There are many ways to increase your speed and reach your race goals without the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
The sport of distance running has been rocked by several doping scandals within recent years. Just this year, Russian runner Lyubov Denisova, a two-time Los Angeles Marathon winner and former runner-up in Boston and New York City, failed a testosterone test, and Fernando Silva of Portugal, silver medalist in the European cross-country championships, admitted to using EPO.
If you're like a lot of runners, you have probably never come close to using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but have wondered just how much faster you might become if you did use them. Here are four categories of legitimate alternatives to doping that, if exploited in concert, will very likely give you the same benefits as blood doping and steroids--without the risks.
Improvements in running performance are closely correlated with running volume. In other words: The more you're able to run without breaking down, the faster you will race (up to a point, of course). Supplementing your normal workouts with cross-training allows you to enjoy more benefits of running without the risks. Low- and non-impact activities such as pool running and elliptical training challenge the same muscles and physiological systems as running but do not subject the bones and connective tissues to the impact forces that are the root cause of most overuse injuries in runners.
Non-impact cross-training is very popular among today's elite runners. Marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe uses a cross-country ski machine; 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi rides a bike every day; and the members of the Nike Oregon Project run on a special "snit-gravity" treadmill. In your training, do at least one low- or non-impact cross-training workout per week, and as many as one such workout for each run you do.
Strength training is a second form of cross-training that can close the performance gap between you and a counterpart who dopes. Jumping drills (a.k.a. plyometrics) and core strength training to boost stride efficiency and race performance. Do short strength workouts, including jumping drills, two or three times per week.
Legal Blood Boosting
Several years ago, Jim Stray-Gundersen developed the "live high, train low" philosophy as an alternative to illegal blood doping. Exercise physiologists had known that exposure to oxygen-poor air (such as that at high altitudes) causes the body to produce more red blood cells, which in turn increases VO2max. Obviously, this is beneficial to runners, but there's also a downside--you can't train as hard at high altitude.
The solution Stray-Gundersen came up with is to "live" (or at least sleep) at high altitude and run at low altitude. In a study of this lifestyle, runners improved their 5K race performance by an average of 13 seconds, or two percent, in just a few weeks. Special tents designed to simulate high altitude spare runners the trouble of having to drive up and down mountains all day to practice "live high, train low."
Nutrition & Supplementation
Anabolic steroids enhance running performance by accelerating post-workout muscle recovery, allowing the unethical runner to train harder. Fortunately, good old-fashioned nutrition can provide the same benefit. During the first hour following exercise, your muscles are hormonally primed for rapid tissue repair and fuel replenishment. If you consume lots of carbohydrates along with a modest amount of protein within this "muscle recovery window," you stand to perform better in your next workout.
The ideal sources of post-run recovery nutrition are special recovery drinks. These drinks are formulated to provide everything your muscles need for fast recovery, while also assisting rehydration. And they tend to go down easier than a big meal when you're still pooped from a hard workout.
Creatine is often thought of as the honest athlete's steroids, and there is evidence that, like steroid use, creatine supplementation (which is not only legal but perfectly safe) enhances your recovery from hard runs. In a Brazilian study, for example, daily creatine supplementation significantly reduced muscle damage and inflammation in runners who completed a 30K race. There is even some evidence that creatine supplementation enhances performance in interval workouts by increasing the availability of high-intensity muscle fuel. Specifically, it has been shown to increase the speed runners were able to maintain in the final intervals in a set of 1K repetitions.
The downside of creatine supplementation is that it promotes water weight gain. Therefore, I recommend that you limit its use to the period of training when you're focusing on high-intensity training and to the taper period preceding a marathon or ultra-marathon.
Contrary to popular belief, fatigue in running is seldom caused by events in the muscles or blood, such as muscle glycogen depletion or lactic acid build-up. It's actually your brain that makes you slow down to protect you from excessive muscle damage, a heart attack, heat stroke or any other running-induced injury. For this reason, factors that used to be considered "purely mental" can raise your performance limitations as effectively as training does. Training alters the signals of fatigue that reach your brain, but thoughts, beliefs and experiences affect how your brain responds to these signals.
We see this effect at the elite level in sports all the time. For example, no runner was able to run a mile in less than four minutes until Roger Bannister accomplished the feat in 1954. But within just a year and a half, 16 other runners ran sub-four-minute miles! Bannister's breakthrough proved to his rivals that running this fast was possible and probably would not kill them, so their brains' finally allowed their bodies to do what they had been physically capable of doing all along.
Training in groups is another way to get results. When you train with other runners of similar ability, you not only tend to push yourself harder in workouts, but you also afford yourself more opportunities for performance breakthroughs. Every time one of your training partners makes a leap forward, your brain will see evidence that you can do the same without killing yourself.
Many running experts cite the propensity of North African runners to train in large groups as one of the keys to their dominance. If it's true, this brain training mechanism is likely the reason. So find a local track club to join, or at least do your hardest workouts with a training partner of similar ability. The desire to win is the oldest and best performance-enhancing drug there is.
Matt Fitzgerald is a certified sports nutritionist and the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).
This article is based on an article previously published in Running Times.