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Ultrarunners: Where Do We Draw the Line on Performance-Enhancements?

Posted by on Sep 3, 2013 | 9 Comments

Ultras are one of the most physically-demanding sports in existence. We push our bodies to the absolute limit… then we push some more. Sleep deprivation, hyper and hypothermia, destruction of muscle tissue, extreme stressing of the endocrine and immune system… it’s all part of the game. Under these extreme conditions, the line between success and failure is minuscule. We continually experiment to find the tiniest edge to help us reach the finish line… which may steer us into ethically-questionable territory.

News of another runner death from a cocktail of “supplements” sparked a heated social media debate. Should runners be ingesting supplements, especially ibuprofen (or other pain killers?)

Personally, I have a VERY strong opinion about pain meds and running:

If you need drugs to deal with the pain, you shouldn’t be running that distance at that intensity. 

In fact, I’ve ranted about this topic several times here at BRU, including giving some excellent alternatives to drugs. Still, we have to decide where we draw the line. The issue of unorthodox self-experimentation as a means of improving performance was one of the major themes in my trail and ultrarunning book. What if we find ibuprofen improves our performance AND we take the necessary steps to reduce the potential risk?

That’s when we enter the gray area of running morality. Where are we willing to draw the line between what IS acceptable to improve performance and what’s NOT acceptable to improve performance?

Where do you draw the line? Are there particular shoes that cross your own personal line? How about clothing? Foods? What about drugs?

Many will draw the line at legality- if the law allows it, it’s fair game. There’s gray area in that approach, too, though. Most people are okay with caffeine consumption (me included… Red Bull and Monster are a staple for my hundos.) Most would also say cocaine wouldn’t be acceptable. Again, I agree. But what about amphetamines or ADHD drugs? Both are legal via prescription… but not intended to help keep you awake when running stupid long distances.

The same argument can be made for steroids. Recovery after a race is critical for ultrarunners, and juicin’ up would certainly speed recovery. I would say ‘roids are illegal… but what about hormone replacement therapy for dudes going through andropause? Legal? Yes. Ethical? You tell me.

Pain killers are perhaps the best example. I’ve witnessed people popping pretty much every pain med under the sun during ultras, from the tame acetaminophen to the slightly more dangerous ibuprofen to harder stuff (codeine and tramadol) to some pretty hard stuff (oxycodone), to flat-out stupid (fentanyl, usually used to treat severe pain in cancer patients.)

The last one was based on a conversation I overheard between a runner and their pacer. I’m not sure they knew I was there (in the dark running in very quiet minimal shoes.) She instructed her pacer to only give her “pain drops” if she was in danger of DNFing the race. He asked what kind of pain meds she had. When she answered, I thought I misheard her… but the ensuing conversation confirmed she had did indeed have fentanyl lozenges. Disregard the legality or ethics issue- using hard core pain meds that could easily be fatal given ultrarunning rigors is ridiculous.

Okay, so the vast majority wouldn’t turn to such drastic measures, but  am curious. Where do YOU draw the ethics line? Leave a comment, and feel free to discuss any specifics besides just pain meds, such as:

  • Do barefoot runners consider shoes of any type to be performance-enhancing gear?
  • What about clothing or devices like a cooling vest in heat or electric heating elements in cold?
  • As far as foods- are there any foods that would give a competitor an unfair advantage?

I want to hear your opinions!



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  1. StephenB
    September 9, 2013

    I draw the line at taking something that is not consistent with long term health. A few grams of MSM for example is far safer than traditional painkillers and works great.

  2. Aaron
    September 9, 2013

    Having made that comment earlier last week, I had to come back and admit to taking 400mg of ibuprofen in order to finish a 100 last weekend. I injured myself early on and had to have something to take the edge off the pain in order to get through the last several hours. In the end I was fine with using it in order to avoid wasting everything I’d already put into the event.

  3. Anant
    September 6, 2013

    Dear Jason

    I went through quiet a no. of your posts, thus thought would ask you a shoe suggestion. I know may be wrong place to ask none the less.

    I am currently running VFF Bikila and done my first half marathon in it. And now gearing uptowards second.

    I use to run in cushioned Addidas earlier, however got some knee pain and then switched to minimalist shoes last year. My first one was Bikila and absolutely love it.

    Bikila solved foot blister issues with its toe pockets and plus my foot is wide. Plus the whole ground under the sole feeling is the best. Not thumping as you run makes it the best experience.

