There are scores and scores of sports nutrition companies marketing “metabolism boosters” to help athletes reduce body fat. The products range from simple herbs such as Ginseng, to chemical derivatives of thyroid and adrenal hormones. The theory is constant: by increasing the body’s natural metabolism, it will burn more calories and thus, more fat. On paper this looks good. The basic science behind metabolism and body composition makes for slick advertising, and plenty of products sold. The trouble is there is little education regarding how to use metabolites effectively, and when to use them in the first place.
For athletes—and in fact, for the general public as well—body composition is a much more accurate measure of fitness than body weight. The leaner an athlete, the greater the force he or she will be able to generate per pound. With a leaner structure, the longer it will take to fatigue the system. All crucial issues to peak performance. It seems to make sense that active metabolism supplements would be of benefit. But this is rarely the case.
First, the body’s metabolism has a set point. It’s quite similar to a thermostat—a good metaphor since one of the main jobs of metabolism is to produce body heat. When you crank up metabolism by dietary means, the body will turn off it’s own production in order to restore the set point. This means that any long term use of herbs and metabolites serves only to deregulate your system. That’s going the wrong direction from teaching the body to perform at a higher level.
Second, the increased caloric utilization that goes with higher metabolism is not all good from an athletic standpoint. Burning more calories and more fat causes the body to store less glycogen, the main energy source for muscles. If athletes can’t store maximum amounts of glycogen between workouts, their subsequent training and performance will likewise be sub-maximal.
So for athletes, the best bet is to steer clear of active metabolism altering supplements. The body’s set point can be slowly altered, but only through training over time rather than mucking with it ergogenically. That way it will be a lasting, natural change, and it won’t interfere with glycogen replenishment. If a body composition change is required in getting to peak performance, herbs and amino acids can be used, but never continuously for more than a week or two to avoid systemic metabolism deregulation, and only the empirically supported supplements such as L-Carnitine or standardized G115 Ginseng.
JOHN F. ELIOT, PH.D., is an award winning professor of management, psychology, and human performance. He holds faculty appointments at Rice University and the SMU Cox School of Business Leadership Center. He is a co-founder of the Milestone Group, a consulting firm providing training to business executives, professional athletes, physicians, and corporations. Dr. Eliot’s clients have included: SAP, XEROX, Disney, Adidas, the United States Olympic Committee, the National Champion Rice Owl's baseball team, and the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Eliot’s cutting edge work has been featured on ABC, MSNBC, CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, NPR, and highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Entrepreneur, LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times. Dr. Eliot serves on numerous advisory boards including the National Center for Human Performance and the Center for Performing Arts Medicine. His latest book is Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. For more information, visit Dr. Eliot’s site at http://www.overachievement.com