Is Brandon Marshall Right About Viagra Helping Football Players?
“I don’t know too much about Adderall,” [Brandon] Marshall said during his weekly press conference. “I know guys, it is such a competitive league, guys try anything just to get that edge. I’m fortunate enough to be blessed with size and some smarts to give me my edge. But some guys, they’ll do whatever they can to get an edge. I’ve heard of some crazy stories. I’ve heard (of) guys using like Viagra, seriously. Because the blood is supposedly thin, some crazy stuff. So, you know, it’s kind of scary with some of these chemicals that are in some of these things so you have to be careful.”
It shouldn't be that surprising that he's heard of it; it's enough of a thing that the World Anti-Doping Agency has looked into banning it, though there's little evidence it actually helps athletes who aren't competing at high altitudes (higher than Denver, though perhaps Marshall's tenure there is related). It improves blood flow by relaxing blood vessels, not by thinning the blood; I'm only aware of blood thinners as a doping regimen to counteract EPO, which is a blood thickener. Enlarged blood vessels deliver more oxygen, which is in shorter supply at very high altitudes. Up that high, there's evidence that Viagra does help:
Interest in the drug among antidoping experts was further increased by a study conducted at Stanford University and published in 2006 in The Journal of Applied Physiology. The study indicated that some participants taking Viagra improved their performances by nearly 40 percent in 10-kilometer cycling time trials conducted at a simulated altitude of 12,700 feet — a height far above general elite athletic competition. Viagra did not significantly enhance performance at sea level, where blood vessels are fully dilated in healthy athletes.
A 2004 German study of climbers at 17,200 feet at a Mount Everest base camp, published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, found that Viagra relieved constriction of blood vessels in the lungs and increased maximum exercise capacity.”
Interest in Viagra as a doping agent seems to have peaked around 2008 for a number of reasons, one of which is another environment in which the little blue pills might come in handy:
Pollution, however, has become a serious problem, especially this year in Beijing. That's where WADA's studies raise an interesting possibility. One of them, according to the Times, "is measuring the potential effects of Viagra as an antidote to air pollution," with 30 athletes assigned to "ride exercise bikes in clean air and in a room with the air polluted by the exhaust of leaf blowers and lawnmowers." The hypothesis seems to be that air pollution, like altitude, can constrict oxygen flow—and that Viagra might restore it.
As with altitude, there's no evidence it helps except in extreme-altitude or -pollution environments (it's possible, I guess, that if you trained at extreme altitudes, something athletes do, and wanted to train harder and longer, Viagra might help), so it's not going to help athletes outside of Beijing or La Paz—or maybe Mexico City, which has plenty of both. Nonetheless, it's apparently been popular in locker rooms for quite some time for off-label uses.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune