Drugs in Ultrarunning Study – Use of Banned Substances in Racing and Training Increases

There’s no easy way to look at the results of the study we’ve done this year. It’s pretty disappointing for our sport.

There’s been much talk about drugs in our sport and of athletics in general of late. We’ve seen Russia and their ‘state sponsored drugs program’ take a hammering, but to be honest, who really trusts much in athletics and the forthcoming Olympics these days? The Russians have been the easiest to nail.

Let’s give it four to eight years when the testing catches up with the drugs that athletes are using. The frozen samples taken in a few weeks time in Rio will not only show how Joe Public has been cheated by supposed heroes of the sport, but out of millions of dollars too. Of course, the gold medalists will have sailed off into the sunset with their millions and well, time’s a good healer for the die-hard fans, ask those who still love Lance. Yeah, he cheated but so did everyone else. Like that’s an excuse. It’s not, it’s called fraud.

But back to our humble sport of ultrarunning. A year ago we ran this study to look at how drugs are impacting our sport, what percentage of people were taking them and whether people are clear on the rules or not surrounding banned substances? We also looked at the percentage of people being tested too.

This year we did exactly the same survey. Exactly the same nine questions and 401 respondents compared to 551 from last year, with a similar demographic profile which consisted mainly of people from Australasia and North America, our two biggest readership pools. Just a note on numbers, while we’re down by 150, the margin of error impact on that is minimal if at all.

We’ll run this study again in a year’s time too, and with three years worth of data, I’m hoping that we’ll have some pretty compelling stats that can guide the industry.

Insight #1: The use of banned substances in races and training has increased significantly

The most disappointing news is that it appears that as our sport becomes increasingly popular, with greater commercialisation and more dollar investment, we’ve seen a correlation with a big rise in those willing to cheat the system.

In 2015, the percentage of respondents who admitted to taking a banned substance sat at 1.64% of our sample. In 2016 this number has increased almost two and a half times to exactly 4% of our sample.

The same goes for the number of people who admitted to taking a banned substance in training. In 2015 that number stood at 2.37% and that too has more than doubled to 5.25% in 2016.

While we’re only dealing with small percentages, the sad reality is that the percentage increase in drug use has increased at an alarming rate.

What does this mean? Just step back and imagine you’re on the start line at a major mountain race as part of a world series of events. Cash prizes are on offer, it’s a chance to show potential sponsors just how good you really are if you can snag a place in the top 20 or so. You’re surrounded by 2,500 runners. Based on the results of our study, it’s possible that anywhere around 100 people on the start line are currently using performance enhancing drugs. That is utterly shit.

Insight #2: We need for more testing

I think the most shocking thing for me as part of these results was that 4% admitted to using PEDs in competition.

But when asked how many of our respondents had been tested (in or out of competition), we have no movement or improvement from last year. This has got to change if we’re seeing this upward curve of cheating. Our sporting bodies, races and brands have got to club together if we’re going to take this seriously. I’ve said this elsewhere on our Facebook pages, but a two-year ban, particularly in our sport where people race well into their 40s is utterly pathetic.

I understand that our sporting bodies go further up the chain and that hands might be tied in some respects regarding bans, but if we’re to tackle this head on, the testing has got to be more prevalent at more races and it’s lifetime bans – and this is where races and brands can play a significant role – make an example of these people and ban them for life from races and sponsorships. Anything less than a lifetime ban just isn’t going to send the message that we’re serious about not having drugs in our sport.

In 2015 the percentage of people tested in our sample stood at 2.23%. In 2016 that number reduced slightly to 2.10%. Here we have a situation whereby the number of people being tested has remained the same, yet the percentage increase in drug use has more than doubled. It’s pretty obvious what needs to happen here.

But how did we get here? Has greater commercialisation meant increased stakes and therefore a greater desire to gain an advantage in the quest for success? Is the drug taking at the top end of the scale? Or is it more in the next tier where talented weekend warriors can pick-up easy prize money at some of the lesser known events without the fear of a test anywhere in sight?

Of course, that’s not a question asked as part of the study and it’s hard to speculate. The short answer is that if ultrarunning doesn’t want to head the same way as other sports, serious consideration and action needs to take place. Or like many other sports, we’ll simply play lip service to the whole charade and only the stupid will get caught because they didn’t quite get their micro-dosing right the week before a race.

Insight #3 – Everything else is pretty constant

What makes the numbers of drug users in our sport even more compelling is that when looked at in the context of the other questions, the results year on year are fairly consistent with each other. It’s only in the drug taking do we see these large percentage hikes. Albeit, we’re dealing with smaller numbers, but when looked at as a percentage of last year’s total, the increase is big.

To make life easy, I’ve drawn up a quick table of the remaining results. But suffice to say, the real story here is the rise in drug use both in and out of competition.

