Exercise Performance Supplements: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Exercise Performance Supplements: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

From ginseng to creatine, find out if the supplements you’re taking are boosting or sabotaging your performance.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” has been applied to everything from presidential speeches to Oscar night dresses. So, why not use it to describe the endless array of supplements for exercise performance?

That’s exactly how the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided to categorize the most commonly available supplements. The Good are effective and/or safe supplements. The Bad are those that don’t deliver any proven benefit, and the Ugly pose a serious health risk to you.

The Most Common Supplements for Exercise Performance 
The various supplements evaluated in the new ODS fact sheet, “Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance,” include:

  • Antioxidants (vitamins C and E)
  • Arginine
  • Beet juice/beet root,
  • Beta-alanine
  • Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB)
  • Betaine
  • Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine)
  • Caffeine
  • Citrulline
  • Creatine
  • Deer antler velvet
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
  • Ginseng,
  • Glutamine
  • Iron Protein
  • Quercetin
  • Ribose
  • Sodium bicarbonate
  • Tart or sour cherry
  • Tribulus terrestris

Many are benign—and may even boost your energy a bit (think caffeine and creatine)—if you consume them in foods and beverages or from recommended doses. But it’s important to note that these supplements don’t always show up one at a time. Products often have multiple ingredients—and there’s virtually no research on how they interact. In addition, the amount of individual supplements in a product’s dose is hard to determine. The ODS also categorizes the supplements by risk levels:

  • Risk 1: You take doses beyond known safe levels, or combos of supplements that are untested.
  • Risk 2: For some supplements, there are no reliable studies available to determine safety at any level.
  • Risk 3: The supplements are contraindicated for certain medical conditions or with specific medications.
  • Risk 4: Some supplements interfere with athletic performance.

An example of “the Ugly” supplements are vitamins C and E, which are touted for their antioxidant powers. The ODS says, “Little research supports the use of antioxidant supplements as ergogenic aids [aids to ergogenic performance] containing greater amounts than those available from a nutritionally adequate diet.” In fact, they can adversely affect some measures of exercise and athletic performance. How? “Free radicals that form when you exercise seem to help muscle fibers grow and produce more energy. Antioxidant supplements [in advance of a workout] might actually reduce some of the benefits of exercise, including muscle growth and power output,” the ODS adds.

A generally harmless performance-enhancing supplement is ginseng. The ODS states, “Numerous small studies, with and without placebo controls, have investigated Panax ginseng’s potential to improve the physical performance … In almost all cases, the studies found that Panax ginseng in various doses and preparations had no ergogenic effect on such measures as peak power output, time to exhaustion, perceived exertion, recovery from intense activity, oxygen consumption or heart rate.”

So, what supplements work?
A nutritious diet. That means getting seven to nine servings of fruits and veggies daily, lean protein from fish, skinless poultry and legumes and 100 percent whole grains. Skip the saturated and trans fats, and added sugars and syrups in prepared and highly processed foods. Instead, stick with a multivitamin that offers doses near recommended levels of nutrients and minerals (half morning and night) and talk to your doctor before taking other supplements to see if they’re a good, bad or ugly move for you. As the ODS says, “If you are a competitive or recreational athlete, you will perform at your best and recover most quickly when you eat a nutritionally adequate diet, drink enough fluids…and are properly trained.” Check out the complete ODS fact sheet.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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