Performance-enhancing substances

Performance-Enhancing Substances used by Athletes
Performance-enhancing substances (PES) are widely used by athletes of all levels in sport (Momaya, Fawal, Estes, 2015). In Australia the most recent and certainly largest scandal involving PESs was at the Essendon Football Club in the Australian Football League which ultimately left half of the team suspended for the 2016 season. Prior to that the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, due to blood doping and the use of PESs, in the Tour de France was well publicised. In America the one of the big three national sports, baseball, has had its battles with PES use amongst its professional athletes. So much so that following an investigation into PES use in which 89 baseball players were named the US Government labelled the issue, PES use, a national health policy concern (Momaya et al. 2015). Of all the PES anabolic steroids (AS) receive the most attention and are probably the best known and most publicised. Even in teens AS use is prevalent with a 2002 study of middle and high school students showing usage rates of 5.4% in boys (Gregory, Fitch, 2007). Further to this a 1999 study found AS usage rates of 6.3% in varsity football players (Gregory et al. 2007). These significant usage numbers demonstrate the need to educate athletes about other more positive and legal ways of enhancing performance. One approach being taken is to examine the Placebo Effect (PE) on sports performance in the hope that if an athlete can see performance improvements through the development of their mental skills than they may be less inclined to use AS (Maganaris, Collins, Sharp, 2000).Performance-enhancing substances

A placebo is any substance or procedure given to a participant that is thought to be inert therefore should not produce any physiological or psychological benefits (Rawdon, Sharp, Shelley, Thomas, 2012). When the placebo induces a genuine physiological or psychological effect that is not due to its inherent powers this is a PE (Stewart-Williams, Podd, 2004). For example, increased strength subsequent to taking a placebo that is thought to be a PES. The PE has been observed in the medical field in studies on Parkinson’s disease, depression, analgesia, autism, cerebral palsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Radon et al. 2012). Other research on the PE in the medical field is working to identify specific psychological, neurobiological and neuroanatomical mechanisms that are driving placebo responses, see Price, Finniss, Benedetti (2008) for a review of this. In the field of athletics and sports performance the PE has been shown to increase performance. The landmark study of this is Airel and Saville (1972) where they told their participants that they would be given a steroid when in fact they were given a placebo. Results showed a statistically significant increase in strength. In the several decades since the PE has been studied across a wide range of applications in sports and athletics with notable studies being on strength (Maganaris et al. 2000), endurance in cyclists (Clark, Hopkins, Hawley, Burke, 2009), endurance in runners (Mclung, Collins, 2007) and anaerobic capacity (Beadie, Coleman, Foad, 2007).

Debate still exists into the pyschological mechanics of the PE. The two main models of PE are expectancy theory and classical conditioning and were explored by Stewart-Williams and Podd (2004). Their literature review of mainly medical studies into conditions such as pain, depression, swelling and sensorimotor performance found that classical conditioning is one component of the PE but verbal input can also shape conscious expectancies in some cases which affect the PE. The manipulation of verbal input is aimed at eliciting an expectancy effect (EE), resulting in the placebo producing an effect because the participant expects it to. This offers an interesting direction for research into the PE and sport performance. If research can demonstrate that a coach’s verbal input in conjunction with the PE can improve the athlete’s performance this further strengthens the argument for development of mental skills over the use of illegal or unhealthy PESs like AS.

The literature studying the PE and muscular strength or endurance uses ‘deception’ to elicit an EE. For example, Maganaris et al. (2000) told the participants of their study that they were taking AS when in fact they were taking saccharine tablets. Another study, Kalasountas, Reed, Fitzpatrick (2007) told the participants they were taking an strength enhancing Amino acid when they were taking a milk-sugar tablet. In both studies the deception successfully increased the EE and consequently performance also increased from baseline testing to trial 1 as hypothesised. However following the deception being revealed both studies found performances returned to near baseline levels. Authors of both studies concluded similarly that results support a link between induced EE and performance improvements. The relatively short shelf-life of these expectancy induced improvements, returning to near baseline following the deception being revealed, may weaken the argument for using mental skills over illegal or unhealthy PESs such as AS.

This study tries to add to the literature on the PE in sports and athletics, specifically regarding skeletal muscle strength and endurance, as well as to provide suggestions for a possible sports intervention. We investigated whether the PE occurs in tests of skeletal strength and endurance, and whether it is possible to maintain the gains caused by the PE after the participants know that the substance consumed is not a performance enhancer, after all. This study will use deception, as in Maganaris et al. (2000) and Kalasountas et al. (2007), to induce expectancies and elicit a PE in college aged men aimed at increasing muscular strength and endurance. However, due to ethical concerns the false information masking the placebo will be that it is an Amino acid rather than AS. In an effort to maintain the potential placebo-induced performance increases when the participants are told of the false nature of the placebo they will be told the placebo is ‘still’ an Amino acid but it has just been proven to be ineffective at increasing muscular strength or endurance rather than that it is a sugar tablet. The primary hypthosesis of this study is that eliciting a PE will increase muscular strength and edurance from baseline to trial 1. This parallels other similar research. The secondary hypothesis is that performance improvements can be maintained by manipulating the EE rather than removing the PE.

About Author

Garry Bartlett completed his Diploma of Remedial Massage at the Australian College of Massage in 2012.  Since graduating he worked in Mackay for 6 years building up a varied client base using his hands on skills to treat injuries as well as general massage for injury prevention and to improve muscle function. Follow me  –