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 are offered as supplements, which means that both the contents of the product and the claims on the label have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and may not have any scientific basis. Supplement use is very common; some studies have shown that about 50% of the general population report having taken supplements, with use among athletes much more common. Other studies have shown that 76% of college athletes and 100% of body builders take supplements. Athletes strive for the competitive edge, and they use ergogenic aids to improve their energy and performance. The only healthy ergogenic aids are those that are legal and have been proven safe. To gain a more competitive edge, the best aids are proper training, proper rest, good nutrition, correct technique, and good coaching.


Safe ergogenic aids 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:

A disease of the muscles of the heart that leaves them enlarged, weakened, and unable to pump blood effectively.
Salts and minerals that ionize in body fluids. The major human electrolytes are sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride (Cl-), phosphate (HPO42-), bicarbonate (HCO3-), and sulfate (SO42-). Electrolytes control the fluid balance of the body and are important in muscle contraction, energy generation, and almost all major biochemical reactions in the body.
Human growth hormone—
A hormone secreted by the pituitary of healthy individuals during childhood and throughout life. It is necessary for normal growth and healthy organs.


Athletes are always looking for sound, effective aids to boost performance and many believe that herbs can improve athletic performance. Herbs are nonwoody plants or parts of plants that have a long history of medicinal or therapeutic use. In fact, many common medications, such as aspirin and quinine, were first developed from herb extracts. However, herbs can act as drugs and some have been associated with potential adverse effects or interactions with foods, other herbs, or medications.


Harmful effects have been reported for several ergogenic products. Anabolic steroids have many adverse effects, most related to unwanted androgenic effects, such as shrinking testicles, enlarged prostate gland, and lower sperm levels. Some of the adverse effects are potentially serious and irreversible; they include heart, liver, and immune system problems. Behavior changes may include aggression, paranoia, mood swings, low sex drive, and depression.

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. Other effects come from the extra HGH levels in the body along with what is already produced by the pituitary glands. Ergogenic doses of combined caffeine and ephedrine may cause restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, and tremors. Due to several deaths linked to products that combine caffeine and ephedrine, they have been banned by the IOC and are illegal in the United States.

Additional risky supplements in the ephedrine class include androstenedione and other “prohormone” precursors to testosterone, yohimbine, and products that contain kava. 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 need to educate their teenagers concerning the use of ergogenic aids and strive to increase their awareness of illegal ones. One study funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse found that 2.5% of eighth graders had ever tried steroids, and that 3.5% of tenth graders and 4% of twelfth graders had tried them. For teenagers, hormone balance is especially important since they are at the age of puberty. Hormones are involved in the development of feminine traits in girls and masculine traits in boys. When teenagers use steroids, there is a risk of problems with the regular development of gender traits. Boys can experience shrunken testicles and increased breast development (gynecomastia). Girls who use steroids can develop deeper voices, grow excessive body hair, and stop menstruating.

Individuals who use steroids may be pleased when they flex their muscle in a mirror, but they may develop health problems that could hurt them for the rest of their lives, and even shorten their lives. Ergogenic supplements, unlike medicines and other drugs, do not undergo rigorous testing and screening for efficacy and safety. Information regarding independent test results and information to help people evaluate and select supplements is available from health care providers and sports medicine practitioners or at websites such as Supplement Watch ( ) and Consumer Lab ( ).

See also Carbohydrate metabolism in exercise .



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International Olympic Committee, Chateau de Vidy, Case postale 356, Lausanne, 1001, Switzerland, 41(21) 621 61 11, Fax: 41(21) 621 62 16,, .

National Association of Sports Nutrition, 8898 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Ste. J, San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 694-0317, .

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, 6100 Executive Blvd., Rm. 3B01, MSC 7517, Bethesda, MD, 20892-7517, (301) 435-2920, ods@nih. gov, .

World Anti-Doping Agency, Stock Exchange Tower, 800 Place Victoria, Ste. 1700, PO Box 120, Montreal, Quebec, H4Z 1B7, Canada, (514) 904-9232, Fax: (514) 904-8650, .

Monique Laberge, PhD
Revised by Tish Davidson, AM

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