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Dr. J. on Running

Drug Abuse

Affects Athletes of All Ages

Published May 29, 2000 in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Erik Lords reported that college football players and track athletes tested positive for banned steroid use in record numbers last year. Citing newly released data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, NCAA, 38 athletes tested positive for the anabolic steroid nadrolone in the 1998-1999 academic year, compared to only 14 in 1997 and 13 in 1996.

The percentage of athletes testing positive to other banned substances remained the same over the three-year period. However, those testing positive to nadrolone increased to about one percent of all tested athletes. Nadrolone, a substance that boosts nor-testosterone in the body, is readily sold over the counter as an ingredient in many nutritional supplements. Its use is credited with increased muscle mass and strength, hence its appeal to our mesomorph counterparts in the track and field world.

Unfortunately, reflecting the mood of an apologetic society that evades personal responsibility, the Chronicle report went on to dilute the NCAA findings, and attributed the sharp increase in nadrolone use to ill-informed athletes. The report blamed the supplement manufacturers of misleading the athletes into using the drug by lacing it in harmless supplements.

In reality, athletes and coaches have used muscle-building supplements for as long as these have existed. Despite the known dangers of anabolic steroid use, including organ damage and sudden death, the demand for such drugs continues to drive the supply in a society that glorifies power and strength.

The use of anabolic steroids and muscle-building drugs in track and field seems to be prevalent among sprinters and throwers, where muscle mass and explosive strength are essential. Celebrities who recently tested positive for nadrolone include Britain's Lynford Christie, former Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100 meters, and Jamaican Marlene Ottey, former world champion in the 200 meters.

While steroid use seems to be least on the minds of recreational runners and distance racers, a different kind of drug abuse is prevalent in our midst. In increasing numbers, runners of all age ingest seemingly harmless anti-inflammatory drugs such as Aspirin and Ibuprofin as if they were peanuts or M&M's. At every scholastic and collegiate track meet, not to mention every road race, 500-count bottles of extra-strength white caplets are swallowed as a matter of course.

The stress on the body of a speed workout or a hard race results in numerous micro-tears in the muscles that cause inflammation and swelling. Icing and anti-inflammatory drugs are often prescribed to relieve the symptoms and promote healing. I concur with such cautious use of drugs. I have occasionally taken a pair of tablets after a long run or an intense workout to relieve muscle pain and promote recovery.

However, it distresses me to observe teen-agers passing around the bottle before a race, and swallowing three or four extra-strengths tablets each. In some cases, children carry around prescription-strength painkillers obtained under false pretense, that they share with their teammates before a race.

I wish to clarify a subtle difference between pre-race and post-race drug use. Under no circumstance should an athlete take a painkiller before a race or a workout. Pain is the body's way of telling us when something is wrong. A painkiller may mask early signs of trouble, permitting the athlete to inflict serious damage on oneself. Many times, masking the pain of a muscle sprain or hairline fracture can result in muscle tear or bone fracture.

Besides masking of early warning signs, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs have blood-thinning effects. Their abuse can lead to ulcers and susceptibility to bruising.

Many coaches and parents are guilty of complicity in this conspiracy to drug their children. Through action or inaction, they permit or facilitate the acquisition of medication, making drug use an accepted part of all sport.

It is indeed sad that the pursuit of health and fitness is fraught with the dangers of drug use and abuse. In the normal course of training, a "runner's high" results from the body's secretion of endorphins, those natural chemicals that mask pain and relax muscles and mind. It is ironic that we seek painkillers so we can inflict more pain, and take supplements to distort true ability.

Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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