High school athletes told to avoid supplementsThe choice about what to put in their bodies used to be much simpler for high school athletes wanting to be the best they can be: Gatorade or water?
By: By Eric Lindquist, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis., Superior Telegram
The choice about what to put in their bodies used to be much simpler for high school athletes wanting to be the best they can be: Gatorade or water?
But today, with supplement makers bombarding young athletes with advertising for products to be consumed before, during and after exercise and promising to boost energy, build muscle, accelerate recovery and generally improve performance, the options are almost limitless.
Ten Menomonie High School football players learned the hard way last month about the risks of making the wrong choice when they were suspended for three games this fall after school officials learned they consumed a dietary supplement that contained a substance banned under Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association rules.
School officials indicated the students didn't realize the product Cellucor C4 Extreme contained synephrine, one of nearly 100 substances on the WIAA's list of banned drugs and performance enhancers. The substance also is banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The students reported buying the product from the GNC store at Oakwood Mall in Eau Claire and being told by an employee that it was "legal."
So what's an ambitious modern athlete -- perhaps fueled by dreams of someday earning a college scholarship or even playing professionally -- supposed to do when faced with so much temptation when so many of the hyped supplements are off limits?
Water, hard work
The unanimous answer from WIAA officials, Chippewa Valley coaches and trainers is simple: Go old school.
Yep, that means sticking with water, the occasional sports drink and hard work.
"Whenever kids ask me about supplements, I tell them all you need to do is train hard, eat a balanced diet and get plenty of sleep," veteran Chippewa Falls High School football coach Chuck Raykovich said.
And when athletes inquire about the purported muscle-building power of protein supplements, Raykovich advises them to play it safe and simply consume foods high in protein.
Menomonie football coach Joe LaBuda, who didn't return calls and emails seeking comment for this story, emphasized the same approach in an email to team parents immediately after the suspensions were announced.
WIAA deputy director Wade Labecki summed up his attitude this way: "The best way to get ahead is to work hard and do it the right way. If it seems easy, there might be something wrong with it."
Menomonie school officials learned the football players were taking C4 Extreme after someone tipped them off that the athletes announced their use of the product on the social media platform Twitter.
When confronted, the students admitted to taking the supplement and accepted their punishment under the school's athletic code. The players will miss games against Merrill, Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire Memorial.
Though the growing popularity of supplements increases the likelihood of more athletes intentionally or inadvertently using banned products and being subject to disciplinary actions like those handed out in Menomonie, Raykovich said he has never heard of a similar case in his 38 years of coaching. The WIAA doesn't track such suspensions, which are dealt with at the school level.
The Menomonie case, which generated national media attention, was noteworthy enough that the WIAA sent out a memo to all member schools explaining the circumstances, reminding them of the governing body's policies regarding performance-enhancing substances and alerting them that the heavily promoted C4 Extreme contains banned elements.
"Please spread the word among your coaching staff, parents and athletes in order that your student athletes and your school might be spared the distress recently experienced by another member school," the memo stated.
The warning on the eve of the opening of high school football practices statewide appears timely, considering the WIAA heard reports that C4 Extreme may have been given as free samples to prep athletes in some parts of the state. Labecki was told by a coach at the July 14 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association high school all-star games that he overheard players expressing shock about the Menomonie suspensions related to a product they had used.
As he was helping recently with Memorial's summer strength and conditioning program, Old Abes baseball coach Dave Sparger acknowledged that most high school athletes don't know all the WIAA's banned substances and certainly aren't likely to be carrying the list with them when they go shopping at the mall.
"It's all about supplements today. It's crazy," Sparger said. "But it's easy for a kid 16 or 17 years old to be influenced by all of those promises that taking this stuff will make them bigger, stronger, faster ...
"But I tell them, 'It's a waste of money. You don't need it.' "
Twin Memorial freshmen Shane and Zach Adams, who both plan to go out for football and wrestling, said they don't believe in taking energy drinks or supplements to enhance their performance.
"I don't think it really helps," Shane said.
While Zach said he felt bad for the Menomonie players who got suspended, the brothers agreed the case offers an important lesson.
