Supplements, Doping, and You: What the Average Runner Needs to Know about Dope

imageWhen Olympic swimmer Lilly King waved her finger at a camera and accused Russian competitor Yulia Efimova of doping, it inspired conversations about how athletes respond to negative allegations against competitors, but also how exactly it was that Efimova allegedly doped. Most recently, she, along with fellow Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova and others, tested positive for the heart medication melodonium, prescribed to them by doctors. Efimova’s ban for this, her second offense, was ultimately lifted, allowing her to compete in Rio. But more importantly for our purposes, Yulia’s first doping ban came after she tested positive for DHEA, that she claims was, unbeknownst to her, in a supplement she bought at GNC.

If medication prescribed by a doctor or a supplement found on the shelf at a chain store in strip malls everywhere can almost ruin an Olympic swimmer’s career, what could that mean for you?

The cautionary tale of Yulia Efimova

Now, I’m not here to speculate on Yulia’s claims, but there are definitely a few things we can learn from Yulia Efimova. First of all, when it comes to supplements, buyer beware! Sure, most professional athletes probably aren’t wandering into a local vitamin store to buy something like us Joe Schmoe’s. They have teams of coaches, doctors, and others to help with things like that and probably aren’t buying most things off the shelf. But we are. So if this could happen to her, it can happen to us. 

As for the melodonium that was prescribed by a doctor, for what it’s worth, Maria Sharapova also used the “I didn’t know” defense when she was caught using it. She claimed she never read the email from WADA informing athletes that it was banned. And just because it was prescribed by a doctor does not mean it’s legal. Ignorance and laziness are no defense when you are a professional athlete, when it is your job to know the rules of competition. Period. It’s not an excuse for the rest of us either. 

What do supplements, medications and doping have to do with the average athlete?

Now, you may be  thinking I’m not a professional athlete, does any of this matter? Yes, it does. The problems start somewhere and amateur and age-group racing are probably far more riddled with doping than we may ever know. But unlike big world-class competitions, the average road race does not have the resources to test. Even so, how would you feel if you found out you lost a race to someone who was taking a banned substance? How would you feel if you won a race, but upon testing, discovered you had a substance in your system that you didn’t know was banned? It’s happened to others and it could happen to you.

How do you know what supplements and medications are banned?

The good news is that organizations like United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are making it easier to know what medications, supplements, etc. are banned. USADA uses the tag line “Realize, recognize, and reduce”. They want athletes to REALIZE there are risks, RECOGNIZE those risks, and then REDUCE their risk of doping and adverse health reactions. When it comes to medications, GlobalDRO provides up-to-date lists of banned substances (based on WADA rules). WADA takes it further and has a prohibited list that is available for download or even as an app! So, if you wander into a vitamin store looking for something, you can have the app at your fingertips to make sure what you purchase won’t get you into trouble. 

Common supplements, medications, and recreational drugs that are banned include:

  • Stimulants like common medications used to treat ADHD or that are found in some cold medicines, like pseudoephedrine (in competition only)
  • Some asthma inhalers
  • Insulin
  • Donating plasma (in some circumstances)
  • Marijuana (in competition only)
  • FYI: “colostrum is not prohibited, per se; however, it contains certain quantities of … growth factors which are prohibited and can influence the outcome of anti-doping tests. Therefore, WADA recommends against the ingestion of such products.”

While some substances are banned any time you take them, some are only banned “in competition”, which means you cannot take them before a competition when they might impact your performance, but if you take them outside of competing it’s legal (unless you’re a national or international class athlete, though – more below).

Ignorance might get you a lesser sentence, but it's no excuse.
Ignorance might get you a lesser sentence, but it’s no excuse.

If I need to take a supplement or medication for my health that’s on WADA’s banned list, what can I do? 

