The use of performance-enhancing drugs has been a serious issue in competitive sports for some time. Notably, the American cyclist Lance Armstrong was found to have “doped” during the years he won seven consecutive Tour de France races and, as a consequence, was stripped of those titles. With the Olympics underway, sports doping is something we are sure to hear even more about. The purpose of this column, which was published in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week, is to explain what is meant by sports doping and describe how a few commonly used substances work to improve performance.
The use of performance-enhancing substances, also known as sports doping, is nothing new. Sports organizations around the world have launched a concerted effort to catch and penalize athletes, coaches, trainers, and physicians who use or promote the use of banned drugs and techniques to unfairly improve performance. Athletes are tested randomly, and those who are found guilty can be disqualified from events, have previously awarded wins and medals revoked, and even be banned from competing in future events.
The specific substance an athlete might use depends largely on the sport. Endurance athletes may use substances that improve oxygen delivery to the muscle, allowing them to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time. Oxygen is transported through the blood by red blood cells (RBCs). Increasing the number of RBCs is called “blood doping.” Traditionally, this required an athlete to remove a unit of blood and then reinfuse that blood later, closer to the event. The body replaced the donated RBCs, so the reinfused blood carried extra oxygen to the muscle and improved performance.
There is a newer way for athletes to get the same result without having to donate, store, and reinfuse blood. After a blood donation, the blood oxygen level is lower than normal, causing the release of a hormone called EPO, short for erythropoietin. EPO causes an increase in RBC production. EPO can also be produced as a prescription drug that has the same effect. In fact, most cases of blood doping involve EPO administration rather than RBC reinfusion.
Athletes in events that depend primarily on strength and power need to develop a high level of muscle mass. Anabolic steroids like testosterone have been used for decades to build muscle. This works since testosterone promotes protein synthesis, the key step in muscle hypertrophy. Growth hormone (GH) is another natural hormone that, as its name suggests, promotes muscle growth. Both testosterone and GH can be injected to enhance the response to resistance training. Hormone precursors such as androstenedione or “andro,” which was famously used by the baseball player Mark McGuire when he broke the single season home run record, can also be used to achieve the same effect.
Knowing that the penalties for sports doping can be severe, why would an athlete take the risk and use performance-enhancing drugs? Athletes train year-round, usually for decades, to compete on an elite level. After this much training, additional gains in strength, speed, and endurance can be difficult to achieve. Considering that in most elite-level competition the difference between winning and losing can be as small as a few seconds or inches, depending on the event. Some athletes feel that the only way to gain an edge over the competition is to use performance-enhancing drugs.
Athletic competitions like the Olympics are a celebration of human strength, power, endurance, and skill. Hopefully, cases of sports doping in the news won’t overshadow the incredible accomplishments of so many athletes who succeed because of their talent, training, and dedication. We should be inspired, not made suspicious, by their performance.
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