Drugs In Sport: The Most Common Performance-Enhancing Methods

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Scandal! Scandal! Scandal! Russian athletics has been embroiled in a drugs-related mess, with authorities standing accused of using banned substances to enhance the performance of athletes, and then intentionally destroying over 1,000 crucial samples. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which commissioned a report into the dodgy goings-on, has called for Russia to be banned from future competitive events, but Russian authorities have essentially responded with a great, big 'prove it'. 

This isn't the first time athletics has been rocked by accusations of doping, nor will it be the last. All sport is peppered with cheats, desperate to gain a competitive edge over rivals and willing to use any means available. Below are the most common performance-enhancing methods in use.

Anabolic Steroids

That loud, angry, veiny, terrifying bastard at the gym who treat dumbbells like ragdolls might just be on anabolic steroids. Testosterone, nandrolone and tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) fall into this category, stimulating muscle growth and, in many cases, higher levels of aggression. They’re popular because they allow you to train harder and make faster recoveries, enabling you to get the results without putting as much hard work in.


Peptide hormones are actually naturally-occurring substances that circulate in the bloodstream, though, sneaky as we are, we've found ways of using them to gain unfair physical advantages. Human growth hormone (HGH), insulin and erythropoietin (EPO) can enhance muscle growth and boost your production of red blood cells, essentially transforming you into a supercharged tank. They can also alter the balance of other hormones in your system.

Beta2 Agonists

It may sound like Greek to many of you, but you've probably come across Beta2 Agonists many a time, without giving them a second thought. You may even use them on a daily basis, naughty naughty. They feature in inhalers, relaxing users’ airways and allowing more oxygen to makes its way into the bloodstream. They've caused a lot of controversy in the past -- just ask Alain Baxter -- as inhalers still tend to be seen as innocent breathing aids. However, they're undoubted performance enhancers.


As anyone who likes booze or coffee can testify, diuretics (such as alcohol and caffeine) make us piss. A lot. They’re not performance-enhancing drugs themselves, no matter how much you wish they were, but are often used as a means to flush the body of any residue left behind from steroid use. They're also loved by by boxers, who can use them as a quick and easy way to make weight ahead of fights.


Amphetamines fall into this category, and though they're mainly associated with ADHD and narcolepsy treatment, it's been found that small doses can actually elevate performance. Athletes can use them to increase their heart rate, brain activity and overall focus, enabling them to perform at a higher level than usual.


Perhaps surprisingly, athletes have been known to use narcotics in order to train for longer periods of time. That’s because substances like morphine (and... ahem... heroin) kill pain, allowing you to fly through extended sessions without feeling worse for wear. Long-term effects can be particularly bad, however, as athletes risk doing irreversible damage to their bodies by ignoring continually existing injuries.

Blood Doping

Blood doping is a huge issue, though it doesn't always involve the use of banned substances. It's simply the process of artificially increasing the concentration of red blood cells in the bloodstream. As we all know, such blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, and a higher concentration can seriously improve an athlete's aerobic capacity and endurance.

Enemies of sport have two main methods available to them. They can inject extra red cells, taken either from a donor or the athlete's own blood -- your body replenishes the supply once they've been removed -- or take drugs, such as peptides, to boost production. 

Images: Cyclocross, photoreti, Tracktownphoto via Flickr