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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doping news and insights

"Steroids are an illusion" and how to avoid detection in cycling

Tomorrow I will begin the first major series of 2010 - Exercise and Weight loss, which is mainly in response to Time Magazine's article last year, which explained "Why Exercise won't make you thin".

Exercise and weight loss is a topic that we absolutely had to cover, because for all the focus we've had on high performance, elite athletes and science in sport, the aspect of exercise, weight loss and the science behind it is probably bigger.  I would be very surprised if anyone who has ever trained has not done so with a view to losing weight at some stage.  Whether they're elite athletes who need to lose weight to get down to optimal racing weight for performance, or whether they are exercising on doctor's 'orders' to lose weight to become healthy, weight loss is a concern for everyone, and so it's a huge topic, and I'm sure this series will not be the only one we ever do on this subject..

So Time magazine helped inspire the series that I'll begin tomorrow, but I don't want to limit myself to that only.  So we'll look at some practical applications, some of the science of weight loss, and we'll get some expert opinion that will hopefully help you, regardless of your motive!  That's to look forward to tomorrow!

Doping - the illusion of steroids

For today, just as a 'filler' post, I want to link to two articles that really provide a great deal of food for thought on doping.

The first, written by David Epstein of Sports Illustrated, features an interview with an expert on doping in the USA, Professor Charles Yesalis.  The interview was in response to Mark McGwire (he of steroid induced home-run hitting in baseball) saying that in his new position as hitting coach for the Cardinals, he would tell young players that steroids "are an illusion" if they wanted to know the impact of the drugs on their play.

The article is short, featuring a few questions to Prof Yesalis, in which he spells out his criticism of that position.  It is a position that says that the denial of the effectiveness of drugs undermines the credibility of the scientific and medical fields, and I agree.  We've seen this a great deal in cycling too, where people are saying that the doping practices in the sport don't have a significant impact on performance.  It's part condoning the practice of doping, part denial that the problem exists, but the end result is that those opposed to doping lose credibility with the athletes. If you have more time, you may also be interested in this article, also by Epstein, from 2008, looking at steroids in much more detail.

Cycling - how to defeat anti-doping control

Then the second article is this fascinating piece from a really great cycling site, Cozy Beehive, which has a guest post from a former pro cyclist, Joe Papp.  Papp looks at some of the methods (not all) used by pro-cyclists to evade detection.

This is a commonly asked question - "if they are doping, then how do they get away with it?" and the link provides some of the answers.  Remember also the much more basic method used by Dwain Chambers, where he would fill up his mobile phone's message service so that testers who called him could not leave a message, and then when he knew he would test negative, he deleted those messages and allowed the testers to contact him.  That was the "duck and dive" method (his words), a little less sophisticated than what Papp describes in his article, but apparently quite effective - Chambers was only caught thanks to the THG tip-off, and had been using everything for a long time without detection.

There are other methods too.  Micro-dosing, urine substitution, enzyme treatments - all described briefly in the article.  Scroll down to the comments section to read more interesting discussion.  There is this one, which I'll paste here:
Prentice Steffen, ex-doctor at US Postal said the following to L'Equipe in an interview on October 6, 2005. I quote Steffen :

"Before going to the start of the Tour, the riders of certain teams, during their training camps, took EPO (which disappears from the urine within three days, even 12 hours when small doses are used) and took their hematocrits up to around 60. Then a doctor withdraws their blood, saving it in special containers, to lower their blood parameters into the accepted range (50) so that they pass without difficulty the medical controls before the Tour. Then, as the teams well know, during the race the vampires (2) can arrive any day but always between 7 and 8 in the morning. After that time, there is no more testing and the riders were able to re-inject their own blood. They were racing the stage with an enormous advantage- their hematrocrit in the 55 to 58 range during the race- then in the evening at the hotel, someone again withdraws their blood so that they sleep without risk (3) and, especially, they escape the possible tests the next morning.


This practice was used every evening during the three weeks of the Tour?


No, just for important stages in the mountains or maybe for a time trial. It's so simple to do and there's no risk of being caught unless the police intervene. The blood was shuttled by motorcycle in a refrigerated compartment... "
Transparency and urgency

Whether this should be described in public is debatable.  I think the more transparent things are the better.  Cycling's biggest failure, in my opinion, has been its concerted effort at burying the problem, either pretending it doesn't exist or downplaying its impact, as we said above. 

