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Are Sports Supplements Safe for Young Athletes?

Sep 01, 2020
Sports Supplements Safety

Sports supplements to increase exercise and athletic performance come in a variety of forms including pills, liquids, powders and bars. These products contain a variety of ingredients including caffeine, creatine and protein.

For any athlete to physically perform at their best, nutrition and hydration are important. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate recommend an eating plan for everyone, requiring adequate daily amounts of calories, fluids, macronutrients, vitamins and minerals.

A few sports supplements might enhance performance only when they add to, but do not substitute for, this dietary foundation. Even with proper nutrition, the results of taking a dietary sport supplement for exercise and athletic performance vary by level of training, intensity and duration of the activity, as well as environmental conditions.

What the Research Tells Us

Many exercise and performance-sports supplements contain multiple ingredients, but most research on these supplements has only focused on single ingredients. We cannot know or predict the effects and safety of combinations in these multi-ingredient products.

The amounts of these ingredients vary widely among products. In some cases, the products contain blends of ingredients listed in order by weight, but labels do not provide the amount of each ingredient in the blend. Manufacturers and sellers of dietary supplements for exercise and athletic performance do not conduct much medical research on their products.

Caffeine

Caffeine is commonly used in energy drinks for performance-enhancement effects. It is also found in energy gels containing carbohydrates and electrolytes, as well as in caffeine pills.

Many studies have shown that caffeine might enhance performance in athletes when they ingest about 2–6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight before exercise by improving endurance, strength and power in high intensity team sports activities. Taking more is unlikely to improve performance further and increases the risk of side effects. Caffeine supplements are more likely to help with endurance type activities and activities of long duration versus more short-term bouts of intense exercise, such as sprinting or lifting weights.

Creatine

Creatine is one of the most-studied and widely-used dietary supplements to enhance exercise and sports performance. It helps generate and supply the muscles with energy for short-term events. Supplementation with creatine over weeks or months helps training adaptations and increased workloads over time.

Creatine supplementation seems to be of little value for endurance athletes, such as distance runners or swimmers who do not depend on short-term energy bursts and it leads to weight gain that may hurt performance in such sports.

Protein

Protein is necessary to build, maintain, and repair muscle. Exercise increases the breakdown of protein, after which protein production increases for up to a day or two.

Athletes must consider both quality and quantity to meet their protein needs. They must obtain essential amino acids from their diet or from supplementation to support muscle growth, maintenance and repair.

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Featured Expert

Luke Tipple, MS, CSCS
Sports Medicine

Luke Tipple, MS, CSCS, joined Nationwide Children's Hospital in July of 2018 in the Sports Medicine Department as a sports performance coach. Before joining the performance team, Luke spent the previous 13 years as an assistant strength and conditioning coach of Olympic sports at The Ohio State University.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.