Back to Learning Center

Performance Enhancing Drugs: Better, Faster, Stronger?

The drive to be better, faster, and stronger is insatiable for many professional athletes and bodybuilders. Competitors are constantly looking for that edge, that thing that will catapult them to the winner’s circle. While many athletes adhere to a strict diet and work out routine , others succumb to the temptation to use Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). While steroids are not known to produce a ‘high’ or euphoria like typical illegal drugs, the risk of addiction among those who use them is still significant. The drive to achieve an elite level of performance or a desired appearance can quickly take over, fueling greater and increasingly extreme use and abuse – something the average sports fan may not be able to sympathize with.

This drive is what caused Maria Sharapova, a tennis star, to use Meldonium, a steroid that aids in athletic performance, improved rehabilitation, and protection against stress. It is what caused Ben Johnson, a track and field star, to use Stanozol, a human growth hormone known to increase muscle mass and improve endurance. Finally, and perhaps most famously, it is what caused Lance Armstrong, Tour de France biking superstar, to use a human growth hormone and Erythropoietin (EPO), a stimulant known to produce red blood cell counts, thus increasing oxygen to the muscles and thereby improving performance and recovery.

Types of Performance Enhancing Drugs

While there are hundreds of types of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) on the market, most of them can fit into a few categories.

Anabolic Steroids

Also known as anabolic-androgenic steroids, these substances promote muscle mass and strength. Testosterone is the main anabolic steroid produced in the body. Aside from muscle growth, athletes and bodybuilders may choose to take anabolic steroids to aid in recovery, allowing them to work out harder and more frequently.


Androstenedione is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testicles. Manufacturers and those who use the substance tout Androstenedione’s ability to allow athletes to train harder and recover faster.

Human Growth Hormones

Athletes have taken human growth hormone to aid in muscle mass and endurance.

Erythropoietin (EPO)

Erythropoietin is often used to treat anemia in people with severe kidney disease. It increases the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin. Taking erythropoietin improves the movement of oxygen to the muscles.


Diuretics change the body’s natural balance of fluid and salt, thereby reducing dehydration. Some athletes may use diuretics to help pass drug tests. It can also help an athlete ‘make weight’ if they are competing within a weight class.


Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in the body that aids the muscles in releasing energy. Athletes use it when they need those quick bursts of energy, for example, when lifting weights or sprinting.


Some athletes use stimulants to boost the central nervous system as well as increase their heart rate and blood pressure. This boost allows the athlete to remain more alert during competition.


Many athletes take steroids at higher doses than the recommended limit. There are many health risks and side effects to prolonged steroid abuse for both men and women including:

  • Increased alertness and aggression
  • Dry mouth
  • Damaged heart and blood vessels, which could lead to increased risk of a heart attack or stroke
  • Insomnia
  • Psychosis, delusions, depression, and other psychiatric disorders
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Increased risk of tendinitis and tendon rupture
  • Liver abnormalities and tumors
  • High blood pressure
  • Aggressive behaviours
  • Infection if the steroid is injected

Warning Signs of Steroid Abuse

If there are concerns that a loved one may be abusing steroids, there are several warning signs to watch out for, including:

  • Rapid lean muscle gain within a 10-week period
  • Abnormal or excessive amounts of time spent in the gym
  • Ordering syringes and needles
  • Injectable steroids can leave holes in the skin and track marks can look red and inflamed
  • Acne can be a major sign of steroid abuse. If skin that was once clear is now full of blemishes it can be a sign of substance abuse.
  • Steroid creams often have a strange odour.

Final Thoughts

A college athlete’s drive to get to the next level, a professional athlete’s desire to gain a small edge, and a body builder’s desire for just the right look can leave them all susceptible to experimenting with steroids. The muscle mass, the faster recoveries, improved endurance, and improved energy and alertness can cause an individual to return to steroids, and this cycle can lead to a substance abuse disorder. While the studies are inconclusive as to the addictive nature of the steroids themselves, the effects of steroid use on appearance or performance can lead to addiction. Additionally, many sanctioning and governing bodies have banned steroid use in competition, and those who are found with steroids in their system often face suspensions and even lifetime bans.


Photo credit: Chuck Abbe. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.