Doping In Sport: Illegal ergogenic aids

Illegal ergogenic aids

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With the increasing popularity of sports comes a corresponding increase in the demand for sports performance enhancing methods. Although the enhancement of performance encouraged in sport, there are some substances and methods that are prohibited because of their effects on the health of the athlete and the unfair advantage they give to that athlete. In the sports context, the usage of these banned substances is commonly known as Doping in Sport.

Ergogenic aids are items designed to increase work or improve performance [1]. The following are summaries that relate to a number of illegal ergogenic aids. If you are unsure about the usage of a specific substance use the comment section and I or one of our readers will clarify that for you. You might also want to read my next article on Sport performance substances.

The list is not definitive and is in no particular order. Do not assume that just because a substance is not listed here that makes it legal.

You may use the table to quickly browse through the article. Just click on a topic and jump straight to it.

Anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids mimic the effect of the male hormone, testosterone. As a result, steroids increase muscle bulk, power and strength. 2 The effects are most noticeable in women due to the fact that they have only a small amount of naturally occurring testosterone.

Effects on the athlete

An athlete may experience an increase in aggression and increased speed of recovery (allowing them to train more frequently and at greater intensity).

They are used in any sport that requires strength or power.

Side effects to the athlete
Dangers of misuse and side effects include
  1. Heart disease and high blood pressure [2];
  2. Dependence and depression [2];
  3. Cancer of the kidneys and liver [2];
  4. Huge changes in hormone levels [2];
  5. Tendon ruptures due to muscle growth outstripping the ability of the tendon to attach to the Bone [2];
  6. Acne [2];
  7. Infertility [2];
  8. Aggressive behavior [2];
  9. The growth of face and body hair, and deepening of the voice, in females [2].

It is hard to imagine why anyone would want to take such a drug! The scary thing is that sadly, more and more people are taking it. Most notable is the increase in use in young men. It appears that this may be related to body image issues and its use is for cosmetic reasons rather than for any performance effect!

Amphetamines and ephedrine

Amphetamines are stimulants that are used to increase alertness, reduce fatigue and induce competitiveness. They are chemically related to adrenaline. 2 They raise heart rate and blood pressure, speed up reactions, and suppress pain and fatigue.

Effects on the athlete

The athlete feels alert and confident and can work hard for longer. Amphetamines have been used in a number of sports, particularly sprinting events to assist in reaction time. Distance athletes, such as cyclists may also use them to mask fatigue by increasing their tolerance to lactic acid and therefore increasing their acceleration, strength, and aggression.

Side effects to the athlete
Dangers of misuse and side effects include:
  1. Anxiety can cause aggressive behavior and can feel ‘low’ afterward [2];
  2. Physical and psychological differences [2];
  3. Increased heart rate, arrhythmia [2];
  4. Heavy use leads to high blood pressure, and liver and brain damage [2];
  5. Some other possible side effects are death, circulatory collapse, hypothermia and stroke [2].       

Common asthma, sinus and cough medications contain ephedrine and a number of high profile athletes have been cautioned, fined or banned for their use, mistakenly or otherwise, of these preparations.

These drugs are extremely addictive, and can also be found in cough mixtures.


Beta blockers are used clinically to control migraines, cardiac arrhythmia and decrease blood pressure2. They prevent the effect of beta receptors (nerves found in the heart and blood vessels). Beta blockers slow the heart rate and reduce tension.

Effects on the athlete

They are unlikely to be used in active sports, however, they have been used in shooting events, archery etc. where accuracy is vital. This works by reducing tremors and also reducing the heart rate significantly so that shots may be fired, or arrows shot between each heartbeat.

Side effects to the athlete
Dangers of misuse and side effects include:
  1. Athlete losing their natural control of heart rate [2];
  2. Lower performance during lengthy events [2];
  3. Can cause sleep problems and depression [2];
  4. If blood pressure falls too low the user faints [2];

Blood doping

Blood doping is the intravenous administration of red blood cells. The blood can either be yours or from someone else if the blood types match. This increase in blood volume increases the hemoglobin which then increases the oxygen going to the working muscles of the athlete. 2

Erythropoietin (EPO) is produced naturally by the kidneys but is also produced synthetically. Its role is to stimulate red blood cell production.

Effects on the athlete

The advantage of either of these methods is the enhanced delivery of oxygen to the working muscles. The result is an increase in the VO2 max of up to 25 %. Blood doping essentially mimics the results of high altitude training.

Side effects to the athlete

Obvious dangers and possible side effects of this practice are the thickening of the blood, infection from the needle, including hepatitis, AIDS, viral and bacterial infections.

Another disadvantage is that the blood ends up being thicker and therefore harder for the heart to pump around the body. This places great stress on the heart and a number of people have died from a heart attack as a result of dehydration and a further thickening of the blood.

