Let’s talk about drug testing in sport…

Let’s talk about drug testing in sport….

We are often aware of drug testing in elite athletes and sports people, however anti-doping policies extend right through to recreational athletes.  It is becoming increasingly common for athletes of any ability to be targeted for testing.  If you are a member of a national governing body (e.g., Triathlon Australia) and /or compete in a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sanctioned event (e.g., Ironman), you can be tested for any substance on WADA’s prohibited list.

The principle of drug testing is to put the health of athletes first…

It is worthwhile appreciating that the health and safety of the athlete lies at the core of WADA’s drug-testing policy. This is just as important as the integrity of racing.   Substances come to be included on WADA’s prohibited list for various reasons, some because they might enhance an athlete’s performance but others because they have the potential to cause harm.  Understanding drug testing protocol actually helps raise awareness amongst athletes of the risks of training and racing whilst on banned substances.

So which substances are prohibited, and what are their health risks?

Anabolic steroids & stimulants

These are a well-known group, and the risks of taking illicit substances such as anabolic steroids and stimulants while racing and training have been documented to include myocardial infarction, stroke and embolism amongst others (1).

Blood doping

Similarly, the dangerous side effects of EPO (blood doping) are well known in cycling, and the sport recognises the impact this is having on amateur cyclists, too – for example, it is linked with blood clots, heart attacks and strokes (2).


On the other hand, many athletes with common medical problems are ignorant of the potential risks associated with exercising while on those medications. For example, beta-blockers prescribed for hypertension or heart arrhythmias can impair temperature regulation during prolonged exercise, predisposing an athlete to dehydration and hyperthermia.

Nutritional supplements

You may never have considered your food and beverage supplements to be a drug risk. Food supplements and sports nutrition products are governed by food/beverage regulations rather than pharmaceutical regulations, and their contents have a higher risk of contamination because factory conditions are not as controlled as pharmaceutical lab environments.  This opens the possibility of inadvertent contamination and therefore adverse analytical finding in athletes.

What is an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF)?

When an athlete is drug tested, an AAF indicates the presence of prohibited substances or methods in a particular sample.  Recently, sanctions relating to supplement contamination were handed out to high profile Ironman athletes Beth Gerdes and Lauren Bennett (3). Their cases highlighted the uncertainties that prevail around an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) in drug testing, especially with respect to supplements.  This is particularly relevant in regards to unintentional doping, whereby every substance you ingest (be it sports nutrition or any food or drink source) becomes a potential source of contamination.

Unfortunately, points of uncertainty are even more likely to emerge for the non-professional athlete who is less familiar with drug-testing procedures, let alone what kinds of substance are tested and are on the banned list.

What can you do to ensure you stay ‘clean’?

Here are some tips to help you build an awareness and understanding of what counts in the drug testing stakes. Don’t find yourself inadvertently ‘doping’ simply because you are unaware of your sport governing body’s regulations or WADA’s code of conduct.  Be mindful that ignorance is not a defense under common law.

Tip #1: Know where to look up your sport’s Anti-Doping Policy

Many age-group triathletes here in Australia are probably not aware of the existence of Triathlon Australia’s (TA’s) most recent Anti-Doping Policy released on 1 January 2015 (4). You can check it out here: http://ow.ly/vnfW30aMqUa

Tip #2: Be familiar with WADA’s list of banned substances

Did you know that some of the substances on the list include medications prescribed by doctors to treat common medical conditions, including asthma, blood pressure and diabetes (e.g., insulin)?

Some regulur over-the-counter cold & flu medications are on the list, for example pseudophedrine, a common decongestant in cold & flu treatments, is now banned during competition, although is acceptable during training.

Normal doses of some prohibited substances may be acceptable but only if you have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).  This means your doctor has prescribed the medication for you to use at a particular dose rate. For age group athletes, this can be done retrospectively for some but not all medications (such as testosterone).  The process of obtaining a TUE can be quite costly and time consuming as it may require you to see a specialist.

