Strength in a Bottle?

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Outside magazine, December 1998

Strength in a Bottle?
What you should know about the latest nutritional supplements

By Paul Keegan

Pepping up your game with performance-enhancing concoctions just isn’t necessary, contends nutritionist Kristine Clark ù particularly for the recreational athlete. Her mantra: “You don’t need supplements as long as
you’re eating a balanced diet.” Nonetheless, Clark can’t deny that some supplements seem to work and also haven’t shown any side effects ù at least not yet. Herewith, the lowdown on some of the more popular choices within this billion-dollar industry.


The Hype: “Soon to be banned!” proudly trumpets one manufacturer’s advertisement. Taken as a pill or as tea, this amphetamine-like synthetic ù modeled after an ingredient in the common Chinese remedy Ma Huang ù will make you sprint like Michael Johnson.

The Fine Print: Suspected of killing several college athletes, ephedrine sends a jolt through the nervous system, triggering the fight-or-flight response. “It’s like caffeine, but more potent,” says Priscilla Clarkson, editor of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition.


The Hype: Bodybuilders have been whisking these pills off the shelves in towering armloads, thanks to the amino-acid by-product’s reputation for developing brawn enough to juggle Toyotas.

The Fine Print: “One study shows that it seems to increase strength and lean muscle mass during weight training,” says Clarkson. The catch? Supplement experts like her have absolutely no idea why.


The Hype: Marketed as the “Fat Assassin.” Take this glucose derivative in megadoses and it’ll boost muscle glycogen, obviating the need to use real food as fuel ù a handy pill for those wanting to lose weight or effortlessly improve endurance.

The Fine Print: Two distinct studies showed increased endurance in pyruvate-popping subjects. Of course, both were conducted by the guy who patented the stuff. It’s also found in red wine and cheese, which may explain why the French seem to own the Raid Gauloises.


The Hype: Hawked by marquee athletes like Baltimore Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, this natural nutrient (sold in powder, liquid, gum, and candy forms) is said to boost power, speed, and muscle size. Not coincidentally, it’s the best-selling supplement ever.

The Fine Print: Eureka? Probably. Some initial studies show that creatine ups the energy available for muscle contractions, bumping your speed by five percent over short distances. But as for turning you into Adonis, Clarkson notes, “It might just be your body absorbing water.”

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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