by John Q on August 29, 2010

Everybody hates drug cheats. But that doesn’t seem to stop it happening, and it’s easy enough to see why.

I just finished the Bridge to Brisbane 10km fun run. I was doing really well on my training, and seemed certain to beat my personal best when I started getting knee pains – nothing really bad, but enough that I stopped before it got any worse. I got some help from the physio and did lots of stretches, but it was still a problem. So, on the day, I just took a couple of ibuprofen, and did my best to ignore it[1]. And, if I could have taken a pill that would fix my knees for me, I would have done so.

Am I, then, a budding drug cheat?

fn1. updated My friend (who beat me by 3 minutes) advises me that my time was 53:20, which is (just) a PB. My knees advise me that they will forgive me just this once. And, I should mention that, thanks to a series of miscalculations, i did the run with no assistance from caffeine, the wonder drug on which I rely for all things. So, with good knees and strong coffee, I can still hope to break 50 (in the right direction – I’ve already broken it chronologically, and of course the wrong way).

Ibuprofen is on the approved list, but on some of the more puritanical views of the question, taking it before a run/race is morally dubious performance enhancement.

More relevant than the official classification is my motivation. I don’t want to get an unfair advantage, just to do the best I can without being hampered by injury. But of course I wouldn’t have the injury if I hadn’t trained for the race. And the main function of a lot of the banned drugs is to allow you to recover faster from training injuries, and therefore to train harder. If I can justify taking a drug to achieve a PB in a fun run, how much stronger is the case as it would present itself to a full-time athlete, even leaving aside the financial rewards of success.

Then there’s the question of long-term damage. In my case, the big risk is not that I will suffer ill effects from drugs but that, if I ignore the warnings from pain, I’ll wreck my knees. That raises some questions about the most reasonable argument for laws against performance-enhancing drugs, namely that they have bad long-run effects on athletes’ health. The problem is, so do a lot of the sports themselves, and the training required for them. Up to a point, that’s obviously outweighed by the health benefits of physical activity, but I suspect a lot of training regimes go past that point.

I don’t really have an answer for this. I think it would probably be better to allow some supervised use of recovery-promoting drugs, while recognising that this wouldn’t stop people going outside the rules. The idea, as with drug policy in general, would be to focus on harm minimisation.

Hopefully, with limited drug use permitted, the additional benefits of unauthorised drug use would be small enough that the deterrent effect of penalties would be enhanced. On the other hand, I expect that if some drug use were legal, detecting cheating would become harder. Any thoughts?



Ric Scarpa 08.29.10 at 2:13 am

I think one should heed pain and avoid anything that masks the insurgence of repetitive strain injuries from sport. That is pretty much why I resorted to regular cycling instead of running. As a nice side effect the strengthening of the leg muscles I got from cycling now allow me to run and to occasionally play short games of five a side soccer. So, from my experience I would say: avoid pain killers in trying to improve on training thresholds.


Omega Centauri 08.29.10 at 3:59 am

I gotta agree with Ric. Training errors and overtraining can lead to longterm or permanent maladies. I suffer daily from a twenty year old training injury. Drugs were not involved in my case, but the memory of your joints, ligaments, and bones is a lot longer than your memory of a marginally better athletic performance.


Dan 08.29.10 at 4:03 am

Taking ibuprofen regularly before a races/training runs may be physiologically dubious as well. There is some evidence that it interferes with the bodies physical adaptation to physical exercise and decreases the amount of collagen formed. See the NY Times article below for more information,

Phys Ed: Does Ibuprofen Help or Hurt During Exercise?


Thinking in old ways 08.29.10 at 5:04 am


A thoughtful post – but I think you have missed the essential question – why did you decide to run and what was your goal for a personal best?

Are you guided by some notion of athleticism concerning the best performance of your natural body and how you can discipline your mind(a) and train your muscles, or do you have other goals (including like all of us digging up every bit of evidence that age is not catching up with you) ?

