Bring the word “doping” into conversation with any endurance athlete and it’s not long before things get controversial. Talk about doping and the rumours and accusations will start to fly. When you get into the nitty-gritty of the doping world, there’s a whole slew of rights and wrongs and grey areas. There are legal loopholes, the supposed over-the-counter magic drugs not initially designed for athletics and the boosters you can find in your average household kitchen cupboards. There’s also the innocent side of doping, when an athlete gets caught and claims they don’t know how the substance got in their body. Everyone has an opinion.

But it’s true that there are ways for a banned substance to make its way into an athlete’s body without them even knowing it. One of those ways is by using a sports supplement where a shady company has spiked it with a drug not listed on the label.

“If they spike it, people get results,” says Alex Hutchinson, senior editor of Canadian Running and prominent sports science writer. And that goes for athletes who are competing at high levels as well as the general wider population of people interested in athletics. Many of those who want to bulk up or slim down turn to a powder or pill to help them do so. Little do they know, that can contain a steroid or stimulant – the secret ingredient that ensures results. That gives companies bragging rights on the reliability of their product, despite the dishonestly.

Dr. Greg Wells, exercise physiologist, says he’s been aware of this problem for over two decades, since 1992. He spent a chunk of his career working as a sports scientist for Canadian Sport Institute. “We were always very concerned about what supplements athletes were taking,” he says. If people are more aware of it now, that’s thanks to the advent of social media and the fast-spreading nature of news, he says. He thinks there’s a greater awareness, but not necessarily because it’s happening any more than it did 20 years ago.

The rights and wrongs of the supplements industry are far from black and white. “The supplement industry is almost unregulated. Rules are weak, penalties are weak,” says Hutchinson. “If they get busted, they move on and open up another another name.” Wells only reinforces that point. “In the sports supplements industry, there is minimal regulation. Products don’t have to undergo the same testing as if they were drugs,” he says. That’s a key point. Those who put a drug on the market have to undergo testing and meet all sorts of regulations. Supplements, however, get around this because the understanding is that they are drug-free.

Why are spiked supplements so bad? For elites, the consequences are obvious. The rules on doping are unforgiving. The word “doping” itself suggests deception and cheating. Athletes who claim not to have known how a substance got in their system are easy to dismiss. In the eyes of the IAAF or World Anti-Doping Agency ignorance isn’t an excuse. If caught, it’s still the athlete’s responsibility to face penalties. The innocent side of doping might as well not exist and consequences still stand. For an elite, that means getting barred from competition and moving forward with a negative reputation.

But the issue of companies intentionally spiking supplements and lying about it on the label goes far beyond the marked careers of the elites. At it’s root, this is about health and athletes’ rights to know what they are putting into their bodies.

“I do think in many cases, people have a lot of trust in products,” says Wells. He says that runners are people who are often looking to better their health and performance. “However when you take a product and it contains a steroid, you never know what effects it will have on your mind and bod.”

So, if spiking supplements and playing innocent can so easily fly under the radar, how do athletes prevent it? 

Hutchinson suggests going one of two routes. Of course, there’s the option of forgoing supplements altogether and improving your running performance the old school way: solely relying on a hard training regime and doing so with proper nutrition, sans supplements. But if you believe the little capsules or scoop of powder in your post-run shake is going to give you the leg up allowing you that extra dose of marathon mightiness, you’re looking for a substance that you can rely on, one that is clean. For that, pay attention to warning signs. Wells suggests that packaging that boasts effects like “rapid weight loss” or “rapid muscle gain” should be a red flag for consumers.

No obvious warning sign? Enter NSF certification.

The NSF Certified for Sports program was started as a way of regulating athlete supplements by testing for banned substances or ingredients not listed on the label. This program is part of the NSF’s 65-year reign over certifying foods and beverages. It was designed “to meet the growing demands of athletes, coaches and all those concerned about banned substances in sports supplements.” Companies who have created a performance-enhancing product and want to prove its legitimacy pay the NSF to test it, verifying that the product is what they claim it to be. When a supplement passes testing, they will get an NSF mark on the label. That’s the green light for any athlete who is looking for a boost without muddying their credibility.

NSF testing is a stringent process with strict guidelines. Their labs churn out highly-accurate results testing supplements for over 200 banned substances as well as impurities and unknown mixtures. Not only does the NSF test the actual product, they also go into the companies’ facilities for an inspection and monitor the products on an ongoing basis. It’s a pretty picky process, but one that goes far in minimizing risk of having performance enhancers contain illegal ingredients, verifying company claims, identifying clean supplements and giving athletes and coaches peace of mind. It also discredits athletes who try to use the stock I-don’t-know-how-it-entered-my-body excuse after they’ve been caught. Before we had state-of-the-art testing like this, that excuse might have been valid. Now, elites (if they’re smart) know not to rely on an unmarked product, especially when the laws and ethics of sports supplements industry seem to be lost in murky waters.

NSF isn’t the only third party that tests products on the market. As far as trusting supplements goes though, Hutchinson nods towards ones with an NSF mark. So does Wells. “It’s a safe one,” he says. So, runners who are feeling queasy about the product sitting in the cupboard can look for the NSF mark of approval or search the product on the NSF website by name, company or nutrient type. NSF will tell you whether or not that product has been given the go-ahead.

Getting into supplements? Your crash-course on getting it right. 

But, as Wells points out, supplements might not even be doing you much good if your nutrition isn’t in ship-shape. “The first steps for all athletes is to ensure your nutrition and eating patterns are as good as they can possibly be,” he says. “If not, it’s a Band-aid solution that doesn’t really work.” So the bottom line: be healthy before even daring to venture to the world of pills and powders.  If your diet isn’t on point, taking supplements is, essentially, money down the drain, he says.

But for athletes who are savvy, adding supplements is a matter of consulting someone who knows how everything works, be it a nutritionist or dietitian.Wells says those trained professionals understand the many combinations of nutrition and supplements that will work for an athlete’s specific situation. When done right, he says he believes they have the power to better performance. Consulting the pros is your first step rather than aimlessly sampling products off the shelf.

Of course, there’s the argument many will make, that you might not need it at all. If the trial and error of capsules and powder makes you queasy, a rounded-out and nutritious diet goes a long way in terms of giving runners a boost for their lifestyle. To use or not to use supplements is just another decision an athlete has to make. But it’s one to be made carefully.

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