asthma athlete misuse
Via Shutterstock (Aleksandar Todorovic)

Will an Inhaler Enhance My Performance?

I have a friend who takes a puff of asthma medicine before he competes even though he doesn’t have asthma. He says it increases his oxygen uptake so he can go stronger longer. Is that true?

asthma athlete misuse

As little as three years ago, your friend would’ve been considered a cheat. Now, researchers might call him a dolt.

Until recently, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) considered the asthma medication salbutamol (a.k.a. albuterol) a banned substance requiring medical proof of need because it was thought the medication might provide a competitive advantage, likely in the form of increased oxygen consumption (VO2 max). But late in 2009, WADA announced that salbutamol would be allowed in doses recommended for asthmatics. And starting in 2012, WADA took another asthma medication called formoterol off of the prohibited list.

Why would notoriously strict WADA downgrade these meds? Because several studies over the past few years concluded that asthma medications, also referred to as beta-2 agonists, had no significant, positive effects on performance. For example, a 2011 review of 26 studies on the effects of inhaled beta-2 agonists found that the medications did not improve “endurance, strength or sprint performance in healthy athletes.” In another study published in 2011, Belgian researchers wrote that taking salbutamol “does not affect exercise capacity in normal subjects.”

Leading up to the Beijing Olympics, news outlets suggested that the large number of elite athletes using inhalers, including silver medalist swimmer Dara Torres and gold medalist triathlete Emma Snowsill, signaled a potential abuse of asthma meds to get ahead. Amateur athletes, it seemed, were following suit, leaving a record numbers of inhalers behind at triathlon start lines.

Now, however, it’s speculated that the intense training Olympic athletes do might actually cause asthma symptoms. Olympic athletes with asthma regularly beat their non-asthmatic competitors, reports—not because they’re using inhalers, but possibly because the athletes that trained the most did the most damage to their lungs. Or because asthmatic athletes train harder to make up for their pulmonary deficit.

BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t have asthma, don’t use an inhaler. It won’t make you faster, stronger, or last longer, and you could unnecessarily subject yourself to performance-hindering side effects including dizziness, headaches, and nausea. 

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic