Athletes are often searching for ways to gain a competitive "edge". Substances that are used to increase physical work capacity, or in this case, improve performance are termed ergogenic aids.
Taking fluid aid during the marathon is a valuable help to good performance. The most important need during the marathon is for water replacement. Water must be replaced as it is used during the run. Water replenishment is especially important when running in the heat. (See Food and Performance) Practice drinking during your training runs so that you are accustomed to running with liquid in your stomach and so that you can learn how to get it in. While running the marathon, begin taking water at the first aid station. Drink at least one cup, preferably 2. If it is hot, pour another one over your head and shoulders. If you cannot drink while running, slow down and walk while you drink. The few seconds lost while drinking will easily be made up by feeling good throughout the race because you are well hydrated. Drink 1-2 cups at every aid station. Do not use thirst as a regulator of intake as the feeling of thirst does not keep up with the exercising body's need for water replacement. Water taken in after about the 22 mile point will probably not be used. However, the short rest and the psychological boost of a drink at that point may be important.
Other types of drinks containing glucose and electrolytes are discussed in Running in Temperature Extremes. Generally, it is not necessary to replace electrolytes during the event, but they should be replaced afterwards. Glucose ingestion has been shown to be useful in events of over 1-1/2 to 2 hours such as the marathon. During the race, you usually have a choice of water and a glucose electrolyte solution.
If you plan to drink the offered solution, purchase the same brand before the race and use it during your training runs. Never drink an unknown or untried solution during the race. Always take water with the solution that is offered because the body's greatest need is for water and the solution offered may be improperly mixed for optimal absorption. Too much sugar slows down the absorption of water from the stomach and too high concentration of electrolytes may cause intestinal cramps. If you have problems drinking on the run or if the temperature is warmer than normal, you may benefit from hyperhydration. Drink a pint (2 cups) or more of water 15-30 minutes before the run. Practice this on training runs as well. Keep in mind that the water combined with pre race nervousness may force you to stay close to the restrooms.
Carbohydrate loading is an ergogenic aid for events longer than 2 hours such as the marathon. A suggested method of loading in conjunction with tapering is discussed in the Race Preparation Section.
The American College of Sports Medicine has issued a position statement on anabolic and androgenic steroids after a careful analysis of the available literature. The College states that these steroids in approved therapeutic doses do not bring any significant improvements in strength, aerobic endurance, lean body mass or body weight. There is no evidence that large doses either aid or hinder performance. The drugs have many dangerous side effects making them unsafe to use.
Amphetamines or "pep pills" are also not indicated for usage in athletics. These pills are often taken by athletes to be "up" or psychologically ready. This is usually unnecessary and may have dangerous effects such as drug dependency and side effects such as headache, dizziness and masking the body's perception of pain, fatigue and heat stress which can actually hinder performance.
Although caffeine has no food value, it may be the only stimulant of value in endurance running. It acts as a central nervous system, heart rate and force stimulant, a smooth muscle relaxant, a stimulant for the release of adrenalin and will increase the amount of fatty acids in the blood. It may also increase the secretion of stomach acids and can act as a diuretic. Some recent research has shown that caffeine may be beneficial to performance in events lasting longer than 2 hours, such as the marathon. The caffeine elevates the free fatty acids in the blood and increases their utilization by the muscle for energy during the run. This action decreases the amount of muscle glycogen used, sparing muscle glycogen so that it can used better throughout the entire run. This benefit may only occur in certain individuals and caffeine drinks should be tried on training runs to discover your personal reaction. Certain individuals have strong adverse reactions to caffeine and should not use it.
Alcohol does not seem to provide useful energy during exercise and may adversely effect physiologic processes important to energy metabolism during exercise. As a depressant, it may adversely effect perceptual-motor activities. The results of one or two drinks probably do not have any serious negative effects on performance, but recent studies have shown that during long distance running, alcohol may block the formation of glucose by the liver and decrease the release of glucose from the stomach. These actions may result in a decrease in blood glucose during the latter stages of the marathon. The most detrimental action is the disturbance of water balance in the muscle cells which could lead to a disturbance of cell enzyme activity with resultant increased fatigue. Light to moderate social drinking the evening prior to the event, but not on the same day, has not been shown to adversely effect physical performance. Overindulgence the night before may have the adverse effects listed above during the race if the alcohol has not been cleared from the system. Save the drinking of alcoholic beverages until after the race as your reward for a race well run.
Aspirin may or may not be an ergogenic aid. Neither aspirin nor any other drug should be taken to mask specific pain before beginning a race. If something hurts enough to require aspirin, you should consider not running, waiting for the next marathon and sparing your body pain and injury. The anti-inflammatory effect of aspirin to reduce swelling can be helpful over the long term. Too much aspirin can block you from receiving the messages that your body needs to stop, can lead to problems with heat adaptation, can lead to ringing in the ears and stomach discomfort. One to two aspirins an hour before the race can give you anti-inflammatory effects during the race. Never take aspirin before or during the race if you've never done it in training. The combined effects of aspirin and caffeine on an empty stomach can be devastating by causing pain and nausea.
Blood cell re-infusion or "doping" has been in the news after several Olympics. A controversy from the 1984 Olympics was the use of this technique by the American bicycling team.
The procedure consists of withdrawing a pint of an individual's blood 6-8 weeks before the event. That blood is stored and reinfused into the individual 1-2 days before the event. In the interim, the individual has restored normal red blood cell level. The added blood cells and volume are theorized to contribute to a larger maximal heart output and increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. It is actually possible that doping may have opposite effects. The increase in the red blood cells could make the blood thicker and therefore, harder to pump through the body. Studies have not shown any real evidence that the procedure works. The major problem with this technique deals with its ethical considerations and the health problems that could result if the individual is infused with blood from an unknown donor. We mention it here namely for your understanding of the process, but strongly discourage anyone from attempting it. You will increase your performance to a greater degree through intelligent training than you can through any techniques such as blood doping.
Run The Planet thanks Patti & Warren Finke and Team Oregon for the permission to reprint the complete online version of the first edition of the book Marathoning Start to Finish (Hypertext Version 1.02) by Patti & Warren Finke. © 1986, 1996 wY'east Consulting, All Rights reserved.