However, they can also be of benefit in strength and fitness training, allowing you to gain a competitive edge on the sports field as well as in the office or examination hall.
An Initial Warning
Obviously, you need to check and double-check the ingredients to make sure you’re not infringing any anti-doping regulations, especially if you take part in competitive sports at either a professional or amateur level. The consequences of even a minor infringement can be disastrous for your career.
The World Anti-Doping Agency publishes a list of prohibited substances on which you’ll find certain powerful nootropic stimulants such as Modafinil and Adrafinil. It’s best to steer clear of these — and of all the others on the list. Only buy from reliable resellers who are “up front” about the pitfalls as well as the benefits of using supplements.
Fortunately, there are other nootropics which are not banned and which don’t have the effect of enhancing the kind of short-term performance which lets you win a race instead of coming in second or third. These, milder nootropics help you to perform the long-term activities that lead eventually to success, namely: consistent training, eating and sleeping.
The Key Word
If there’s a key word in strength and fitness training it’s “consistency.” You need to train even when you may feel distracted or bored with lifting weights and running around a track. To be consistent — to allow your body to develop naturally — you have to develop the mental power to keep going when the going gets tough.
The great American football player Alex Karras once said: “Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles.”
Life was a struggle for Karras in the early years. As a sophomore he was overweight, threw a shoe at the coach, and quit the team — twice. Yet despite this shaky start he went on to become the top lineman in the country, missing just one game through injury in twelve NFL seasons.
How did Karras do it? He had phenomenal mental strength and used it to his best advantage. He was also careful to allow his body to recover in between matches by relaxing on his fishing boat and enjoying the countryside. What he didn’t have was today’s medical and pharmaceutical knowledge, but good food, restful sleep, and consistent training made up for it.
Cut Out Distractions
Although there have always been plenty of distractions, the general “noise-level” of distraction has never been greater than it is today. Achieving concentration, not only to study but to develop your strength and fitness, has never been harder.
The golfer Jack Nicklaus once said: “Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety.” If you can achieve concentration you can put your worries to one side and get on with your training. The result is a natural transference of released energy to your muscular strength and athletic ability. Arthur Ashe, the tennis player who won Wimbledon in 1975, said: “The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.” Concentration is the key.
So is there a nootropic which improves concentration while giving athletes the energy boost needed for consistent training? Yes, there is: it’s called Alpha-glycerophosphocholine, otherwise known as Alpha GPC.
Alpha GPC occurs naturally in the brain, but it can be boosted because it crosses the blood-brain barrier to give beneficial effects on mental and physical performance. In Europe it is used for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s how it works. In the brain there is a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which comes from its precursor: choline. This is a water soluble nutrient, essential for a whole range of bodily and mental functions, including muscle movement, energy level, metabolism, and brain development. Scientists are just beginning to understand the full extent of choline’s activity in the body — and most of it seems to be positive with few side effects if taken in moderation.
Some choline in the body comes from processing by the liver, but if you’ve had any liver problems in the past (as evidenced by jaundice, a common childhood condition) you may not be getting enough. For this reason, experts recommend taking choline as a supplement. Citicoline (CDP choline) or Alpha GPC choline, are both excellent sources and both are suitable for vegetarians. CDP choline closely resembles the choline found in red meat and eggs, while Alpha GPC resembles the chemical actually used at a cellular level.
Apart from its positive influence on memory and concentration, choline ensures that the messaging between the brain and the muscles in the body operates efficiently. Choline makes the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and this, in turn, enables you to exercise longer without tiring.
Other Nootropics for Strength and Fitness
There are literally hundreds — perhaps thousands — of so-called “Pre-Workout Nootropics” being sold under various proprietary names. They need to be treated with caution because their contents are not always clearly stated. The first rule of nootropics is: “Know what you’re putting in your body.” This is common sense, both from a medical and financial point of view.
Three possible candidates for sports support are Alcar, Creatine and Piracetam, the first two of which are widely used and well documented.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine, otherwise known as Alcar (which, appropriately enough, sounds like a racehorse!) is another compound that occurs naturally in the brain. Like Alpha GPC it can cross the blood-brain barrier and works on the metabolic process to free up energy by breaking down fats.
Alcar offers extensive benefits including reduced fatigue, reduced muscle damage and soreness, and better focus. The assistance it gives to transporting fatty acids across cells leads eventually to a certain degree of weight loss. Don’t worry, it’s also helping you to replace fat with muscle, as long as you continue to eat good food.
A well-known and widely used supplement for increasing sports performance, creatine is not strictly a nootropic because it affects the muscles rather than memory or concentration. It occurs naturally in the body where, on average, a young adult makes around a gram of it every day.
In the body, creatine turns into creatine phosphate which helps to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the nucleotide that transports chemical energy within cells, providing energy for muscle contractions. The synthesis of creatine happens in the kidneys and liver and gets transported to the muscles via the bloodstream. Most of it stays in the muscles, the rest going into other bodily tissues and the brain.
If you eat a normal diet your body can make enough creatine for everyday tasks, but for many people — especially those engaged in sport — creatine supplements can be vital. It’s estimated that around fifty percent of professional athletes take creatine in supplement form, an astonishing figure considering that the long-term effects are not yet known.
One reason for creatine’s increasing popularity may be the growth of vegetarianism. There are two grams of creatine monohydrate in red meat such as beef — and more than twice as much in red salmon. However, if you’ve given up meat and fish you may need to take creatine as a supplement. Vegetables are a very poor source of it.
Creatine tends to benefit sports in which there’s a need for quick bursts of energy, such as weight-lifing or sprint cycling. It’s not especially helping for distance running or any sport that requires endurance. Moreover, some people report no benefit from it whatsoever. In fact, taking too much can actually have an adverse effect on the kidneys, which dispose of a breakdown product of creatine called creatinine. Measuring the “blood creatinine level” is one of the tests of kidney function.
In contrast to creatine, piracetam is a true nootropic with properties that are said to improve focus and motivation. The argument for using it goes like this:
The brain sends messages to the muscles instructing them to contract or relax. People start their exercise regime with positive early results, but after a few sessions the benefits decrease. Why? Because they’re not building muscle but just improving their muscle memory. By taking piracetam — the theory goes — muscle memory gets an additional boost, enabling the prospective athlete to get further benefits from vigorous, muscle-building exercise.
Unfortunately, many people report bad experiences with piracetam, although others report positive effects. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not endorse it as a dietary supplement that can be sold legally for human consumption within the USA. Along with the other “Racetams” (a class of drugs that share a pyrrolidone nucleus) piracetam is not a naturally occurring substance. Although it’s the least potent racetam, healthy people use it at their own risk.
The Way Forward
If you’re considering nootropics supplements for the first time with the aim of building strength and improving your sports performance, the best advice will tell you to take a cautious approach. By all means take Alpha GPC — and you could try creatine if your sport involves short bursts of energy. But don’t expect miracles.
Consistent training, eating and sleeping can get you to the top of your game. You need willpower to do it, but the will gets stronger as your body and skills improve. As the tennis player Chris Evert has said: “Competitive toughness is an acquired skill and not an inherited gift.” Nootropics can help, but they’re no substitute for the mental and physical effort that comes from the individual alone.