Have you knowingly taken a banned substance or substance you believe to banned to enhance your performance during a race?4%1.64%
Have you knowingly taken a banned substance or substance you believe to banned to enhance your performance during training?5.2%2.3%
Have you looked the WADA list of banned substances or the WADA website and do you understand/know what is and isn't legal?28.9%34.1%
Have you knowingly taken a banned substance or substance you believe to banned for medical reasons i.e. it was prescribed?10.9%11.3%
Do you take supplements to enhance your performance or help alter your body composition?27.5%30.1%
Do you feel there is confusion as to what is an isn't banned?31.5%36.1%
Have you used substances that are banned in races, but are OK to use in a social setting and not for the intent of enhancing performance in training or racing?17.2%15.4%
As far as running ultra marathons is concerned, have you ever been tested in or out of competition for PEDs?2.1%2.2%

The percentages in this table represent the number of people who responded ‘yes’ to the questions.

Survey Sample, Methodology and Margin or Error

The survey was conducted between July 19th and 25th, targeted at the ultrarunning community and promoted through the Ultra168 website and Facebook page. A small amount of paid sponsorship was used to promote the study through Facebook to audiences specifically related to ultra and trail running in the following countries: Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, South Africa, Antarctica and Russia.

401 responses were gathered and analysed as part of the data reported above and the survey remains open to continue to collect data. Respondents indicated they were from the following areas:

  • Australasia – 205 (51%)
  • North America – 116 (29%)
  • Europe/Russia – 48 (12%)
  • Asia – 21 (5%)
  • Africa – 6 (1.5%)
  • South America – 3 (0.7%)
  • Antartica – 2 (0.5%)


Margin of Error

I consulted the opinions of Matt Bixley, a well-known ultra runner from New Zealand, he’s a statistician by trade with Science Degree and a Graduate Diploma in Applied Statistics. 

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 = 400) is 4%. 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 i.e the lower scores for the responses presented here, the margin of error is different and  in this instance is +/- 1.92


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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.

9 thoughts on “Drugs in Ultrarunning Study – Use of Banned Substances in Racing and Training Increases

    1. Hey Adrian, yep that is definitely on the cards for year three with this. I wanted to keep the comparisons the same and make it easy i.e. my goal was to see if drug use had increased. Next year we’ll look at what people are taking. Thanks mate!

  1. It is tough to strike a balance with this sort of thing.

    For many (most?) of us, participation will always be more important than performance.

    But the introduction of mandatory testing in races will inevitably increase the price of entry. It is the mid to back packers who lose out here, because the path to the starting line is sponsored only by their disposable income.

    I suppose this is more relevant to the “big ticket” races, that are more likely to draw high profile – and therefore, high stakes – entrants. But your survey, and its trends, indicate that participants in your local $40 entry trail run, may be “cheating the system” also.

  2. That’s an awfully small sample size to draw definitive conclusions. Have you thought about the possible sampling biases ? It’s a good sign that the number of respondents stayed similar, but the demographics of your audience (or just of the people who heard of/took part to the study) may have shifted. There were absolutely no “control” questions in the questionnaire.

    1. Hi Damian, I agree it’s a small sample (Numbers using PEDs) and I have made reference to that and been transparent about all of this across both articles. I’m simply doing the best I can, with the time and resources I have at my disposal right now. Other work has been done in this area and I’ve consulted others who have done similar pieces of work to ensure checks and benchmarks with them, namely Ian Torrence in the US.

      This is always intended as a guide and I feel I’m pretty clear about that up front in both articles. Unless a brand/organisation wants to pump some real money into this and do it properly, it will always be limited to my own resources and what I deem as an acceptable spend of time and money.

      Cheers, Dan

      1. Yes that’s all good. I think you did a good job as all details are clear. My message was more of a warning for other readers who may have overlooked the small sample size. Thanks for your reply!

  3. Governing bodies? What governing bodies?

    This, for me, is the biggest issue and the white elephant that no one seems to want to speak about. Ultra running events are, on the whole, private commercial enterprises that have no affiliation to any governing bodies. For example, Athletics Australia don’t want a bar of it, and event directors aren’t going to output for their own testing. AURA are a governing body, as is SkyRunning ANZ, but they aren’t simply in any authority to seek mandatory testing nor implement it. Operators don’t need sanctioning. Anyone could go out and start up an ultra event.

    Triathlon Australia have a sanctioning process where by for any triathlon event to go ahead it needs to receive permissions from TA. There have been moves to make ultra running more ‘regulated’ in the US an in Europe. South Africa do a fantastic job here too – you can’t even enter a race in SA unless you are a member to an affiliated athletics club.

    This is one reason why I am for ultra/trail running becoming an Olympic event – it’s painful to say it as it will change the whole culture and destroy a large part of the ‘pure’ essence of the sport. However if it was, with every athlete that uses PED, another will be caught. At the moment it’s a free for all and athletes can do what they please without little risk of being caught.

    Saying this though, did you see this?

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