In this context I think you are wrong in your description of “the most reasonable argument for laws against performance-enhancing drugs, namely that they have bad long-run effects on athletes’ health”. Rather I think the best argument is around the aspiration of sport – in particular that if the goal of sport is the glorification of the capacity of the human body – then the sport should be based simply upon that and not the enhancement of the body other than through ‘natural means’.

If the goal is however simply winning (or achieving some personal best) then the rationale for restricting performance enhancing drugs (or surgery, or blood doping, etc) seems to be much less.

If the objective of these policies is just to protect athletes from themselves it seems a very narrow approach, why worry about drugs, but not excessive training and in the case of some sports excessive competition and the way in which many junior athletes get pushed into sport before their bodies are ready.

This however is all very pure, and in your case, let yourself enjoy your achievement (and of course the wonderful ego boosting idea of beating those aged half your age – while you only get better) – after all it was a fun run and if that isn’t fun what is.

(a) of course if you took the drug to block the pain – rather than reduce inflammation the further question is whether or not the purpose of your drug taking was to address your incapacity to discipline your mind to withstand the pain of pushing your body to its limits.


Twisted_Colour 08.29.10 at 6:13 am

Try a brisk walk instead.


sg 08.29.10 at 6:48 am

Typical lefty, high on drugs and trying to cheat the system.


Dr. Hilarius 08.29.10 at 6:50 am

I don’t give a rat’s ass for sports records tainted by performance enhancing drugs. Most professional competitive sports are about money and very little else. If steroid-enhanced, blood-doped, beta-blocked athletes give a better show, who cares? It’s just a game and still less dangerous than many professions that don’t even have offsetting rewards of money and recognition.

Non-professional athletes are willing to damage themselves for reasons other than money or fame. Part of the attraction of “peak performance” is pushing limits past all reason. Maybe it’s the endorphins. Maybe it’s something more psychologically convoluted (I’ll show my dad I’m not a pansy). Certain sports are guaranteed to produce long-term harm; football (US), boxing, mixed martial arts. Running and cycling can produce harm but injury is highly variable from person to person. (I knew a MD who was a compulsive long-distance runner. He told others to not overtrain at the same time he was injecting DMSO into his knees.) Some sports don’t routinely produce damage but when they do the damage can be catastrophic (oops, forgot to tie a knot in the rappel rope).

But if taking Diamox helps me avoid cerebral edema at high elevation why should that be an issue at all? I’m not in competition with anyone, no records are at stake. I certainly don’t feel that my climbing experience is somehow degraded.

Eventually we all wear out. The trick is the ongoing cost/benefit analysis of the experience versus the toll it takes. I have a few joints worse for the wear from running. A climbing accident curtailed my running my running for good and climbing for about a year. Last year surgery to move my left ulnar nerve. When I’m too crippled to do anything else I’ll take up base jumping and let gravity do all the work.



logern 08.29.10 at 8:13 am


Tim Worstall 08.29.10 at 8:41 am

@1 Quite….I took up cycling precisely because I’d screwed up knee ligaments with running. Partly so I had a form of exercise and partly to strengthen muscles to compensate.

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) piece of advice from a Headmistress as her final speech to a year of pupils: “Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone”.

“Up to a point, that’s obviously outweighed by the health benefits of physical activity, but I suspect a lot of training regimes go past that point.”

That so many professional cyclists seem to die in their 30s and early 40s from heart problems would seem to be proof of that.


Metatone 08.29.10 at 9:06 am

Agree with Ric and Omega. I have an old (teenage) rugby injury to one knee and it’s never going away. (And as is typical, once one knee is damaged, you do damage to the other one as you develop a lopsided style.) I switched to cycling for fitness/recreation and feel better for it.

