If you are competitive, it is nothing but natural for you to want to perform very well in whatever sport you participate in. No wonder many athletes make use of athletic performance enhancers or performance-enhancing drugs. While they may have potential benefits, they are not without risks (see details below). Fortunately, nature has provided us with many things that can help us enhance our athletic performance. Professor Andrew Jones has been a consultant physiologist to UK and international Athletics for many years, advising the majority of the world leading distance runners from the UK and other countries, including Paula Radcliffe. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, and the European College of Sport Science, Jones is also a special adviser to the English Institute of Sport and he is currently working on a Nike project to break the sub-two-hour marathon mark. And surprise, surprise instead of using high-tech modern medicine, he dopes his runners with beetroot juice and green-leafy vegetables!
Natural Athletic Performance Enhancers
Nature is an excellent source of athletic performance enhancers, so we don’t really need to resort to performance-enhancing drugs.
Research has shown that smelling peppermint can enhance task performance. For instance, a study has found that peppermint can help you stay focused on your task and improve your performance.
What about athletic performance in particular?
Well, in a study, 40 athletes performed a modified 15-minute treadmill exercise stress test under each of the four odourant conditions, one of which is peppermint. The participants who smelled peppermint experienced less fatigue and frustration, were more vigorous, and felt that they performed better.
Research has also shown that peppermint can have a positive effect on actual performance. Participants with an peppermint-odourised adhesive strip stuck to their upper lip did more push-ups, ran faster, and showed a trend toward stronger grip strength.
Besides smelling peppermint, taking peppermint can improve your athletic performance as well. In a study, 12 healthy males every day took one 500-ml bottle of mineral water that contained 0.05 ml peppermint essential oil for ten days. The results of the study showed that their performance parameters increased, including work, power, and time to exhaustion. This can be because peppermint helped their bronchial smooth muscles relax, increased ventilation and brain oxygen concentration, and decreased their blood lactate level.
Beet is another gift nature has given us not just in terms of improving athletic performance but also in terms of improving our health in general. The main reason for this is that it is abundant in nitrate. Dietary nitrate has positive effects on the production of energy, so it also helps lower oxygen cost during exercise. This means that you can exert the same amount of work with less oxygen.
For instance, a little shot of beet juice helps free divers to hold their breath for over four minutes, which is a about a half-minute longer than usual. The ability of beet to improve muscle efficiency helps athletes to exercise at a higher power output or running speed for the same amount of breath.
One scientific evidence of how beet juice can make your body’s energy production more efficient is a study involving eight men who were put on bikes. Their oxygen consumption was measured before and after drinking two cups of beet juice, and they did not take any drug that could increase energy extraction from oxygen. Results showed that those who drank beet juice did same work as those who didn’t but with 19% less oxygen. They also had greater endurance and saw a 16% improvement in their time.
So we have established the benefits of drinking beet juice. But what about eating whole beets?
The health benefits of whole vegetables have long been established, so if your are seeking to improve your athletic performance, then it would be a lot safer to get your nitrates from whole vegetables, such as beetroot, instead of getting them from supplements, which can have harmful effects.
Research has shown that eating whole beetroot can enhance running performance. In a study, physically fit men and women were given a cup and a half of baked beets, which is equal to about a can of beets, 75 minutes before running a 5K. While the beet group and the placebo group started out the same, the beet group pulled ahead during the last mile of the race. And, as a bonus, the heart rate of the beet group was not any higher even though they were running faster.
As above mentioned, nitrate can be found in vegetables, such as beet. Nitrate has been found to be able to help with blood flow disorders, such as high blood pressure. If you are an athlete, it can help improve your performance as well. Majority of these studies were done with beet juice, however.
So what about whole green leafy vegetables?
Whole beet and spinach can be a great source of nitrate, too. But if we talk about whole food that can enhance your performance while you are out hiking, then they may not be the most convenient whole foods to take with you. Fortunately, nature has designed a whole food that is abundant in nitrate and that you can just put in your pocket at the same time: fennel seeds.