Tip #3: Know what counts as a supplement

Both gels and salt are considered supplements, as are any electrolyte drink mixed from a powder. Therefore, athletes need to be aware of the quality and purity of the supplements they choose to ingest during training and competition. Remember that every gel or drink you take on course during a race that may not be your usual product also counts.

Tip #4: Understand product contamination

WADA defines a contaminated product as “a product that contains a prohibited substance that is not disclosed on the product label or in information available in a reasonable internet search” (5).  Contamination in sufficient quantity can trigger an AAF, as in the recent cases of Gerdes and Bennett.

Third-party certifications aim to minimise the risks of a contaminated supplement causing an AAF. There is a growing trend for manufacturers of sport nutritional products to sign on with a third-party certification system, such as NSF’s Certified for Sport and Informed Sport (6), to provide a quality control service that detects contamination at the same level as the drug-testing run by WADA and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA).

Tip #5: Minimise your risk

Many nutrition products have a litany of claims to boost your performance and a longer list of ingredients.  Keep in mind that many of these are unnecessary, are not proven to work and will only increase your risk of product contamination.  This is particularly apparent in protein powders, many of which have a long list of chemicals ingredients and supplements.  At Bindi we only include the smallest possible number of natural ingredients (we include just those which are required or proven), and our products do not contain the chemicals found in many others, particularly protein powders. This, in itself, means that Bindi products are a good choice for athletes wanting to minimise the risk of inadvertently consuming prohibited substances.

Tip #6 Know where to get advice

 Here are some valuable resources for seeking advice about the status of chemicals listed on a supplement or medication:

  • Get the phone app released by WADA. Go to: http://ow.ly/cgP530aMsNK
  • Access ‘Check your Substance’ service. Go to the ASADA website or call 1300 027 232.
  • Talk to your treating doctor – although, be mindful that not all doctors are aware of WADA and national sporting body requirements. Seek a referral to a Sports Medicine specialist, if necessary.

#7 Research and educate yourself

WADA takes into account athletes who demonstrate that they clearly are trying to do the right thing in terms of researching what they take. Be diligent – research and understand the products that you are taking.

#8 Ignorance is no excuse for athletes of any level

Age-group athletes be warned – the first page of the Anti-Doping Policy (TA) includes the following warnings:

  • You are responsible for knowing what the anti-doping rule violations are
  • You must find out which substances and methods are prohibited
  • Ignorance is no excuse.

A final comment and our approach here at Bindi:

Athletes who clearly demonstrate that they are trying to do the right thing – and can demonstrate no significant fault or negligence, and that a detected substance came from a contaminated product – will have their cases considered appropriately by WADA / ASADA.  This means they expect you to be informed; to know the rules and adhere to them, just as you are expected to know the rules that apply to competition.

Bindi Nutrition is committed to:

  • Ensuring rigorous and scientific evidence is at the basis of our products;

  • Keeping you, our customers, well-informed;

  • Promoting clean sport participation; and

  • Fostering the health and safety of all of you, during your training and competition.

We are going to have another look at these issues in our next article in more detail, particularly in regards to best practice for athletes to protect themselves from supplement contamination, inadvertently doping, and AAF. In the meantime perhaps spend some time familiarising yourself with the resources available in this blog before you head into your next competition.

Happy training!

Belinda x

  1. Angell et al., 2010. Performance enhancing drug abuse and cardiovascular risk in athletes: Implications for clinicians. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46 (Suppl 1): 78-84. Accessed April 2017 at: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/46/Suppl_1/i78
  2. Doyle K. How blood doping poses dangers to amateur cyclists. Men’s Journal. Accessed April 2017 at: http://ow.ly/b1rS30aMrMV
  3. Two triathletes banned for osterine. Accessed April 2017 at: http://ow.ly/no2o30aMs3F
  4. Triathlon Australia Anti-Doping Policy. Accesses April 2017 at: http://ow.ly/vnfW30aMqUa
  5. Are contaminated substances really causing AAFs? Accessed April 2017 at: http://ow.ly/99UF30aMsya
  6. Informed Sport. Accessed April 2017 at: http://www.informed-sport.com

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