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Ergogenic foods

What are Ergogenic Foods and why are they Important for Athletes?

Every athlete is looking for a way to get ahead of the competition and be the best in their field.

That sort of competitiveness is what we all expect to see in the sports arena when we are rooting for our favorite athletes.

With all this pressure on the athlete’s shoulders, it is easy for them to turn to some dubious supplements that are marketed all over the sports nutrition industry as performance enhancers.

We all know that sports is a multibillion industry and anyone would want to cash on it by offering quick fixes to athletes’ limitations.

That is how ergogenic aids found their way into most athlete’s nutritional plans.

Doping in sports has always been a serious offense that has seen many accomplished athletes lose their titles and honors either intentionally or unintentionally.

Most of the doping cases are usually related to nutritional supplements taken as ergogenic aids for enhancing physical activity.

Since this supplement industry attracts a lot of attention and buying intent, athletes are easily duped into using some “underground supplements” that may contain banned substances in their field.

But what is the point of facing all the embarrassments and monetary losses when you can achieve the same effect naturally by eating whole ergogenic foods?

Well, it could be because many athletes don’t know where to draw the line between what is considered doping and what is considered legal.

Having some basic knowledge of ergogenic aids may help save your career and your reputation.

So, what are these ergogenic foods and why should athletes pay attention to them?

In summary, ergogenic foods are whole natural foods that can either improve an individual’s physiological activity or remove subjective restraints that could limit the individual’s physical performance.

To have a better understanding of these foods, let’s work out some crucial definitions.

Ergogenic Aids Vs Ergogenic Foods

Ergogenic foods

When we talk about ergogenic aids, we are not talking about ergogenic foods.

Both terms are related and have been used interchangeably in some instances which has caused further confusion to users.

So, here is a simple way to understand these terms when you encounter them next time.

What are Ergogenic Aids

These can be defined as any nutritional, mechanical, pharmacological, physiological, and psychological substance or treatment that can directly improve an individual’s physical performance or remove subjective restraints that could interfere with their performance.

Ergogenic aid is thus a broad term that includes all forms of interventions and treatments taken to enhance an individual’s physical performance.

It is therefore clear that all ergogenic foods and supplements can be classified under ergogenic aids but not all ergogenic aids are ergogenic foods.

To put this into perspective, let’s look at some examples of ergogenic aids.

Ergogenic Aids Examples

As suggested by the definition, ergogenic aids can take five distinct forms that include:

  1. Nutritional ergogenic aids which is where ergogenic foods and nutritional supplements fall. These are products that are ingested into the body through the mouth and absorbed into the bloodstream through the normal digestion process for optimal physical performance. I will give specific examples in the subsequent segments later on here because it is our main focus here.
  2. Mechanical ergogenic aids that are typically equipment or sports gear that gives an athlete the extra advantage in terms of comfort and maneuverability. Examples here include carbon fiber shoes or special absorbent jerseys. Remember those Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% shoes that helped Kenyan marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge break the seemingly impossible marathon record of running under 2 hours? Yes, that is what mechanical ergogenic aids do.
  3. Pharmacological ergogenic aids. These performance enhancement drugs derived from natural and artificial compounds that are known to boost energy levels. In the sports world, there are some legal and illegal pharmacological ergogenic aids. You can find the full information on what is allowed and what is prohibited in the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) guideline here. Examples include Creatine monohydrate, amphetamines, anabolic steroids, DHEA, Diuretics, Ephedrine, and erythropoietin (EPO). Be extremely careful with these because even the legal ones can have serious side effects when abused.
  4. Physiological ergogenic aids. These are components meant to alter the normal functioning of an individual’s body system by either stretching, accelerating, or relaxing various parts of the body. Examples in this category include blood doping aids and human growth hormones (HGH).
  5. Psychological ergogenic aids are meant to give athletes a mental edge over the competitor. It involves a mental rehearsal where an athlete enhances their competing mentality with positive visualizations. These ergogenic aids help an individual to stay focused, master an activity, and endure stressful moments before, during, and after a competition. Examples here include; listening to music, meditation, hypnosis, and warm-ups.

Ergogenic Foods

Ergogenic foods

These, on the other hand, are simply whole foods taken by an individual to improve their physiological activity or remove subjective restraints that could limit their physical performance.

They are part of ergogenic aids that are naturally occurring in our day-to-day plant or animal-based food products.

