By Charles Bausman
Professional sports athletes connected with the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) have had their reputations and careers tarnished. They cheated their sport according to the regulatory bodies that establish the rules and testing for banned substances. However, they’ve also smashed records and have achieved what was thought unachievable in the world of sports.
By using substances that allowed them to recover faster, build muscle, and increase their athletic performance they created an unfair advantage against their competitors. This has been heavily criticized in the world of sports, but can we give this same advantage to our tactical athletes?
The situations that tactical athletes work in are exceptionally dangerous. They need the unfair advantage over their adversaries in order to do their job and to stay alive.
Tactical athletes are not playing a game. They are not cheating anyone. If PEDs do create an unfair advantage, why aren’t we giving them to all of our tactical athletes?
Soldiers and athletes in the past often used various types of performance enhancers in order to prepare themselves for battle or competition. Roman gladiators used varying homemade stimulants and hallucinogens to prevent fatigue and injury. Olympic athletes in the classical era would consume raw animal testicles prior to competition to increase testosterone levels.
German and Japanese soldiers and pilots were given an amphetamine for use to deter exhaustion and increase performance. This included kamikaze suicide missions by Japanese pilots towards the end of the conflict.
In the modern military, pilots are often given stimulants such as Dexedrine on long missions, as the pilot may not be able to stand or move for the duration. They may also take sleep aids in order to maximize rest during a high operational tempo. A 2010 survey study reported that stimulants were used by pilots on “35% of sorties an average of 2.8 hours after takeoff.” (Gore, Webb)
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has conducted research and testing on artificially increasing soldier performance under the Peak Soldier Performance Programme. This included a biochemical approach to reduce daily caloric needs, lowering core temperatures, and boosting mitochondria levels to increase energy.
Ongoing testing is occurring at Louisiana State University, backed by the military, on the effects of artificially maintaining testosterone levels (through injectable supplementation). The sample population endures simulated physical exhaustion similar to those experienced by the front line soldier while testosterone levels are monitored. When those levels begin to drop (as will naturally occur with inadequate rest and extreme physical demands), testosterone is injected into the patient.
The results of the testing are not yet complete, but it is clear that increasing human performance for the soldier or tactical athlete is something that has interested militaries for some time.
If the benefits of increased performance have been validated by the military, why aren’t readily available PEDs available to soldiers?
The Argument Against PEDs
- It’s illegal. Substances such as anabolic steroids and human growth hormones (HGH) are listed as Schedule III controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Possession and distribution is classified as a felony charge under state and federal statutes. In addition, it’s illegal under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) with possession leading to imprisonment and dishonorable discharge.
These substances may be prescribed by a Doctor legally with blood work showing low testosterone levels, but are not given simply for athletic performance enhancement.
- Ethics. An argument exists against modifying soldiers and the path it may lead to. If the military provides PEDs to increase physical performance, are they then justified to find ways to block stressors that decrease mental performance?
Imagine a soldier who is given a pill and no longer feels fear or anxiety. While this may increase combat performance, will it affect his actions in non-combat scenarios? How would it affect the soldier when he’s assimilated back into civilian society? What long-term effects would exist from the use of such drugs?
- Understudied by Medical Community. The medical and academic community seems to be behind the power curve in studying the positive and negative effects of PEDs on the human test subjects. While underground specialists have experimented with various cocktails to improve performance or aesthetics, academia has been slow to produce the same kind of research. A 2009 study by two biological experts argued that “more information is needed on the long-term effects of hormone manipulation on performance and fitness,” (Husak, Irschick) as the current research is inadequate.
- Users are Under Educated. As PEDs are commonly taken without the proper education, athletes may use improper dosages and put themselves at risk. As with any drug, taking too much can be extremely dangerous to one’s health. Uninformed and uneducated self-administration is extremely dangerous.
What’s Used Now?
PED’s used by athletes (both professional and amateur) today fall under four broad categories. While they are listed separately below, they are often mixed, or “stacked” to create a cocktail specific to the athlete’s sport or goal.
- Erythropoietin (EPO) – A hormone that increases the number of Red Blood Cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. An injection of EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells, significantly increasing the aerobic capacity and muscular endurance. While effective, it has also believed to have lead to the sudden death of several competitive cyclists.
- Testosterone or Anabolic Steroids – Multiple variations of natural and synthetic steroids increase, which increase testosterone levels. Steroids have been proven to decrease recovery time, increase strength and muscle mass, and increase short bust sprinting and explosiveness. Current academic research is inconclusive on the relationship between testosterone and endurance, although multiple endurance athletes have reported its efficacy.
- Human Growth Hormone (HGH) – Another naturally occurring hormone, HGH supplementation may increase bone and tendon strength, increase energy, and increase immune system function. HGH taken alone has not proven to necessarily increase performance, although it has been taken with steroids to good effects.
- Corticosteroids – Often used medically to provide relief for inflammation, including asthmatic symptoms. It reportedly can lead to brief energy bursts and a feeling of euphoria. It has been used by multiple cyclists for a competitive advantage.
- Beta Blockers – A prescribed medicine that can block the effects of adrenaline. It can slow the heart rate, relax blood vessels, and mask the symptoms of anxiety such as sweat or trembling. Beta-Blockers have been used by athletes in sports such as golfing, table tennis, and competitive shooting which require exact hand-eye coordination.
Applications to the Tactical Athlete
If we break down the physical requirements of the tactical athlete, it seems that PEDs might provide a greater advantage to soldiers and police officers. Let’s hypothetically match the PED with the requirements, were it legal and under medical supervision.
