A roommate of mine once posed a difficult question for me to answer. “So then you’re cheating right?” he asked.
My brow furrowed. I smirked a condescending smirk as spittle flew from the side of my mouth. Cheating? I laughed to myself. Of course not.
Rewind one minute. Before this exchange took a turn for the worst, I was refilling my bottle with another strong dose of Generation UCAN before heading back out for the latter half of a 100-mile ride. “What is that stuff?” he asked. I then generously explained the purpose of my triathlon nutrition product of choice. “Ok, what you’re saying then,” he retorted, “is that it gives you an advantage.” “Yes,” I replied. “I’d be better off using it than something less adequate like water.”
He continued, “So then you’re cheating right? What’s the difference between that and steroids? Both give you an advantage.”
There I was scrambling for an argument. I attempted to defend all nutritional products by stating how they affect the body in a natural way as opposed to an unnatural way. He countered by asserting that if the product didn’t exist you wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of its advantages.
A dilemma in my mind was born. Why do we approve of some substances and technology to aid in our triathlon performances but not others? Where’s the line in getting outside assistance in triathlon?
Without getting ahead of myself, let’s further review why nutritional products are not the same as EPO. When the body undergoes stress, it is depleted of carbohydrates, glycogen, sodium, potassium, and the list goes on. The goal of a nutritional product sold by companies such as Generation UCAN, Hammer, Infinit, etc. is to replenish the nutrients our bodies lose during intense exercise in the most efficient way possible.
EPO on the other hand is a hormone that controls red blood cell production. When given to the body in an artificial way, it becomes a production stimulus. Thus, the body is enhanced rather than simply replenished.
So the difference, of course, is pretty obvious and simple. One attempts to restore. One attempts to enhance. If only I could have illustrated this truth to my roommate more eloquently at the time!
And yet, I still can’t shake the dilemma at hand. Competing as a professional athlete, I’ve heard some stories of what people do to “enhance” their bodies. For example, I’ve known some elites who sleep in elevation chambers at night to reap the low oxygen benefits of living at high altitude while training with the extra red blood cells at low altitude. This is completely legal despite the fact that, in the end, the goal is essentially the same as EPO, although to a much lesser degree.
Bikes are being built with storage compartments that act as fairings. Recovery products and supplements continue to push the envelope. It seems like every endurance company out there is trying to make you faster in the name of science. And athletes will look for any “legal” means to give themselves a performance edge over their competition. Undoubtedly, the less financially fortunate athletes fall by the wayside.
Those who are born in an era of greater scientific knowledge are receiving its outside assistance as opposed to those athletes who came before. And those who can afford the advantages are receiving it while those who cannot are now at a disadvantage. It’s not fair but that’s the way it is and will continue to be.
I don’t believe there is an answer to this question. The grey area will become greyer. As time goes on, science will progress and money will be spent.
If only there was a way to make the most of both of these. Well, there is and it’s the purest form of outside assistance you can get. I’m talking about coaching.
We all need guidance, but we also all need to work. A coaching program is meant to enhance your performance, but not through any artificial means. Rather, a coach and a training plan is simply the information you need to know what work will give you the best outcome.
Rather than spending money on the latest aero tech or sampling dozens of legal performance enhancing gimmicks, I implore you to research a program and training philosophy designed around the realities of what your body can endure and how to push it to the next level.
That’s the side of the line you’re guaranteed to be safe on.
TRIDOT TAKEAWAY: As time goes on, what counts as natural outside assistance in triathlon becomes greyer. What will always be pure, however, is learning to train smarter.
TALK WITH TRIDOT: What products or actions in the world of triathlon do you think are on the wrong side of getting outside assistance?
JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.