You’ve Probably Used Performance Enhancers

By Leah – September 21, 2011

Ever had a cup of water or Gatorade at a race? Do you start your morning run with a mug of wake-up coffee? Have you required a massive steroid shot during allergy season, just to go outside and breathe here in Austin, much less run?

Welcome to the world of doping. Doping (using performance-enhancing substances) is a wide-reaching problem, encompassing many drugs and other substances. Track and field’s governing body, the United States Association of Track and Field (USATF), states: “There is no complete list of prohibited substances. New names and new products are available daily and foreign drugs may not appear in U.S. drug reference books. The list of prohibited substances is subject to change without notice. In addition, drugs not listed or different formulations of the same brand name may not be allowed. For any of these reasons, a ‘complete’ or ‘safe’ list is not available for distribution.” While USATF provides a list of examples online, the burden is on the athlete to determine what is and is not an illegal substance. Ultimately, the athlete is responsible for what goes into her body.

Banned substances change with the times

In the 1890s, alcohol was thought to decrease fatigue and it was acceptable for runners to take a nip—at the 1924 Paris Olympics, runners could pick up a cup of wine at fluid replacement stations. In 1970, Gatorade was considered performance enhancing as marathon rules forbade runners to have fluids before they had run 10 kilometers; fluids were believed to be equivalent to performance-enhancing drugs. Amphetamines, dispensed to soldiers by the U.S. Army during World War II to combat fatigue, became popular among cyclists in the 1950s and 1960s; caffeine landed on the banned substance list in the 1980s.

Today, alcohol is on the list of banned substances and amphetamines were banned in 1968 following several cyclists’ deaths during competition. It is standard now to have sports drinks such as Gatorade with electrolyte replacement at almost every road race. Caffeine was removed from the list in 2004.

These changes can be confusing. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the current world-wide agency devoted to doping control in sports, has three criteria to help deal with changing science and knowledge. A substance must meet at least two of the following criteria to qualify for the WADA Prohibited List: 1) it is performance enhancing; 2) it is harmful to the athlete’s health; and 3) it violates the spirit of the sport.

Testing, initiated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during the 1968 Olympic games, was instituted to protect the athlete, to provide equality in competition, and to ensure respect for medical and sports ethics. WADA was created by the IOC in 1999.


Competitive world-class athletes are regularly tested for banned substances, but what of the average athlete in Austin? Where are Joe Runner, Suzy Triathlete, and Pat GymRat going to run into drug testing for banned substances?

The primary way for non-elite athletes to encounter drug testing is as student athletes in Texas high schools. The University Interscholastic League (UIL), a non-profit organization, governs high school extracurricular competition throughout the state. According to Dr. Mark Cousins, UIL athletic director, more than 4,000 student athletes were tested for anabolic steroid use during the 2010-2011 school year. To put this in perspective, the NCAA tests 13,000-student athletes each year; the United States Anti-Doping Association tests approximately 7,000 amateur athletes. While professional sports organizations don’t release numbers, it has been estimated that 22,000 drug tests are administered annually.

UIL is the largest student governing body of its kind. Athletes are randomly selected from all sports state-wide and are tested for anabolic steroids under a strictly monitored protocol. UIL provides information and education through the Resource Exchange Center and a hotline available by phone (toll free: 877-733-1135) and email (; the password for Texas high school students is texashs. Discussions are confidential and contact can be anonymous.

Only one Texas high school student tested positive for anabolic steroids in 2010. Cousins said 50 percent of students who state they’ve had some exposure to anabolic steroids said they were influenced by professional athletes.

“Of the students who’ve tested positive for anabolic steroid use, all knew what they were doing,” Cousins said. “We’ve never had a student who claimed accidental use. The UIL position is that students are responsible for what goes into their bodies.”

The possible source of accidental steroid contamination is nutritional supplements, according to Cousins. Many student athletes (and their parents who are athletes) look to increase performance through better fuel, such as dietary supplements, largely unregulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration..

It is possible for these materials, especially those purchased online and manufactured elsewhere, to contain unknown ingredients or be contaminated by anabolic steroids.


Creatine is an example of a popular supplement used by non-elite athletes in hopes of increasing creatine phosphate, which in turn produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical that provides all the energy for work performed by muscles. It’s of particular benefit to people who do intense, short bouts of exercise (think sprinters or weight lifters). Though creatine is not currently banned, the ethics of using it are hotly debated. There is a lack of research on long-term side effects, (usage over time does appear to decrease the body’s natural production of creatine). Should science prove creatine to be detrimental to the athlete’s health, then it meets one of the WADA criteria; whether it is ethical or performance enhancing can be debated.

Another example is recreational athletes seeking to increase the amount of oxygen in their blood by “training high, racing low” or sleeping in an oxygen tent. While blood transfusions and the use of EPO (erythropoietin, a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the kidneys that regulates red blood cell production) are banned by the WADA, the “natural” methods are not currently banned. By “training high, racing low,” an athlete builds red bloods cells at higher altitude, which gives an oxygen-carrying advantage at lower altitudes. Sleeping in an oxygen tent or using a chamber has similar effects. Like the use of supplements such as creatine, these methods provide a non-banned method to accomplish chemical changes in the body that may produce an advantage.

While the recreational runner out to compete for a personal best at a local 5K will likely never face the testing that professional athletes such as Marion Jones encounter, there are personal and ethical considerations to debate. How far are you willing to manipulate your body to achieve desired results? Is it in the fair spirit of competition to do so? Then there are the products and methods to investigate: How safe is this supplement? What do you know about it? Are you ultimately helping or hurting your body by using this? And remember, today’s acceptable practice may be tomorrow’s banned substance.

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