek medical advice from your healthcare practitioner or a sports nutrition professional. Professional advice is equally crucial for non-athletes who are just starting out. It’s doubly important for young athletes to consult a pediatric specialist or sports medicine professional before beginning any ergogenic aid. 

The essential thing to remember is that not all performance-enhancing substances are safe for over-the-counter use. By educating yourself on unsafe options and their risks, you’ll know which ones to avoid.

Anabolic Steroids 

Anabolic steroids such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and androstenedione (andro) fall under the category of ergogenic aids. However, they can cause severe long-term and short-term side effects. Around 90% of athletes who illegally use anabolic steroids will experience one or more side effects. Some health risks of anabolic steroids include: 

  • Acne
  • Stretch marks
  • Pain at the injection site 
  • Infertility and breast swelling in men
  • Infertility, male pattern baldness, decreased breast tissue, and voice deepening in women 
  • Heart enlargement 
  • Liver inflammation 
  • Increased aggression and other neuropsychiatric symptoms 
  • Growth plate closure and limb shortening in adolescents and young athletes 

“Designer drugs” are a dangerous class of anabolic steroids that have been illicitly designed to go undetected with current drug tests. Because of this, they have never been tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and could pose serious health risks to athletes.

The full, long-term side effects of anabolic steroids many include other issues that are not on this or any list. Additionally, it is illegal to use anabolic steroids without a prescription and oversight from a healthcare provider. 

Other Dangerous Performance-Enhancing Supplements 

In addition to anabolic steroids such as DHEA and so-called designer drugs, other dangerous or illegal ergogenic aids include: 

The above ergogenic aids are potentially harmful, banned in Olympic competitions, and often illegal when used without a prescription. However, diuretics are an exception to the rule in that people can sometimes use them safely and without supervision from a professional.

Some diuretics, like acetazolamide, are used by athletes to mask the presence of other banned substances. Diuretic abuse like this is why it’s listed as a dangerous and prohibited substance. However, caffeine from other diuretics like coffee or tea is safe for moderate use in conjunction with balanced nutrition.

For more information on banned and dangerous performance-enhancing substances, check out the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) list of banned substances

5 Safe Performance-Enhancing Supplements for Athletes 

Performance enhancing supplements: 3D illustration of a fit man

Many performance-enhancing supplements offer safe options for improving athletic performance. For example, several supplements included on the fact sheet from the “Should You Take Performance Enhancing Supplements” section have presented promising research findings. 

Below and in no specific order, we’ve highlighted some of the most promising options for you to consider to reach your athletic performance goals. 

1. Branched-Chain Amino Acids 

Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three essential amino acids have a unique, branched chemical structure that allows the mitochondria in skeletal muscle tissue to metabolize them. BCAAs can provide energy during exercise when metabolized, possibly providing greater strength and muscle mass gains from training. 

With no reported adverse effects for doses of up to 20 grams per day for up to six weeks, BCAAs fall under the category of safe and legal performance-enhancing supplements. In addition, Ingredient Optimized options such as ioBCAA offer increased bioavailability of each of the three essential amino acids to ensure you receive the best possible benefits.

2. Protein 

Protein is one of the most common performance-enhancing supplements among athletes and non-athletes alike. Protein assists with building, maintaining, and repairing muscle tissue, and it has been proven effective in numerous clinical trials. A quality protein supplement can optimize muscle training response during and after exercise. 

There are no adverse effects or safety concerns reported at daily recommended intakes for athletes of up to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds). You’ll find hundreds of protein supplement options on the market, but finding a quality source is key. High protein bioavailability, like that found in Ingredient Optimized products, ensures your body can use all of the protein you’re consuming. 

It’s best to start with a quality supplement, such as ioWhey Protein or ioPea Protein. These products have been scientifically proven to offer better bioavailability than non-optimized protein supplements, ensuring you see results and are not wasting your money.

3. Creatine 

Creatine is a widely-used, thoroughly studied dietary supplement for sports performance. It can help supply energy to your muscles for short-term, anaerobic activities, such as HIIT, weight training, and circuit training. Aside from supplementation, creatine is obtained in small amounts from food and produced by your body. 

Creatine supplementation may help you increase power and strength from full effort muscle contractions. It can also help your body adapt to athlete training regimens over time. It should be noted, however, that creatine does significantly enhance performance in endurance activities. 