"You've got to be careful," Shane said. "If you get suspended, you're letting down your team and your coaches."
The brothers, who reported missing only one day of the strength and conditioning class all summer, apparently believe in improving their performance the old-fashioned way, which is exactly what coaches like to hear.
Still, coaches and trainers understand how athletes might be curious about the potential benefits of supplements they see promoted in stores, on TV, in fitness magazines and on the Internet.
Cellucor's website, for instance, promotes C4 Extreme as "powdered energy" and a pre-workout supplement "possessing the power to ignite your mind, muscles and workout regimen." User reviews on the GNC website, where the product recently was listed at $39.99 for 60 servings, include claims of feeling instant energy, doubling the weight lifted and getting that "amazing pump you look for."
Kurt Mattison, owner of Momentum Sports Fitness in Eau Claire, said claims from the unregulated supplement industry often are exaggerated or untrue.
"This shortcut-quick fix industry drives me crazy," Mattison said, adding, "I've worked with teens for 37 years, and there is no substitute for a great work ethic and a healthy lifestyle."
Instead of selling supplements, he said, Momentum offers nutrition guidelines to help athletes calculate how much of certain nutrients they need to consume based on their body weight and training level, and then advises clients what food sources best supply those nutrients.
Mattison said he also fears that teens who use "gateway supplements" might be susceptible to wanting the next best thing, potentially leading to experimentation with more dangerous products.
A representative of Pittsburgh-based GNC said recently the company is still looking into whether the synephrine was sold to minors in the Menomonie case.
"GNC's in-store cash registers are formatted to prompt store personnel to specifically ask for identification from customers who may be under 18 who want to purchase products that have age-based labeling," the representative wrote in an email after news of the suspensions broke. "We note that synephrine, in legal and safe levels, was clearly identified on the label of this product and that it is an athlete's responsibility to conform to the rules and regulations of his or her league."
Of course, that's easier said than done when the WIAA's list of banned substances is so long and an additional list of discouraged substances includes such familiar items as energy drinks, caffeine-enhanced products, herbal caffeine, ginseng and protein powders.
C4 Extreme also contains creatine nitrate, and creatine is the first item on the WIAA's list of discouraged substances, as some users have reported unwanted side effects. A 2002 UW-Madison study of more than 4,000 state high school athletes found that one in six used creatine, with the number climbing to 25 percent among males. The authors concluded that medical professionals need to educate athletes, coaches and parents about the risks of creatine as a performance-enhancing supplement.
Memorial athletic director Trevor Kohlhepp said he used the Menomonie case as an educational opportunity by ensuring the school's coaches were aware of the situation and encouraging them all to review the WIAA's policies on performance-enhancing substances.
Likewise, Raykovich said he tried to address the issue by having the Chi-Hi athletic director pass out a list of banned substances and talk about the potential dangers of supplements at one of the football contact days this summer.
But no matter how effective schools are at presenting supplement information to athletes, Labecki said some people still think all kids have to do to stay eligible is avoid the most stigmatized substances: steroids, alcohol and illegal drugs.
"Some people aren't connecting the dots with that powdery substance you mix with water that makes you feel like you can lift the world," Labecki said. "These days you really have to do your research, and we all know how much people like to do homework."
While some critics complain the WIAA and NCAA go overboard in disallowing legal performance-enhancing products, Labecki said the goal is to protect the health of student athletes.
Synephrine, for example, can raise heart rate and blood pressure, cause kidney problems and create withdrawal effects such as depression and anxiety when people stop using it, he said, noting that kids who take it could face dire consequences, especially if they succumb to the temptation of exceeding the recommended doses.
"If you take more than the recommended amount of synephrine and it's hot outside and you're exerting yourself a lot, you could die," Labecki warned.
Raykovich supports the WIAA's tough stance.
"We try to buy the best safety equipment for our athletes, so why would not give them the best advice we can about what they can safely put in their bodies?" he said. "There are a whole lot more choices out there for kids today, and they've got to know that some of those choices, even though they may be legal, may not be good for you."
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or email@example.com.
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