Ultramarathons and Performing Enhancing Drugs

Marijuana NationWhile 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.

There are 7 comments

  1. angie's pink fu

    i started laughing, thinking about runners high on pot as they run through the night. oy vey, that'd be fun!i really know nothing of performance enhancing drugs, but last night a friend i was running with suggested dean karnazes is a user…

  2. Grae Van Hooser

    Since I'm an alumni of Humboldt State (school motto: LEGALIZE IT!). I can only vouch for the benefits of smoking (is there a down side?) "The Chronic". And I can tell you that if it was a performance enhancer, I would be a former world record holder at 10k and former multiple national x-c champion. And if there is a downside, it would probably apply to ultra runners,in that, the runner would never leave the aid stations. I will have to admit that I am interested in the pot smoking monkey as a pet.

  3. Chris G

    Interesting timing. NY Times just had an article suggesting Viagra can increase oxygen capacity (isn't that VO2Max?). Studies have shown that its help athletes at elevation.So many hard ultras are at elevation, I suspect Viagra could be come popular.

  4. Trail Goat

    Angie, I'm glad I could give you a laugh.Grae, I'll see if my friend who studies the pot smoking moneys has any openings. I'm sure we an find you a monkey costume.Chris,I'd totally forgotten about that article. Good catch.

  5. Matt Nelson


    I worked for the company that made Viagra for 20 years and helped bring the product to market. There are specific studies done in the UK that demonstrated increased oxygenation with the use of Viagra. A version of the drug renamed Revatio is used to help newborns with pulmonary edema – fluid on the lungs. One study demonstrated that athletes at Everest Base camp after one week on the drug, had the same pulmonary function as they had tested at sea level back in the UK. The benefit is for staving off HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (altitude sickness) – but there are some obvious benefits that you can see for running in a mountain environment. Viagra (sildenafil) works by causing your peripheral blood vessel to dilate, increasing blood flow to the muscles. Great article… happy that most of us run for the joy of it!

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