Ergogenic Aids


Ergogenic aids are substances, foods, or training methods that enhance energy production, use, or recovery and provide athletes with a competitive advantage.


New ergogenic products claiming to enhance performance appear on the market almost every week. Most ergogenic aids are sold as dietary supplements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). Manufacturers of ergogenic aids sold as dietary supplements do not have to prove that their product is either safe or effective before it can be sold to the public. The contents of a product, its manufacturing process, and the claims on its label have not been evaluated by the FDA, and the burden of proof falls on the FDA to show that a supplement is either unsafe or ineffective before that supplement can be restricted or banned. Information about an ergogenic aid's safety and effectiveness normally is gathered only after people using the product develop health problems or complain that the product does not work.

“Carbo-loading,” or eating a meal heavy in carbohydrates the night before an athletic event, is a type of ergogenic aid.

“Carbo-loading,” or eating a meal heavy in carbohydrates the night before an athletic event, is a type of ergogenic aid.

Despite the fact that many ergogenic aids may have little or no scientific basis for their claims, surveys have shown that about three-quarters of college athletes and nearly 100% of professional bodybuilders take supplements. Athletes use ergogenic aids to improve their energy and performance and to gain a competitive edge. There are generally two types of aids: those that are legal and considered generally safe, and those that are considered dangerous. Aids in the latter group are usually prohibited in competitive sports. The best, and safest, ergogenic aids are proper training and rest, good nutrition, correct technique, and good coaching.


Ergogenic aids generally viewed as safe include the following:


Some ergogenic aids are known to have harmful side effects; they are banned by sports governing authorities because they are unsafe and unethical. The most abused aids include the following:


Athletes who train hard frequently complain about energy drain and fatigue. Because they are regularly reminded to consume adequate fluids and calories to minimize early fatigue and to maximize performance and recovery, many have turned to energy drinks. These are drinks, such as Red Bull or 5-Hour Energy, that contain fluids, large amounts of caffeine, and sugar. They are different from balanced sports drinks, such as Gatorade, that replenish fluids and electrolytes and provide energy in the form of sugar. Recent research sponsored by the Food and Nutrition Information Center of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown that some energy drinks contain herbs, amino acids, protein, and other substances in such small amounts that they are unlikely to have any noticeable effect on performance. Other energy drinks have been found to have ingredients that can cause inefficient absorption of fluid and nutrients from the intestine, along with possible gastrointestinal distress.


Treatment for excessive use of ergogenic supplements starts with complete avoidance. Depending on the supplement used and the medical complications, aftercare is tailored to individual cases and depends on the nature of the resulting medical condition.

Anabolic steroids—
Any of a number of synthetic steroid hormones that are commonly used to increase muscle mass and strength.
A nutrient that the body uses as an energy source. Carbohydrates provide four calories of energy per gram.
Dietary supplement—
A product, such as a vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, or enzyme, that is intended to be consumed in addition to an individual's diet with the expectation that it will improve health.
The storage form of glucose found in the liver and muscles.
Sports drink—
Any beverage containing carbohydrates, electrolytes, and other nutrients as well as water, intended to help athletes rehydrate after training or competition. Sports drinks are isotonic, which means that they contain the same proportion of water, electrolytes, and carbohydrates as the human body.


Many ergogenic aids are either illegal or have been banned by the organizations that oversee various sports. Urine and blood testing is now standard in many professional sports and in high-profile sporting events, such as the Olympics. Athletes caught using forbidden ergogenic aids can be stripped of their wins and banned from their sport.


Anabolic steroids also affect mental health. Their use can cause drastic mood swings, inability to sleep, depression, and feelings of hostility. There is some evidence that young men may become more volatile and violent when taking these drugs, a condition known as “roid rage.” Steroids also may be psychologically and physically addictive to some users. Withdrawal symptoms may include insomnia, fatigue, restlessness, reduced sex drive, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Blood doping has been linked to strokes, allergic reactions, and infections. HGH adverse effects include heart and nerve diseases, glucose intolerance, and higher levels of blood fats (lipids). Other effects also come from the HGH levels in the body added to what is already produced by the pituitary glands. Ergogenic doses of caffeine may cause restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, tremors, and an increased heart rate. At least 17 deaths have been linked to products that combine caffeine and ephedrine.

Adverse effects have also been reported with carbohydrate supplementation. Increased insulin levels after carbohydrate consumption were shown to significantly decrease blood glucose levels in some athletes, and fructose-containing solutions have been associated with adverse gastrointestinal effects in some studies.

Parental concerns

Parents should educate their teenagers concerning the use of ergogenic aids and strive to increase their awareness of illegal ones. Steroid abuse has spread downward from elite and professional athletes to college, high school, and younger athletes. According to a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2005, 850,000 high school students in the United States had used anabolic steroid pills or shots without a prescription. A 2007 study found that 1.5% of eighth graders and 2.2% of twelfth graders (2.3% of boys and 0.6% of girls) had at some time used illicit steroids.

See also Caffeine ; Carbohydrates ; Dietary supplements ; High-protein diet ; Insulin ; Protein ; Sports nutrition .



Greenwood, Mike, Douglas Kalman, and Jose Antonio, eds. Nutritional Supplements in Sports and Exercise. New York: Humana Press, 2008.


Beelen, M., et al. “Nutritional Strategies to Promote Postexercise Recovery.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 20, no. 6 (December 2010): 515–32.

Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109, no. 3 (2009): 509–27. (accessed March 21, 2018).


National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Steroids (Anabolic).” U.S. National Institutes of Health. (accessed March 21, 2018).

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. “Ergogenic Aids.” Food and Nutrition Information Center. (accessed April 30, 2018).


American College of Sports Medicine, 401 West Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, . .

National Center for Drug Free Sport, 2735 Madison Ave., Kansas City, MO, 64108, (816) 474-8655, Fax: (816) 502-9287,, .

National Institute on Drug Abuse, 6001 Executive Blvd., Rm. 5213, MSC 9561, Bethesda, MD, 20892, (301) 443-1124,, .

Monique Laberge, PhD
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.