An ergogenic product is any substance or mechanical device that is used with the intention of improving athletic performance. In particular, ergogenic products include anything employed to increase the body's ability to produce energy or to speed the recovery of its systems from physical activity. An ergogenic aid is one designed to create a competitive advantage for an athlete.
The term ergogenic casts a very broad net. All dietary supplements consumed by athletes, including those manufactured from protein, amino acid, and vitamin complexes, are ergogenic. Creatine, anabolic prohormones (sometimes referred to as precursors given that these substances are closely related in their chemical structure to the anabolic hormone testosterone), and anabolic steroids are also ergogenic compounds. An estimated 50% of the general population of North America and over 75% of all athletes take some form of ergogenic product; the closer the level of performance of an athlete to elite status, the more likely that the individual engages in the consumption of ergogenic products.
The primary consideration regarding the usage of any ergogenic product is its benefit when weighed against the likely risks. For relatively simple mechanical ergogenic devices such as a heart monitor, the risk of usage is virtually zero, while the benefit from the biofeedback data generated by the machine is often considerable. The more challenging assessment of the value of ergogenic products is with respect to those that are consumed into the body. Creatine, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and caffeine are each common ergogenic substances where the risk/benefit analysis is a crucial consideration for an athlete.
Creatine is an important component in the body's production of energy in short-term high intensity exercise, such as a 100-m sprint or weightlifting. The body synthesizes its store of creatine from amino acids ingested in dietary proteins. There is now considerable scientific research that creatine supplements may create a slight advantage for an athlete in both short-term energy as well as the ability of the athlete to recover from exercise; conversely, creatine supplements will likely be of little or no benefit to endurance athletes, as the aerobic energy system does not utilize creatine in this fashion. Consuming creatine for any purpose other than its narrow ergogenic parameters provides no benefit to an athlete.
DHEA is an anabolic steroid precursor, and its ingestion may precipitate the greater production of testosterone within the body. DHEA is one of the many ergogenic substances banned in sports competition, and by the World Anti-Doping Agency. These steroid precursors, like anabolic steroids, have a demonstrated ability to improve muscle mass, but at a significant physical risk to the athlete. They represent the best example of ergogenic benefit being outweighed by both athlete health and the desire for a level playing field among competitors.
Caffeine is likely the most commonly consumed ergogenic substance in the world. It is a proven stimulant to the central nervous system and plays a role in the manner in which the body's fat stores are metabolized in endurance activities. Excessive caffeine consumption negates any ergogenic effect, as the user will experience irritability, restlessness in movement, and increased diuresis (urine production and fluid loss).