Young athletes often ask themselves “is it safe to use workout supplements”? Parents, teachers, and school coaches also ask the same question. We’re going to answer this question exhaustively by laying out the facts. We shall explore the pros and cons of using supplements. After reading this, any young athlete should be in a position to use supplements safely.
However, there’s one thing that we need to clarify upfront. The issue of workout supplements is often muddied by phrasing. In most cases, the supplements are described as “performance enhancing supplements”. This gives them a negative tinge because people mistakenly think that they’re one step closer to “performance enhancing drugs”. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Although supplements can enhance athletic performance, that is not their primary goal. Supplements are designed to help athletes to train harder, train for longer hours, and recover faster from sports injuries. This can ultimately lead to performance enhancements. However, the improvement will come down to the kind of training you do. If you spend long hours at the wrong kind of training, then your performance will not improve. In a nutshell, supplements aren’t some kind of magic bullet for enhancing performance.
Who is a “Young” Athlete?
There is no standard definition of “young athlete”. In most cases, the word “young” is used to describe someone who hasn’t yet reached full physical maturity. Unfortunately, there is no fixed age for this. People mature anywhere from 16 to 24 years old (depending on how they get into puberty).
For the sake of this article, we shall consider a young athlete as someone below 18. In most cases, the biggest about supplements worry is for athletes between 13 and 15 years. This is because 13 to 15 is often a period of rapid physical development. This is also the time when most young people begin working out and experimenting with supplements.
The big worry is that supplements will interfere with their body’s natural growth and development process. This, of course, is a legitimate worry. We shall examine the facts and see whether this worry is legitimate or not. For now, let’s examine the pros of using supplements.
Pros of Supplements for Young Athletes
The ultimate benefit of supplements for a young athlete is that it can enhance your performance. They do this due to certain advantages which they can offer. The four most obvious advantages include increasing your pre-workout energy, increasing strength, increasing endurance, and fast-tracking your recovery. Let’s examine each of these in detail.
1. Boosting Pre-workout Energy
To succeed as an athlete, you need to train hard. This requires following a consistent training regime. But this is easier said than done. On some days, you wake up feeling lazy, lethargic, weak or demotivated. On such days, you need something to energize and fire you up for the workout. This is where supplements come in handy.
Most supplements contain energy boosters like caffeine and energy-enhancing herbs. These can rev up your energy levels and set you up for your workouts. In the end, you end up training consistently – rather than with the fluctuations of your energy levels. This is why most pro athletes normally take pre-workout supplements rich in caffeine. It helps them to train consistently for maximum impact.
2. Increasing Workout Endurance
To get the most out of your training programs, you need to push for as long as possible. This is especially the case if your sport requires endurance (e.g. cycling, long-distance running, tennis, and soccer). The only problem is that sometimes your body gives in too easily. After working out for a while, you begin to feel muscle fatigue, weakness, and body soreness. To work out for longer, you need a boost to your endurance. Supplements can help with this.
There are workout supplements which are designed to increase workout endurance. These usually contain nutrients like caffeine and beta-alanine. Caffeine boosts your energy levels. Beta-alanine reduces muscle fatigue by reducing the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. The end result is that you can work out for longer and experience the resultant benefits.
3. Increasing Strength During Workouts
To maximize your athletic performance, you need to be as strong as possible. The way to maximize your strength is to workout harder. For instance, if you’re lifting weights – you need to take on heavier weights. Supplements can help with these.
There are supplements which can help to increase your strength and power during workouts. An example is the supplements which contain creatine. This compound pumps energy into your muscles in short-bursts which enable them to contract with maximum impact. The end result is that you enjoy strength boosts which make you work harder at weights or sprints.
4. Fast-tracking Recovery
Injuries are part of an athlete’s life. It is almost inevitable that you will get injured during training or games. The most common sports injuries are sprains, body soreness, and muscle tears. To be a successful athlete, you need to recover as fast as possible. This will ensure that you quickly resume training and prepare for games.
Workout supplements can help you to fast-track recovery. A common ingredient in supplements which helps with faster recovery is citrulline. This boosts blood flow to your muscles, providing a supply of oxygen and nutrients required for muscle repair. The end result is that you can get back to the gym or playing field much faster.
