Can Viagra Make You a Better Bike Rider?

Studies of Viagra's effects on athletic performance have produced conflicting findings.
Studies of Viagra’s effects on athletic performance have produced conflicting findings.

Competitive cyclists and other athletes have been wrestling for nearly a decade now over the question of whether Viagra can improve athletic performance. Many, desperate for any competitive edge they might gain, have opted to give the little blue pill a try in the absence of any conclusive answer to the question of whether it helps or not.

Interest in this topic was first triggered by a scientific study published in the June 2006 issue of the “Journal of Applied Physiology.” That study, conducted by a team of California-based exercise physiologists and medical specialists, focused on the effects of Viagra (sildenafil citrate) on a study group of 11 trained male cyclists and triathletes between the ages of 18 and 35. One member of the study group was forced to drop out when he experienced severe headaches as a side effect of Viagra supplementation.

Athlete Offered a Viagra Script

In a recent article posted at Bicycling.com, contributing writer Selene Yeager wrote of how her interest in the impotence drug’s effects was renewed when a medical professional offered to give her a prescription for the drug as she trained for an upcoming trail run. When she’s not busy writing articles for Bicycling.com, Yeager is a cycling coach, mountain biker, and triathlete. Although she declined the offer, it piqued her interest sufficiently that she wanted to revisit the study and examine exactly what it did — and didn’t — find with respect to Viagra’s effects on athletic performance.

By this time, Yeager’s interest in the matter was largely academic, since she had decided to forgo participation in the Leadville Trail 100 Run, the event for which she had been training. It’s important to note, however, that the event is a 100-mile run through the rugged terrain of the Colorado Rockies at elevations that range from a low of 9,200 to nearly 13,000 feet.

Goals of the Study

All of which brings us back to the study, which set out to examine “the effects of two doses of sildenafil on cardiovascular function during submaximal set-work-rate cycling exercise and time-trial performance during normoxia and acute hypoxia in healthy, trained men.” Normoxia refers to normal levels of oxygen such as are seen at sea level and lower elevations, while hypoxia is a state in which levels of oxygen available to body tissues are significantly lower than normal, such as at higher elevations.

While one study found that trained cyclists performed better at high elevations after taking Viagra, another similar study failed to reach the same conclusion.
While one study found that trained cyclists performed better at high elevations after taking Viagra, another similar study failed to reach the same conclusion.

In advance of its testing, the research team behind the 2006 study hypothesized that supplementation with sildenafil — Viagra’s active ingredient — would prove of no real benefit for cyclists at normal oxygen levels but might help at simulated elevations of 12,700 feet or more. To gauge the effects — if any — of sildenafil supplementation, researchers measured cardiac output, arterial oxygen saturation, and performance.

Time-Trial Cycling Tests

Study participants — now reduced to 10 in number — were required to complete one practice and three experimental time-trial cycling tests at both sea level and a simulated altitude of roughly 12,700 feet. Each of the cycling tests began with a set-work-rate portion at 55 percent of work capacity for one hour at sea level and 30 minutes at simulated high altitude. Upon completion of this first portion, participants did a time trial of 10 kilometers at sea level and 6 kilometers at simulated high altitude.

Test subjects were randomly given double-blinded capsules containing placebo, 50 milligrams of sildenafil, or 100 milligrams of the drug to be taken one hour before exercise. To help participants adjust to thin-oxygen conditions at high altitudes, they were given hypoxic gas (12.8 percent oxygen) one hour before beginning high-altitude time trials.

Results Jibe with Hypotheses

The study’s results were pretty much in line with the researchers’ pre-study hypotheses. Sildenafil had no effects on cardiovascular or performance measures at sea level. However, at simulated high altitudes, the drug increased stroke volume, cardiac output, and arterial oxygen saturation during the set-work-rate exercise. Sildenafil lowered the 6-kilometer time-trial times by 15 percent and also increased arterial oxygen saturation during the high-altitude time-trial portion of the cycling test.

Although performance was at least marginally improved in all of those who were given sildenafil, the level of improvement varied sharply between two groups that were subsequently identified as sildenafil responders and nonresponders. The former group improved performance by a whopping 39 percent, while the latter improved by a very modest 1 percent. No differences were noted based on sildenafil dose size.

Study Produces Conflicting Results

Keeping in mind that the number of test subjects was extremely small, this study appears to show that sildenafil supplementation could improve athletic performance for at least some at high altitudes. A few years later, a slightly larger study, conducted by researchers at the University of Miami, showed that sildenafil is unlikely to produce any benefits in athletic performance at elevations below 4,000 meters (about 13,100 feet).

Although it is rumored that some football players have taken NFL to improve their performance, there is not yet any evidence to prove that it does.
Although it is rumored that some football players have taken NFL to improve their performance, there is not yet any evidence to prove that it does.

This second study, published in the December 2011 issue of the “European Journal of Applied Physiology,” tested the effects of sildenafil on 21 endurance-trained test subjects — 11 men and 10 women. Specifically, researchers wanted to see how the drug affected arterial oxygen saturation, cardiovascular hemodynamics, peak exercise capacity, and 15-kilometer time-trial performance at simulated moderate (6,900 feet) and high (12,800) altitudes. Test subjects were randomly given capsules containing either a placebo or sildenafil. While test subjects who got the drug showed somewhat higher arterial levels of oxygen, none of the test subjects showed improved time-trial performance at either moderate or high altitudes.

NFL Players Taking Viagra?

All of which leaves us with studies with conflicting conclusions. In a thought-provoking article posted at MindTheScienceGap.com, Emma Steppe addressed rumors that some NFL football players were taking Viagra and questioned whether it made any sense for athletes to try the little blue pill.

Sorting through the limited scientific evidence that’s available, Steppe sees little likelihood that Viagra would do anything to improve the performance of football players. Her reasoning? “If cyclists performing middle distance time trials at high altitude don’t even see reliable performance enhancements from sildenafil, it is very unlikely that football players who typically play at lower altitudes would see any benefit from sildenafil.”

Helps Fight Altitude Sickness

While the question of sildenafil’s effect on athletic performance thus far has no easy answer, it appears that some Latin American athletes have found that the little blue pill does help them to deal with the symptoms of altitude sickness.

In a story posted at WashingtonPost.com in February 2015, reporter Marissa Payne told about an Argentine soccer team that was using sildenafil to combat the headache, nausea, and drowsiness that are the cardinal symptoms of altitude sickness. Members of the River Plate soccer team take the drug before heading to matches in the highlands of Bolivia, according to Payne.

And the Argentinians are not alone, according to Pedro Hansing, the staff doctor of the Colombian soccer team known as the Millonarios. Hansing told Payne that sildenafil has replaced diuretics as the preferred treatment for the unpleasant symptoms of altitude sickness.

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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