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Secondhand Doping: Does It Exist?

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Apr. 8, 2014
If a clean runner trains with someone he knows is doping, should both be in violation of doping rules? Photo: www.shutterstock.com

The training partners of runners on performance-enhancing drugs probably also benefit.

When the concept of secondhand smoking was introduced to the public, much of the public was skeptical of the notion, which seemed a reach, if not a matter of piling on. But while the idea that smoking could cause lung cancer in nonsmokers strained credulity for some, solid scientific research has demonstrated that it can and does (along with causing a host of other smoking-related illnesses and conditions).

Here I would like to suggest the possibility that secondhand doping is every bit as real as secondhand smoking. This concept may seem even more fantastical than secondhand smoking seemed initially, and I can’t say with certainty that it does exist, but the possibility should be taken seriously. Yes, I am proposing that the use of performance-enhancing drugs may, in some circumstances, enhance the endurance performance of athletes who do not use the drugs, but merely live in proximity to (or, more specifically, train with) those who do.

Here’s how it might work. One of the more curious phenomena in the science of running is the observation that the highest VO2 max readings and the highest running economies never coexist in the same athlete. The most efficient runners are always somewhat aerobically disadvantaged compared to those who born with the biggest aerobic engines. Why is that?

This mystery may have been explained recently by the work of Stephen McGregor, an exercise physiologist at Eastern Michigan University. McGregor’s study of the running stride suggests that an individual runner’s stride only becomes more economical to the degree that it is forced to essentially evolve toward greater efficiency through an unconscious, long-term process. The neuromuscular patterns that constitute an individual runner’s stride are like a species of life inhabiting a difficult environment. Much as changes in an ecosystem may cause a given species to evolve in a particular direction by threatening its existence, running to the point of fatigue appears to stimulate changes in neuromuscular patterns that improve running economy by forcing the runner to pay a cost for his current limitations.

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This is why McGregor has found that runners run more economically than non-runners but don’t walk more economically. Trained runners have a long history of subjecting themselves to fatigue in running, but not in walking, so their running stride has been forced to become more efficient, while their walking gait has not. It is also why McGregor has observed that fitter runners are more economical than less fit runners at faster speeds, but not at slower speeds. Faster runners seldom if ever run to the point of extreme fatigue at slow speeds, so the neuromuscular patterns that govern the stride at those speeds are never forced to evolve. It is also why McGregor has seen evidence that runners who train at faster speeds and runners who train in groups tend to be more economical than runners who avoid faster running and/or train alone. Those runners who most routinely push against their current limits gain efficiency most rapidly.

And for the same reason, the runners with the greatest aerobic capacities are never the most economical. Even when they train in groups, these runners never have to pay quite as high a price for inefficiency as runners with lower VO2 max numbers. The group cannot routinely push the runners with the largest aerobic engines as hard as it can push runners with smaller engines who are willing to really suffer to keep up.

But doping could change that. Suppose the runner with the third-highest VO2 max in a group of 10 starts taking EPO, and suddenly he has the highest VO2 max and is significantly faster than he ever was before. Now the clean athlete who used to have the highest VO2 max in the group but now has only the second-highest VO2 max has a training partner who can push him every day as never before. If this runner takes advantage of this opportunity by allowing himself to suffer a little more than he’s accustomed to suffering in training for the sake of keeping up with the new group alpha-runner, then his running economy is likely to improve, along with his racing performances. He will become a better runner through secondhand doping.

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If this effect could be proven, should knowingly training with an athlete who is using performance-enhancing drugs become a punishable offense? I think so, because in this case, training with a dirty runner would allow individual runners to combine the highest natural aerobic capacities and the highest running economies, which does not happen naturally. Even though the illegal drug never enters the body — not even secondhand, as in smoking — there is a physical effect on the body of the dirty runner’s training partner, whose neuromuscular stride patterns evolve toward greater efficiency as a direct result of routine training exposure to the cheater.

Something to think about.

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About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.  

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