From your neural network to the workings of your DNA, there’s no part of your body that science isn’t trying to fine-tune, optimize or re-engineer completely. But which of the current crop of high-level performance enhancers will be routine in a few years, and which can you use tomorrow?
When Lance Armstrong was king of the Tour de France, micro doses of EPO were at the cutting edge of illegal performance enhancement, a near-flawless way to stay ahead of testers. Now, they’re openly discussed on internet forums. High-end gyms offer altitude chambers, while home-screening kits let you test your own genetics in a way that was prohibitively expensive 10 years ago and entirely impossible a decade before that. It’s the same with any performance-enhancing technology or products, legal or otherwise.
First it’s all expensive and unknown, then becomes commonplace. To start wrapping your head around the possibilities of what’s next, it’s best to begin understanding what modern supplement companies are trying to do. The easy wins are gone. The human body, and how to fuel it, are now both well understood, so supplements that simply mimic a macro the body uses for growth (like protein) or compound it to use for energy (creatine) are almost comprehensively well developed. The next steps are going to evolve as scientists’ understanding of the way the body’s chemical and biological processes improves, by ramping them up, shutting them down, or replicating them.
Take ketones, for instance. Until now, carb-loading has been the preferred strategy for endurance athletes, since glucose is such an obvious source of quick-release energy. But – as you may already know if you’ve heard of the ketogenic diet – if you keep your carb intake low for long enough, your body switches to using fat as fuel and your liver starts to convert some of that fat into energy molecules called ketone bodies. Ketones, research suggests, work in parallel with glucose as fuel, but might work faster, allowing the body to operate more efficiently in high-energy efforts. Scientists have now created synthetic ketones, which – in one test – enabled Olympic-calibre cyclists to cover an average of 411m more during a 30min trial – a 2% increase that could be the difference between 10th place and a gold medal.
The ‘Raspberry ketone fat burners’ you see on some sites have dosages in them that range up to 1400mg, which is certainly higher than the maximum you could get from your diet, but massively below the estimated 150,000mg that your body can make a day, and are often accompanied by dangerously high levels of caffeine. More well-researched products like Prototype Nutrition’s KetoCaNa contain up to 11,700mg per serving. More companies are already flocking to this market. There’s still some disagreement over exactly what makes a ketone product fully effective. Some inhibit the natural production of ketones, argues biochemist Dr Richard Veech. But soon, assuming they’re legal in some parts of the world including the UK, serious athletes be able to buy these performance-enhancers at non-prohibitive prices.
Stress less, flow more
Of course, not all developments come from fuelling the body; some come from training the brain. SenseLabs, a San Francisco start-up working with NFL and tennis pros, is focusing on improving athletes’ mental acuity, using ‘neuro-feedback’ to help advance their stress control, decision-making and focus. Although the science is staggering, the processes are fairly simple: athletes wear a headset known as the ‘Versus’ while they do tasks related to key performance indicators. If an athlete struggles with ‘focus,’ for instance, those are the brainwaves that the headset looks for; when the athletes generate them successfully, they get instant feedback on the process. It’s a data-driven approach to a side of training that’s previously been impossible to quantify. There’s more!
By partnering with Red Bull and the US military, SenseLabs has created BrainBank, a database of neuro-performance measurements of elite performers. By analyzing the data, they say, they’re able to identify the electrical patterns in the brain that correlate with high-level performance, allowing their subjects to replicate them when it really matters. And, again, the company is already working on affordable version of the tech for everyday athletes, which could help your “focus endurance” for the gym or “stress recovery” during a friendly sports match.
The future of brain training? There’s evidence that techniques like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, once thought of as therapy for depression, could help people learn and retain motor behaviors, while ‘flow-hacking’ – another Red Bull-funded innovation – could allow people to harness the state where they’re naturally most focused and capable. Beta blockers might be illegal in the Olympics, but a headset that trains you to shut down stress and compete like a robot? It’s fair game.
Defeat the reaper
Maybe your exercise and nutrition goals are more focused on slowing the aging process. For this to happen, it’s time to think about ‘supplementing’ your DNA. Specifically, you need to worry about your telomeres, which are segments that appear at the end of our long strings of chromosomes, acting like shoelace-tips by stopping them from ‘fraying’ or ‘tangling.’ As cells lose their telomeres, without fresh ones, they die. This prevents cells from dividing and our bodies from growing and repairing themselves. Because of that, there’s mounting evidence that telomere length is related to aging in humans. So what’s the solution?
In 2007, Manhattan entrepreneur Noel Patton signed up 100 guinea pigs willing to take a supplement known as TA-65, refined from the traditional Chinese herb astragalus – the only substance that had ever been shown to produce the enzyme telomerase. Results were mixed, with a few subjects reporting enhanced recovery and faster running times. However, this year, for the first time, there’s study-based evidence that the supplement does actually lengthen telomeres, giving some validity to the claims. Much more research is necessary, and TA-65 still doesn’t come cheap – it retails at $450 for 90 capsules, roughly a 40-50 day supply – but the results are promising. If the next generation of testers live longer, stay healthier into their dotage, or start breaking age-group records, it’ll be difficult to ignore the possibility that humanity’s finally discovered a way to reverse at least part of the aging process.
Cut and paste
At the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s gene-editing, or the ability to reshape the entire human body at the DNA level. CRISPR, the most advanced form of the technology, is “Like a molecular scalpel for genomes,” explains Professor Jennifer Doudna, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley often credited with co-discovery of the tech. “All of the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers.” By effectively cutting-and-pasting small sections of genetic code, the technology can find and replace sections of DNA, turning genes on or off, removing harmful mutations, and potentially inserting helpful genetic mutations that could make people super-athletes or immune to disease.
Approved in February this year for British trials on embryos – it’s already been tried, unsuccessfully, in China – the technology will be much more complicated to use on fully-grown adults, since we’re still learning how our genetics actually ‘code’ for various traits and strengths. One of the most exciting – or worrying – things about the tech is that, according to its creators, using the latest tools to make genetic edits is so simple that anyone who has basic molecular biology skills would be able to use CRISPR to ‘edit’ a human embryo.
People with sufficient expertise could probably set up a lab that would be able to make designer babies or tinker with animal species for less than $2000, according to the experts TRAIN spoke with. And, when the technology spreads, it’s likely to be impossible for regulatory bodies to keep up. PED experts often cite the story of Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta, who won three gold medals in 1964. It was later discovered that he famously had a genetic mutation that gave him 40% more red blood cells than the average person.
Once gene-manipulation is better understood, it might be impossible to tell whether a red-blood-cell count was a ‘natural’ mutation like Mäntyranta’s or an enhancement tacked on in some lab. This is a common theme with the new supps: they don’t just jack up a biomarker of human performance but, tackle it at the root; they’re virtually impossible to detect and even harder to argue against.
Still, that’s one for WADA to worry about. For as long as men and women have competed for anything – prizes, honor or even food and shelter – the search for ways to gain an edge on the opposition has been, if anything, more aggressive than the physical battle. If you can drink, eat, huff or inject it, chances are someone, somewhere has considered using it to get an advantage. The modern era’s no different. More importantly, we’ve never lived in a more exciting time for developments relating to health and the human body.
As we understand more and more about what makes us tick – and how to regulate it – via science or our own efforts, we’re approaching an era where every limitation we thought we had might be cast aside. Running faster and lifting harder? Compared with ending disease and reversing aging, they’re small fry. And, some day, you might be able to buy both in pill form.
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