Ergogenic aids are a general category of substances that enhance performance, and this usually refers to athletic performance. This can refer to biological substances that enhance endurance, or it can refer to high tech materials that are thought to enhance speed, such as a specific type of material that would help a swimmer race faster. Ergogenic aids can also include psychological aids, which can include relaxation techniques prior to an event or imagery that allows for better performance. This can also refer to a specific training method.
The most widely known ergogenic aids are pharmacological substances. Many of these aids are banned from athletic events, and athletes must take blood tests to ensure they have not taken these substances. The most commonly abused ergogenic aids are anabolic steroids, which are basically male hormones. These steroids build muscle and greatly increase muscle strength.
Other pharmacological ergogenic aids include human growth hormone. This hormone is produced naturally in the body and tends to taper off as a person ages, and its loss has been associated with the muscle atrophy that occurs naturally over a person’s lifetime. At very high levels, this hormone can increase muscle size and strength.
Blood doping is another banned practice that is considered an ergogenic aid. This refers to practices that increase red blood cell count and therefore increase an athlete’s endurance. Blood doping may involve the actual injection of red blood cells, or it may involve taking erythropoietin (Epo), a molecule that increases red blood cell production. Another way to increase red blood cell count is to train at high altitudes, which is an acceptable practice.
Psychological ergogenic aids may include relaxation practices or motivational training. Imagery is another technique in which an athlete mentally visualizes how he or she would like to perform ideally at his or her event. Breathing practices or meditation can also be considered ergogenic aids.
Stimulants may also be considered ergogenic aids. This can include legal stimulants like caffeine, or dangerous substances like the Chinese herb ephedra. Ephedra is an herb that is used in traditional Chinese medicine in small doses, but is often used at dangerously high doses in illegal stimulant substances.
In addition to being unethical because they give an athlete unfair strength advantages, many pharmacological aids are also dangerous to health. Anabolic steroids are well known for their negative effects, including an increased risk of tumors, high blood pressure, low sperm count, and psychosis. Human growth hormone also has negative effects at high levels, including the development of insulin resistance and heart disease. High doses of the stimulant ephedra have been associated with several deaths due to heart attack or stroke. Blood doping, either by injection of Epo or red blood cells, is very dangerous because a build up of red blood cells can thicken the blood and lead to heart failure.