Ergogenic Aids: Which Ones Actually Work?

Most athletes use some kind of ergogenic aid to improve their performance. Are you using aids that really work or falling for a gimmick? A new review helps answer that question.

We are all looking for an edge in competition, and anything external that we can take to improve performance is called an “ergogenic aid.” Although we normally think of things you ingest, an ergogenic aid can be anything really, including clothing and other gear that claims to enhance performance. So besides conditioning, skill, and psychological preparation, ergogenic aids cover a major aspect of athleticism and shouldn’t be ignored.

The problem, however, is that many ergogenic aids, especially the ones you consume, typically come to us through dubious hearsay. The discussion starts with something like, “Try eating (insert ergogenic aid here) bro, it’ll make your next workout crazy.” Yeah right. I’ll prepare some oysters for my girlfriend tonight too. Instead of all that noise, we want to know what has actually been shown by science to improve performance, and a recent review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning has done just that.

In the review, researchers looked specifically at ergogenic aids for running. But let’s be clear: even if you don’t run, the mechanisms for exhaustion and performance for running are the same as those for any athletic event of similar duration and intensity, so I’d wager the results are applicable to anyone. Additionally, for most Breaking Muscle readers, running is probably an adjunct to athletic preparation anyway, even if it’s not a direct part of competition.

Now, with that aside, let’s get to the results. First up are ergogenic aids for middle-distance runs. In running, middle distance is about 400m to 5K. Just under 1,000 feet to just over 3 miles is a big gap, so I’ll break the results up into two categories: less than 3K, and then 3K to 5K.

The aids proven effective for 400m to 3K are sodium bicarbonate and caffeine. That’s right, baking soda and coffee make you faster. In fact, baking soda gives an average boost of 3.6 seconds in a 1,500m. That’s a major advantage. For 3K to 5K, the most effective aids were caffeine and sodium citrate. Sodium citrate is often a flavoring agent and preservative in foods, such as club soda. In fact, some club sodas have both sodium bicarbonate and sodium citrate. The ergogenic effects of sodium citrate are less studied, but it probably works similarly to baking soda. To give you an idea of the benefit, caffeine had an average boost of 10 seconds in a 5K. That could mean the difference between first place and also-ran.

For longer events, in particular events lasting over an hour, carbohydrates were the only noted ergogenic aid, although results are mixed for shorter events. Interestingly, new studies have indicated that having carbs in your mouth without even ingesting them might give you a boost, although more research is needed.

So we know what products work, but how do we use them? For baking soda, take up to .3 grams per kilo of body weight two hours before exercise. Take the baking soda with water and a high carbohydrate meal, but test it first as it can lead to some gastric upset. For caffeine, consume 3 mg per kilo of bodyweight one hour before your workout. Sodium citrate would be .5 grams per kilo of bodyweight, 1.5 to 2 hours before exercise. Keep in mind you may gain weight from water retention. For carbs, the improvement comes if you consume them while you run, starting at 30 grams per hour and increasing as the race gets longer.


1. Matthew Schubert, et. al., “A Systematic Review of the Efficacy of Ergogenic Aids for Improving Running Performance,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(6), 2013.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.