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Borrowing Little Suzy's Ritalin for Your Next Race
Lesser forms of doping aren't that bad, right? Correct, if you don't mind dying.
To many amateur athletes, doping—the practice of taking illegal performance enhancing drugs—may seem exotic, an activity reserved for the elite and the devious, involving Russian scientists, blood transfusions, or illicit black market substances bought off the internet.
In fact, performance-enhancing drugs are remarkably accessible. But just because you can get it easily doesn’t mean it’s safer. Ritalin and its impact on dopamine is a good example.
The straight dope on dopamine.
Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone released into the brain when it’s rewarded with something pleasant, like a taste of yummy food, a gratifying roll in the hay, or a gnarly wave.
Because dopamine makes these rewards feel extra awesome, you tend to be motivated to seek more rewards to get more dopamine. This cycle of stoke-seeking gives this neurotransmitter a bad rap. It’s often associated with various addictions including drugs, sex, and junk food.
But dopamine isn’t all bad. It’s mostly good, actually. It plays a number of important roles in the body, including helping your brain control movement. It helps you focus and learn. It also motivates you to push yourself a little harder when you exercise.
Don’t confuse it with endorphins, which are opioids your brain releases to cope with pain and stress. Endorphins are responsible for the runner’s high. Dopamine is responsible for pushing you to kick ass so you can experience the satisfaction of getting a new personal best.
Of course, dopamine impacts different people differently. This may have something to do with your genes. For example, studies on skiers and snowboarders show that those prone to “sensation seeking” tend to have a specific gene variant that gives them a dopamine hit when they take chances. In other words, that nut job you hung out with as a kid who always bombed the hill on his or her skateboard first was genetically pre-disposed to do so.
On that note, there are dark sides to the exercise-induced dopamine response. As I said earlier, your body adjusts to it, causing you to do more to earn your dopamine. When it comes to sensation seekers, this explains why they often do progressively riskier things.
Doping to get more dopamine.
Also, dopamine can be manipulated. Athletes can dopamine dope. Methylphenidate—or Ritalin, in the parlance of our times—blocks the transporters that remove dopamine from your brain, so you have more of it floating around your noggin.
Because dopamine motivates you, it also helps you focus. That’s why kids take Ritalin to do schoolwork, parents steal it from their kids to complete their taxes on schedule, and athletes use it to dial in performance.
Before we go any further, yes, it’s on the WADA banned list. Sorry.
In fact, methylphenidate is an amphetamine and all amphetamines have this effect—thus their rich history of abuse in sports—but I’m focusing on Ritalin today because it’s accessible and it’s the subject of some scary research I plan to share in a second.
You might ask, “If Little Suzy uses it to get her seventh-grade Renaissance history paper done on time, how it can it hurt me to pop a pill before my next road race?”
I will answer your query via a 2008 study in which cyclist were fed Ritalin before a time trail. If the TT took place in an environment 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit), the drug did nothing. However, when researcher upped the thermostat to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), performance improved 16 percent! But before you tuck into your kid’s private stash, note that the Ritalin Achievers also went hyperthermic without even noticing. They were so focused that it didn’t register that they were overheating.
Ritalin + Heat + Hard Effort = Speed + (maybe) Death.
The premise of this study may seem a little random, but that’s the point. When it comes to drugs, you probably don’t know what you’re messing with—and it’s the random stuff that’ll get you.
If you’re looking for a safer way to increase dopamine, the non-essential amino acid tyrosine serves as a precursor, so some people amp up tyrosine in their diet—or supplement it directly. The research isn’t exactly a home-run, but there’s promise that it might help brain function during long, stressful bouts of exercise.
Personally, I’ll stick to doing hard things and enjoying whatever dopamine I can get via diet without accidentally boiling my blood.
On a less fatalistic note…
Last week, I appeared on The Gravel Ride podcast! Host Craig Dalton and I talked about cycling nutrition and compared gravel war stories. We also plugged my book, The BWR Guide to Eating Like a Semi Pro. Apparently, the interview went well and I don’t sound like a complete rube, so that’s progress.
The podcast has been out for a week or so and, in that time, I’ve garnered several new subscribers—probably Gravel Ride listeners. Howdy, folks! I hope I didn’t bum you out with my anti-doping speechifying. If you have thoughts, I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below or in the NPB notes section.
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