Drugs and Drug Abuse in Sports

Drug abuse occurs in all sports and at different levels of competition. An athletes life may lead to drug abuse for a number of reasons, including for performance enhancement, to self-treat an untreated mental illness, and to deal with stressors such as pressure to perform, injuries, physical pain, and retirement from sport.

This review examines some of the different substances used for doping and their percieved effects on the user. Doping goes back to the ancient times, prior to the development of organized sports.

Performance-enhancing drugs have continued to evolve, with “advances” in doping strategies driven by improved drug testing and detection methods, advances in scientific research that has led to the discovery of sophisticated methods of doping and use of illegal substances. Many sports organizations have come to ban the use of performance-enhancing drugs with very unpleasant consequences for people caught doping.

There is variable evidence for the performance-enhancing effects and side effects of the various substances that are used for doping. Drug abuse in athletes should be addressed with preventive measures, education, motivational interviewing and, when indicated, pharmacologic interventions.

Types of Drugs that athletes use

Athletes may use a variety of performance-enhancing drugs, stimulants, and opioids, to improve their performance, manage pain or injury, and deal with the stress of sports.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

Anabolic steroids. The human body naturally produces anabolic steroids in the form of testosterone, which aids muscle-building. Athletes may use high doses of anabolic steroids to aid in increasing muscle size, enable them work out harder and recover more quickly from workouts.

Androstenedione (Andro). Andro is a prescription drug that can be used illegally by athletes hoping to train harder and recover more quickly from injuries. However, studies show that andro does not improve muscle strength or increase testosterone levels.

Human growth hormone (HGH). Athletes may use HGH to increase muscle mass and improve performance. This injectable drug is only available on prescription but is regularly bought and sold illegally.

Diuretics. Athletes may use diuretics to lose weight or to mask their steriods use and so pass a drug test. Diuretics work by altering the body fluid and electrolyte levels. They are popular among sports that support strict weight control, such as boxing and wrestling.

Erythropoietin. This drug increases the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes) and hemoglobin, which can increase oxygen delivery to the muscles. Athletes may take erythropoietin to increase endurance and aerobic power.

Painkillers and Prescription Drugs

Prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, are narcotic painkillers intended for use in managing relatively severe pain. In large enough doses, users may experience a high that includes euphoria and relaxation in addition to pain relief.


Amphetamines and methamphetamine. Athletes may use amphetamines, including the illegal drug methamphetamine, to enhance alertness and performance. Amphetamines can make users feel energized, experience an increase in self-confidence and decrease appetite. Because of this latter effect, some athletes, such as boxers or wrestlers, may use amphetamines to lose or maintain a certain weight.

Adderall. Adderall is a prescription stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Research suggests it may improve alertness, focus, and reaction time. Like other stimulants, athletes may use Adderall to enhance performance, control fatigue, and lose weight.

Other Drugs

Alcohol. Significant number of athletes drink alcohol. Perhaps surprising but some athletes take alcoholic drinks prior to a game or competition to reduce anxiety and thereby enhancing performance. There is little evidence that this works, however. Consistent alcohol use is more likely to lead to other issues that actually hinder performance. Additionally, some sports teams may encourage binge drinking as a form of initiation for new members.

Marijuana. Athletes may use marijuana for euphoria and relaxation. Some athletes may also turn to marijuana to treat pain.

Cocaine. Like other stimulants, athletes may use cocaine to improve their endurance and performance, increase focus, decrease fatigue, and lose weight. Cocaine causes users to experience a brief euphoria, followed by a crash. Users may “binge” on the drug repeatedly to prolong the high


Jack Oyugi and Khatundi Namukhosi Kakai