Drugs and Supplements as Training Aids. Is it Cheating to Use Performance Altering Substances at an Amateur Level?

Drugs and Supplements as Training Aids. Is it Cheating to Use Performance Altering Substances at an Amateur Level?

Using drugs to enhance performance appears to be becoming more and more common in sports and media coverage as athletes compete for any kind of edge they can achieve, aware that their bodies can give a little bit extra. Recent history contains some very well publicised cases, from Ben Johnson’s 1988 steroid assisted 100 metres in Seoul, to Floyd Landis being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory not to mention Lance Armstrong’s high profile fall from grace. While there are of course strict measures in place, there are clearly flaws in the system. Boxing’s drug testing systems were heavily criticised in the wake of the cancelled Pacquio–Mayweather fight in 2010, Victor Conte – who provided sprinter Dwain Chambers with illegal drugs – called boxing’s system “pathetic” adding “the testing that is being utilised in boxing is virtually worthless”. These, however, are elite sportsmen at the top of their games and in the public eye; less publicised is how performance enhancing drugs affect the amateur athlete working out in their local gym. 

Drugs v Supplements

A simple fact is that performance enhancing drugs will alter the body’s physiology for anybody who chooses to take them and if Erythropoietin (EPO) can enable Tour de France cyclists to pedal for longer, or steroids give Olympic sprinters more explosive power, then they could do the same for the average competitor. Furthermore, not all substances that enhance performance are banned, and very few involve criminality, so if a legal tablet promises to improve one’s triathlon time, or help increase the weight on a bench press then naturally this could be very tempting. Beyond the ethics, the individual’s choices should be informed by the health implications and legality. While using performance enhancing drugs may enable the individual to train longer, harder or faster and add more muscle, stamina, and power – what is the price they will pay for this? Also, can it be considered ‘cheating’ if an individual is only competing against them self in order to improve on a personal best, or for self-esteem? This article will touch on how taking performance enhancing drugs and other supplements can impact on the average individual legally, ethically, and health-wise.

Drugs v Supplements
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is trying to control the doping issue, introducing regulations forcing elite sportsmen to provide testers with a one-hour whereabouts daily window. At the amateur level, the UK’s sports nutrition market is worth around £200 million a year is and grows around 30% every year as people are becoming more aware of nutritional products and are looking for that ‘extra edge’. With sports nutrition expanding at such a rate and in a world full of shortcuts and quick-fixes, the lines could become blurry for where legal substances cross over into illegal. Under the WADA code, a drug is banned if it falls into one of the following three criteria:

“It has the potential to improve sporting performance.”

“It represents an actual or potential health risk.”

“Its use is contrary to the ‘spirit of sport’.”

These three rules have a fairly broad application and WADA’s prohibited list covers well over a hundred substances, from alcohol (banned in archery) to zeranol (a mushroom fungus). The main focus is generally on issues such as anabolic steroids and blood-boosting agents, but as the list covers many basic ‘high-street drugs’, which are perfectly legal and may not pose a health risk, a WADA banned substance could, theoretically, be proven to boost performance and be neither harmful or illegal.

Drugs v Supplements


Legal Supplementing

There are substances which can give an individual an edge without having to cross the line. As previously mentioned, the UK sports nutrition market is expanding so naturally there have been massive advances in nutritional sciences and ‘clean’ substances have been developed so that athletes do not have to resort to those that are banned. One ‘clean’ sports supplement which has received a great deal of coverage and popularity is creatine. Creatine is also a naturally occurring compound found in red meat and made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein, promising faster recovery and increased muscle growth. With no evidence of serious side-effects and proven performance enhancing qualities, creatine seems to have become an acceptable ‘cheat’ when looked at in this way. Studies show it satisfies the safety aspect and research shows that although creatine does not directly impact muscle mass, it does enable the individual to train harder – now becoming one of the UK’s most widely used sports supplements. Another widely used legal substance is caffeine, however caffeine was on the WADA’s banned list up until 2004. Studies have confirmed caffeine not only enhances alertness, it mobilises fat stores, sparing the muscle’s glycogen supply and boosting endurance. Being effective and fully legal, major manufacturers (eg. Lucozade) quickly added it to products when the WADA removed it from their banned list.

