Revving Up

Can a performance supplement be legal, healthy, and effective? The Lab Rat pops a fistful to find out.

Jan 18, 2007
Outside Magazine
Lab Rat

THERE COMES A TIME in every athlete's life when he's tempted to add a little something special to his training regimen, and these days the possibilities are many and creepy: andro, HGH, EPO maybe a little synthetic testosterone, Floyd? Since I'm committed to keeping it safe and legal high-octane bulk builders are out. Plus I'm not after a bod like the latest James Bond's. I have a multisport race coming up in February, and what I really want is to transcend my standard performance as a grimacing mid-packer. All I need is enough extra voltage to get me there.

A while back I heard about a supplement called Optygen, made by First Endurance, that would ostensibly improve my lactate threshold and VO2 max by as much as 20 percent. What's more, Optygen, a new sponsor of Team Discovery, has been enthusiastically endorsed by Tour de France veterans like David Zabriskie. I called up First Endurance cofounder Mike Fogarty to ask whether Optygen might work for me. "Oh, yeah," he said. "After a week or two it will take you to the next level." Sweet!

First Endurance set me up on a course of Optygen ($50 for a one-month supply) and a few of the company's other products, including multivitamins and a high-tech recovery-beverage mix called Ultragen, which replaced my previous low-tech recovery drink, called margarita. The weeklong loading phase required me to choke down six pills a day, plus three daily multivitamins. After a week, I eased off to a slightly less gaggable three capsules a day, but that was still a total of six. I knew the stuff was supposed to keep me young, but the pill diet was making me feel old.

Optygen relies on an alchemy of ingredients that theoretically helps your body cope with stress while simultaneously aiding the conversion of oxygen into fuel. Its punch comes from a pair of herbs rhodiola and cordyceps and the mineral chromium. Rhodiola's ability to help alleviate the effects of altitude has been touted for decades by Sherpas who chew the herb like tobacco while working on Everest. Cordyceps is used in traditional Chinese medicine as an energy booster and sex aid. Chromium, an essential mineral, plays a key role in glucose metabolism and insulin regulation.

Since few formal controls exist for supplements (they aren't regulated by the FDA, and double-blind studies are expensive), I ran it by Dave Ellis, a registered dietitian and conditioning specialist in Colorado Springs who works regularly with pro athletes. Ellis preaches about the virtues of real food but isn't against supplements. He thought there was some legitimacy to the Optygen formula, though he couldn't say if it would work "synergistically," as First Endurance claimed. "You probably don't need to use them as much as they'd like you to use them," he counseled. "Exercise first, then a good diet, then supplements."

Fair enough, but my workouts were kicking my ass, and I was eating right. So after my Optygen-loading phase, I headed out to a local trail a 3.5-mile loop that features two punishing climbs to see if anything had changed. I'd been running the route regularly as a kind of yardstick to measure my fitness gains, and my best time to date was 34:45. I ticked off the first half of the route at a steady tempo, but on the final hill I felt... terrible. Of course, I always suffered here, but what a letdown. When I finished, I dutifully checked my watch. I'd felt slow as lava, but there was my time flashing back at me: 31 minutes and nine seconds.

Then came my bike ride. On a warm, sunny Saturday in November, a few friends and I rode from Santa Fe to Taos a stunningly scenic 75-mile trip with a spirit-crushing climb at the end. On the final push I was feeling good, so I dropped the hammer. Midway up, I looked back to discover that my friends were nowhere in sight. I topped out with enough time to change a flat before they showed up.

Was it the result of the Optygen? It's impossible to say. All I know is that I felt great. Hell, I didn't go to the next level; I skipped a level altogether. Either the stuff kicked in or I just experienced an extremely powerful and rewarding placebo effect. If the same thing happens come race day, I won't care either way.

Filed To: Nutrition

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