Lifestyle close-up of a man injecting steroids

Published on March 27th, 2013 | by Joe Starks


Fitness Jargonbuster: Performance-Enhancing Drugs

People who don’t use them are often terrified by them and users shrug every concern off when they look at their abs in the mirror. Yes I am talking about performance-enhancing drugs. What is the pure scientific truth though? Are they illegal? Are they really dangerous? Let’s look into this complicated issue.

What are Performance-Enhancing Drugs and what types are there?

When we hear the term performance-enhancing drugs we often think of anabolic steroids first, but they are just a fraction of the substances used to improve athletic ability and muscle mass. Here are the main groups of substances used:

Stimulants: Caffeine and amphetamines can make you feel perkier when you are tired and help you push a bit further in your trainings. Caffeine is a legal substance and can often be found in the so called “energy” drinks. Amphetamines are illegal unless prescribed by a licensed physician for an ailment.

Lean mass builders: This group includes the infamous anabolic steroids among xenoandrogens, beta-2 agonists and other less popular choices. These substances will cause the muscle tissue to repair itself faster and to become bigger. They are the main substances used by bodybuilders and people who want a lot of bulky musculature for less effort.

Painkillers: I bet you didn’t see that coming. Yes, painkillers ranging from the over-the-counter NSAID Ibuprofen to illegal narcotics will cause the athlete to lose their sense of pain and thus surpass their pain threshold. Also painkillers raise blood pressure, which helps oxygenize the muscle tissues faster.

Sedatives: Propanolol, Alcohol and Marijuana are some of the substances used by athletes to overcome nervousness or to keep calm nerves in sports like archery where a steady hand and a focused eye are needed.

Diuretics: They are often used by wrestlers and athletes who have to overcome a weight limitation like in wrestling sports. To lose a few extra pounds athletes will dehydrate themselves with diuretics to lose a few pounds for the weigh-in of the event. Diuretics can also be used to mask the usage of other drugs.

Masking drugs: These are substances that mask the use of other performance-enhancing drugs. They appear as quickly as the new drugs tests, which is at a very high speed indeed.

Blood Boosters: These substances increase the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity way beyond its normal limits. One of the most popular choices is EPO. Substances like this will help endurance athletes last longer and thus are used more by athletes who do long, taxing sports like marathon runners, Nordic skiers and Cyclists.

Are all Performance-Enhancing drugs illegal and/or dangerous?

The answer for both is no. Some substances like caffeine and ibuprofen (an NSAID) are legal, commonly used substances. The difference is that athletes might take these legal drugs in too large dosages and for the wrong reason. Ibuprofen for instance is made to relieve you of a nasty headache not to take away your overall sense of pain so that you can train more. Caffeine is also ok in a cup of Coffee in the morning, but if taken excessively in pills or energy drinks you can have serious side effects, including heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia etc

Anabolic Steroids

Just because this type of performance-enhancing drug is the most feared it is worth its own limelight. Anabolic steroids are a type of steroids, a group of substances of which some we create naturally. Steroids have saved many people in the world from the tormenting pain of rheumatoid arthritis and most severely allergic people owe their life to them. Even the subtype of anabolic steroids can be beneficial in medicine, especially in people who can’t grow muscle mass due to prolonged rest or inability to move.

There is little proof that by themselves Anabolic steroids cause a change in aggression, but some proven side effects are: Heavier voice for women which is permanent, enlargement of the clitoris in women, loss of testicle mass in men, kidney problems etc

The side effects might take decades to manifest themselves. You might abuse the drugs until you are fifty and suddenly your kidneys fail, or you might realize that you are infertile (this may be reversible if drug usage is stopped).


Performance-enhancing drugs are not only ethically bad for competing athletes, but can cause long term harm to the athlete depending on the level of misuse and the type of drug that has been taken. Also you can get arrested and ruin your reputation forever as an athlete for using such substances.

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