As we look back on the year that was, it seems we may be living through a critical moment in the evolution of our sport. Allegations of widespread doping have rocked the international sporting community to its core; rowing has not escaped unscathed. Whether this is simply a flurry of instances isolated within certain nations, Russia in particular, or the seismic rumblings of something far more widespread, only time will tell.
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One thing is certain: The stakes of winning and losing on rowing’s biggest stage—and even just getting there—are higher than ever.
Amid all the advances in training and technology, it would be naive to think that athletes, coaches, and nations are blind to the temptation to enhance performance through more than hard work. Despite the rules, regulations, and public punishments meted out for doping, the question lingers: Where is the line between simply upping your game and cheating?
Let’s first take a look at what we mean by “doping.” Doping is the use of or intent to use a substance or method to gain an advantage in competition through means deemed unfair or harmful. Fundamentally, doping is cheating. Since its inception in 1999, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has codified and enforced internationally accepted rules around doping. WADA publishes an official list of banned substances and methods each year. To make it onto WADA’s list, the substance or method must meet two of three criteria: it must have the potential to enhance, or does enhance, sports performance; it poses an actual or potential health risk; and its use violates the spirit of sport. While some substances are banned completely, others are only limited or monitored through testing. “The limits are set by WADA,” says Dr. Jo Hannafin, who has served as the USRowing team physician since 1994. “The limits vary based on the drug or substance. For example, asthma inhalers such as salbutamol, salmeterol, and formoterol are not banned, but have limits set based on the prescribed usage of the medication.” Staying on top of potential violations is a big job. Fortunately, WADA isn’t alone in the fight for clean sport. “All international federations are involved in anti-doping,” says Hannafin, who serves as a member of the Sports Medicine Commission for rowing’s international federation, FISA. “FISA determines the athletes who will be tested at the world championships and World Rowing Cup regattas.” “Testing can be random, targeted, or performed on medalists,” she explains. “FISA also monitors testing done by every member country to ensure the national governing bodies police their sport during the remainder of the year.” FISA’s responsibilities also extend to initial adjudication in the case of abnormal test results as well as the review of therapeutic use exemptions for international rowers. Although anti-doping testing is an essential, inevitable part of being on the national team, even up-and-coming rowers should be vigilant. Testing does take place in various parts of the United States in many sports, even at the high school level, but is not yet the standard and far from the norm. With a budget of $8 million to enforce an extensive anti-doping policy, the NCAA is the only national body in the U.S. testing a significant proportion of rowers domestically. At any level, though, health considerations should remain first and foremost in a rower’s mind. “No one should ever consume a banned substance, whether or not they are in a testing pool,” says Liz Fusco, performance dietician for USRowing’s national team programs. “One main reason substances are placed on the banned list is because they are unsafe.”
Training Like the Best
Whether a teenage novice or 95-year-old veteran, rowers and coaches often take their cues from the national team and USRowing is embracing sport science like never before. Supplementation is definitely a part of what happens at the highest level of sport, but it may not be exactly what you think. “Neither USRowing nor the USOC endorses the use of any specific supplements” says Fusco. “The decision and responsibility rests completely on the athlete. What I do is educate athletes to make the smartest and most informed choices.” One helpful tool for decision-making, offers Fusco, is the sport supplement framework created by the Australian Institute for Sport, which ranks supplements based on their safety, legality, and effectiveness. For all athletes, Fusco stresses the importance of consulting with sport scientists, whose job it is to stay up-to-date on the latest research findings by attending conferences and keeping abreast of new studies. While not specifically endorsed, two supplements that some rowers on the U.S. squad use are beet juice and beta alanine. “Beet juice is high in dietary nitrate,” says Fusco. “Nitrates stimulate vasodilation (the widening of blood vessels) and improve the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, which has been shown to benefit high-intensity performance lasting between five to 30 minutes.” Consuming dietary nitrate, she says, combined with the right training stimulus can speed exercise recovery and increase exercise tolerance and power output. “Beta alanine is the ‘beta’ form of the amino acid ‘alanine’ that the body then uses to make a compound called carnosine,” explains Fusco. “Consistently supplementing with beta alanine for one to two months can increase carnosine levels within muscle, which has been shown to enhance high-intensity exercise lasting between one and seven minutes.” There are three possible ways that increased carnosine might improve performance and reduce fatigue says Fusco. “It can help regulate intracellular pH by buffering hydrogen ions in skeletal muscle, enhance uptake of calcium into muscles for contraction, and may reduce oxidative damage.” These effects “would likely be felt in the final sprint of a race,” Fusco concludes, although the degree of effect may vary from person to person.
