Athletes have been taking performance enhancing drugs since records began. In 1807 Abraham Wood smoked opium to stay awake during a 24 hour race against Robert Allardyce. However, research carried out at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia, has shown that the benefits of “doping” may actually be mostly, if not all, in the mind. In the study, a blind test was done, giving one group of athletes banned growth hormone, and another group a placebo. The study lasted 8 weeks, and the performance gains of the athletes recorded.
The results of the study were rather surprising. Rather than increasing performance, the growth hormone appeared to actually reduce gains made. In the group the took the placebo, athletes were running fast, jumping higher, and lifting heavier weights after eight weeks of training.
Lead researcher Ken Ho explained the results:
“The results suggest the placebo effect was very powerful. If you really think you are receiving a beneficial treatment, you will perform better. Athletes who believe they are cheating gain an advantage even though they receive no chemical assistance.”
In the placebo group, In every case the athlete that thought that they were taking a growth hormone performed better than those that suspected they had been given a placebo. The placebo was also more effective in men than women.
The study was carried out on recreational athletes only (professionals would not want to ruin their career by taking the growth hormone). However, researchers say that there is no reason why the same results would not be seen in a group of professional athletes.
Sports psychologist Rob Robson explained that confidence was the key: “If an athlete thinks he’s taking a powder that gives him an advantage, he’ll become more relaxed. He’ll push himself harder and build confidence that improves his times.”
This opens up some interesting possibilities in trainer – athlete relationships. A trainer may suggest that his athlete takes a substance, telling him that it is a growth hormone when it is in fact a placebo. If the athlete pushes himself harder and makes better gains and performs better, then the placebo has worked. But are such tricks ethical? Maybe the next phase in regulation in athletics will be to ensure that there is no trickery by coaches and trainers to make the athletes think that they are taking a banned substance.