Most people when hearing about an athlete taking a Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) will assume they have been doping/cheating. In fact a PED, or Ergogenic Aid (EA), is simply any substance taken to improve a form of activity, regardless of whether or not it is illegal, for a particular sport.
We are always getting headline news concerning doping and the testing for illegal substances in sport. In recent weeks we have seen various athletes from track and field to marathon running being banned and losing medals for failed blood tests. We still hear of athletes missing their three tests in a row, and we have athletes returning to competition after serving doping bans. It’s a very contentious subject that will run on. One thing is for sure though, there will always be athletes out there who will take illegal PEDs, and there are people happy to provide them.
As a full-time long distance triathlete I only ever had my blood tested on one occasion, the day before an event. Apart from this particular event I have never heard of any of my peers being tested elsewhere. In fact I’d heard of more people in my field of sport (usually via sports forums or friends-of-friends) admitting to having taken an illegal PED, than people actually going through a testing process.
Of the main categories of banned substances, the most commonly used by athletes looking for a positive effect on performance are
- Narcotic Analgesics
- Peptides and Hormones
There are of course many stimulants on the market, and in some cases it’s very difficult to know what is currently on the banned list. Consider that even a simple stimulant like caffeine was a banned PED until 2004 in quantities of 600-800mg (about 6-8 cups of coffee). Caffeine in smaller doses still provides a performance enhancing effect and will double the effect of painkillers if taken together.
Narcotic analgesics are taken to mask pain caused by injury or fatigue.
The common peptide hormones we hear about in athletics are Erythropoietin (EPO), Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG) and Luteinising Hormone (LH). EPO increases the ability of an athlete to produce and send more oxygenated blood to muscles, whereas HCG and LH increase lean muscle mass. We have heard about doping of these substances a number of times in the past, in particular by track and field athletes.
I was personally always very careful when it came to supplementation and PEDs. In order to get the most from my training and reduce the risk of falling ill I would concentrate a lot more on my micro-nutrient intake, particularly increasing the intake of anti-oxidants. Like many of my peers I heard about the GB cycling team taking 1000mg Vit C daily. Having done some research I also took a relatively high dosage of Vit E, and a lower supplementation of Vit A and Selenium. My macro-nutrient (Carb/Protein/Fat) intake was consistent, with high protein breakfasts on heavy training weeks. I also took a daily sports supplement from a commercial company (Eladon) that also helped boost the immune system and enable me to train hard with less risk of illness.
Lactic acid buffers are also very popular now in sports, particularly so in endurance athletics. These substances are potentially just waiting to be added to the banned list, as when taken correctly have been shown to reduce muscle pain (the burn!) and trauma in training and competition. Again, I have used these in the past. Eladon and XEndurance being two very popular companies right now.
On race mornings I have started introducing concentrated Beet juice, following a positive VO2 max reaction to a loading program I took part in for Kingston University on nitrates (200-300mg) and flavonoids – see previous Blog. During competition I would just carry a few painkillers (paracetamol) and caffeine pills to not only get a lift later in the race, but also to help mask any fatigue-associated pains. If you consider sports drinks, bars and gels to be PEDs (some do) then I have had my fair share of those too!
Most athletes, particularly the ‘developing’ or full-time athlete will have probably taken a PED in some form or other. Most of the time these substances will be perfectly legal, and it is up to the individual to do their homework beforehand. The chances of getting caught are very slim, unless of course you are a professional winning cash prizes. And unfortunately this is why a number of the lower tier professionals in endurance competition are getting away with it. Personally I would like to see more pre-race blood testing and post-race spot checks but I appreciate this is never practical for the larger races and can be quite an expensive and laborious process.
There is also a big ethical point to all of this. I have never taken any illegal drugs, or been approached to take any. But I am aware (through research and experience) of various legal supplements that can provide a boost to aspects of training and racing. This would provide an advantage without having to train any harder or longer. But those taking the substances could argue that most of these supplements are simply providing substances that can also be acquired through diet manipulation.