On the general topics:

– Training regimes have advanced in some ways, but not in others. Notably muscles are typically easier to strengthen than ligaments/tendons and of course, there’s nothing much you can do about cartilage etc. In total, I believe at the high levels we’ve reached the point where the training sacrifices long term health for short term gain. Many sportspeople end up physically damaged by the time they retire. Throw in the psychological complications – many sportspeople are unable to adjust to life beyond the sport – and it’s hard to see how the activity itself is “harm minimised.”

– As someone who grew up watching professional cycling – with the Tour de France as a canonical “non harm-minimsed” event – I have mixed feelings about the doping problem. On the one hand, heroes (and anti-heroes) have died from the drugs they used, so the problem is there for all to see. On the other, enforcement just fails time and time again. Athletics has maybe had more success, but the rumours are football (soccer) and rugby both have a lot of unsurfaced problems. So I think on practical grounds the current way forward just isn’t working… and I haven’t boycotted as a spectator and I don’t think I will unless something changed to make stopping doping more than just “Green Lantern theory.”

– On amateurs who damage themselves – that is their choice and I’m not giving up wine, so why should they give up running? However, I do think there’s still heavy ignorance about some of the substances that filter down from the pro arena – there are some people who run the risk of dying like Marco Pantani, but in the absence of the ability to be open about what they are doing are not going to get the help/advice they need. I’d guess many of them don’t even understand the risks they run.

As a side issue, the level of physical training required to compensate for our sedentary work lifestyles feels problematically close to the “often injured” edge in the first place.


Metatone 08.29.10 at 9:07 am

Hmm… did the paragraphs wrong there… they disappeared. Sorry all.


Thomas Jørgensen 08.29.10 at 10:21 am

Well, one factor is that the drugs in current use are most emphatically not selected or developed for minimal adverse side effects – they are, instead, picked for their ability to not show up in blood and urine samples. This is very likely to be a bad priority set..


Francis Xavier Holden 08.29.10 at 11:42 am

I don’t really give a rats about sport and who wins etc but I’ve always thought it should be simple.
Just make two categories – One – absolutely drug free and if you want to get a place in this section you have to have a test during build up, and before and after the event and another second, open section where you can imbibe anything you want – no tests ever.

Then everyone just enters the same race and off you go – there is only two categories in the final result. Then we might see that the public regards the drug free people as better or we might see the public doesn’t care. Hell it might even be that the drug free dude preform better.


JMG 08.29.10 at 11:45 am

The 1960s baseball player Richie (Dick) Allen said it all. “Your body is like a bar of soap. The more you use it, the faster it wears out.”

Drugs retard this truth, but they don’t halt it.


Brett Bellmore 08.29.10 at 11:50 am

We’re talking about a large and diverse class of drugs with amazing potential to benefit humanity; How many people in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s wouldn’t enjoy the improvement in their lives if they were a bit stronger, and had a bit more stamina? People who have a use for performance enhancing drugs, and have no interest in participating in sporting events, vastly outnumber potential “cheaters”.

Take me, for instance: A prostate cancer survivor, with no circulating testosterone. A decent myostatin inhibitor would probably be just the ticket to halt the ongoing atrophy of my musculature. Why can’t my doctor prescribe one?

Because that whole field of research has been held back by “doping” concerns. Sports fanatics? Don’t talk to me about them, I’ve got no patience for the damage they’ve done to the field of medicine with this obsession with “cheating”.


James Wimberley 08.29.10 at 12:50 pm

In the ancient Olympic games – bitterly competitive and at times corrupt – once the athletes showed up at Olympia they were medically under the care of the Olympiad’s staff physicians, not their own. Maybe you could fix the official doctor, but it woul have been both very expensive and very risky. People should be thinking more about institutional design of this sort and less about miracle technical solutions.


