Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How To Cheat Your Way To A New Personal Best

Recently the issue of drugs in sport has been making headlines with several of the world’s top sprinters being found guilty of illegal doping. First American Tyson Gay, the joint-second fastest man ever over 100m, was told by the US Anti-Doping Agency that his A sample from an out-of-competition test in May was positive. Then Asafa Powell, the all-time fourth quickest 100m runner, tested positive for a banned stimulant at June's Jamaican Championships. Fellow Jamaican Sherone Simpson failed a drug test at the same event. All of this comes in the wake of Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown testing positive for a diuretic (which are banned because they can be used to “flush out” banned drugs).
All of this has got me thinking whether, as a simple amateur keen runner, what kind of effect these drugs might have on my ambitions to get a new Personal Best time (PB). Now, before you throw your hands up in the air and call me a cheat or think I’m advocating drugs in sport, hear me out… 
When one thinks of drugs in sport people usually think of something similar to the comic book character Asterix the Gaul and the magic potion he takes before fighting the Romans. For any Americans reading this blog unfamiliar with Asterix – think of Popeye eating spinach before beating up Bluto… We might realise that the banned drugs don’t give athletes instant physical strength like the cartoons do, but we often perceive it to be a difference in degree rather than kind.
The reality is, however, quite different. 
Precisely because performance enhancing drugs are banned, there is scant scientific evidence on whether the illegal drugs work and if so to what extent. It is very difficult for academics to get licenses to gather groups of elite sportsmen and women to take banned substances and measure their effects in a numerically significant way.  Not to mention that the sports people will worry about ruining their careers in the process.
But one theory of how some of the drugs might help athletes is increasingly gaining ground. Putting performance enhancing drugs to one side for a moment, a recent study in America of other types of non-banned drugs suggested that perhaps a third of medically approved drugs might be acting as placebos. Patients are actively helped, even “cured”, by taking the drugs, but the medicines are not actually interacting on them in any physiological way.
This finding has caused Fabrizio Benedetti and his colleagues at the University of Turin to wonder if the placebo effect might be important in sport too. The short answer is a resounding “yes”. Benedetti and his team gave a group of athletes pain killers to help increase their endurance (many pain killers are banned in sports precisely because of their effect on endurance). The team of scientists then substituted the real pain killers with a saline (placebo) solution but didn’t tell the participants. The results were striking. Those that thought they were taking pain killers were able to perform better!  

The placebo effect is not just limited to pain killers and endurance events. Studies done in the 1970's and more recently in 2011 found that atheletes who thought they were taking anabolic steroids also improved their performances. 
It goes without saying that when it comes to elite athletes where hundredths of a second can be the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all, the mental aspect of racing is critical. I know personally that how I am feeling emotionally just before a race often has far greater bearing on whether I achieve a PB than how I’m feeling physically.
In a few days I will be running a 10k and I would love to run a PB. Could the best way to achieve it be by taking a placebo even if it really has no effect on my body? Again the short answer is "yes"! According to Dr Mark Berdi it's not just fake drugs that can "trick" us into performing better, it can also be useless sports equipment or even unscientific nutritional supplements. We just need to believe they will give us an unfair advantage. 
But that poses its own philosophical question: 
Am I cheating if I believe I am cheating, even if I’m not?

(The picture today is of the jelly babies I often take on my long runs, now if I could jet convince myself that they were really anabolic steroids) 

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