Improving Athletic Performance

Improving Athletic Performance

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

With the increasing popularity of sports comes a corresponding increase in the demand for sports performance enhancing methods. These methods are known as ergogenic aids, which are defined as items designed to increase work or improve performance [1]. Following are summaries that relate to a number of legal ergogenic aids that are commonly used to enhance sports performance and the effects they have on the athlete. This list is not all-inclusive and is arranged in no particular order. Feel free to add your own in the comment section.

If you are unsure about the usage of a specific substance ask about it in the comment section and I or one of our readers will clarify that for you. You might also want to read the article on illegal ergogenic aids to ensure you operate within the boundaries of the World Anti-Doping Agency, especially if you want to compete internationally.

Altitude training

Altitude training is the legal method of increasing hemoglobin in the blood in order to get improved results in endurance events. By training at altitude (higher than 2000m), the body needs to produce more hemoglobin in order to counteract the lower percentage of oxygen in the air [2].

By training at altitude for a period of time, the body makes this adaptation, then prior to competition the athlete returns to competition altitude with increased oxygen carrying capacity and therefore, an improved oxygen uptake. 2

Whilst this sounds simple, it is actually quite complex. There are a number of disadvantages in training at altitude, including the need for longer recovery and the inability to train at high intensity (speed work etc). For some athletes it works well, for others, it does very little, other than muck up their preparation.


Colostrum occurs naturally in human breast milk and is very rich in proteins and hormones including IGF [1] For this reason, it is believed that it may have similar benefits to growth hormones which are used by athletes to enhance power.

Power athletes such as sprinters, throwers, and cyclists have used colostrum for this reason. There is evidence of improvements in times and distances from these athletes although the scientific reasons are not clear, nor are the possible side effects [2].


Creatine is perhaps the most popular substance used by bodybuilders.  It is unclear exactly why creatine supplementation works but there is evidence to suggest CP stores are increased, and therefore, there are considerable advantages to an athletes’ anaerobic capacity as a result [2]. Team sports, which involve multiple bouts of high-intensity efforts, and where rest periods are less than 4 minutes seem to have the greatest advantage or when doing multiple bouts of sprint and weight training.

At this stage, there are no identified side effects but as for many of these aids, the athletes’ keenness to try them usually far outstrips the speed of technology to monitor the long-term effects.


Betahydroxybetamethylbutyrate is produced when one of the body’s essential amino acids (leucine) breaks down. A small dose (3 g) of HMB is equal to 60 g of leucine or the equivalent of 2 kgs of red meat! [2] Indications so far are that HMB significantly reduces the breakdown of muscle proteins during intense exercise that allows for longer and more intense training sessions.

Unless HMB was used with strict monitoring of exercise stress, there is the possibility of ignoring the natural warning signs of overwork and therefore the athlete may cause some damage to the muscle [2]


A massage can assist an athlete to recover after training sessions and may reduce muscle soreness allowing them to recover faster and keep up their volume of training. Massage prior to an event can also loosen muscles and relax ligaments and be part of the warm-up. It can have a psychological effect by promoting relaxation, reducing stress levels and allowing an athlete to be optimally aroused for the performance [2].


Mainly injected through food. These Include fat, vitamins, and minerals.


A simple but effective aid to performance, pre, and post is to ensure that adequate fluid levels are maintained. In hot and humid conditions fluid loss can be as much as 2 liters/hour [2]. Insufficient fluid intake can lead to heat stress, heat exhaustion, heat stroke or organ failure, organ meltdown, muscle meltdown, even in extreme cases death!

You should always drink before you feel thirsty. The following rates of fluid consumption are recommended. 30050 ml of fluid half an hour before the activity and 5025 0ml at regular intervals throughout the activity re-hydrate at the end of training or competing [2].

Sodium bicarbonate

Sodium bicarbonate appears to work by buffering the buildup of hydrogen ions during intense activity [2] By taking in sodium bicarbonate it can also assist in the neutralization of lactic acid in the working muscle during high-intensity short-term work.