Either of these methods (Blood doping and EPO) favors the endurance athlete and it is pretty much undetectable.

Caffeine: (restricted to 12 mg usage)

The athlete benefits from an increase in free fatty acids. This increases endurance capacity by saving glycogen stores, as it enables more fats to be used as fuel thereby reducing and postponing muscle fatigue.

Effects on the athlete

There is also an increase in muscle/cell membrane permeability to Ca2+ ions, increasing muscle contractility [2]. Reaction time and strength are improved. It has been suggested that performance time in a marathon (normal time two and a half hours) may be decreased by as much as 10 minutes with the ingestion of caffeine before and during the event. (Costill 1978)

Caffeine is a regulated substance and athletes must have 12mg/liter in the urine before a positive reading is indicated [3]. This would be the equivalent of 68 cups of coffee in a short period of time.

Growth hormone

Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is the primary hormone responsible for stimulating tissue repair, cell replenishment, brain function, and enzyme production. They are the ultimate aging therapy and affect almost every cell in the body, rejuvenating everything from skin and bones to the immune system [3]

Effects on the athlete

From an athlete’s point of view, HGH assists with the restoration of muscle mass, decreasing body fat, normalizing blood pressure, improving immune function, increasing energy and can even mask the use of steroids [2].

It is primarily used by sports that involve strength and power, including swimming, weightlifting, bodybuilding, boxers, runners etc.

The most interesting fact is that HGH is not detectable, in much the same way as EPO, as we all have varying levels in our body. They aren’t cheap though.


Narcotics are drugs that bring relief from pain and give the recipient a feeling of euphoria2. There are many different types such as codeine, morphine, and heroin (opiates) to name a few examples.

Effects on the athlete

The immediate effects are euphoria, which is a feeling of well-being. They briefly stimulate the higher centers of the brain and then depress the activity of the nervous system, which causes relief of pain [2].

They are primarily used in sports where injuries are common. It allows an athlete to remain competing while injured, in a euphoric state. Narcotic analgesics are very strong painkillers and are a banned substance, however, there are analgesics like codeine which are a regulated substance and are actually allowed for use up to a certain level in their system.

Side effects to the athlete

These drugs are highly addictive and the risk of respiratory failure is high.

Dangers of misuse and side effects include:
  1. Constipation and low blood pressure [2];
  2. Constipation and low blood pressure [2];
  3. They are addictive (even codeine) [2];
  4. The withdrawal symptoms can be very unpleasant [2];
  5. Pain is a warning signal. Suppressing it can lead to further injury [2];
  6. Morphine and heroin are illegal in most countries except for medical use [2].


Effects on the athlete

These are to reduce anxiety and calm you down. Examples are Librium and Valium.

Dangers of misuse and side effects include:
  1. The user feels dull and lacking in energy [2];
  2. They are addictive and hard to give up [2];
  3. Diuretics [2];
Effects on the athlete

These increase the amount of water excreted in urine. They are used for patients with heart disease who have too much body fluid.

They are misused by boxers and wrestlers who want to lose weight quickly before a weigh in or other athletes who want to flush traces of banned drugs from their bodies.

Dangers of misuse and side effects include:

Sodium and potassium salts get excreted as well as water. The body needs these salts. Low levels of potassium lead to muscle weakness and heart damage.

Doping is not just the players’ fault. It includes the support staff such as doctors, physiotherapist, coaches and etc. It is your responsibility to remember that the presence of a prohibited substance in your urine is an offense, irrespective of how it got there. A doping offense can occur in various ways such as the deliberate use of a prohibited substance, the use of medication or preparation with a prohibited substance in it without knowing.

What happens if you test positive for doping?

According to The South African institution of drug-free sports should you test positive for doping you will be notified via your federation or sports club of the outcome of your test. You will be provisionally suspended from all sporting activities during the investigation process, during which you will be entitled to have a 2nd sample analyzed if you wish.

A doping hearing will be organized by your federation. If you are convicted, your name will be forwarded to the international body. You may appeal the decision for evaluation.

Once your case has been concluded and you are found to be guilty, your results will be disqualified. You will be banned for two years for the first offense and you get banned for a lifetime for a second offense. You may not participate in any training or coaching during the duration of your ban. Consider that the next time you are tempted to take any prohibited substances. Don’t forget to share this article with a friend before they do something they might regret and remember to subscribe to get more content like this. Until next time, keep moving.

  1. Butterfield, G. (1996). Ergogenic Aids: Evaluating Sports Nutrition Products. 191-197.
  2. (2016, February 2). Ergogenic aids – blood doping and EPO. Retrieved from ALISON:
  3. (2016). WORLD ANTI-DOPING CODE (International Standard). World Anti-Doping Agency
  4. South African institution of drug-free sport

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Thando W. Dlamini, BA

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

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