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Do Supplements Give Athletes an Edge?

Creatine for Reps

Are you a sprinter or weight lifter? Creatine monohydrate could help with these and other repeated short bouts of intense exercise. It doesn’t seem to benefit players of other types of sports. And, like studies of many supplements, not all studies show that creatine benefits athletes.

Your body makes creatine naturally, and your muscles use it to do high-intensity exercise. When you do many reps of an exercise, you use up your store of creatine -- your tenth rep is so much harder than your first. Taking a creatine supplement boosts your muscles' creatine store. You also get creatine from beef and pork. If you already eat plenty of these, you won’t notice as much of a difference from a creatine supplement as a vegetarian might notice.

“For very short-term bouts of exercise, creatine supplementation seems to aid in recovery,” says Thomas Sherman, PhD. He's a professor in the department of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Experts consider creatine safe for healthy people, such as athletes. Some people take a higher dose for the first week -- about four servings of 5 grams each per day -- to “load” their muscles with the supplement. Then they drop to a “maintenance” dose of about 2 grams per day.

But many people skip the loading phase and start with the lower maintenance dose. Some studies have shown that creatine could increase fat and not muscle.

Some research suggests that high doses could cause kidney, liver, or heart damage, but it's unclear how much might be too much.

Beta-Alanine for Burning Muscles

When you do short bouts of exercise at maximum effort for 30 to 90 seconds (think spin class), your muscles make a lot of lactic acid. That’s what makes you “feel the burn.” Athletes take beta-alanine in a capsule or a drink powder to curb that burn so they can push through the exercise.

Does it work? Cyclists and runners who took beta-alanine for 4 weeks improved their game in scientific studies. But not all studies agree.

“Some studies show a benefit. Others don’t,” Rankin says. “So it’s not completely clear yet. We need more studies on it, but it’s not one that I’m worried about people trying.”

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