Caffeine is another substance that has a good deal of research behind its use as a performance aid. “Caffeine is a permitted substance,” says Hannafin, but “WADA does monitor caffeine to monitor trends in athlete use.”
“Low to moderate doses of caffeine activate receptors in the brain and body that can counteract the inhibitory effects fatigue has on mental and physical performance,” says Fusco.
“Research in athletes has shown that it may enhance endurance performance by increasing voluntary muscle contraction while reducing perceived effort and pain sensations.” Higher amounts of caffeine, however, have been shown to increase the risk of anxiety, jitters, elevated resting heart rate, disrupted sleep, and can have a diuretic effect.
“Electrolytes are beneficial in athletes who are either ‘salty sweaters’ or have high sweat rates, as many rowers do,” says Fusco. “Salty sweaters tend to have salt crystals that accumulate on their clothing and forearms after a hard workout or on a hot day, which serves as an indication to increase electrolyte intake.” “If losing more than 2 percent of body weight during a workout,” she says, “incorporating electrolytes in beverages can help with fluid absorption. Electrolytes are present in sports drinks and drink mixes, but also in foods containing salt or high-potassium foods like banana, potato, avocado, spinach, and yogurt.”
“Creatine monohydrate’s ergogenic potential lies in its ability to enhance training adaptations and the accretion of lean mass,” says Fusco. “In elite rowers, this has been shown to improve overall endurance and sprint performance.” However, “it has not been shown to have an acute effect on rowing performance,” she continues and adds a warning: “Creatine is a high-risk supplement, meaning it may be more likely to be tainted with banned substances, so use extreme caution.”
“Whereas beta alanine mediates pH balance within muscle cells, sodium bicarbonate (bicarb) acts as an extracellular buffer by making the blood slightly more alkaline,” says Fusco. “Combining bicarb with beta alanine may enhance the ergogenic potential of both substances,” she says. “However, there is a major risk of gastrointestinal distress with bicarb supplementation and it can be a tedious process since it’s taken in split doses in the two to three hours before a race, so it must be tested extensively in training.” Here again, the body of research in rowers is conflicting, however, and as with many other substances, the use of sodium bicarbonate “is not recommended by USRowing,” points out Hannafin.”
The natural next question is “when” to take something. “It’s important to make a distinction between different types of supplements,” says Fusco. “Supplements for general health may be warranted for athletes of any age if a blood test confirms deficiency in a certain nutrient or if recommended by a medical professional based on gastrointestinal symptoms or future travel plans [like probiotics.]
“Performance aids, or ergogenic aids, are definitely better suited for athletes that are already fully developed and have a complete understanding of their nutrition needs,” she continues. “If an athlete isn’t fuelling or recovering appropriately, performance aids simply will not work.”
