For decades, professional sports have been plagued by the artificial advantage given to athletes who take anabolic steroids. In the last several years, Major League Baseball, for instance, has had to publicly air its premier athletes' use of performance enhancing substances; and professional cycling has been crippled by drug use among its top competitors. But surely, once these athletes stop taking banned drugs, they'll return to their normal performance levels, and be able to rejoin their sports, right? Well, not in the case of anabolic steroids, new research has discovered.
Anabolic steroids are a synthetic derivative of the human hormone testosterone. They improve strength in men or women who take them, providing an edge in sports that rely heavily on strength and power, rather than purely endurance. So where better than to test the long-term effects of anabolic steroids than among power lifters? Power lifters perform three types of lifts, for weight: a squat, a deadlift, and a bench press. They are heavily reliant on the most powerful muscle fibers, called Type IIB fibers, which gain nucleii, and therefore size, from anabolic steroids. So, a team of Swedish researchers set out to examine the muscle fibers of power lifters to examine the role steroids play, and continue to play, in their muscle development. They presented their research at an American Physiological Society conference in late September. The result is astonishing—years after they had quit taking steroids, lifters who had used steroids in the past, even if they were no longer involved in weight training, had significantly larger muscles and more nucleii in their type IIB muscle fibers.
To test the theory that steroids would have substantial longterm effects, the researchers examined three groups of subjects: One consisted of power lifters who had used steroids in the past but discontinued that use; another consisted of subjects currently power lifting and with no history or use of steroids; and the third consisted of men currently both power lifting and using steroids. All three groups were examined for muscle development and make-up at two sites: the quadriceps and the trapezius.
The research found a disturbing pattern. The men who had stopped taking steroids years in the past, and who no longer even weight-trained, nonetheless had muscle fibers and nucleii comparable to athletes who were currently involved in high-intensity strength training. And, the number of nucleii per muscle fiber was even higher than in the group currently using steroids. These two findings should be enough to give anti-doping activists pause; most sports require a period of suspension for doping allegations. But this research suggests that the advantages of at least some kinds of doping may linger long after the period of suspension. As Dr. Anders Ericksson of Sweden's Umea University describes, "Based on the characteristics between doped and non-doped power lifters, we conclude that a period of anabolic steroid usage is an advantage for a power lifter in competition, even several years after they stop taking a doping drug." Better testing for current drug use may not be sufficient to clean up sports where steroids have historically played a role.