Drugs v Supplements
Caffeine is not the only household substance known to be used as a performance enhancer, however, baking powder – aka bicarbonate of soda – can boost endurance by preventing lactic acid build up in muscles. Athletes have been ‘soda-loading’ for decades and research has shown that swimmers who took baking soda an hour before a 200m event knocked 1.5 seconds off their times. ‘Soda-loading’ does have side effects though, including wind and diarrhoea, which are generally unwelcome during swimming events.

One newer supplement which promises boosts to both muscle and endurance is beta-alanine, which is legal and widely available for purchase as it is a naturally occurring amino acid. As it is relatively new on the market, however, it is lacking long term studies to prove the benefits or risks of supplementation. Early indications have found through studies that supplementing beta-alanine improved the test subject’s levels of performance and stimulated lean muscle mass however it may be years before definitive studies are produced. Reported side effects have included hot flushes, though again long term side effects have yet to be reported or proven. Another potential breakthrough comes from hydroxy methylbutyrate (HMB) which has been named as the ‘new creatine’, it sport-legal and promises to limit the breakdown of protein, thereby enhancing muscle size and strength, promoting fat loss and easing exercise induced muscle damage. HMB is a natural product, being found in grapefruit, alfalfa, and some fish and is already available in some supplements, but as with beta-alanine it is yet to have conclusive studies carried out. Noted results have mentioned that HMB has a minor effect on strength, body composition, muscle damage and exercise performance.

Drugs v Supplements

Illegal Supplementing

It can be said that all athletes are generally looking for the same gains ie. to be stronger and able to last longer. To deliver these abilities to athletes, performance enhancing drugs fall into three loose categories: blood-boosters, muscle-builders and stimulants. For long distance sportsmen; runners, cyclists etc. the main aim will be to increase endurance and during the 1990s, the blood-booster Erythropoietin (EPO) became widely spread. EPO was developed to treat anaemia by replicating a hormone that controls red blood cell production and is an “extremely effective” performance enhancer as more red blood cells equals increased endurance and aerobic capacity! 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis confessed that EPO usage was “part of everyday life as a rider”. EPO usage has become less common in professional sporting circles since it became detectable in 2000, being replaced by the similar CERA (Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator) and transfusion. This involves draining blood from the athlete’s body, spinning it rapidly in an external machine then freezing and putting back into the athlete’s veins to boost the red blood cell count. Focus groups reveal that EPO is still available and widely used by amateurs seeking an edge – side effects of EPO include thickening of the blood, thereby greatly increasing the risk of a stroke. EPO’s use in the 1990s saw a rise in the death of pro cyclists as a result.
Drugs v Supplements

For anyone looking to build muscle, strength and speed, anabolic steroids have long been the preferred option. Anabolic steroids have been notorious in sport since testosterone was first synthesised in Germany in the 1930s, causing hundreds of failed tests, including Dwain Chambers’ positive results for the once undetectable ‘designer’ steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). Anabolic steroids are far from being an elite-only option, they are very popular down the ladder on the amateur level. University of Glamorgan research found that 70% of heavy lifters in South Wales had used at some point. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports 3 million users in the US, with an estimated 1 million in the UK. While it is predominantly gym-users who are involved in steroids, it spreads further, it seems that wherever there is any kind of competition, there is temptation, and while there are no serious studies into usage at grass-roots levels it appears to be acknowledged that it certainly is there. While banned in sport, steroids are not illegal, they can only be sold by pharmacists with a doctor’s prescription – it is illegal to possess or import them for personal use. Possession with intent to supply is illegal and can result in up to 14 year sentences.

