It’s not easy being an amateur doper. Over the last two years, more than 10 non-pro cyclists have been caught taking performance-enhancing drugs. In response, events like the Gran Fondo New York are increasingly testing riders—of all levels—to ensure a level playing field.
Luckily, you don’t need to cheat your way to success. If training hard just isn't doing it for you, try these five surprisingly effective supplements for a powerful but legal performance boost.
Legal Ways to Dope: Beetroot Juice
This tonic turns your urine and stool bright red, but if you can get past those startling—albeit harmless—side effects, beetroot juice may be one of nature’s most powerful performance enhancers, says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs, an “active nourishment company” famous for helping train professional cyclists like Taylor Phinney
Athletes Lim coaches have been drinking the juice for years. But until now, dosing has been a problem—nobody knew exactly how many beets you needed to drink to see a boost. Now, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that drinking between about 280 ml—about one glass—of the juice is enough to yield considerable performance gains.
Researchers believe that nitrates in the juice raise your body’s efficiency, allowing you to put more force on the pedals and less energy into producing heat. The specifics: Beetroot juice is high in nitrates, which your body converts into nitric oxide, a gas that widens your blood vessels and ups the oxygen available to your muscles.
How big a difference does it make? Cyclists on the mix were able ride at a set intensity between 12 to 14 percent longer than those who went without the drink. The findings aren’t an anomaly, either. Prior research shows that cyclists who drank half a liter of the juice for six days clocked in 45 seconds faster over a 10-mile course, a huge gain in a sport where the difference between winning and losing is often just a tire’s width.
Lim suggests mixing around eight ounces of the juice with an equal-parts mixture of orange, carrot, and pineapple to cut through the taste. Try it in training by loading up with a glass a day, for one week. Some research suggests that beetroot juice can lower blood pressure, so avoid this elixir if you’re prone to getting lightheaded or start noticing those symptoms while loading, says Stacy Sims, Ph.D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition.
Legal Ways to Dope: Beta-Alanine
If juicing isn’t your thing, consider beta-alanine, a naturally occurring beta amino acid that has pronounced effects on high-intensity performance. When paired with sodium bicarbonate—aka baking soda—beta-alanine has been shown to raise the amount of time that cyclists can spend riding at their maximum power output by about 12 percent.
Just don’t count on a pronounced endurance boost. While some supplement makers peddle beta-alanine as a powerful aerobic engine aid, its strongest effects can be found in “events lasting one to five minutes,” says Michael Joyner, M.D., an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic.
Like beetroot juice, beta-alanine acts a vasodilator, upping the oxygen flow to your muscles. But its main effects relate to carnosine, a molecule that buffers against fatigue in high intensity efforts. Because your body’s carnosine stores are limited by the amount of beta-alanine available, upping the latter increases levels of the former.
Supplementing with beta-alanine is a daily process. Because of the supplement’s short half-life in the body, its effects disappear after three weeks of non-use, so missing a dose can affect your performance. For best results, take at least 800-1,000mg of the amino acid four times a day.
Legal Ways to Dope: Coffee
We’ve written about the benefits of caffeine before, but it remains an “incredibly underrated” ergogenic aid, says Dr. Joyner. In fact, until 2004 the substance was on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list. If an athlete tested positive for more than 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of urine (around eight cups of coffee could do the trick), his or her sample was considered positive.
Until now, many coaches would recommend a caffeine pill to athletes looking for a jolt, but a recent study in the journal PLOS One shows that coffee works just as well. Riders who drank the coffee-based equivalent of 5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (about two cups of coffee) performed just as well as those on caffeine pills—finishing a time trial nearly five percent faster than their decaf-drinking peers.
Caffeine “works across the board by increasing fatty acid mobilization—so you use more fat as a fuel—and lowering fatigue,” says Sims. The result: You feel less tired, and your body has more fuel available for aerobic metabolism, sparring your glycogen stores for the crucial final intense moments of a race or group ride.
Caffeine freaks take note: A recent review of 21 studies suggests that tapering off caffeine seven days ahead of a race will maximize its effects; Sims suggests maintaining your regular intake to prevent disrupting your sleep cycle.
Legal Ways to Dope: HMB
It’s been circulating through the bodybuilding world for years, but HMB, a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, is just starting to break into the endurance community. The reason: Some studies point to astonishing results—like a 55 percent increase in bench press performance among experienced athletes.
Benching your body weight doesn’t matter on the bike, but HMB allows you to “gain muscle mass more quickly and lose body weight without compromising muscle tissue,” Sims says. The supplement prevents protein breakdown, making it particularly useful for older athletes or people doing lots of endurance training where recovery becomes an issue, Dr. Joyner says.
Exactly how big a boost can cyclists expect? A recent study on eight riders with an average training volume of 300 miles per week showed supplementing with HMB increased the time it took them to reach their VO2 peak—a very high level of energy output—by eight percent.
Most studies recommend taking three grams of HMB daily for maximal benefit. Upping the dosage may not have an effect—a recent study found that taking six grams had no practical benefit on strength gains over the three-gram dose.
Legal Ways to Dope: Sugar Mouth Rinse
It turns out you don’t need to drink your Gatorade to benefit from it. Simply rinsing your mouth with a sugary liquid can increase performance, a number of recently released studies suggest.
While researchers are still debating the mechanism behind the boost, they believe that receptors in your mouth increase neural drive in response to the presence of sugar. Essentially, the theory goes, experiencing pleasure can make exercise easier—allowing you to ride longer.
A recent study in the European Journal of Sport Science asked the crucial question: Exactly how long do you need to wait between rinsing and spitting? At least ten seconds, the researchers report. Cyclists given a ten-second-long rinse covered just over a mile more distance in a time trial than those swishing with a placebo.
Not in the mood (or company) to rinse and spit? Pop in a sucking candy. Lim suggests that athletes competing in a time trial start with the sweets to prevent dry mouth and reap some pain-alleviating benefits.