These foods contain substances that have been scientifically proven to enhance physical performance in humans.

The three main target substances that qualify a food product as ergogenic are:

  • Caffeine
  • Inorganic Nitrates
  • Menthol

Caffeine is a legal substance that was mainly known as an endurance-inducing ergogenic substance.

It is widely consumed in hot beverages such as coffee, tea, and cocoa.

Other than endurance, caffeine has also been studied as an important ergogenic aid in sports that require strength and power.

It does this by increasing fat oxidation, reducing pain perception, and increasing secretion of adrenaline hormones during activity.

Inorganic Nitrates are naturally occurring substances found in meats, beetroots, and green leafy vegetables.

They are also considered ergogenic aids that can naturally increase endurance, strength, and power in athletes.

The nitrates are usually converted into nitric oxide which is beneficial to the body.

Current scientific studies have shown that consuming nitrates organically through food is safe and can significantly improve an athlete’s competitiveness.

Menthol is another natural aromatic plant extract found in certain plant species such as corn mint and peppermint.

Its fresh unique taste is known to elicit a cooling sensation to the body especially when an individual is active in high-temperature situations.

It works by stimulating cold receptors in the body that are responsible for thermal regulation during heat stress exercises.

This has been proven to significantly contribute to thermal comfort in athletes thus improving their overall performance.

Nutritional Supplements Definition

Ergogenic aids

Nutritional supplements or dietary supplements are food nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids that have been artificially extracted or produced in the lab and marketed in form of capsules, tablets, gelcaps, liquids, and powders.

They are not consumed in their natural form in foods and drinks.

As their name suggests, they are meant to supplement deficient nutrients in your diet.

According to the FDA, supplements are not permitted to be marketed as treatment alternatives for known drugs.

They should also not be taken as a replacement for complete meals.

Just to mention, some nutritional supplements can also fall under ergogenic aids if they are known to enhance physical performance.

What is Doping in Relation to Ergogenic Aids?

We cannot talk about ergonomic aids without defining the thin line between permitted aids and illegal or banned substances.

Doping is a common term in the sporting fraternity as a reference to the use of prohibited ergogenic aids as a means of gaining a competitive advantage over opponents.

An ergogenic substance is prohibited if it meets two of these three criteria by WADA.

  1. It enhances an athlete’s performance
  2. When it poses a health risk to the athlete
  3. It goes against the spirit of the sport

This is something that every athlete should be aware of since the consequences when caught are always dire both career-wise, psychological, and financial.

With the current proliferation of artificial ergogenic aids and relaxed regulation, it is easy for an athlete to get caught in the doping conundrum either knowingly or unintentionally.

To be on the safe side, I would recommend you check the WADA link I suggested here before.

Read Also: What is an Ergonomic Workspace in Food Production and Manufacturing?

Best Ergogenic Foods for Recreational and Elite Athletes

A simpler way to be on the safe side of the doping troubles is to stick to eating ergogenic foods.

These foods contain naturally-occurring performance enhancement substances that have been vetted and approved by regulatory authorities.

A habitual intake of these foods has shown significant improvements in individuals’ physical performance across the scientific food world.

I have emphasized the phrase ‘habitual intake’ because I am not promising you a magical transformation by recommending these foods.

You have to follow your nutritionist’s diet plan and do it consistently for positive results.

Based on the three substances I mentioned earlier as the determinants of ergogenic foods, below are some foods and food products you can include in your diet as legal performance enhancers.

Inorganic NitratesCaffeine Rich FoodsMenthol
Beetroot and beetroot juiceCoffee beveragepeppermint oil
Green leafy Vegetables
(spinach, kales, lettuce,
cabbage, fennel, parsley)
Cocoa beverageSpearmint
GarlicGreen TeaCorn mint
BroccoliYerba mateChocolate mint
Organ meatsEnergy drinksWater mint
Citrus fruitsChocolate milkMargarita mint
Nuts and super seedsDark chocolateApple Mint
water melon
Red wine

Final Word

There is a very thin line between ergogenic foods and ergogenic aids that may be prohibited for athletes.

Science is always evolving which means more research is going on in this area.

What I always advise in nutritional dieting is to keep things in moderation.

Most of these ergogenic aids can be dangerous if taken in large doses.

Moderate caffeine and moderate nitrate-rich foods could just be as healthy as any other organic food.

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