Drugs in Ultra Running – Global Reader Survey Results

Firstly, a big thank-you to the 550 of you from around the world who took part in our survey. The idea to do this survey came from reading an article by Ian Torrence. I never quite knew if it would actually go anywhere or not. I thought that if I got 500 people to respond, I’d be doing really well, given the length of it and the fact that people are effectively giving their time for free.

My motivations behind conducting the survey were purely out of curiosity. I’m not looking to gain financially from this study (it has cost me money), and I’d happily share the raw data with anyone who is so inclined to ask. Ultimately I wanted to get some form of yardstick as to where the whole drugs thing currently sits within our sport. There’s been a lot of chat about what could be going on, but as far as I’m aware, not a lot in terms of hard data for us to know actuals.

Before we do delve into the results, I will say and do accept that surveys have limitations and margins or error. But I do hope that this gives us a good grounding to build upon in the future. I’ve added some more of the finer details below around the methodology used and margin of error below, but for now let’s get stuck into what people said.

One of the major objectives I wanted to achieve from performing this survey was to try to separate the different forms of drug use encountered in our sport, split into four categories and namely:

  • Use of banned drugs in competition i.e. in a race
  • Use of banned drugs outside of competition (importantly separating out those drugs such as marijuana that are banned in competition, but not out of competition)
  • Use of banned drugs in a social context and not for the benefit of enhancing performance
  • Use of banned drugs that have been prescribed for medical reasons

Use of drugs in ultras (in and out of competition)

From our sample of 551, nine people admitted that they took a banned substance in competition i.e. during a race – that equates to 1.64% of the sample.

When it came to taking banned substances out of competition, we see a slight increase with 13 out of 551 admitting to taking a banned substance – so 2.37% of the sample.

Use of drugs in a social and prescribed context

The use of banned drugs in a social context is where we see a sharp rise in the numbers, but they are in line with what I would have expected when you look at social drug use in the general population, which typically ranges between 10-20%, depending upon which study you read. Overall, 85 from the 551 people admitted to taking a banned substance socially, which translates to 15.54% of our sample.

Finally, looking at the use of banned substances for medical reasons i.e. prescribed drugs (or TUEs as they’re also known), we have a healthy number responding – 62 people from our sample said yes, which is 11.33%.

However where I think things do get interesting (and you can interpret this as you will), but 30.18% (166 from 551) of our sample admitted that they took supplements to enhance their performance or help alter their body composition. The supplement industry is alive and kicking so it seems and we are living in the age of supplementation to perform, look and feel better.

So what does this mean? Well, we have just over 1.5% of people admitting to using drugs in competition, going up the scale to 11.33% using for medical reasons. So it’s safe to assume that the use and extent of drugs in ultras sits between those ranges, whether being taken illegally or for prescribed reasons (TUEs).

This falls within the range that Ian Torrence came back with when he asked a cursory one-question survey on June 16, 2015. He asked the ultrarunning community: Have you ever used a performance-enhancing drug (PED) while training for or participating in an organized ultramarathon (a running/hiking event/race of 50K in length or longer)? For the purposes of this survey PEDs include: testosterone, any steroid derivatives, blood doping, ephedrine, prescription painkillers or narcotics, insulin, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (HGH), marijuana, or (meth)amphetamine.

From the 705 ultrarunners that responded, 9% had used PEDs.

I forwarded the results to Ian, who added, “Q1 and Q2 (use of banned drugs in and out of competition) are certainly telling.  1-2% isn’t a high percent, but considering ultrarunning is a small, naive sport this is significant and certainly answers the question on if whether ultrarunners are knowingly cheating or not: some clearly are.  It also shows that maybe some athletes are training with a substance, but are halting it’s use on or near race day due to possible testing at that event.”

Do people understand the rules?

We didn’t stop there with the drug use, as we sought to understand if people thought the rules and regulations were clear or not. The first question we asked along those lines was: “Have you looked the WADA list of banned substances or the WADA website and do you understand/know what is and isn’t legal?”

65.86% said they had not looked at the WADA website and do not know what is and isn’t legal. Building on this, we asked whether people thought there was confusion or not as to what is and isn’t banned.

36.18% agreed there was confusion, while 44.16% thought there was not. A significant proportion (a fifth) however (19.67%) didn’t know if it was confusing or not. So with over half the sample agreeing or not knowing there is confusion, clearly more education and simplicity is required when communicating the rules – but overall, it’s certainly encouraging that people are looking at the website and understanding what’s going on to some extent.

Finally, we wanted to know the extent of the testing in our sport right now, which I know is low given the expense of doing so. The results fell into line with what I expected to see, which was that just 2.23% of our sample had been tested in or out of competition for PEDs.

Margin of Error

In researching and conducting this study, I consulted the opinions of Matt Bixley, a ‘well-known’ ultra runner from New Zealand, but crucially a statistician and someone who has had experience of drug use in ultras. I’ve included some blurb from him around the margin of error for this study below:

In political polls (usually a sample of 1,000) the Margin of Error is presented as +/- 3.1%. In this poll, the margin of error (sample size = 550) is 4.2%. That means that most of the time, the TRUE result will fall within this range. However that value is only correct for the middle range. At the extremes ie the 1% and 2% scores for the responses presented here, the margin of error is different.

For example, Question 1:  1.64% responded yes (9 people) to taking performance enhancing drugs. The margin of error for this poll and that response is 1.1%. So the true value, most of the time will lie in the range from 0.54% to 2.75%. To me, that seems like a sensible value. And the total response to drug taking appears to be on par with that presented by Ian Torrence, iRunfar.

Note: I was consulted on the questioning, sample size and response rates. I did not see the final wording of question before they were published. I also participated in the survey having had experience in racing while on steroids for medical reasons. In my professional life I work in the field of Animal Genetics/Genomics and have a Science Degree and a Graduate Diploma in Applied Statistics.


This survey was conducted online using Survey Monkey between 22nd and 27th July 2015. The split of respondees globally is as following:

  • North America – 42.36% (233)
  • Australasia – 42% (231)
  • Asia – 7.64% (42)
  • Europe – 7.45% (41)
  • Africa – 0.55% (3)

The survey was publicised on the Ultra168 website, Twitter and Facebook feeds. $30 was also spent on promoting the survey via Facebook to audiences in the following countries: Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Italy and Spain.


Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

3 thoughts on “Drugs in Ultra Running – Global Reader Survey Results

  1. Great work Dan and good on you for shining a light where most people would rather darkness persist. I was once a pretty serious cyclist and I dreaded getting tested as you can go positive and be labelled a cheat for taking so many things you’d just not consider. I once competed at the Masters World Champs and was shocked when saw the breadth of banned drugs. As a Dr I had to write a TUE for a mates asthma medication! I certainly don’t get nervous at Ultras, A. No body is tested B. I’m clean and C. By the time I finish, the testers would be asleep!

Leave a Reply