If you take a medication for a medical issue that happens to be on the list of banned substances, you may need to apply for a Therapeutic Use Exception (TUE) to compete legally. If you are a world or national-class athlete (think running in the Olympic Trials, capable of winning prize money at a major marathon, etc.) and take any banned medication for any purpose, you must apply for a TUE to take those meds and compete legally.

However, if you are not a national-class athlete, you most likely do not need a TUE prior to competition, but you might in some circumstances. Here is more on determining if you need a TUE to race legally.

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At the end of the day it all comes down to you. Be wary of supplements, knowing that they are unregulated and may contain substances banned for running competition. Know whether your medications are banned and if so, what you need to do to compete legally while maintaining your health and well-being.

Do you think about whether the medications and supplements you take might be banned in competition? Is this an issue you care about?

A new mom and Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Maneuvering through motherhood and postpartum running!

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12 comments

  1. Thank you for this article! People sometimes think that doping exclusively involves shooting up with some substance provided by a sketchy doctor. But there are also banned substances in common supplements sold over the counter. Cold medicines, weight loss pills etc. can be unintentional culprits. Whether or not they actually help performance is debatable. I have paid particular attention to this issue lately because for the first time ever, I am doing a race as an “elite” and could be subject to drug testing. I read the list of banned substances and it does seem like a slippery slope. There are the obvious performabe enhancers, but also the not-so-obvious substances that could mistskenly get overlooked. You pretty much need approval for any medication whatsoever. I stick to whole food supplements (beet, cherry, etc.).

    1. Whole food supplements are always the best way to go if possible I think. I do personally take a few supplements (Iron, D, fish oil), but I try and get as much of what I can from foods as well. Also, yippeee to being in an elite field! is that for your upcoming marathon?

  2. I’ll admit this is hard for me to relate to… as someone whose loftiest goal is a BQ in the “old lady” division as my kids call it…. I’m wary of supplements because they are usually expensive and unnecessary, and because taking them could have unintended negative consequences. I take levothyroxine for hypothyroid and that requires a TUE at the highest levels, I believe. But, I suspect the local middle school fundraiser 5k will allow me to keep my trophy even if I ‘fess up! This is good info though should things ever change and I have a prayer of competing at a higher level.

    1. I think you are wary of supplements for the most important reasons- specifically being the potential negative affects it could have on your health (and wallet). As much as I want people to be aware for doping purposes, I think health far outweighs any racing concerns(whether its relevant to the races you are running or not).

  3. My other issue with supplements is the ethics of it, generally I think if you’re taking something because you think it gives you an advantage then the idea of what you’re doing is doping, even if the substance isn’t on the banned list YET

    1. That is a really interesting point Marisa and I hadn’t thought about it that way. I mean, I do personally take a few but more for my actual health and not because it makes me run better (I think it does, but that is more the side effect than the reason I take them). But if someone is specifically taking something because it makes them run better- is it potentially nearing that line? In some cases maybe, but at the same time do we then consider gels and nutritional supplements crossing the line because they give a runner a better chance than someone who may not be taking them (by choice)?

  4. I’m curious about the experience of those who ran or played other sports at a collegiate level in the US. As a varsity athlete, we’d get a big talk at the start of every season about what to watch for – and we were especially nervous about getting caught having taken something accidentally, though I’m sure there were folks who were trying to skirt rules on purpose. I remember getting a bad cold and just staring at the wall of products at the pharmacy and not being able to take anything!

    I was actually subjected to random testing which was a very interesting – though nerve-wracking – experience.

    1. I think it depends on the college level you were at. I went to a school that, at the time was in the NJCAA so funding and testing for that stuff was much more minimal. I mean, we won regional and Nationals and I think the only time I was ever tested was Nationals. I remember the pre-season speeches from coach lile you talked about…what to watch for etc.etc. But I don’t remember anything extensive. Basically, just don’t take anything was the standard protocol.

      1. Interesting. I’m in Canada, so just one level of sport competitions for four-year universities. Our talks would be with all the varsity athletes, and I remember that like for the football players half or more of them would have been subject to testing!