Irrelephant 08.29.10 at 1:21 pm

I think use of performance and mood enhancing drugs should be made mandatory in professional sports. I want to wring every penny from my entertainment dollar. They do it anyway, so why not get it out in the open? It could make for interesting stats, and color commentary. “The doctors have got Johnson pumped up on ketapherodimekaline. That was your drug of choice , eh Perry?” “That’s right, Sam. K is great. Kids at home should know the hallucinations are fantastic! And not only will Johnson be enraged and invincible, he’ll still retain his reasoning skills. The defensive line is going to have a problem tonight!”


Barry 08.29.10 at 3:17 pm

Tim Worstall 08.29.10 at 8:41 am

” That so many professional cyclists seem to die in their 30s and early 40s from heart problems would seem to be proof of that.”

That might say something about what, uh, ‘supplements’ they were taking during their peak years.


Mr Punch 08.29.10 at 3:54 pm

There are two kinds of sports — those that involve discrete short-term performance (typified by sprints, or for that matter horseracing) and those based on a long season (typified by professional baseball). The former should have very strict standards, while the latter must allow participants to live their lives. There is, unfortunately, no bright line with regard to the classification of either sports (the Tour de France?) or drugs (cortisone?). Anabolic steroids have legitimate therapeutic applications, and I believe have been allowed in individual cases in baseball, even though they are at the root of the PED scandals.

And of course sometimes decisions about drugs are wrong – Dancer’s Image finished first in the 1968 Kentucky Derby, but was disqualified because of a drug that was banned in that year only.


Bill Kristol 08.29.10 at 4:35 pm

I far prefer skipping all the dangerous training and exercise, and stick to flavor- and mood-enhancing drugs.

Far safer.


BillCinSD 08.29.10 at 7:00 pm

“I think it would probably be better to allow some supervised use of recovery-promoting drugs, while recognising that this wouldn’t stop people going outside the rules.”

This is happening now, just without drugs that are controlled substances. This won’t ever happen with drugs on the controlled substance list, although of course what is on the list does change


Colin Danby 08.29.10 at 7:04 pm

I’m with Bill K.

What about drugs that allegedly improve mental function? Should promotion and tenure committees take note?


Dr. Hilarius 08.29.10 at 8:52 pm

@20: Sorry, no coffee no mental function.


Rob 08.30.10 at 12:55 am

Drink strong coffee before all of your runs:

>> Exercise physiologists have studied caffeine’s effects in nearly every iteration: Does it help sprinters? Marathon runners? Cyclists? Rowers? Swimmers? Athletes whose sports involve stopping and starting like tennis players? The answers are yes and yes and yes and yes.<<

Also, add fish oil pills to your daily diet for the anti-inflammatory effects.


Kieran Healy 08.30.10 at 2:13 am

I clearly need some drug enhancement myself, as I just got the joke in the title.


vivian 08.30.10 at 2:30 am

no one linked to the SNL all drug olympics sketch?


mpowell 08.30.10 at 4:27 pm

Most people, including many on this thread, assume that these drugs all have damaging effects. There is no reason to assume that is true. As Bret Bellmore points out, for older people this is almost certainly not true in the right situations and research in this field is almost certainly being retarded by fears of cheating in professional sports.

The 1960s baseball player Richie (Dick) Allen said it all. “Your body is like a bar of soap. The more you use it, the faster it wears out.”

Drugs retard this truth, but they don’t halt it.

This is very badly wrong. Your body is nothing like a bar of soap. Excessive usage can wear your body out. But with a lack of usage your body will allow itself to fall apart literally decades earlier than it will if you exercise an appropriate amount. Drugs have wildly varying impacts on your body and while most of the benefits to potential use probably apply to injury recovery (which is then tightly related to your ability to exercise properly as you get older) and persons over 40 it’s not as if there couldn’t be any benefit for younger folks. After all, people have been using caffeine to improve their quality of life for years. And there are still no clinically substantiated documented harms.


