Monday, April 28, 2014

interview with me on FIGHTLAND

In case you missed on Twitter, here is an interview with me and UFC veteran (and aspiring poker player) Martin Kampmann. The interviewer, Eli Kurland, called me up and pretty much just let me ramble on, so it's fairly off-the-cuff and spontaneous responses on my part.

I'm a big fan of the FIGHTLAND blog overall, so check out some of the other stuff there. There's some excellent written and video content on topics as diverse as the training lifestyle in rural Thailand, to great technique breakdowns of big-name fighters as well as some beautiful documentaries about MMA in some of the last places you'd imagine.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Value of Being Uncomfortable, revisited

Not long ago, I made some hand-waving, decidedly unscientific comments on the value of acute discomfort.

Yesterday, on Tim Ferriss' very popular blog, there is a post discussing the science of sauna exposure and improved health and performance. Among the highlights of that post:
One study demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session two times a week for three weeks POST-workout increased the time that it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline.
two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.
Fifteen minutes in a 100°C sauna is pretty rough, but the point is that the exposure has to be difficult or prolonged enough to be uncomfortable. It's supposed to be difficult. And so it goes with exercise, fasting, or any other kind of physical stressor. Suffer, endure, recover.

What I found most interesting was that there is actually a "discomfort chemical" produced in the body, dynorphin:
Beta-endorphins are endogenous (natural) opioids that are a part of the body’s natural painkiller system, known as the mu opioid system, which block pain messages from spreading from the body to the brain in a process called antinociception. What is lesser known is that the body also produces a peptide known as dynorphin (a “kappa opioid”), which is generally responsible for the sensation of dysphoria. The discomfort experienced during intense exercise, exposure to extreme heat (such as in a sauna), or eating spicy food (capsaicin) is due to the release of dynorphin. The release of dynorphin causes an upregulation and sensitization of mu opioid receptors, which interact with beta-endorphin.46 This process is what underlies the “runner’s high” and is directly precipitated by the discomfort of physical exercise. 
Anyway, it's certainly not a scientific be-all and end-all on the matter, but it's an interesting read and potentially one more point in favour of acute discomfort.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bigger, Faster, Stronger - why I no longer believe in banning steroids in sport

Over the weekend, I watched and quite enjoyed the 2008 documentary  Bigger Stronger Faster* on Netflix. I found it an honest assessment and good treatment regarding the controversy of steroids in professional and amateur sports, and enjoyed the combination of the director's personal anecdotes and paneling of relevant experts. I recommend watching it regardless of what side of the steroid debate you are on.

My own opinion on steroids in sport has changed significantly in the last couple of years. Not long ago, I was staunchly against steroid users. I thought all users were cheaters, that enforcement needed to be stepped up, and punishment needed to be harsher. I read the book Numbers Rule Your World, which included a chapter on how it was probable that the vast majority of steroid users are not caught, because Type 1 errors (false positives) are far more rare than Type 2 errors (false negatives). In a nutshell, the author argued that almost no one claiming innocence after testing positive is actually innocent, and that there are numerous athletes who are not testing positive but really are on the juice.

At some point, I started to change my mind on the issue. My position just didn't continue to make logical sense to me. It is definitely clear that steroid usage is in fact "cheating" in the sense that it is against the rules. But it's clear that not all forms of cheating are treated the same by sports fans. A basketball player who pushes the bounds of contact with his opponent but doesn't get whistled for a foul is not considered a cheater, he's considered a good defensive player. We have a culture of "it ain't cheating if you don't get caught", especially if you happen to be a fan of the individual committing the foul. And so it is with steroids. The most successful steroid users are those who are able to cycle off steroids in time, so that they don't get caught. What effectively is happening at this point with respect to steroids is that only the dumb, poor, or overly aggressive users are getting caught.

Difficulty in catching steroid users is not itself sufficient to argue that steroids should be legal, of course. Just because something is difficult to enforce does not mean you stop enforcing it, if it is deemed beneficial to do so.

