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Training Center: Advice from BCSM on using supplements for cycling

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Q.Dear VeloNews Training Center,
I have a question about supplements. I’m a Category 4 racer in my local area and do fairly well, most of the time. But as I consider the move up to Cat. 3 this year, I am thinking about supplementation in my diet — things like Optygen or similar have been suggested. Are there supplements out there that are safe, legal, and effective? If so, can you run through a list of these for us readers to help us make sense out of a lot of advertising jargon about things that are supposed to make us go faster?
— Ricky

This is an excellent question; however, it’s a difficult one to address in 500 words. I am sure you are well aware that dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA and thus we as consumers are not always certain what is truly in supplements (e.g., there is often not a full listing of all the ingredients, including any that are on the banned or prohibited ingredients).  Also, the claims on some dietary supplements do not have the most reliable scientific research and/or resources.

Two good resources I tend to rely on are Consumer Labs, and Natural Standard Database. Unfortunately neither of these two sources had any information specifically on Optygen. Natural Standard Database did have some very good information on cordydeps and rhodiola, which are considered adaptogens. Adaptogens are sometimes referred to as rejuvenating herbs. They are thought to balance the endocrine hormones and the immune system and thus help maintain homeostasis.

From Natural Standard Database:

Commonly known as “dong chong xia cao” (summer-plant, winter-worm) in Chinese, cordyceps has been used as a tonic food in China and Tibet and has been used as a food supplement and tonic beverage among the rich because of its short supply due to over harvesting.  Cordyceps is used therapeutically for asthma, bronchitis, chemoprotection, exercise performance, hepatitis B, hepatic cirrhosis, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), as an immunosuppressive agent, and in chronic renal failure. The fungus became popular in 1993 when two female Chinese athletes, who admitted using cordyceps supplements, beat the world records in the track and field competition at the Stuttgart World Championships for the 1,500-, 3,000-, and 10,000-meter runs. The women were drug tested for any banned substances such as steroids and were negative. Their coach attributed the performance to the cordyceps.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) grows in cold regions and at high altitudes in Europe and Asia, where its roots have traditionally been used to increase resistance to physical stress.  While there are more than 200 species of rhodiola, Rhodiola rosea is considered preferable, because it contains rosavins. Supplements generally contain a minimum of 3% rosavins.  Rhodiola has been used to prevent fatigue and enhance physical and mental performance. Rhodiola is considered an adaptogen, which is an agent that works in the cells to normalize function and stimulate healing. Rhodiola may provide benefit in bladder cancer, lung disease, and exercise and mental performance, but more studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Cordydep is not listed on the U.S. Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, however, rhodiola is.  First Endurance, the maker of Optygen, states they are committed to using no ingredients listed under the banned substance list and manufactures its formulations to the highest GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards available.

I would recommend when assessing a supplement check if it:

  • Contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amounts.
  • Does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants.
  • Will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time
  • Has been made according to FDA current GMPs using sanitary and well-controlled procedures.

Then, does the supplement carry the any of the following seals of approval?

  • US Pharmacopoeia (USP)
  • Good Manufacture Product (GMP)
  • Consumer Labs

I am in agreement with Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN – American Dietetic Association) — proper nutrition is the first line of defense for all athletes. Dietary supplements can provide benefits but be mindful that that there are poor manufacturer practices, cross contamination and illegal drugs disguised as dietary supplements.

Ellen Coleman is well respected registered dietitian in the sports nutrition arena and she has a Pdf presentation online on popular sport supplements.

Bottom line, there are many variables that enable an athlete to go faster — it depends on genetics, nutrition, training, and equipment.

Other good web sites:


— Kathleen Farrell, RD

Boulder Center for Sports Medicine was founded by Andrew Pruitt, EdD, PA-C, in 1998. For the past 12 years BCSM has been providing athletes from around the world with the highest possible level of care. BCSM offers a wide range of services, including Orthopedic Clinics, Physical Therapy, Expert 3D Bike Fitting, Running Gait Analysis, Coaching & Training, Nutrition Services, Performance Testing, and more. For more information, visit www.bch.org/sportsmedicine, or call (303) 544-5700.

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