This reduction in lactic acid should allow the athlete to work harder and for longer. Improvements of up to 3% have been noted in laboratory conditions [2]

Possible side effects may include vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps and spasms, apathy, irritability, and cardiac arrhythmia.


This is thought to assist in retaining fluid in the body for longer and may assist in performance in endurance events, particularly under hot conditions. Extra water can have the same effect, but the athlete must carry the extra weight and also take it early enough to allow digestion to occur so that they do not have a bloated uncomfortable feeling.

Alcohol and smoking

There is no ‘safe’ level of smoking! Every cigarette is dangerous. This is what you get when you inhale cigarette smoke. The use of alcohol and smoking is only on this list because they can be bought over the counter.

All alcoholic drinks contain the chemical ethanol, which makes people ‘drunk’. It takes at least 1 hour for the body to recover from the effects of 1 unit of alcohol [2] After heavy drinking, there may still be alcohol in the blood the next day.       

Effects of alcohol on the body

It affects coordination, Judgment, balance, speech, and hearing. It lowers the level of glycogen in muscles. So they can’t work so long and hard. It leaves a ‘hangover’ which is partly dehydration. Athletes who drink too much lose their drive to train and compete for long-term alcohol abuse leads to kidney and liver damage.

Carbohydrate loading

The ability to increase stores of carbohydrates for endurance athletes is important for long events. Carbohydrate loading involves increasing your carb intake at the expense of other nutrients (fats and protein) [2] It can be further increased with glycogen depletion sessions (hard aerobic sessions), which deplete your stores first before starting on the carbohydrate load phase.

Note: It is important that water is consumed when carbohydrate loading, as 1 gram of carbohydrate requires 3 grams of water. There are 3 recognized carbohydrate loading regimes. In the examples given below, imagine that you are competing on a Sunday [2].

The simplest form of loading (50% increase)

Train normally during the week, back your training off after Thursday, and eat a high carbohydrate diet until race day [2].

100% increase carbohydrate loading

Train normally in the earlier part of the week, however, do a glycogen depletion session (e.g. 3-hour run) on Thursday morning. Do little training on Friday and Saturday. Start your carbohydrate loading immediately following the depletion session.

This is possibly the best method, as it is quite safe and has the least impact on the athletes’ lifestyle.

150% increase carbohydrate loading

This method is definitely the hardest on the body, however, potentially it gives you the greatest increase in stores. Train normally in the earlier part of the week. On Tuesday, do a glycogen depletion session (3-hour run). On Wednesday and Thursday, do normal training, however, keep your carbohydrate intake at a minimum. This will deplete your carbohydrate stores even further (and ensure that you will feel pretty yuk!). Friday should see a back off in training and you should be carbohydrate loading until the time of the race.

The problem with this method is that (1) you feel pretty terrible and (2) it is a bit of a gamble as to whether your body will recover in time for the race!

Mental rehearsal/ visualization

This involves the use of activities such as hypnosis, feedback, meditation and/or music. These activities assist in relaxation and positive thinking (hypnosis and meditation), and increasing or decreasing arousal levels (music), depending on the individuals need. These techniques also assist in removing negative thoughts and allowing the athlete to focus on the task or performance.

The reason ergogenic aids are monitored is so every athlete competes fairly and just. With so many options at your disposal, there is no reason why athletes and coaches should opt for illegal means of getting similar results.

Let me know if I missed anything. What methods work best for you and what methods would you recommend to athletes who desire to improve their performance? Share them with us below, just make sure they are not on this list. My previous article was about the Important distinctions between Sport for Development, Sports Development, and Sports Entertainment, what do you think I should write about next. I am looking forward to your suggestions. Until next time, keep moving.

Related Article Doping In Sport: Summaries of Illegal ergogenic aids


[1] G. Butterfield, “Ergogenic Aids: Evaluating Sport Nutrition Products,” pp. 191-197, 1996.

[2] WADA, “WORLD ANTI-DOPING CODE (International Standard),” World Anti-Doping Agency, 2016.

[3] ALISON, “Ergogenic aids – blood doping and EPO,” 2 Februaaary 2016. [Online]. Available:

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Thando W. Dlamini, BA

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

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