The problem is that I no longer believe that it is beneficial to continue to try to ban steroids. The argument against steroids usually goes something like this:
  • Steroids create an unfair playing field between users and non-users.
  • As such, non-users would feel at a disadvantage; everyone would have to use, or risk being at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Steroids are dangerous/have dangerous side effects. If athletes feel compelled to use steroids, then you are encouraging these athletes to harm themselves.
  • Legalization would encourage children/teens to use them, since their idols would be known to use them.

The Unfair Playing Field

This argument is probably the most common, but the easiest to take apart. The playing field is not fair. Never has been, never will be. Some people were born with better genetics. Some people were born into a better socioeconomic path to athletic stardom. We like to think that with hard work, anyone can become a world champion in any sport, but the hard truth is it's bullshit. If you're not from a village in Kenya or Ethiopia, you're probably not going to be the best long distance runner in the world. Conversely if you *are* from a poor village in Africa, I don't much care for your chances of winning the America's Cup or the PGA Championship.

I find it hard to believe that there are still reasonable people who think that it's totally fair if you're genetically predisposed to having higher testosterone, red blood cell count, bone density, better body composition, and so on, but arbitrarily draw an ethical line at using technology to improve any of the above.

Additionally, I think it's worthwhile to explore the effects of non-steroid enhancement. No one thinks laser vision correction, or surgery to repair injured body parts is cheating.  Nick Diaz, an MMA fighter known for great striking but also famous for always getting cut (a marked disadvantage in a sport where a doctor can stop a fight if he thinks the cut is dangerous), had surgery to shave down some of his facial bones, making it less likely for him to get cut in the future. Absolutely no one in the MMA community thinks this is cheating, at least certainly not on the level that anabolic steroid usage is considered to be.

Even if we're just worried about hormone levels, there are many different ways to increase testosterone. Getting more sleep increases testosterone. Lifting weights increases testosterone. Having sex increases testosterone. Supplementing with Vitamin D increases testosterone. Same with creatine, zinc, and anecdotally, taking cold showers. And some people have genetics that lead to them having higher testosterone. You can't realistically ban these things, and you also can't provide universal access to these things.

It's Dangerous, So It's Unethical To Make People Feel Like They Have To Do It

I think this is the stronger argument. The side effects of anabolic steroid abuse are pretty well known, and they are real. What I find unfortunate about steroid education are the exaggerations and misinformation spread about it. I've never done steroids (nor even been tempted to), but from everything I understand, it's not like users immediately grow hair everywhere, get massive roid rage, grow breasts and have their testicles shrink. I think it's far more likely that if used under proper supervision from a qualified and ethical endocrinologist, steroids probably enhance performance with a small, but significant, amount of side effects.

Like we've seen with criminalization of other drugs like marijuana, exaggerating effects and providing misinformation about steroids inhibits what society really needs -- an open dialogue about the matter. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" draws a parallel to "Reefer Madness", an absurd 1930s propaganda film which claimed that marijuana would turn users into violent sociopaths (as opposed to useless, lazy stoners). While there is likely more truth in claims of steroid damage, the point remains that providing exaggerations and misinformation prevents a useful dialogue.

Suppose that a given person has decided that he or she will use steroids, and you cannot talk him or her out of it. This person is committed to being the best football player, track and field competitor, powerlifter, bodybuilder, fighter, golfer, or whatever. This person rejects the idea that he cannot be the best, and is willing to go to whatever means necessary to do this. While we wouldn't want our son or daughter to be this person, what is the best situation for this person? The status quo, where this person orders a bunch of steroids over the internet, or perhaps makes a trip to Mexico to get it from a veterinarian? Or one where he or she can have an open dialogue with someone qualified to dispense the steroid; someone who can provide good, honest, ethical advice?

