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Athletic Supplements: Fact vs. Fiction

Popular Sports Supplements continued...

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.

How to Use Sports Supplements Safely

"Supplements can improve performance for some athletes, and there are some good companies out there," says Coleman. But because the risks of supplements are real, you should always be careful.

Talk to an expert. There are too many supplements and too much bad information to sort it out on your own. Before you start taking a supplement, talk to a sports dietitian or your doctor.

Know why you're taking a supplement. Never take a supplement for vague reasons like "getting more energy." Know exactly what it does, how it works, and why it will help you.

Look for good quality. Good manufacturers pay to have their supplements tested by independent labs. Look for supplements certified by Consumer Lab, Informed Choice, or NSF International, Coleman says.

Don't take too much. Even with high quality supplements, taking too much can be a waste of money. It can also be dangerous. High doses of some supplements can interact with drugs and harm your body.

Don't use supplements to make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. If you have bad habits or aren't eating well, supplements won't atone for your sins.

Ellis stresses that while athletic supplements do have a role, only a small and targeted group of athletes are likely to benefit. "Most people are probably better off working on the fundamentals, like eating a healthy diet and getting enough rest," he says. "They're going to do a lot more for your athletic performance than a supplement."

Reviewed on June 18, 2012

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