The only way the problem of doping will ever be controlled is to expose everything, the good and the bad.  Everyone should be invited to contribute to this 'cleansing' - I believe that a big part of the reason that cycling today is becoming cleaner (which I believe - see our interview with Yorck Schumacher for his views) is because the media and sponsors drew a line and started to attack doping.  When the media decided that they would cover only doping and not the racing action, cycling had to respond. 

Being transparent is the solution, and I find it positive when people talk, breaking the code of silence that exists in the sport.  Unfortunately, not everyone agrees, and its for this reason that pro-cycling is where it is.  A cyclist who exposes even a tiny part of the truth can expect to be bullied into retreat within the peloton, their credibility and integrity attacked with alarming aggression, ala Simeone and Bassons (and others, I am sure).

Let's hope everyone is listening.  I'm sure they are, and I have no doubt that the net will close on all these methods as much as it can.

Join us tomorrow for the start of the the Weight loss investigated series.  And thank you to Norman and Ron for providing links to those stories!



Anonymous said...

Wow - weight loss from exercise for athletes and non-athletes, and transparency issues in doping in sport in the one post: now, that's what I call value for money!

WRT doping in sport, I could not agree more with you Ross that complete transparency is essential. It's just like the need publicly to expose vulnerabilities in software. Absolutely nothing is achieved by sweeping the problems under the carpet in the hope that the least said the better. If there's a vulnerability, you can bet that one or more crackers will find it sooner rather than later. Solution - advertise the vulnerability; do your best to patch it quickly and effectively; and keep moving forward. Same for illicit performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and for illicit performance enhancing tactics (PETs) such as the blood-doping described in this article.

In fact, I would go further and say, let’s have open, published, peer-reviewed, double blind cross-over studies, that investigate how much benefit PEDs and PETs actually give athletes, both elite and non-elite.

Naturally, where PEDs or PETs are potentially damaging to the study participants’ health, there will be ethical issues. Again, though, this is in itself a fascinating issue, I think. For example, imagine a jurisdiction where anabolic steroids misuse is not illegal per se, but rather anabolic steroids are not permitted in competitive sport. Then imagine a group of adult gym junkies who are adamant in their answers to careful questionnaires and to interview with trained counsellors that they intend to take anabolic steroids in any case, to bulk up and “get stronger” - irrespective of health and medical warnings. Is it unethical to divide such a group into two, and carry out double blind cross-over studies into the effects of significant use of anabolic steroids over the next six months, say? Yes, of course, it's easy to argue that such a study is unethical - but without such studies how are we ever going to know exactly what the outcomes of anabolic steroids misuse is likely to be in groups of young males? This is because a retrospective study of self-admitted misusers has all sorts of methodical problems inherent, as anyone who has looked at the underlying issues of medical statistics knows full well.

And, of course, even a so-called longitudinal study of anabolic steroids misusers has inherent ethical problems – if you know that it’s likely that a significant number in an identified group of self- identified misusers intends to continue to misuse, are you not therefore implicitly condoning their behaviour, or at last profiting from it, academically, by inviting the group to continue to participate in your study into the future?

James said...

Wow, some interesting articles/links.

It was particularly interesting to see the insiders view on how cyclists get by the system.

I'd recently heard of microdosing increasing in popularity. The clearance time, depending on the dose obviously, is supposedly extremely short.

Interestingly, another blog I follow had a post on 2 new drugs that affect EPO levels that are being used in cycling/endurance sports.


Gene said...

My guess is McGwire's mea culpa was precipitated by his poor showing in the very recent Hall of Fame vote. He wants voters - mainly the press, I think - to believe that his home run record and his hitting record in general were not the result of drugs per se, so he should be allowed to slide on that. Whatever the truth of why he used drugs and exactly what effects they have on hitting performance, the fact is that McGwire's statement about using drugs to get through arduous seasons has more than a ring of truth to it. For decades, ballplayers used speed to get up for games (in the same sense that us college students in the 1960s got dexedrine from the student health center to get through finals). Moreover, McGwire is not the only one arguing about the illusion of drugs in baseball: see Eric Walker's statistical analysis and arguments at http://steroids-and-baseball.com/. While I think Walker's biomechanical model is substantively incomplete - extra upper body strength facilitated by drugs helps baseball players (and cricket players?) get many extra hits, including home runs - it does show that McGwire is not walking alone in claiming superior hand-eye coordination is key to hitting. And, that latter statement is obviously true; I don't know of any drugs that can create that. The question is, is there more - medically, biomechanically, on-the-field - to the story of drugs and hitting than that? It strongly appears there is.

(I realize baseball is not a South African sport, but how about cricket and drugs?)

AJ said...