Cons of Supplements for Young Athletes
Despite their numerous benefits, supplements have potential downsides for young athletes. Generally speaking, the downsides arise from improperly using supplements. As such, if you’re to use workout supplements safely, you need to understand these downsides. Here are four of them.
1. Risk of Overdosing
The biggest problem with supplements is that overdosing can easily occur. Supplements normally contain nutrients which you acquire from food. Some also contain compounds (e.g. amino acids) which are produced naturally in the body. The only challenge is that there are maximum levels of the nutrients or compounds which are required in the body. Excessive levels can be quite dangerous.
Take one common ingredient in nutritional supplements – caffeine. Moderate levels can spike up energy levels and get you energized for your workout. Excessive levels in the body can lead to migraines, stomach upsets, sleeping problems, and mood swings. Prolonged exposure to excess caffeine can lead to high blood pressure. Almost every ingredient found in supplements has similar downsides.
Why is it easy for young people to overdose on supplements? For two reasons (1) they may want to see results happening faster, and (2) because of the natural curiosity of young people – they love to experiment and push limits. They can overdose in an attempt to overdose and end up with health problems.
2. Substituting Supplements For Food
There are some young athletes who substitute supplements for real food. This is because they know that supplements contain more nutrients than real food. As such, they think that supplements can give them all the nutrients they need.
For instance, Arginine is a common supplement used by athletes. It is believed to help with muscle-building, increasing strength, and fast-tracking recovery from workout sores, fatigue, and injuries. Arginine is also commonly found in meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, dairy products, and fish. Some people think that once they take arginine supplements, it is fine to skip on some of those foods – especially the ones they do not like.
The problem with substituting nutrition with supplements is that you can end up missing on vital nutrients. This is because food items don’t normally contain a single nutrient. And supplements don’t normally contain all the nutrients found in a given food. Therefore, substituting food with supplements almost guarantees that the body will be starved of vital nutrients, and thus susceptible to injuries and diseases.
3. Steroids and Growth Hormones
The greatest danger from supplements in young athletes arises from steroids and growth hormones. Athletes usually use them in an attempt to bulk up and improve their performance. The challenge with steroids and Human Growth Hormones (HGH) is that using them carries lots of risks. If someone is still developing physically, HGH and steroids can mess up the natural growth process. This can lead to arrested growth development, weak bones, increased the risk of diabetes, and even lead to the development of cancers.
4. Substandard Supplements
The biggest challenge with supplements is that there are lots of substandard products out there. This is a side-effect of the Food And Drugs Administration (FDA) laxity on supplements. Manufacturers aren’t required to get FDA approval to sell dietary supplements. Also, harmful products can only be removed when someone suffers an adverse effect or dies. As a result, there are lots of substandard supplements on the market.
Due to a combination of naivety and sleek advertising, young athletes can easily purchase substandard supplements. When they use these supplements, the side-effects can be quite dire. Most of the much-touted side-effects of supplements i.e. growth disruptions, compromised immunity, addiction, and so on come from substandard products.
A Final Word
Ultimately, should a young athlete take supplements? The answer is YES. Supplements, when used properly can help you to train better, harder, for a longer time, and recover faster from injuries. In the end, this can improve your athletic performance and set you up to achieve your athletic goals and dreams.
However, it is important to be keenly aware of the possible downsides. For starters, be aware that there are lots of fake products on the market. Make sure you do your research before purchasing any supplements. Secondly, be sure to follow the dosage recommendations that come with the supplement. Each genuine supplement comes with clear guidelines on how to use it safely.
Thirdly, (and this is extremely important) don’t substitute supplements for actual food. There is a reason why they’re called “supplements”. They supposed to add to your nutritional program. Make sure you find a good nutritional program and stick to it. This is what every successful athlete does.
Finally, consult a doctor before you use any steroids or human growth hormones. The NCAA advises this. Only a medic can offer you proper guidance on how to safely use steroids and HGH. Aside from a medical recommendation, stay away from them. Good Luck!
 National Institutes of Health (2017, October 4) Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance. Available At https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-Consumer/
 WebMD (2017, January 17) Human Growth Hormone (HGH) Available At: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/human-growth-hormone-hgh#1
 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Understanding Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet. Available At http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Understanding%20Dietary%20Supplements%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf