Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) are used by many individuals, including tactical athletes. These sorts of drugs are often thought of negatively, however for military candidates, they can have advantages such as being able to help the athlete cope with training volumes. This article will discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of PEDs for tactical athletes, specifically with regards to steroids and stimulants.
Performance enhancing substances are used to improve any form of activity performance in humans. They include steroids, which are organic compounds and range from anti-inflammatory drugs, to anabolic steroids. Anabolic steroids, such as testosterone, promote the growth of skeletal muscle and are the type referred to when steroids are mentioned in this article.
The Negativity Behind Steroids
Steroids generally have a negative stigma attached as they are illegal unless prescribed by a doctor. They are also often associated with vanity, due to the use of steroids by individuals such as bodybuilders, who use these substances to help improve their physical appearance.
Steroids are viewed negatively within sporting situations, as using steroids can give athletes unfair advantages. In order to facilitate fair contests between athletes, PEDs are banned. It gives the athletes a level playing field and helps to promote a fair and equal chance at winning. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) prohibits a substance from an event if it fits two of the following conditions:
- The substance has the potential to enhance sporting performance
- The substance could negatively affect the athlete’s health
- WADA determines that the substance contravenes the spirit of the sport 
Research into the Side Effects of Steroids
There is evidence showing that steroids can cause a number of different side effects such as mood swings (commonly referred to as ‘roid rage’), skin issues such as acne, and increased body hair.
The research behind harmful effects of steroids comes from studies where many participants were given ‘stacks’, which are multiple PEDs. However, these studies were done a long time ago and there is not a great deal of evidence for the effective usage of smaller dosages. Studies mainly used participants who were already using steroids, so it is hard to tell whether the cumulative effect of PEDs skewed the results.
Military use of Steroids
For tactical athletes, where military personnel train to compete against enemies and face life or death situations, it is argued that steroids should be permitted in order to give athletes the best possible advantage. In a recent study commissioned by the Mountain Tactical Institute, results showed that 93% of participants who answered believed that PEDs should be legalized for tactical athletes. Many individuals thought that under proper medical supervision PEDs could assist military athletes, for example by helping them reach higher training levels.
In the same study, participants were asked whether they personally use PEDs, with over half of respondents, mostly military personnel, responding affirmatively. Many people think that as military athletes are given access to training and weapons systems that are not available to the general public, they should also be given access to PEDs which can help them during the course of duty. It is also argued that if legalized, tactical athletes could take individualized doses that are properly monitored in order to prevent possible side effects occurring.
PEDs also include stimulants, ranging from caffeine to amphetamines, which are the second most widely used PEDs within the military after steroids. With a correct dosage, stimulants reduce perceived exertion, therefore helping athletes feel less tired and helping to improve aerobic performance.
Side Effects of Stimulants
Stimulants can also have negative effects, for example caffeine is a diuretic that has the ability to dehydrate the athlete, and it can also impair fine motor control, or lead to more impulsive decisions being made.
There are a number of cases in which stimulants have been used within the military that have been criticized. For example, in 2002, two American pilots were involved in an incident killing four Canadian soldiers and injuring eight others. During a night-time training exercise their fighter jet mistakenly dropped a 500lb laser-guided bomb on the unit and the pilots had been prescribed Dexedrine, the stimulant dextroamphetamine, by the US Air Force in order to reduce fatigue. The accompanying advisory instructions for the drugs warn that they may impair a ‘patient’s ability to engage in potentially hazardous activity such as operating machines’. Though the drug may help to reduce fatigue, it can also lead to impaired judgment which may have been a factor in this instance.
The Decision to take PEDs
When considering taking steroids, the individual should consider whether they are necessary, and whether taking them will be truly effective. Taking steroids and expecting a six-pack will not yield results. Steroids can help with training volumes, which allows athletes to train harder. They work alongside a good diet and training regime, requiring hard work to build up muscle mass and strength.
However, they can be the right option for many, for example for military athletes who have spent years training in elite environments, with top-end programming, and want to push themselves further. To be clear, it is the rare individual that has already dialed in everything else (sleep, nutrition, programming, lifestyle) and should even be considering such supplementation.
Athletes should consider the full range of advantages and disadvantages of PEDs; where steroids may increase strength, they may also have negative side effects such as increased aggression. Even taking readily available stimulants such as caffeine should be carefully monitored as they can lead, for example, to dehydration. Athletes should always pay attention to proper dosages and should be fully committed before taking PEDs.
There is a large amount of information related to PEDs on the internet and individuals considering using them should conduct further research to determine whether taking PEDs are the right course of action. Several good resources include:
- Speed Trap by Charlie Francis, available in book format
- Bigger, Stronger, Faster by Chris Bell, documentary
- Mark Bell or Stan Efferding interviews on the subject
(Feature image courtesy: commons.wikipedia.org)