- Relative Strength: Increasing the ratio of strength per bodyweight, with minimal weight gain. Develops a durable body, less prone to injury over a long career. Includes the chassis link between legs, core, and low back. Testosterone, HGH
- Work Capacity: High-intensity efforts utilizing total body movements from three to thirty minutes in duration. Most applicable to a firefight or subduing a resisting suspect. High metabolic/anaerobic demand. Includes short bursts of speed, power, and agility. Testosterone, Corticosteroids
- Endurance: Generally consisting of running, rucking, or long distance swimming. Utilizing the aerobic energy demands and major muscle groups for a constant effort over a significant period of time (60 min or more). EPO, Testosterone as displayed by cyclists
- Recovery: To increase or sustain performance levels, proper recovery is required. Inadequate recovery and caloric requirements can lead to reduced testosterone, exhaustion, and mental dullness. Coming “down” from an adrenaline rush can lead to poor sleep and recovery. Testosterone, HGH, Beta-blockers
Athletes have anecdotally proven the efficacy of PEDs in its relationship to increase performance in sports. To be clear, they were already elite level athletes who would have likely been successful in their respective sports. With that said, it seems as though it has propelled them to new levels of record-setting performance.
PEDs application to the tactical athlete presents it’s own challenged. All of the PEDs listed are generally cycled over time and require equipment. For a soldier living out of his ruck for six months, he likely can’t carry a supply of steroids or even be in the proper sanitary conditions to safely utilize them.
Under the ideal circumstances, however, these PEDs could be used as tools to make the tactical athlete stronger, faster, and more alert. Is it worth it?
In our gym, only Rob has first-hand experience with PEDs, with a prescription for testosterone in the last year (read about his experience below).
My Experience with Synthetic Testosterone by Rob Shaul
Cliff Note Version: Love the stuff and would recommend it for male tactical athletes 40+ years old.
I’m 48 and first got prescribed testosterone when I was 46. Took a break for 18 months and got re-prescribed last May.
Did it on my own the first time. Was simply curious.
I started by going to a family doctor and getting a blood test. My testosterone was within the “normal” levels for a guy my age and the family doctor wouldn’t prescribe. He suggested I work out more!
So I found an “anti-aging” doctor here in Jackson (there are at least 2). She made me re-take the blood test (family doctor test cost $100, hers cost $600!) Results looked the same to me but she was happy to prescribe testosterone. I did injections for about 6 months, then had to stop to have a child (testosterone lowers sperm count).
During the pregnancy and subsequent birth of my 3rd son (ages 23, 21 and … 1) I didn’t think much about getting testosterone again, and it was actually my partner who suggested I see a doctor again.
Why? My sex drive. I had none …. and it was becoming a serious issue in my relationship.
We men are pretty used to having a greater sex drive than our female partners. We deal.
Women aren’t used to their male partner lacking sex drive, and in my relationship it caused issues. She wondered I found her attractive, plus we definitely weren’t as close.
Again I visited a local family doctor … and paid for a blood test. Again my testosterone numbers came back within the “normal” range, and the family doctor wouldn’t prescribe testosterone for me.
She actually suggested my sex drive was low because she suspected I watched too much internet porn. In fact, I didn’t watch any – because I had no sex drive! So funny!
This time, curious, I went online, searched for “testosterone” and got bids from two companies in Florida. (From what I hear, there are male-focused “anti-aging” clinics on nearly every street corner in Florida.)
Anyway – I had to fill out an online questionnaire and send the company my blood tests. An actual doctor prescribed me the synthetic testosterone (so it’s legal), and with their “package” also included was some B12, some other concoction and a pill they wanted me to take every week. I inject my butt with 1ML of synthetic testosterone once a week (it’s easier than you think). My understanding is that this isn’t a very high dose.
The entire packet cost me $1,000, which I assume is fairly expensive, and lasts for about 4 months.
Within a week I noticed the difference. Just like the ads describe – I had more energy, was more alert, felt better physically, and my sex drive returned.
Physically, I haven’t noticed any difference in my aerobic performance (still a s-l-o-w runner) but did notice changes in the gym. I’m about 10# stronger in all my lifts, but I’ve also put on some upper body mass and am up 5-10# in total bodyweight – which is a concern.
I definitely recover better in terms of muscle soreness. My joints still ache like before, but muscle recovery is better.
Medically, I haven’t read anything recently that’s made me fearful of long-term effects.
I’m currently on the last vial of my 2nd “packet” from this company but found I’ve stopped bothering with all but the testosterone – and haven’t noticed any difference. My sense is the company pumps up the price for the rest of the stuff. The salesman is always pushing HGH on me, but I’m not interested. I’ll try to find a cheaper source of testosterone next go around.
I do know of at least one current military officer in his 40’s who was legally prescribed testosterone by his military doctor. I’m sure he’s not alone. As well, I know another tactical athlete, then in his late 30’s, who for the first time in his life developed some belly fat, noticed significant strength loss, and simply felt like crap, who went to the doctor, took a blood test and “had the testosterone level of a 75 year old.” He got prescribed testosterone and it made a huge difference.
Questions, or want to share your experience? Email email@example.com
- “Medical Issues Associated with Anabolic Steroid Use: Are They Exaggerated” Hoffman and Ratamess, Journal of Sports Science 2006
- “Ethics and the Enhances Soldier of the Near Future” Col Shunk, Dave, Military Review 2015
- “Steroid Use and Human Performance: Lessons for Integrative Biologists” Husak and Irschick
- “Fatigue and stimulant use in military fighter aircrew during combat operations” Gore, Webb, Hermes
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