“It is important to consume a well-balance diet,” says Hannafin, “complete with protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. Something as simple as a daily multivitamin can be useful, particularly in an athlete whose diet is not well-balanced.” Fusco acknowledges that access to sound nutritional guidance can be a challenge for those outside of the national team setting. “Rowers don’t have a lot of opportunities to work with sports dietitians and receive focused nutrition education,” she says. “Historically, that means that the athletes have had to figure out their nutrition on their own. With the recent increases in collegiate sports dietitians, I am hopeful that will soon change.” Supplements may be what come to mind when one thinks about enhancing their performance, but gaining an edge can also be about what you put on your body, not just in it. Practices range from the practical to the bizarre, from clothing (compression gear, cooling vests) to emersion techniques (ice baths, hot and cold showers), to physical treatments (massage, cupping), to futuristic technologies such as transcranial direct-current stimulation. The science behind each of these is still evolving and studies are conflicting on their effects. Use can also differ between training and racing, so it is important to do some research before simply doing something because it’s the latest trend.
“One of my main questions to athletes in counselling is what supplements they’re taking—not only the type but also the brand and source,” says Hannafin. “I do this in order to understand whether the product is safe, does what it claims to do, and is appropriate based on performance goals, training phase, and overall athlete development,” she says. “Even if an athlete is taking something with evidence to support it, it will not have any effect unless it’s the appropriate dosage, taken for the right amount of time, and in the right phase of training. It also doesn’t work for all sports or distances.” “Measuring performance benefits and being able to specifically attribute it to a supplement in a non-research setting is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Fusco continues. “There are so many factors that can play a role in performance. It’s more about whether the athlete feels they are benefitting from it enough to warrant the risk, effort, and money required to take it.” The truth is that supplements can never be fully guaranteed to be completely free from contamination that may lead to a positive result on a drug test. Hannafin doesn’t mince words when it comes to playing it safe. “There is no magic supplement bullet,” she cautions.
“Supplements that work rapidly to promote weight loss, high energy, or rapid muscle growth are likely tainted with banned substances. Do not risk your rowing career and reputation with a possibly tainted supplement.” “Tainted supplements can be extremely dangerous,” adds Fusco. “One of the problems in the dietary supplement industry is the lack of oversight on ingredient sourcing and formulations.”
If an athlete does decide to use a supplement, one solution is to look for third-party certified supplements that have been rigorously tested for compliance to anti-doping regulations. Looking for the “NSF Certified for Sport ®” logo, an internationally recognized standard for dietary supplements that are considered safe for athletes to consume, is by far the safest bet, although even these products could potentially be tainted in trace amounts. Supplements and ergogenic aids aside, what about legitimate medicine? Even here the onus is on the athlete to be absolutely sure what is going into his or her body. Since the creation of WADA, the principle of “strict liability” has taken even stronger hold; athletes must be more vigilant that ever. Fortunately, there are more reliable resources than ever for athletes to consult. The Global Drug Reference Online website is an excellent source. Set up through a partnership between United Kingdom, U.S., Canadian, Swiss, Japanese, and Australian anti-doping agencies, the site hosts a searchable database of brand and generic medications that can be filtered by nation and sport for as much accuracy as possible. The take-home message again is no matter what you plan to put in your body, check first. Also for any athletes who are or could find themselves in an anti-doping testing pool, adds Hannafin, “if a medication that has been prescribed to an athlete is on the banned substance list, submission of a therapeutic use exception is critical or this may lead to a failed drug test.”
Back to Basics
For all the hype about the potential gains to be had from supplementation and other aids, what if we’re simply looking for more speed in the wrong place? Could simply “training smarter” be the best performance enhancer? “Absolutely yes,” says Hannafin, who believes that examining how you are training with a critical eye should always be the first best option. “The best legal performance enhancers are a good diet and adequate sleep.” She suggests that athletes start with being more aware by “monitoring the critical balance between training hard and overtraining, attention to maintenance of an excellent diet and recovery fuelling, physical and massage therapy to treat injuries, adequate sleep, and monitoring the psychologic stresses and adaptations to them.” Fusco agrees: “First and foremost, no performance aid will ever replace or be more beneficial than food. Given the intensity, volume, and variability in a rower’s yearly training plan, meeting calorie and nutrient needs is hugely important to maximize training and minimize injury risk.”