We’ve all seen the posters in our high school, or the government funded commercials telling us not to do them. Perhaps you’ve done research into different kinds and the ups and downs of taking them. I’m not talking about drugs. Well I am, but not those kind. This article is about Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). More specifically, this article will be looking into what the potential benefits and downfalls of common PEDs are. Specifically looking at steroids and stimulants. Steroids are a group of organic compounds that can range from anti-inflammatory drugs to anabolics such as testosterone. In this article when speaking of steroids we will be referring to anabolic steroids.
The WADA – the World Anti Doping Agency – bans a substance from competition if it fits two of the following criteria:
It is harmful towards the athlete
Potential or ability to enhance performance
Contravenes the spirit of sport
In sports, where the consequences themselves are relatively trivial in nature (who wins an event, money, fame) rules against PEDs are understandable to keep athletes and the people they influence from using potentially harmful substances. However, for those in the military who prepare themselves to face life or death situations, it seems we would want them to have access to every possible advantage over the enemy.
Use of PEDs in the military is all too common. In a recent survey completed by Mountain Tactical Institute, over half of respondents, mostly military, had reported using steroids themselves. The overwhelming majority of respondents believe that under medical supervision PEDs should be legal for tactical athletes. If soldiers are given access to weapons systems, information and training that is restricted to the general population, why not go the extra step and allow them access to steroids?
Plain and simple: stigma and misinformation. The vast majority of the public believe that steroids are inherently bad and associated with a skewed moral compass. The two main reasons for this are:
It is illegal unless prescribed by a doctor
It is seen as a drug that people take to get big and strong, making the user seem vain
Downfalls of Steroids
The issue with steroids is that most of the information on them is anecdotal and so it is difficult to draw conclusions on effective doses and the end results. Most studies looking at steroids were done many moons ago and had to recruit participants who were already doing steroids. In many cases, participants used stacks – took multiple PEDs at the same time – to enhance the effect. Due to the anecdotal evidence, it is difficult to say for certain what the side effects are. Anecdotally steroids can cause mood swings known as “roid rage”, acne, body hair growth, testicular atrophy and the list goes on.
In most cases steroids will help the user cope with training volume which will allow a
n increase muscle mass and strength. The real question to ask is: Do I need steroids? Most athletes who take steroids do so because their progress has stagnated and they need to reach the next level. This is after years – sometimes decades – of training in elite environments with top end programming. It is entirely possible that you might get the results that you want from simply training and eating right. Steroids may seem like a simple solution but you will not get massive improvements in body composition and strength from just eating and training correctly.
Another thing to clear up: steroids are not a simple fix. You cannot sit on a couch eating like shit and think that you will magically adopt an Arnold Schwarzenegger physique. Steroids will help you cope with training volume and recovery, which in turn allows you to train harder more often. Steroids are not a magic six pack pill.
Use of Stimulants
Other than steroids, the next most widely used PED within the military has to be stimulants. Stimulants can range from a small cup of coffee to more extreme amphetamines. This biggest benefit that stimulants have is that they reduce your perceived exertion. This means that you will feel less tired and be able to work harder for longer. There are, however, downsides to using stimulants.
In April 2002, four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight others were injured in a friendly fire incident when an American pilot rashly dropped a bomb on the Canadians while they were running a training exercise at night. The American pilots in question were both on dextoamphetamine, or “go pills” while the event occurred. The drug itself has a warning that the drugs “may impair the patient’s ability to engage in potentially hazardous activity such as operating machines and vehicles and that patients should be cautioned accordingly”. The most curious part about this story is that these drugs were given – if not forced upon – the pilots by the US Air Force as part of their “fatigue management program”. Stimulants do increase alertness and reduce a sense of fatigue. However, alertness does not lead to vigilance or proper execution of duty. Think of the old comic “Coffee – do stupid things faster with more energy” x 10.
One stimulant whose effects have been thoroughly studied is caffeine. A general consensus is that 3mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight will improve aerobic performance. The effect of caffeine on power, sprint and strength events is still unclear. Although, during a longer strength / power session the reduced sense of perceived exertion could be beneficial. As mentioned previously if it is dosed properly caffeine will improve aerobic performance. The negative effects of caffeine are that it impairs fine motor control, can lead to more impulsive decisions and can dehydrate the user as caffeine is a diuretic.
Here is what you need to take away from this article: You need to do your own research and with all of the information out there decide whether or not the benefits outweigh the risk for YOU. Good resources for anybody interested in PEDs are:
Book: Speed Trap by Charlie Francis
Documentary: Bigger, Stronger, Faster by Chris Bell