Fennel seeds, although called as such, are actually not seeds; they are whole little fruits of the fennel plant. You will usually find them being used as mouth fresheners after a meal, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. Chewing them can give your body a boost in nitric oxide production, which helps open up blood vessels. As such, fennel seeds are a cheap, convenient, and non-perishable source of nitrate. Mountaineers can benefit a lot from fennel seeds by helping them maintain their oxygen levels at high altitudes and prevent H.A.P.E (high altitude pulmonary edema), which is one of the leading causes of death among mountain climbers.
If you are a long-distance athlete, you would most probably know that after an hour of exercise, your glycogen stores, where your body gets quick energy, can start to deplete. As such, it is not a surprise that the supplement industry has taken advantage of it to produce a wide range of energy products, such as gels, bars, chews, and even sports jelly beans.
Indeed, these products have been marketed as essential for optimal performance, and as expected, they are expensive. You don’t have to settle for them, however. This is because there are cheaper, natural foods that are healthier than these processed products. Sun-dried raisins, for instance, are a great source of concentrated carbohydrates and can enhance your performance to a similar degree as those expensive energy products can. Raisins are delicious, too!
Music has been known to have therapeutic effects. Instead of using drugs that can have adverse effects, music can be used to calm your nerves before a surgery. In fact, a study found that music worked significantly better than midazolam, a medication used for anaesthesia and procedural sedation. Music resulted to lower anxiety scores, lower heart rate, and lower blood pressure. And, of course, it does not have any negative side effects.
Another benefit of music is that it can boost your metabolic rate. Listening to music can help you burn an average of 27.6 more calories a day even though you are just lying in bed.
And, if you are an athlete, you might start listening to music as well. It has been found to enhance exercise enjoyment and performance at the same time. Indeed, it is a cheap, safe, and legal way to perform better in your next competition.
Exercise has been known to boost the immune system. For instance, sedentary women who begin to take brisk walks on a treadmill 45 minutes a day for a few months may reduce their risk of upper respiratory infections in half.
Mucosal surfaces such as the eyes, nose, and mouth are where about 95% of all infections start. To fight these infections, antibodies like IgA protect them. These antibodies neutralise and prevent viral pathogens from penetrating your body. Your first line of defence against respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia is the the IgA in your saliva. And, even if you just do moderate aerobic exercise for 30 minutes three times a week, you can greatly increase your IgA levels and greatly lower your chances of having flu-like symptoms.
However, heavy exercise for long periods of time may lower your resistance to infection disease. Or just doing a single over strenuous exercise can drop your IgA levels. As such, if you are an athlete, it is important to preserve your immunity as getting ill can negatively affect your performance.
One way to boost your immunity is by taking chlorella, which is a unicellular freshwater green algae. Athletes who were given chlorella during training camp did not experience a significant drop in their IgA levels. As such, taking chlorella may attenuate the decreased IgA secretion during athletic training.
Yoghurt is made tangy by lactic acid. And when you exercise strenuously, it is the same lactic acid that builds up in your muscles. In yoghurt, bacteria ferment the sugar to produce energy for themselves. On the other hand, your muscles ferment sugar in your diet to make energy to contract. However, when the build up of lactic acid is quicker than it can be gotten rid of, this can result to your feeling a burning sensation in your muscles. As a result, you stop.
To help remove lactic acid faster, you can increase the number of blood vessels in your muscles if you train. For instance, overweight sedentary women who begin on an aerobic training program of running and walking for three months can see their lactate levels decrease by 17% at the end of the program. But, they can improve that decrease to 27% if they drink two cups of orange juice every day. This can also allow them to enhance their physical performance with less muscle fatigue.
Of course, eating a whole orange is better than drinking fruit juice, but orange juice is definitely better than drinking soda. Orange juice contains citrus phytonutrients, such as hesperidin, which can lower digestion of fats. Be careful, though, as drinking three cups of orange juice a day can cause your triglycerides to go up. Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood, and having high levels of them is associated with diabetes, kidney disease, and heart attack.
The importance of exercise to boost the immune system and reduce illness rates cannot be overstressed. For instance, if you are a sedentary woman in your 70s, you may have a 50% chance of developing an upper respiratory illness during the fall season every year. But, you can reduce your risk to 20% by walking for 30 minutes every day.
