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Supplements for Better Sports Performance

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Updated April 15, 2014

A supplement that can help to improve athletic performance is called an "ergogenic aid". They promise to improve performance, strength, and speed. Some of these products have been used for years and have evidence supporting their use, while others are new and relatively unknown. In this article, I describe the various products marketed as ergogenic aids, such as creatine, HMB, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), pyruvate, suma, vitamin C, and DHEA and androstenedione.

Creatine
Creatine is widely used for improving sports performance. It is a naturally occurring substance in the body. Your body makes it from the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine that are found in protein, so as long as dietary protein intake is sufficient, supplementation should not be necessary. However, people on a vegetarian diet may have difficulty with creatine production because meat is an important source.

In the body, creatine is converted into phosphocreatine, which is a type of stored energy in muscles. Taking creatine supplements is believed to increase the supply of phospohocreatine in muscles. Research studies suggest that it is beneficial for short bursts of high-intensity exercise of the repetitive type, such as basketball and soccer. Preliminary studies show that may be beneficial for increasing muscle and bone mass during weight training. Studies of endurance activities, such as marathon running, or non-repetitive activity, such as sprinting, do not shown as strong benefits.

Some studies have found a gender difference in the response to creatine, with men responding better. Some researchers have suggested that this is because women have a naturally higher level of creatine in muscle tissue than menm so it may not be of benefit to women.

A typical dosage is 2 to 5 g per day. Absorption into muscles is enhanced when creatine is taken with a simple carbohydrate. Caffeine may block the effects of creatine.

Creatine appears to be safe, at least in healthy athletes. Creatine is metabolized in the kidneys, however, and there is some concern about causing kidney injury with excessive doses of creatine.

Another concern is that creatine is metabolized in the body to formaldehyde, which is a toxic substance. It is not known whether the amount of formaldehyde produced during creatine supplementation will cause harm.

HMB
HMB is short for beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyric acid. It is a substance that occurs naturally in the body. It is formed from the breakdown of the amino acid leucine, which is found in high concentrations in muscles. During weight training and prolonged exercise, there is damage to muscles that causes the breakdown of leucine and a resulting increase in HMB. HMB supplements may work by signaling the body to slow down the destruction of muscle tissue.

HMB has been used for weight training because it may help with muscle building by reducing the amount of muscle that breaks down during exercise. It is also used to help prevent muscle damage during prolonged exercise.

HMB is not essential in our diets. There are small amounts in citrus fruit and catfish. An HMB supplement is needed in order to reach the therapeutic dosage, A typical dosage of HMB is 3 g per day. HMB should not be confused with the supplement gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), which can have strong sedation effects. HMB appears to be safe, however, more long-term studies are needed. HMB should not be used by children, pregnant or nursing women, or people with severe liver or kidney disease.

Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s)
Unlike other types of fats which must be broken down in the intestines and then made into a different type of fat to be transported in the blood, medium chain triglycerides are absorbed intact and taken to the liver, where they are used directly for energy. They provide a concentrated source of energy, as an alternative to carbohydrates which are often used by athletes for “carb loading”.
Some people notice some abdominal bloating after taking MCT, which may interfere with sports performance.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Amino acids are naturally occurring molecules that the body uses to make protein. Branched-Chain Amino Acids refer to the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which all have a “branched-chain” molecular structure. Muscle tissue is particularly high in branched-chain amino acids.

People use branched chain amino acids to build muscle, improve sports performance, and minimize the effects of overtraining. This is because strength training and endurance activity uses up greater amounts of branched-chain amino acids than regular daily activities.

Branched chain amino acids are found in all foods containing protein. The best sources are red meat and dairy products. Whey protein powder, chicken, fish, and eggs are other good sources.

Branched chain amino acids are believed to be quite safe but can interfere with Parkinson's medications.

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