Elite Level Sports Performance Itself Is (Probably) Inherently Unhealthy

To get to an elite level in professional sports, you have to be willing to sacrifice your health. I think this statement comes as a surprise to people, because there is often an association between health and fitness. These two are not the same thing, even though they are so often used together. Elite level professional athletes are almost always very fit. They are stronger, faster, more flexible, and have better endurance than most people. But that does not mean they are healthy.

Elite professional athletes play through pain, injury, and illness. Those are bad things to do. The training required to reach the elite level in most pro sports is unhealthy, or at the very least, it is far from optimizing health. Optimal health for humans probably looks something like: walk a few miles every day, get some more intense exercise 3-4 times a week, and eat regularly while fasting intermittently. But elite level athletes train at a high intensity 5-6 days a week, often two or three times a day. They constantly eat a tremendous amount of calories to fuel that training, and when they are not training they are most likely sleeping, because they are exhausted. The level of fatigue and strain accumulated on an elite level athlete is hard for the average person to fathom, and it likely goes well beyond what is actually healthy in most circumstances. When you think of that way, it's very little wonder why so many athletes die prematurely.

The Maude Flanders Argument

 (I'll take any excuse to use this image.)

Even if it's not expressly stated, a lot of people feel that it's important to villify steroid users because if we don't, we are implicitly saying to children that it's okay to use them. We want our kids to eat their vegetables, so Popeye gulps down a canful of spinach; he doesn't jab a needleful of Winstrol in his ass.

And no, I don't think kids should be using steroids for athletic performance enhancement. But here again, I think it's far better to be able to have a healthy dialogue about steroids than it is to misrepresent and scare children and teenagers. Kids aren't stupid. If you treat them like intelligent, autonomous beings capable of making reasonable decisions, they're actually less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I see no reason that steroids wouldn't be different.

In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", one of the protagonists is a steroid user as well as a high school football coach. The coach has clearly lied to his teenaged students about the fact that he uses. You're left to wonder what those kids are supposed to think if they ever get their hands on the documentary that they appear in.

If Steroids Are So Great, Why Don't You Do Them?

Well, quite simply, I don't want to.

I don't want to use steroids simply because of the cost-benefit analysis. From a legal perspective, I'm unwilling to get arrested or otherwise get in trouble with the law to get the performance gains that steroids could potentially provide me.  From a health perspective, I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about them to feel like I can use them correctly without screwing up my health. I also feel there is a lack of long-term evidence that anabolic steroids can be used safely without significant negative consequences. I'd like to have kids one day, and have no desire to risk infertility. In summary, I don't care so much about being elite that I'm willing to risk the associated health and legal issues.

Every serious athlete has to, at some point, make a choice about how far they are willing to go. Usually, the ones who make it to the top 0.001% of their sport are the ones that are willing to risk everything. They risk concussions, spinal cord injuries, knee surgeries, heart attacks, and more. That elite level athletes are willing to do damage to their bodies is nothing new to sports, but while we lionize the athlete who risks his brain, neck, back, or knees for his sport, we demonize the athlete who risks his endocrine system. This is not logically consistent.

The fact is, I'll never be an elite level athlete in my chosen sport. But I like watching sports, and I'll continue to watch elite level athletes do amazing things. I'll know the lengths they have gone to do these amazing things. They will have likely trained since a very young age, possibly being pressured or even abused by a parent or coach. They will likely have sacrificed academic pursuits in favour of time in the gym or on the field. They will sacrifice time with friends, staying out late, or their favourite foods. They will have pushed their bodies to the limit of failure in both training and competition. They will train and compete through cuts, bruises, aches, sprains, broken bones, and concussions. And I realize that quite possibly, they will have used exogenous hormones to get through all of these things.

Would it be cooler if I knew for certain that those athletes were able to do these things solely through their genetically-granted gifts and their hard work and discipline? Perhaps. To be sure, I think as long as steroids continue to be against the rules, sports organizations should continue to seek out and punish those who use them. But as a society, it grows increasingly hypocritical to demand that our athletes sacrifice their brains, bones, and joints while simultaneously demanding that they keep off the steroids that so many of their rivals are using.