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Trading steroids for carbs: Natural ways to improve athletic performance

supplementsEvery athlete, from a major league baseball player to the average New Yorker tackling her first 5K, strives to be better, faster, stronger.

Of course, in professional sports, we often hear about athletes caving to the culture of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. (Most recently, Lance Armstrong is denying his use of growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids, and testosterone.)

But aren’t there better ways to bring your body into peak performance mode? Turns out New Yorkers have been asking themselves that very question, and stocking up on supplements they hope will help their game. Well+Good talked to two local experts about the natural alternatives to doping, and whether any of these legal performance-enhancers can really do the trick.

As manager of Integral Yoga Natural Apothecary in the West Village, Manu Dawson is virtually the city’s sergeant of natural supplements, able to rattle off the benefits of hundreds of vitamins and minerals in the time it takes to swallow a pill. Recently Dawson says he’s fielding more and more questions about enhancing athletic performance. “There are many supplements that are used and used effectively,” says Dawson. “Some have been rigorously studied, and some have not.”

Lance Armstrong
Lance Armstrong is one of the many athletes affected by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use

Some of his recommendations include:

  • Taking Glutamine, an amino acid, before and after a workout. “Before a workout it gives you energy and spares muscle tissue. It goes through a glycogenic pathway, basically giving you the carb-loading without ever having to eat carbs,” he says.
  • L-Arginine, another amino acid that helps to prevent muscle loss. L-Arginine stimulates the release of HGH (Human Growth Hormone), which you often hear of athletes illegally injecting. “This is one way to ensure that you get a good release, without injecting it,” Dawson says.
  • Carnosine, an amino acid that keeps the muscles hydrated and can improve the performance of people who are weight lifting, sprinting, or playing tennis—anything with fast muscle movement. It helps regenerate tissue and is especially good for muscle tears.

Dawson also emphasizes the importance of taking something restorative, such as a protein drink, within 15 minutes after a workout. “The key timing is really important,” he says. “Your muscles have a ravenous appetite for recovery.” (For additional supplements and advice, try a personal consultation with Dawson.)

Protein shake
A protein shake is a good idea 15 minutes after a workout

Christy Maskeroni, a Registered Dietician who is the Director of Nutrition and a personal trainer at CLAY, takes a very different approach. Maskeroni emphasizes the importance of diet over supplementation for getting your body to do its best. “Food is the most, most, most important thing,” she says. “Carbohydrates are what give you energy and provide fuel—eating enough throughout the day, so you’re getting what you need to recover, and feel good, and feel energized is key.”

For athletes that are working out several hours per day, she recommends a multivitamin to cover any nutrients you’re not getting from your food and fish oil to help with inflammation of the joints.

“That’s not to say that people are not taking other things,” says Maskeroni, who’s just not sure of the value. “If you do any research, there will be both sides to the story—evidence that supports supplements and that doesn’t.” Until the benefits of supplements are definitive, says Maskeroni, “What’s the purpose of utilizing them?”

One thing is for sure, we don’t expect to see carbs, protein shakes, or natural supplements on a banned substance list anytime soon. —Lisa Elaine Held