The lack of criminality is a factor, but the main reason steroids are so widely used is because they are so effective. While experts agree and research show that “there is no doubt they do work”, it is also clear that there is “a hefty price to pay”, is has been shown that intensive usage has potentially life-threatening consequences with evidence showing a large increase in the risk of organ damage. Skin conditions, baldness, testicle shrinkage and pain, bruising, scarring or infection from careless or incompetent injecting have all been recognised among the risks the steroids pose to the health, along with psychological issues such as depression. There have been reports of depression and suicide in teenage steroid users, but little systematic evidence. A 1992 review found that anabolic-androgenic steroids may both relieve and cause depression. The temptation to get involved in steroids still remains strong, however, as new substances constantly appear on the market promising to do the job better and cleaner. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) – a relatively newcomer to the UK – being labelled as a ‘wonder-drug’ DHEA is a ‘natural’ steroid which synthesises a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland, it promises to enhance muscle mass while reducing body-fat stores of the user. While banned by the WADA, DHEA is legal to buy from many major UK supplementation companies although as a relatively new drug, there is very little research about the effects, however the research there is suggesting possible risks such as increased cancer risk.

Drugs v Supplements
Differing from steroids as they are not used as training aids as such, stimulants were the ‘original’ performance enhancing drugs. Amphetamines were discovered in Germany in the late 1800s, but no use was found until World War II when tablets were given to soldiers on both sides. Amphetamines found their way into sports in the 1950s, most notably cycling with cyclist Tom Simpson’s death from exhaustion in 1967 caused by amphetamine abuse. Amphetamines are also Class B drugs and illegal, however not all stimulants are classified the same way. Ephedrine is one of the most widely used stimulants, found in over-the-counter cold medicines, it was taken off the banned list by the WADA in 2003 but re-banned in January 2010. Four rugby players have tested positive for ephedrine since 2007 and all four received two-year bans while Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny was given a nine month ban in 2009 after testing positive. They have all claimed it was through cold remedies. For the amateur athlete, ephedrine is not only found in cold medications, widely available are tablets combining caffeine with ephedrine – these tablets are fully legal and there is evidence of their effectiveness. Research has found that the two stimulants ‘work better in conjunction’. There are two points from the WADA’s code regarding ephedrine, firstly whether using it violates ‘the spirit of sport’ as the stimulant has been put on the banned list because it has proven to provide a ‘synthetic edge’ to the user, also regarding whether usage poses a health risk to the user. Research has shown that stimulants have the potential to damage the heart and even bring on heart attacks.
Drugs v Supplements


When using performance enhancing drugs, even the most notorious or whichever promises the most will not deliver results overnight, the idea that doping can turn any amateur athlete into a champion is a myth. Experts seem to be united in emphasising that no supplementation will be effective without careful attention to nutrition and training as a whole, the same is as true for elite athletes as it is for performers at the grass-roots level. Elite athletes work to carefully designed training plans while nutritionists ensure supplementation is planned around their training phases, so the correct macro and micro nutrients are used to enhance adaptation. Amateur and recreational sportsmen tend to use these types of substances over long periods without seriously considering what they are trying to achieve, using the performance enhancing drugs without understanding how to optimise the effects through diet and training as very few of these substances work in isolation.

While it is clear on an elite level that being caught using these performance enhancing drugs is classed as cheating and there are guidelines explicitly stating what is and is not allowed, less clear is how to evaluate that at a grass-roots level. If two people of the same level are pitted against each other and one trains effectively and has a good diet, he will perform better than the other who consumes a poor diet and takes supplements, even those with proven results. While it then may seem that supplementing along with a good diet and training programme will provide even greater results, the possible side effects involved with many of the performance enhancing substances seem to negate these benefits and overshadow them with health risks.

Drugs v Supplements
Some researchers have argued that using performance enhancing substances should be allowed in sport as the result will be a safer, more honest sporting environment as it currently seems that athletes will continue to dope and use these substances whatever the consequences. Through research and guidance on effective enhancers and safe dosages, the use of legal drugs could aid the intensive training that improves performance.

Others, however, continue with the issue that doping will always be contrary to the spirit of sport and it is unfair that ‘clean’ athletes would be denied fair and equal competition. Furthermore, any kind of allowance towards performance enhancing substances in sport would be irresponsible due to the lack of research in many areas and the wide variety of substances available that could be used and that removing the taboo of drug taking would endanger the athlete’s health.

While it can be argued that it is not cheating if one is merely aiming to compete to improve their own performance on a personal level, once they enter a stage of competing against others, on any level, then the ethics of performing while having a synthetic edge over the other athletes would call this an unfair advantage.

If you have any questions about anything I’ve written in this post or want to get in touch, contact me.


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