Michael Ranfone, a Yale strength and conditioning coordinator, recalled taking his “fair share” of dietary supplements in college. He also said he would never take any again, now recognizing that popular performance-enhancing supplements may pose significant health risks.
“I think it can be dangerous,” Ranfone said. “Everything you put in your body has its effect: the body is a living chemistry experiment, and if you take supplements you throw it off. That’s why it’s just frightening.”
While many Yale athletes said that supplement use in the Ivy League is not as prevalent as it is at larger Division I schools, they acknowledged that over-the-counter compounds such as creatine are widely employed to increase strength and improve workout efficiency. Athletes said these supplements are readily available and can be found in many different forms. Some claimed to take them every day.
Juan Wheat ’06, a varsity basketball player, regularly uses creatine, protein shakes and multivitamin compounds to bolster his strength and enhance his overall athletic skills. He said he has no plans to stop taking them so long as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) doesn’t ban the substances.
“The benefits outweigh the — well, there aren’t any costs,” Wheat said. “There’s nothing to stop me from taking it if it’s not banned.”
Wheat is not alone. Other athletes claimed that creatine and related compounds improve the body’s ability to rapidly recover from heavy lifting, thereby enabling workouts to last longer and be more productive. Though primarily useful for sports oriented towards muscle mass, some supplements are also credited with increasing foot speed and are consequently taken by athletes on various teams.
Football player Scott Moore ’08 said that although he stopped using creatine in high school, he was satisfied with the substance’s effects and did not regard it as particularly dangerous.
“Creatine is like a steroid: it gets you bigger quicker,” he said. “A lot of people do take creatine, probably not as many during the season because you can dehydrate, but other than that it’s not dangerous if you use it properly.”
Wheat said that he finds himself relying upon various nutritional supplements to endure his intense training regimen.
“It’s almost necessary if you’re working out three, four, five hours a day, burning off calories,” he said. “You can’t replace that with cafeteria food, so you need something to replenish yourself, and there’s stuff to help you with anything you can think of athletically: increase endurance, increase strength.”
But Ranfone said he worries that athletes are overly reliant on substances with only questionable benefits.
“Unfortunately, these supplements are used as a crutch by the young men and women who take them,” Ranfone said. “By definition you use a supplement to add to your diet, but the marketing campaign for these supplements makes them seem like a panacea … 95 percent of the supplements out there are worthless. They’re selling false hope, but kids believe it.”
Not every demographic, though, has bought into advertisers’ claims. Most students agreed that supplements are more prevalent among male than female athletes. Sterling Evans ’08, a member of the track and field team, said she did not notice any supplement use among the females on her team.
“As I think, nobody on the team takes anything,” she said. “Most athletes are smart enough to avoid them. It might be more of a guy thing.”
Basketball player Tory Mauseth ’05 claimed that most women don’t focus on building muscle mass at the expense of other conditioning skills.
“A lot of female athletes don’t want to get big when they lift but lift to be in shape,” she said.
But male athletes who use the supplements have concerns of their own. Several said they worried that in the sparsely regulated industry of performance-enhancing supplements, mislabeled substances actually containing illegal ingredients could cause them to unexpectedly fail their NCAA drug tests.
As a result, basketball player Matt Kyle ’08 said he continually checks to make sure that none of the ingredients in his supplements appear on the NCAA banned list.
“The banned list looks like a thesis,” he said. “You drink a Red Bull within 48 hours of the test and you could lose your eligibility. Anything you think might be banned you have to have documented; you have to keep everything legal.”
Jack Siedlecki, the head coach of the football team, said that he monitors athletes’ workouts and often tells his players to pay attention to the substances they take.
“Our players are very aware, and I remind them several times a year to never buy anything at a GNC or similar places because many times things are mislabeled and contain banned substances,” he said in an e-mail.
A growing community of medical professionals has become increasingly concerned about the medical risks of certain supplements. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra, a popular performance-enhancing supplement, after several high profile on-field deaths and an alarming spike in athletic-related fatalities at all levels over the last decade generated national media attention.
The NCAA website notes that creatine may have been responsible for a soccer player’s developing renal dysfunction and lists worrying side effects for many other popular supplements.
“I can guarantee that you won’t find a doctor who advocates supplements,” said Ranfone. “The medical profession is very apprehensive. People don’t know what they put in their bodies, and the FDA allows companies to put whatever they want in a bottle. The FDA has nothing to do with it until the supplements start killing people.”
An FDA official said that the organization assumes responsibility for product safety only after the substances have arrived on the market and are available for public consumption.
But some students who said they stayed away from supplements, and even some who worried about their health risks, expressed little concern that their prevalent use might upset competitive balance in the Ivy League.
Soccer player Susie Starr ’08 said that Ivy League athletes were not as focused on results as their counterparts at bigger Division I schools or in professional sports.
“At the highest level of sports [supplements] may make a difference, but here not so much,” she said.
Pedro Obregon ’07, a varsity baseball player, said he would not doubt claims of safety issues related to supplements but does not think that they upset fair play.
“Throwing off the competitive balance could be a side effect, but if it’s legal, it’s fair game,” he said.
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