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Do Supplements Give Athletes an Edge?

By Sonya Collins
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD

You work hard to reach your athletic goals. You stick to your training program and to your nutrition plan. Now you want an edge. Is there a supplement that could give it to you?

Maybe, but results vary from person to person. When scientists study supplements, mixed reviews are pretty common. Also, most research focuses on highly trained or pro athletes, so your results might be different. But if you're a healthy athlete and have no problems with your heart, kidney, or liver, the most popular sports supplements are safe and inexpensive.

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It's best to talk with your doctor before you take a supplement, even if it's natural, in case you have any conditions or take medications that the supplement could affect.

Caffeine for Endurance

Caffeine gives you a pick-me-up in the morning, and it can pick up your game, too. Taken about 30 minutes before your race or game, it could improve your endurance. For long challenges, like a marathon, caffeine during the event can help, too.

“Studies have shown repeatedly that you can get improvements in performance, mainly in endurance-type exercise, with caffeine,” says Janet Rankin, PhD. She's a professor in the department of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech.

Caffeine has given an edge to tennis players, cyclists, soccer players, runners, rowers, and others in scientific studies. In some trials, the stimulant boosted athletes’ speed. In others, it helped them last longer before they spent all their energy. Some studies show that caffeine can curb soreness after exercise, too. This means you could get back to your training sooner.

You can take in caffeine through energy drinks and shots, tablets, chewing gum, sport gels and sprays. Each will give you different doses, so read the label.

“You don’t need all that much caffeine to get the effect,” Rankin says. “And it is possible to overdo it.” No matter what form of caffeine you take, make sure you don’t get more than 400 mg a day. And don’t forget to count your other daily sources of caffeine -- there’s about 100 mg in your morning coffee -- and not just the supplement.

Too much caffeine can cause headaches, irritability, stomach upset, dehydration, and trouble sleeping.

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