Athletes competing today will go to many lengths in order to improve their performance, continually pushing back the boundaries of human performance. They are continually looking for new ways of enhancing their performance. Advancements in science and training techniques in recent years have allowed athletes to have a huge gain in their pursuit of exellence, any substance or phenomenon that enhances performance is known as an ergogenic aid. Ergogenic aids vary from legal (such as creatine monohydrate) to illegal (like steroids).
Erythropoietin is a hormone produced by the kidneys that stimulates the production of erythrocytes (red blood cells). EPO (as it is otherwise know) can now be manufactured artificially due to the advancements of science, this form is known as recombinant erythropoietin or ReEPO. This was originally given to patients with renal failure. When athletes train at altitude then EPO is produced in order for more RBC’s to be produced to compensate in the lower partial pressure of oxygen. The use of ReEPO produces similar, but more dramatic affects and so efficiency in blood getting to the working muscles is greatly increased due to the higher haemoglobin levels. Because of the unfair advantage that ReEPO gives to athletes, it is illegal and the IOC classified it as a doping substance in 1990.
Altitude training has a very similar affect to ReEPO as discussed earlier. It is totally legal, but not all athletes do it, this is due to a number of reasons. Not all athletes can afford to train at high altitudes, some suffer from altitude sickness, and it is also difficult to train at the same intensity as sea level resulting in detraining. Some athletes however train in specially constructed altitude houses. These allow the environment in which the performer is in to be altered. The partial pressure of both O2 and CO2 can be altered along with the humidity levels and temperature.
Blood doping has the same effect as taking ReEPO. The procedure involves an amount of blood being taken from the athlete and frozen, the body then produces more blood to replace that which is lost, 5-6 weeks later the frozen blood is reintroduced to the athletes circulatory system. This process results in a higher amount of RBC’s in the body, which means an increase in the oxygen carrying capacity. Blood doping is illegal but is very hard to detect. It only really benefits endurance athletes.
Creatine monohydrate is a naturally occurring substance found in the body. It can be bought over the counter and is totally legal. However if the athlete exceeds the recommended dose of 20-30g a day then it becomes illegal. The supplement increases the amount of phosphocreatine stored in the muscles and will therefore increase the threshold of the alatic system. More creatine stores will mean that the athlete will be able to undertake high intensity, anaerobic exercise to a higher level and recovery times will also be improved. There are no known side affects of creatine monohydrate although initial weight gain has been experienced due to water retention.
A nasal strip is a small adhesive plastic strip that is worn across the bridge of the nose to hold the nostrils open. They were originally an anti-snoring device, which came out in the 1990’s. Professional footballers and long distance runners mainly use them today. The marketing suggests that they allow an increased amount of air to enter the lungs and therefore increase the amount of O2 the athlete can take in. unfortunately due to scientific research the only known positive affect of the strips are that in very hot environments they prevent the brain from overheating.
The placebo effect is the theory that it is not the physiological affect of the aid but the psychological one. For example studies in some strength training athletes have been given a placebo but been told that it was actually anabolic steroids and have made substantial strength gains never the less. This type of study shows that it is the positive mental attitude that proves to be the cheapest but most effective type of ergogenic aid.
Athletes wanting to further the boundaries of performance will always be the case in all sports with all performers wanting to better others and themselves. It is a question of how these athletes choose to push these boundaries, by means of artificial aids, natural methods or just strong positive attitude, that is the thing that is left to be decided.