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Can Viagra Enhance Athletic Performance, Too?

Current research indicates that Viagra and other oral ED drugs might improve athletic performance at higher elevations. However, there’s no indication that it provides an edge for athletes competing at low to moderate elevation.

 

Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, stirred up more than a little controversy a couple of years back when he told Chicago Tribune sportswriter Brad Biggs that he’d heard some NFL players were taking Viagra to improve their performance on the field.

According to an article posted at FightSaga.com, Marshall’s comments were a little on the vague side, but there can be no doubt he was alluding to the little blue pill and its possible effects on athletic performance. As reported by Biggs, Marshall said, ¨I’ve heard of guys using Viagra, seriously, because the blood, it’s supposed to thin. I don’t know. Some crazy stuff.”

Marshall reportedly even added a bit of a cautionary note, saying, ¨It’s kind of scary with some of these chemicals that are in some of these things, so you have to be careful.¨

Useful in Limited Circumstances

Viagra — or its active ingredient known as sildenafil citrate — has already proved quite conclusively that it can enhance men’s performance in the bedroom. Marshall’s revelations clearly beg the question of whether the drug can in any way improve athletic performance. The answer, it appears, is positive, but only in extremely limited circumstances can taking Viagra make any meaningful difference in how an athlete performs.

Fundamental to any discussion of Viagra’s possible use among athletes is an understanding of how the drug works in achieving its primary purpose, namely overcoming the symptoms of impotence.

Because the vast majority of erection problems stem from compromised blood flow to the penis, Viagra and the other drugs like it are designed to temporarily promote strong blood flow to the pelvic region so that an erection can be achieved.

PDE5 Inhibitors

Viagra was the first of the so-called PDE5 inhibitors, prescribed to treat ED. 

Viagra belongs to a family of drugs known as PDE5 inhibitors that also includes other popular impotence medications such as Cialis, Levitra, Staxyn, and Stendra. They get their name because they are designed to temporarily disable an enzyme known as phosphodiesterase-5, which can make it difficult for some men to get and keep an erection strong enough for intercourse.

The PDE5 enzyme is perfectly natural and serves an important purpose, but for men who are having some sort of vascular impediment to erection, it can cause problems. One of the enzyme’s primary functions is to break down another natural substance known as cyclic guanosine monophosphate, or cGMP.

Improves Blood Flow

The role of cGMP in erection is an important one because it relaxes the smooth muscles that line blood vessels, and as those vessels relax and expand they can carry strong blood flow to the penis. Erection occurs when blood floods into the spongy erectile tissues of the penis causing it to lengthen and harden. Kill off this beneficial cGMP prematurely, and you’re making the task more difficult and in many cases impossible.

So it becomes clear that Viagra and the other PDE5 inhibitors work by promoting strong blood flow, which raises the question of how that might benefit athletes. A small-scale study conducted by researchers from Palo Alto Health Care System and Stanford University’s Medical Center and School of Medicine provides some answers.

Study Group Assembled

For their study, the findings of which were published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers assembled a study group of 11 trained male cyclists and triathletes between the ages of 18 and 35. One test subject was forced to withdraw from the study after experiencing severe headaches during sea-level testing.

Researchers reported that the purpose of their study was to determine what effects, if any, sildenafil would have on athletic performance during both normoxic (normal levels of oxygen) and hypoxic (less than normal levels of oxygen) exercise. In advance of the study itself, researchers hypothesized that sildenafil would have little or no effect on normoxic exercise but likely would improve cardiac output, arterial oxygen saturation, and performance during hypoxic exercise.

Trials at Differing Altitudes

Viagra improved athletic performance at high elevations.

Test subjects performed one practice and three experimental trials at sea level and a similar number of runs at a simulated altitude of just over 12,700 feet. Before the experimental trials at both sea level and simulated high altitude, test subjects were randomly given double-blinded capsules — placebo, 50 milligrams of sildenafil, or 100 milligrams.

The study’s findings were very much in line with researchers’ original hypotheses. Sildenafil supplementation for sea-level exercise trials had no measurable effects on any cardiovascular or performance measures. However, during the simulated high-altitude trials, sildenafil, regardless of dose level, increased stroke volume, cardiac output, and arterial oxygen saturation.

Analysis of Data

In analyzing data after the trials had been run, researchers were able to identify two distinct groups among the test subjects: those who responded positively to the sildenafil and those who did not. Among the former, sildenafil improved time-trial performance at high altitudes by an average of 39 percent, while the latter showed an average improvement of only 1 percent.

So for athletes who are involved in high-altitude pursuits, such as mountain climbing or mountain biking, sildenafil may offer a bit of an edge, particularly for those who respond positively to its effects. As for baseball, football, and other sports that are most often played at low to moderate altitudes, it is doubtful that the little blue pill will be of much assistance.

Can Pose a Danger

Apart from the fact that it probably has no beneficial effect on athletic performance at most altitudes, sildenafil may pose a real danger for athletes if taken at the same time as other vasodilators, medications that dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure.  Spotlighting this potential peril was a report published by two U.K. researchers in a 2010 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Just as men with erection problems are cautioned to avoid all nitrate-based drugs when taking one of the PDE5 inhibitors, athletes need to heed this warning as well and avoid combining sildenafil and other vasodilators in an attempt to improve performance.

Noting that current antidoping laws don’t prohibit or require testing for PDE5 inhibitors or nitrate-based drugs, the researchers point out that ¨some are highly dangerous to health and can lead to cardiovascular collapse, coma, and death.¨ They conclude by saying that the promotion among athletes of PDE5 inhibitors or nitrates as performance-enhancers “is ethically and medically questionable.”

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