Typical doses of up to 20 grams per day for up to seven days or 3-5 grams for up to 12 weeks show minimal safety concerns. Adverse effects are most likely to include weight gain (caused by water retention, not fat accumulation), muscle cramps, muscle stiffness, and nausea. 

Creatine monohydrate is the most widely used and well-researched form of creatine, but it also comes in creatine anhydrous, which contains more creatine by weight. Both options offer the benefits of creatine supplementation.

4. Caffeine 

Caffeine is one of the most widely used substances in the world. About 85% of Americans consume it every day, but athletes often use it as a pre-workout supplement to enhance athletic performance and endurance. Caffeine works by blocking the activity of adenosine, a neuromodulator that can make you feel sleepy or tired. In doing so, it reduces perceived exertion and even pain. 

Caffeine may enhance athletic performance for endurance activities and long-duration activities like playing sports. It’s considered reasonably safe, with maximum daily dosages of 400 -500 mg per day for adults. Adverse effects may include irritability, blood pressure spikes, increased heart rate, restlessness, insomnia, arrhythmia, nausea, and vomiting. When taken in very high doses of 10-14 grams (10,000-14,000 mg), caffeine is also associated with a risk of death.

Note that brands may include caffeine in some supplements, so it’s crucial to track your consumption. Caffeine from pre-workout supplements, energy drinks, and coffee can add up fast. And don’t forget to manage your hydration while supplementing with caffeine. While there is some evidence that caffeine doesn’t cause dehydration, it is still a diuretic. 

5. Beetroot or Beet Juice 

Beetroot and beet juice is a safe and potentially effective performance-enhancing supplement. Beetroot and beet juice may improve energy production, reduce muscle oxygen use, and dilate blood vessels in the muscles you are exercising. This veggie might also improve endurance and time-to-exhaustion among endurance athletes such as cyclists, runners, and swimmers. 

Beets also contain betaine (trimethylglycine), which may help enhance athletic performance, although the exact mechanisms that allow it to do so are not fully understood. Common hypotheses speculate that betaine may increase the biosynthesis or creation of creatine. It might also assist with water retention in cells and blood nitric acid levels. 

Beetroot, beet juice, and betaine have no associated safety concerns for short-term use. Commonly recommended amounts include 2 cups of beetroot or beet juice. For betaine, standard supplementation is between 2-5 grams per day for up to 15 days. 

5 More Performance-Enhancing Supplements to Consider 

Athlete at a track

With a wide variety of performance-enhancing supplements on the market, you’ll have many other options. Below are a few more that may help you improve muscle strength and physical endurance: 

  1. Vitamin D: This fat-soluble vitamin aids in many biological functions, such as absorbing vital minerals. In athletes, low vitamin D levels could directly interfere with performance. 
  2. Vitamin C: An antioxidant necessary for the development, growth, and repair of every cell in your body. In athletes, suboptimal vitamin C levels may impair performance. 
  3. Iron: An essential mineral that plays a key role in energy metabolism. Anemia, or iron deficiency, is detrimental to overall health and athletic performance. 
  4. Glutamine: This amino acid is used for protein biosynthesis. While it is not an essential amino acid, glutamine increases muscle glycogen synthesis and is used by some athletes as a performance-enhancing supplement. 
  5. Carbohydrates: The only macronutrient (macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, and fat) that your body can break down rapidly enough to provide energy for high-intensity exercise. Supplementation is generally not needed, as you obtain quality carbohydrates from whole grains and vegetables in your diet.

A comprehensive multivitamin targeting your age and biological sex should cover most of your vitamin and mineral requirements. However, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional to test for deficiencies. Attempting to correct perceived suboptimal levels of any vitamin or mineral may lead to overdose symptoms

Performance-Enhancing Supplements and You

As you can see, there are dangers associated with ergogenic aids such as anabolic steroids as well as potential benefits from safe performance-enhancing supplements. BCAAs, protein, caffeine, vitamin C, and others have the potential to improve your athletic performance. 

Everyone has different physiological needs based on their health, age, training routine, and lifestyle. Therefore, it’s always best to speak with your doctor or a sports nutrition specialist to ensure you’re making the right supplement choices for your body. 

If you’re ready to start picking your first (or your latest) performance-enhancing supplements, remember to look for high-quality products. Ingredient Optimized supplements are ideal because they’re designed with higher bioavailability, meaning that your body can use more of the supplements you’re taking for optimal performance.