Ultramarathons and Performing Enhancing Drugs

While the two biggest factors on how someone performs at an ultramarathon are usually genetic talent and training, there will […]

By on November 20, 2008 | Comments

While the two biggest factors on how someone performs at an ultramarathon are usually genetic talent and training, there will always be people looking for a shortcut. Blatant rules violations such as literal shortcutting and muling are uncommon in ultras. Why? Perhaps, because most people never would and for the rest it’s too easy to get caught. What about the less visible, but just as viable use of performance enhancing drugs? We’re not talking about stuff like ibuprofen (vitamin I) or caffeine (iRunFar post re caffeine and performance). Nope, we’re talking about the good stuff. While we don’t think performance-enhancing drugs are common in ultras, here are a couple substances that could move someone up in the field of an ultramarathon.

Definite Performance Enhancers

  • Erythropoietin, a.k.a. EPO – Need we say anything. More red blood cells equal better cardiovascular performance equals faster times.
  • Provigil (modafinil) – This stimulant is approved in the US to treat narcolepsy, shift worker sleep disorder, and obstructive sleep apnea. It’s possible use as an athletic performance-enhancing stimulant led to it being added to the World Anti-Doping Agency “Prohibited List” in 2004. Of course, in multiday events, modafinil’s primary clinical benefit – the elimination of the need to sleep – would be ever more useful. That’s certainly the purposed for which the world’s militaries are using it.
  • Marinol (dronabinol)/Marijuana – In the US, dronabinol is approved for AIDS-associated weightloss as well as nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy. Pharmaceuticals companies are also studying pot smoking monkeys in hopes of developing a drug that would block neuroreceptors that cause the munchies. As we all know, like an army, ultrarunners march on their stomach, so it’s likely that a little toke here and a little toke there could enhance an ultrarunner’s performance.

Possible Performance Enhancers

  • GW1516/AICAR – Yeah, we hadn’t heard of these either until we read a Washington Post article on the drugs. Rodent studies have shown that when you combine GW1516 and AICAR with exercise, you greatly enhance the endurance benefits of training. These substances are enough of a concern that doping authorities have developed tests for them and they’ve been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list beginning in 2009.
  • Ethanol – The alcohol in booze works as both an anesthetic and a calorie source. We here at iRunFar can confirm at least a perceived benefit from imbibing ethanol while racing.
  • Viagra (sildenafil citrate) – The World Anti-Doping Agency is conducting tests to determine if Viagra extends endurance in athletes. There is speculation that the vasodilator could increase oxygenated blood flow to muscles. ( on Viagra and athletic-performance enhancement.) (Thanks for the heads up Chris G.)
  • Amphetamines – While amphetamines can increase energy, concentration and motivation, there’s such a mixed set of effects that using greenies during a race would have to fall into the “experiment of one” category. (Of course, they’ve killed endurance athletes before.)

Dubious Performance Enhancers

  • Human Growth Hormone/steroids – Typically, steroids and HGH are thought of as ways to build muscle … something that an ultrarunner doesn’t need a ton of. However, as baseball and, in particular, its older athletes have shown in recent years – these substances also help your body recover. It’s conceivable that these substances could help one increase their training volume while staying injury free.
  • Opioids – If you’re hurting bad enough that you need opioids to get you on or keep you on the course… it’s probably best to stick to volunteering for the day. That means that no matter how hot the girl at Brown’s Bar is, do not take these until after the race.

performance enhancing drugsTo reiterate, we don’t think that performance enhancing drugs are a problem in ultrarunning. For one, there’s so little prize money and even less fame that it would hardly be worthwhile to risk the possible side effects of the drugs listed above. Mostly, one of us here at iRunFar is a running geek who spends far too much time learning about pharmaceuticals.

For more info on what dopers might be taking, check out the World Anti-Doping Agency’s current prohibited list. If you’re worried that what your taking now could get your stripped of your medal at next year’s 100k World Championships, check out the 2009 prohibited list.

Do you think any folks are using performance enhancing drugs in trail or ultrarunning? If so, what are they using? For those with medical knowledge, got any suggestions for other less obvious ultra performance enhancers? Please share any other thoughts you have about running and performance enhancing drugs.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.