mpowell 08.30.10 at 4:33 pm

Ric@1: I wanted to respond to this as well. Painkillers are probably not good for you. But not all ‘painkillers’ are just painkillers. Ibuprofen partially functions by reducing swelling in problem areas. A steroid injection can do the same thing. The body’s natural response to injuries is not always optimal and these are used clinically to help your body recover from certain injuries and actually exercise muscles, tendons and joints to get healthier and stronger when your bodies natural swelling response would be counter-productive. This is a great example of the benefits of drugs used properly that applies to people of all ages.


piglet 08.30.10 at 6:44 pm

“Everybody hates drug cheats”

Not everybody does. Some observers argue that if artists, musicians, writers and poets are allowed to enhance their output by using drugs, and even admired for it, then why shouldn’t athletes? Double standards all around.


piglet 08.30.10 at 6:45 pm

Btw why the strange spelling “Anti-Döping” ???


Doug K 08.30.10 at 7:30 pm

ibuprofen isn’t going to give you a significant performance improvement, you need the good stuff – HGH, EPO, et al.

For myself, I have tried legal supplements not so much for performance as in an pathetic attempt to feel a bit less old.. my 10k PR was well under 35, when I was also, but now is marching steadily on through the 40s.

Runners have better knees than the general population. A good physiatrist or physical therapist should be able to figure out your problem. In my experience knee problems often come from the shoes – new shoes or old shoes that have worn out. The defensive position here is to have 3-4 pairs of shoes in rotation, which has worked well for me over the last few decades.

James @16, the problem is that a lot of doping happens during training: the benefits are simply the ability to endure and absorb much harder training than is possible in the unimproved state. Drug testing or medical supervision during competition can’t usually catch this.

In the first running boom, carbo-loading diets were all the rage for marathoning. The downside was the three days of minimal carbohydrates, leading to irritability, fatigue, etcetera. New research shows the depletion phase of the diet really doesn’t make much difference. Similarly there was a point where we were supposed to refrain from caffeine in the week before competition, so the dose would be more effective: now it appears the effect is the same with or without the privation phase. Oh good.


Dingbat 08.30.10 at 8:15 pm

Two points here. First off, the USRowing rulebook begins (well, when I last read it, it began, I assume it still does, though I haven’t rowed competitively in a long time) with a statement to the effect that all the rules of the sport are designed with two aims in mind: first, safety; and second, fairness. Anything not covered by a specific rule would be judged on those grounds. I’ve always found this a very useful starting point for questions of things not covered by the rules.

Second, Fat Cyclist has some very cogent thoughts about cheating, especially in an amateur context: “When you race, the main thing your entry fee buys you is the right to compare yourself to other people. And if you cheat, you’re screwing up the yardstick for everyone.”

And a bonus thought: For God’s sake, man, it’s ibuprofen! On the shelf, on the approved list, what more do you want? Anything more is holding yourself to a higher standard, which is fine, but you’re not cheating if you’re obeying the same rules everyone else is. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

Think of it this way: you can race, and train, with no painkillers at all. You could also train, and race, vegan. Or (like I do) race on a single-speed bike against gearies, or run your marathons barefoot, or exceed the consensus agreement of “what’s fair” in any number of other ways.

The whole point of sports is that you don’t use every available means. That’s why you fly-fish, rather than dynamiting a stream, for example. When you do a sport, you play by its rules, and if you want to, for whatever reason, limit yourself in some other fashion, that’s totally cool. If you think that the spirit of the rules should disallow something that it doesn’t already, and so you refrain from that practice, that’s cool, too. Sports is the most openly and transparently constructed social construct out there: the rules are clear, the committees that make the rules are known, the enforcers and penalties are specified. Let’s not try to make things more complicated than that!


chris 08.30.10 at 8:54 pm

If you think that the spirit of the rules should disallow something that it doesn’t already, and so you refrain from that practice, that’s cool, too.

Doesn’t that kind of self-handicapping screw up the yardstick just as badly as cheating, or intentionally throwing the competition? How can someone who finishes ahead of you be confident that they are a better runner if you have an unofficial undisclosed handicap? And if they even think that you might have such a handicap, doesn’t that undermine their satisfaction in whatever place they finished in?