Regarding your upcoming weight loss series, LetsRun.com recently featured an interview with the author of the new book, "Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance" (Matt Fitzgerald, who has authored many other books on endurance training): http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/72655. I just finished reading through it and have been looking for other approaches and perspectives on the topic. Looking forward to the new series!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi folks

Thanks for the comments!

To Colenso;

Couldn't agree more. The fight against doping is difficult enough when you close it off and ask a few good scientists to try to win it. But when you have hundreds of scientists and experts sitting outside that circle and you don't make use of them, well, then you are destined to lose. We always hear that the dopers are a step or two ahead of the testers - well, let's expand the testing pool by allowing everyone to contribute, even those who have less than popular ideas.

It's really the only way. This nonsense where teams now employ internal doping experts is completely wrong, because they're effectively controlling the system, exactly the opposite of what is required.

To James;

thanks for the link - I'm going to check them out in more detail later and then hopefully be inspired to do more on the topic.

To Gene;

Agreed, he is motivated by the desire to change perceptions of him for Hall of Fame purposes. Where I don't agree is that eye-hand co-ordination is the only factor that creates a good hitter. In that regard, I agree with the scientist in that sports Illustrated article - the same level of skill, plus greater strength, will add up to better stats. Also, and maybe this is the key, the drugs will contribute to the player getting more game time, and more 'at bats'. The absence of doping would affect total numbers, not necessarily hitting percentage, because players would play maybe 10% fewer matches.

I recall seeing an analysis of Barry Bonds' career, in the book Game of Shadows, and that showed how his steroid use saw his playing time and numbers improve.

So yes, doping helps players get through what is, in baseball, a long and arduous season, but I don't agree with McGwire and the others that the drugs don't help. Of course they do. This is part of the whole campaign to sweep the problem under the carpet.

To AJ:

I do know the book - in fact, we worked with Matt on our book, The Runner's Body, and so I have heard a bit about that book.

I must warn you that I won't be taking that approach in the series I do. Mine will be on the science of weight loss and particularly combating obesity, whereas I gather his was more on how athletes can get down to optimal weight. That's far more specialized than I want to tackle, based on that Time Magazine article!


Gene said...

My point was (is) that if you don't have superior hand-eye coordination to start with, drugs are not going to give it to you. Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were very good hitters before drugs got involved (McGwire seemed to have used them his whole career). I read the SI article after posting and was glad to see someone else noticed the same thing about the inadequacy of the Eric Walker-like argument. Walker's point that steroids only help the upper body and baseball hitting is a lower body sport ignores the fact that lots of balls are hit entirely or mostly with the arms, using the abs and above as stablizers.

At the same time, I think McGwire's point about the arduousness of the season has to be taken very very seriously. Professional athletes in most sports work under highly exploitive conditions. Were he instead an auto worker or coal miner surreptiously using some drug to get by or perform well, thus helping a corporation make big profits, we probably wouldn't have heard a thing about it. Awareness of that helps guard against the kind of moral sanctimony and self-righteousness that pervades most discussions of PEDs (not that I've seen in your writing).

Anonymous said...

"My point was (is) that if you don't have superior hand-eye coordination to start with, drugs are not going to give it to you."

Nobody would deny that. But if DO have superior hand-eye coordination, then drugs are going to help you get more at-bats, and probably a little extra distance. That's why it's cheating.

Anonymous said...

"Walker's point that steroids only help the upper body and baseball hitting is a lower body sport ignores the fact that lots of balls are hit entirely or mostly with the arms, using the abs and above as stablizers."

Hopefully Walker isn't actually promulgating the theory that steroids don't affect muscles of the lower body.
Though my experience with science is limited to the undergraduate level, I have seen nothing to indicate that muscle fibres of the quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocs, etc. are any different than those of the biceps, pectorals, etc.
It is also my understanding that the muscles that respond to steroids are those which you choose to exercise.
Please correct me if I am wrong on any of this.

If Walker is indeed publishing this sort of thing as fact, he should not be taken seriously.

Gene said...

"But if DO have superior hand-eye coordination, then drugs are going to help you get more at-bats, and probably a little extra distance. That's why it's cheating."

Actually, during all or most of the period in which McGwire used drugs, it wasn't "cheating" - except from a moralistic standpoint.

As for Walker, you can check out his arguments and data at http://steroids-and-baseball.com/.

Sasha Pachev said...

For the record, if you are looking for a case of somebody who never trained with a desire to lose weight, I am one. Now at the age of 36, 25 years and going, longest break 3 days. I am a long-distance runner.