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Q&A: Sorting Out Health Claims

There are so many health or performance claims attached to various foods: bee pollen, açai berries, Chinese herbs like ginseng and guarana…could you name a few foods or supplements that you think have real benefits for endurance athletes?


Seductive claims abound that promise superior athletic performance if you take any one of many supplements on the market. The reality is that being well fueled, well trained, and adequately hydrated and rested are still the best strategies for performing your best.

Caffeine is one substance that has been shown to provide an advantage for some athletes, but even this has some limitations. Those accustomed to caffeine may benefit the least, and the amount that caffeine helps athletes to focus can vary widely. With those less accustomed to its effects, jitters can ensue. Watch out if you are susceptible to “runner’s trots” (diarrhea)—caffeine can be a trigger for bathroom emergencies. Also, too much caffeine can cause increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure.

Some foods like chia seeds contain many beneficial nutrients that are great for your health. Claims for improved athletic performance, however, are a stretch. The fact of the matter is that they won’t make you faster or improve your endurance.

Bee pollen, sometimes touted for improved athletic performance, has actually been disproven in clinical studies to cause any such thing. Additionally, it can cause severe reactions (including shortness of breath) in those allergic to pollen.

Although ginseng may lessen muscle damage from exercise, it does not translate to improved athletic performance. 

A focus on nutrient timing, a smart hydration strategy, and a wise training plan that includes adequate rest and quality food selection is still the best recipe for endurance performance.


Heidi Skolnik

Heidi Skolnik is a sports nutritionist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. She worked with the New York Giants Football team for 18 years and has consulted to professional teams (NFL, MLB, NBA, and MLS) for 25 years, as well as to Olympic, collegiate, high school, and recreational athletes. Heidi is a contributing advisor to Men’s Health magazine and is co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance: The right food, the right time, the right results (Human Kinetics, 2010).

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