There’s an old saying that goes something like this:
“You can’t out train a poor diet.” — WISE (PROBABLY DEAD) WHITE MALE
Pithiness aside, it’s true. If you’re not covering your basic nutritional bases, your athletic performance suffers. But let’s imagine that you’re doing a great job meeting your nutrient needs.
- You eat enough. Period.
- You eat lots of whole foods, including fruits and veggies.
- You choose whole grains over processed.
- You get the appropriate amount of protein.
- You hydrate like a mad person.
- You get enough sleep…
Meeting these criteria will have the largest impact on sports performance. A well-rested, well-fed, well-hydrated skater is starting their game off in a better place than someone that isn’t all those things.
So, first things first, COVER YOUR BASES. Only after you’re sure you’re doing that can you read on.
Seriously.A well-rested, well-fed, well-hydrated skater starts a game off in a better place than someone that isn't all those things. Click To Tweet
Okay, okay. You’re a nutritional ninja. You do all the right things. You even practice and cross-train and rest and recover. Now you’re hearing whispers that there is something — a magic pill, perhaps? — that you can take to level up your game into the stratosphere.
It’s time to talk ergogenic aids; items that give you a work producing edge when it comes to skating. It’s a land of artichoke hearts, bee pollen, freeze dried liver, and other weird shit that’s supposed to turn you into Laci Knight overnight.
The idea that you could ingest something and it would make you automatically better is a wish that spans the ages. Ever seen Alice in Wonderland? Or Popeye?
But there’s little scientific evidence that ergogenic aids actually have performance-enhancing benefits. And there’s very real concern that those substances put you at greater risk than any benefit they could offer.
Most substances touted as “performance enhancers” fall into 3 distinct categories:
- Useful in SOME circumstances
- Dangerous, Illegal, or Both
- Still under study
It’s also true that if a substance falls into categories 1 or 2, it might still fall into category 3.
So where’s the magic pill?
Surprise! There’s not one. If you want to improve your athletic performance, you’re better off focusing on improving your nutritional strategies, training routines, and sports-specific skill work.
Still interested in those substances talked about in the dark back corners of the rink? Here’s what science knows, so far:
REASON(S) FOR TAKING IT: Caffeine will supposedly allow your body to utilize a greater amount of fatty acids, which will ultimately provide you with more usable energy. It’s also widely thought to promote mental alertness. As evidenced by all the “Don’t talk to me until I drink my coffee” folks.
THE REALITY: Studies indicate that drinking three 5-ounce cups of coffee about 1 hour before an event that lasts longer than 5 minutes might be useful for some athletes. *pause for breath* The side effects are annoying, but not life-threatening and we’re all probably familiar with them: shakiness, nausea, anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia.
SHOULD I TRY IT? Depends. You can certainly give it a shot. Try narrowing down the effects by taking caffeine pills instead of drinking something with caffeine in it. Try it before a practice first and start with small doses (1-2 milligrams).
Caffeine falls into category 1: useful in some circumstances. Someone that ingests a lot of caffeine already probably won’t have much success with it. If you’re highly trained it also might not make a difference. But, if you’re curious and you know that you don’t have crazy adverse reactions to it, you can give it a shot.
REASON(S) FOR TAKING IT: Creatine could potentially increase the amount of phosphocreatine in your muscle which can keep the concentration of ATP in your system high. ATP is the energy source for all cells, so…sounds important.
THE REALITY: Studies of athletes that play sports that occur in repeated bursts of activity (think sprinting or weight lifting) saw the most benefit from supplementing with creatine. The long-term effects of continuous creatine use are still under study, but kidney damage has been noted in a few cases with specific kinds of creatine.
SHOULD I TRY IT? Again, it depends. Roller derby is certainly a short burst type of sport, so there are implications for it helping improve your performance. Use creatine monohydrate and take the minimum dose for a month, then take a month off. If you notice improvements, then that’s a pretty safe schedule to follow.
Creatine falls into category 1: useful in some circumstances. Vegetarians and vegans will likely see the most benefit as they don’t eat meat which is a natural source of creatine. There is a percentage of the population that doesn’t respond at all to using creatine. There aren’t a lot of short-term side effects (muscle growth) and long-term side effects are rare. Again, if you’re curious, you can give it a shot.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
REASON(S) FOR TAKING IT: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein so taking those as a supplement might increase gains in muscle mass during resistance training. Amino acids can also be utilized as an energy source when your body is depleted of carbohydrate stores
THE REALITY: The studies that have been done show an increase in muscle mass when BCAAs are taken before or after resistance training. The effect is most dramatic on those that are untrained.
SHOULD I TRY IT? If you want to. The risks of supplementing with BCAAs are low and it’s relatively cheap and easy to get. However, a good diet can just as easily provide the same outcome. On days when your diet is hit-or-miss and/or you have a long practice right after work, it might be beneficial.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids fall into category 3: still under study. The small studies that have been done up to this point indicate that supplementing with BCAAs might possibly be useful, but the study groups have been small. Protein rich foods — especially dairy foods — are high in BCAAs. The current list of side effects is nil (but remember the study sizes are small). That indicates that, right now at least, it’s a pretty safe supplement to try.
And all the rest…
There are a myriad of other supplements that flood the market with promises of making you the baddest of all the asses. Just do your due diligence:
- Research the thing. Like with scholarly articles. Not bullshit blog articles like this one. (Kidding. Kind of.)
- Be honest about your diet. All the supplements in the world won’t overcome the fact that you live off of Twinkies, Cherry Gracia, and Gatorade.
- Collect data when you take it. Write down how you feel, how you do at practice, your energy levels, your cross training stuff — all of it. Otherwise, you’ll never know if it works and could be wasting money.
- If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is. Enough said.
- If it’s sounds kind of weird, double down on your research. That bee pollen won’t research itself.
Did I miss one? Was I too hard on something? Let me know!
** Any studies cited in this article, that are not directly linked, come from the book “Contemporary Nutrition: A Functional Approach” by Wardlaw, Smith, & Collene. The information about each ergogenic aid comes from this book as well.
If you’re interested in more exclusive content, access to my FREE resource library, and the slightly weird workings of my inner mind, you can sign up for the Iron Octopus Fitness email list HERE. Wherein I harass you weekly with all things intelligent cross training, mindset, and…other.