If you don’t do the best you can under the agreed-on rules, then other people who measure themselves against you are not getting what they expect — namely a standard of measurement defined by the agreed-on rules. ISTM that this applies just as well to additions to the rules as to disregarding some of them.

I think the idea that you have an obligation to be the standard of measurement for everyone else in the race is kind of weird — if you take it seriously.


Dingbat 08.30.10 at 9:35 pm

Chris caught me: Fatty’s thought (my point two) and my bonus point are somewhat in opposition. I’ll stick with my own, though his might well be wiser.

And yeah, the idea that the crowd is the yardstick for everyone’s performance is weird if you take it seriously. (Most ideas are weird if you take them seriously.) The overridingly important thing in most amateur athletics is whether you’ve given it your all; the crowd is there to motivate you and to keep you honest. If you cheesed out by doping in amateur sports (you’re a freaking tool) and nobody will know it but you. And yes, the person you cheated most was yourself. But again, Fatty’s got an important contribution, especially for those whose ethics require consideration of others: you don’t know what you’re cheating others out of.


John Quiggin 08.30.10 at 9:54 pm

piglet@30 It’s an obscure pun, which I thought would amuse commenter “engels”, but he hasn’t bitten.


John Quiggin 08.30.10 at 9:55 pm

“You could also train, and race, vegan”

Oddly enough, there were people holding banners urging us to do precisely that, and offering training.


Hidari 08.30.10 at 10:24 pm


piglet 08.30.10 at 11:13 pm

I got it too, now that you mention engels. It is obscure.

I’m disappointed nobody has bitten on my remark 29. Should we downgrade the artistic relevance of Jim Morrison, Vincent Van Gogh and many others, knowing that they used performance-enhancing drugs? This reminds me of a really good joke about doping in this 1992 Titanic title:

Titanic is a German satiric magazine ( and that was one of the best titles ever. If need be, translation will follow.


BillCinSD 08.31.10 at 4:45 am

I thought it was a Motörhead pun, trying to bring in”Lemmy” Pitkin


Hidari 08.31.10 at 9:48 am

‘Just make two categories – One – absolutely drug free and if you want to get a place in this section you have to have a test during build up, and before and after the event and another second, open section where you can imbibe anything you want – no tests ever.’

An old professor of mine who did a lot of cycling once had a variation of this (it’s a lot funnier when said in his thick Northern accent).

‘Yeh, yeh…’ (he would say) ‘lets have two races. In one, you can take anything you want, and it will end up like the WWE or something. In the other for the real athletes. Random doping at any time. And make the penalty…yeah make the penalty death. By public hanging. Or crucifixion. So one kind of sport looking like wrestling, and the other with people cycling past rows of crucified ex-sportsmen, like the last scene of Spartacus’.


Dingbat 08.31.10 at 3:31 pm

I’ll bite, piglet: there aren’t rules in art and music. Furthermore, the reigning myth–as I read it–about art is that it’s a matter of putting something that’s inside you out for the world, and when artists dope, they’re merely easing the release of something that’s already inside them.

The narrative of where athletic performance comes from is a little more opaque; sometimes it’s “the beast within,” sometimes it’s just “hard work + desire,” there are probably more stories out there.

(I suppose there’s also the comparative aspect: sport is designed to allow direct comparison; artistic genius is supposed to be incomparable.)


bad Jim 09.01.10 at 9:55 am

First they came for the triathletes, and since I was not a triathlete, I said nothing.
Then they came for the marathoners, and since I was not a marathoner, I said nothing.
Next they came for the fun runners, and not being one of those either, what could I say?
Then they asked for ibuprofen, and I had none, nor Tylenol, aspirin, Aleve.
“You’re a lazy shit, aren’t you?” they asked, and I had to agree.

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