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Athletic Supplements: Fact vs. Fiction

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Popular Sports Supplements continued...

Beta-alanine is another amino acid. "It could help someone in stop-and-go sports like football or basketball," says Coleman. Studies seem to show that beta-alanine works best in highly trained athletes.

Whey protein can help build muscle mass, says Coleman. It seems to work better than other types of protein, such as soy or casein. Athletes may take it right after a workout to help with muscle repair. But whey protein isn't an instant muscle powder. It only works along with rigorous training.

Caffeine is a very common ingredient in sports supplements. Why? "Supplement manufacturers love caffeine because you feel it rev you up," Ellis says. "That makes you buy more of it."

Caffeine does have some potential benefits for some athletes. It may help endurance athletes last longer, says Coleman. 

But because it's everywhere -- in supplements, sodas, energy drinks, and energy bars -- it's easy to get too much caffeine. "Your body does a good job of revving you up naturally before a competition," says Felicia Stoler, RD, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in New Jersey. Adding a lot of caffeine to that natural buzz can push you over the edge into anxiety.

Other stimulants. Coleman says that if you're going to use a stimulant, stick with caffeine. "We have the most research about caffeine," she says. Other stimulants, such as bitter orange, could be risky.

Risks of Athletic Supplements

Be wary. Athletic supplements may not be what they seem. The government doesn't regulate supplements, so you can't be sure the bottle really contains the all ingredients listed on the label -- and in the right doses. "The supplement industry really is like the wild, wild West," says Coleman.

For pro athletes, tainted supplements could end a career. They can be contaminated with a banned substance, such as anabolic steroids, that could show up on a drug test. That risk extends to anyone who gets drug-tested for work, including police and firefighters.

Lab tests have found that some "natural" supplements actually contain drugs, including decongestants or other stimulants. They could pose a risk of interactions with other drugs.

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