But then again, if you are an athlete who regularly does strenuous training, your risk of infection goes higher. And, if you fall sick, then your performance will be negatively affected. So what can you do about it? Well, nutritional yeast may be able to help.
One study suggests that by taking a special type of fibre found in nutritional yeast, you can improve the maintenance of your level of circulating white blood cells after you perform strenuous exercise. After you cycle for two hours, for instance, you will experience a decrease in your circulating monocytes, which is your first line of defence white blood cells. But, if you take the equivalent of less than 3/4 of a teaspoon of nutritional yeast a day, you may end up better than when you started. Instead of feeling angry or frustrated after a competition, you may feel less fatigued, less tense, and less confused by consuming nutritional yeast.
Being healthy is an athletic performance enhancer in itself
Of course, while there are various natural athletic performance enhancers available to us, being generally healthy is an athletic performance enhancer in itself. So how can you improve your health?
If you think that your age controls your health so you can’t really do anything about it, then think again. There are four important lifestyle habits that you should start acquire now if you wish to be healthier than your actual age. These are; not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, 30 minutes of exercise a day, and eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and little or no meat at all. Following these healthy habits can turn your biological clock and make you 14 years younger.
And, among these four habits, diet may have the most significant effect on DNA health. A plant-based diet, which means plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can enhance the immune system, preserve muscle mass, repair DNA faster, and delay the process of again. This means that you will be able to enjoy both a longer and healthier life.
Plant-based Diet and Its Effect on Women’s and Men’s Health
A lot of women experience different health issues, the most prevalent of which include different types of cancer, menstruation and menopause, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
And, their diet plays an essential role in these issues. Research has shown how plant-based foods benefit women’s health.
For instance, mint tea may lower testosterone in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Eating two handfuls of nuts each week may also make a women’s life longer as much as four hours of weekly jogging may. And, consuming five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day paired with some moderate walking exercise six days a week can improve your chances of surviving breast cancer.
What about meat and dairy? How do they affect women’s health?
Well, meat tends to have sex steroid hormones, which can lead to female infertility and promote the buildup of cholesterol in pelvic arteries, consequently resulting to sexual problems in women. Also, bovine leukemia virus DNA in breast tissues is associated with as much as 37% of breast cancer diagnoses.
The health of men is significantly affected by their diet, too. For example, consuming meat, processed meat in particular, raises their chances of developing prostate cancer. The same is true with eating fried foods, eggs, and dairy products. Besides prostate cancer, these foods are also associated with a decrease in male fertility.
A plant-based diet, on the other hand, may improve their health in general. Consuming foods containing plenty of carotenoids, which can only be found in plants, may help reduce risk of urinary tract infections in men. The antioxidant amino acid ergothioneine, which is found in seminal fluid, can be found in mushrooms.
To ensure that you are following a healthy diet, then beans should be part of it. They contain a wide range of nutrients essential for maintaining good health. These include:
- Folate: needed for keeping homocysteine levels healthy
- Magnesium: linked to an overall lower risk of mortality
- Potassium: may prevent stroke
- Zinc: essential for male reproductive health
- Ergothioneine: protects DNA
- Non-heme iron: a safer form of iron than the heme-iron, which is found in animal sources.
- Phytates: keep your bone strong, lower risk of cancer
- Soluble fiber: lower risk of breast cancer and colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and stroke.
As such, high consumption of beans and legumes are emphasised in many of the most health-promoting and disease-reversing diets, including:
- The Ornish diet
- The Mediterranean diet
- The traditional Kenyan, Okinawan and Bantu diets
- The traditional Native American and Indian diets
- Plant-based diets
What about paleolithic diets?
In the modern Paleo Diet, you follow a diet that is based on what humans consumed in the pre-agricultural, Paleolithic times, which included wild plants, wild animals, and wild fish. However, it ignores the fact there is a stark difference between the quality of food during that era and today. Pre-historic meat did not have hormones, antibiotics, and environmental contaminants. The wild animals our ancestors consumed provided only about 6-16% of calories from fat as opposed to about 40-60% in the domestic animals today. Also, the modern Paleo diet does not include grains and legumes, even though these foods have long been found to be an excellent source of protein and calories.