    However in my right foot’s second met i feel a sharp pain around5-6 mile mark. Pain disappears as quickly as it appears if i stop running.

    Thus started looking for options, after reading around on net for a while I made a short list of shoes to look at

    1) Inov8 Road X treme 138
    2) Skora Phase
    3) Merrell Barefoot Vapor Glove
    4) New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez

    My major requirements is wide toe box (my width of feet is around 4inches), Zero Drop, Minimalist and thus light and yes am purely a Road Runner.

    Should I look at any 5th Option or any of the above 4 you would recommend. Do give your feedback

    Thank you.

  4. Ingeborg
    September 3, 2013

    Reductil products are slimming tablets, which
    enable obese folks attain bodyweight reduction. Appetite suppressants and extra fat binders are
    the mose successful form of supplements for
    quickly weight decline.

  5. Kevin Werner
    September 3, 2013

    Hey Jason. Great article and great questions. I blogged about this issue a few times on my “shoes are cheating” site a few years ago with very similar questions and conclusions. Here it is if you’re interested.

    kddubb…shoes are cheating

  6. Aaron
    September 3, 2013

    I’m also fine with caffeine to a point, but I’m not too sure about taurine or at least about stacking something like taurine with caffeine for a synergistic effect. Caffeine is already adding enough additional stress on the heart. I think anything more than the amount you’d get from a cup of coffee is excessive, and the more natural the source, the better.

    I imagine that if some competitive runners are taking risks with supplements or drugs in order to successfully perform beyond what their natural capabilities allow, then most would feel some pressure to do that as well. I don’t have a sponsorship to keep or an ego to stroke, and I’m not sure how much I care about those who do. So that’s not really much of an issue for me.

    Mostly I’m concerned about us recreational runners who will go to extraordinary lengths to finish on less than optimal training. Throw in some heavy supplementation on top of excessive amounts of myoglobin coursing through the blood, and you have a recipe for disaster.

    There’s probably no point in regulating luxury factors like gear and shoes. I can’t imagine everyone showing up to a normal race in some kind of regulation kit. Expensive and high quality gear is a real advantage, but so is the luxury of showing a week in advance to acclimate, a comfortable climate controlled hotel room, training at altitude, a masseuse, and so on. However, I would really really love to see a tough 100 held with some pretty strict rules about all that. For instance, everyone camps, no gps, and no gels, no machine-made shoes or clothes, no walkmans, no crews, and so on.

    • Rob Y
      September 3, 2013

      @Aaron: They already have an event *almost* like you describe. It’s called the Barkley Marathons. It’s very, very tough. Believe me I know! Finished the “Fun Run” a couple years ago.

      Anyhow, I also agree that any major type of pain killer use is not only a performance enhancer but really very, very dangerous. I’ve known several ultra runners who’ve succumbed to renal failure because of heavy pain med use stacked with extreme dehydration. Bad, bad stuff!

      However, I’m not against taking all pain meds, just the over dosing and use of the extremely powerful stuff. I mean I’ll get a headache sometimes after being out in the sun all day in a hundred and a couple of tylenol can set me straight pretty quick. Is this an unfair performance enhancement? I don’t personally think so.

      That all being said I’ve very rarely taken any sort of pain meds during a race, like almost never. I’m not even big on use of caffeine supplements either. With the hundreds I strongly feel experience is cumulative. In the early days I seemed to have more trouble with sleep deprivation. But after lots of all nighters at school and many races I find it’s not even a factor much anymore. Just get more calories in is the key, not the caffeine!

      • Aaron
        September 3, 2013

        I have a bottle of 200mg ibuprofen that I’m prepared to use for reducing inflammation after the race or in case I injure myself. But nothing seems to work as well as some easy cycling for which I’ll bring a light single speed bike.

        I should clarify about the machine-made vs. handmade thing. I see the vast industrial network that spits out running gear as an overlooked unfair advantage. There’s a slim minority, probably just me, who have a hard time buying and using gear that was produced at a considerable environmental cost when it’s only used for something so inconsequential. That means it’s mostly only an advantage against hippies like me and only if I didn’t run in it anyway. To level the playing field in that regard, I like the idea of a race where people have to make or source their own hand-made gear produced with no synthetic materials. Think wool or hemp clothes, canvas shoes with rubber soles, and so on.

        • Aaron
          September 3, 2013

          Clarification of a clarification–the Barkley marathons do get rid of a lot the ultra aid station team pampering and pacing fluff, but I’d take it that extra step further while picking an easier course.