The Paleo Diet promotes the consumption of large quantities of meat and fish. This diet is high in protein and fat but low in carbohydrates, which is linked to poor peripheral small artery function. It also does not take into consideration the ethical issues that come with industrial farm practices and its long-term unsustainability.
The body uses protein every day to keep it going. However, not all sources of protein are created equal. Plant protein has been found to be better than animal protein. Plant protein contains relatively lower amounts of methionine, which is an an amino acid linked to premature ageing and cancer. Protein from plants has also been found to help lower cholesterol levels and reduce of risk of heart disease.
In contrast, animal protein may raise insulin levels and increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. Other issues associated with animal protein include early puberty in girls and fertility problems in women because of the hormones it contains. Moreover, the animal protein found in cow’s milk infant formula may lead to childhood obesity.
In sum, you do not have to rely on performance-enhancing drugs to do well in your chosen sport. Make use of the natural athletic performance enhancers nature has given us; there are plenty of them. And, keep in mind that being healthy is an athletic performance enhancer in itself. To achieve that, you may have to make some important lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking and following a plant-based diet.
Here are common performance-enhancing drugs and their negative effects:
Testosterone is the main anabolic steroid your body produces, and it has two effects in your body: 1.) anabolic affects, which promote muscle building, and 2.) androgenic effects, which are responsible for male traits, such as facial hair and a deeper voice.
Anabolic steroids can be taken as pills, injections, or topical treatments. Athletes choose to take them because they are known to increase muscle mass and strength. They may also reduce muscle damage that happens during a strenuous workout session, helping athletes recover from the workout faster. Consequently, they can work out harder without overtraining.
However, although anabolic steroids have approved medical uses, enhancing athletic performance is not one of them. They also have physiological and psychological side effects.
Their physiological side effects include acne, male-pattern baldness, and premature closure of the growth centres of long bones in adolescents, which may lead to stunted growth.
Their psychological side effects include increased aggressiveness and sexual appetite, which can sometimes lead to abnormal sexual and criminal behaviour. Also, withdrawal from use of anabolic steroids can be linked to depression and in some cases, suicide.
Anabolic steroids also have gender-specific side effects. For men, these include development of prominent breasts, shrinking of the testicles, impotence, and decrease in sperm production. For women, the side effects include deepening of the voice, cessation of breast development, growth of hair on the face, stomach, and upper back, enlarged clitoris, and abnormal menstrual cycles.
The adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes produce androstenedione, which is typically converted to testosterone and estradiol in men and women. While it is being marketed as having the ability to help athletes train harder and recover faster, scientific studies show that supplemental androstenedione does not boost testosterone levels and make your muscles stronger.
Using it to enhance athletic performance can also be risky. In men, its side effects include acne, decreased sperm production, shrinking of the testicles, and enlargement of the breasts. Its side effects in women include acne masculinisation, such as deepening of the voice and male-pattern baldness. It can also reduce HDL or good cholesterol in both men and women, which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Also known as gonadotropin, human growth hormone has an anabolic effect. Athletes use it to boost muscle mass and performance, yet it has not been conclusively found to enhance either strength or endurance. Moreover, using it comes with some risk as it can have adverse side effects, including joint pain, muscle weakness, vision problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
Athletes who wish to compete in a lighter weight class may choose to use diuretics since they lead to loss of water, consequently reducing the athletes’ weight. But then again, it can have adverse effects, such as dehydration, muscle cramps, drop in blood pressure, loss of coordination and balance, and even death.
Stimulants, which include energy drinks that typically contain high doses of caffeine and other stimulants, are used by athletes to enhance their physical performance and promote aggressiveness in the field. However, ironically, they can also have side effects that can negatively affect athletic performance. These effects include insomnia, stopping athletes from getting enough sleep; nervousness and irritability, making it hard from them to concentrate on the game; dehydration; and addiction or tolerance.
While performance-enhancing drugs can drastically change the human body and biological functions, including the ability to enhance athletic performance in some instances and in the short-term, they can indeed be very dangerous, and deadly even. As such, it does not come as a surprise why most sports organisations prohibit the use of these performance-enhancing drugs.