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Drug Use in Sports

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 17, 2023

Table of Contents

Drugs and athletics are closely interlinked. Professional athletes typically have a fierce drive to win and dream of competing at the highest level for a club or country. Regrettably, as sports become ever more competitive and lucrative, drug use in sports has become increasingly common for athletes to use PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs), which can lead to substance abuse.

The use of PEDs in sports is known as doping. Today’s guide highlights some of the many health risks and unknowns of using performance-enhancing drugs to boost athletic performance.

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Drugs and Athletes

Research shows that using drugs in sports is commonplace:

Data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) show that:

  • Up to 93% of college athletes consumed alcohol in the previous year.
  • 5% of male college athletes reported using steroids in the previous year.
  • 9% of professional footballers reported using steroids at some stage in their careers.
  • 67% of professional bodybuilders reported using steroids at some stage in their careers.
  • 28% of college athletes used marijuana in the previous year.
  • Up to 715 of professional athletes reported using opioids at some stage in their careers.
  • Roughly 3% of college athletes report using stimulants.

Athletes use a wide variety of substances, including:

  • PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs)
  • Stimulants
  • Prescription painkillers
  • HGH (human growth hormone)
  • Erythropoietin
  • Diuretics

PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs)

Anabolic steroids are naturally produced in the body as testosterone. Anabolic steroids such as testosterone allow the body to develop lean muscle mass.

Drug use in sports contributes to many athletes choosing to use anabolic steroids to:

  • Train harder.
  • Increase lean muscle mass.
  • Become stronger.
  • Recover more rapidly from workouts.

In addition to using illicit anabolic steroids, some athletes use Andro, a prescription medication that can enhance male sex characteristics.


Many athletes use stimulants in order to:

  • Improve overall athletic performance.
  • Stay awake for longer.
  • Remain alert and focused.
  • Feel exhilarated.

Athletes may use illicit stimulants like cocaine or prescription medications used to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Many athletes use amphetamine, whether illicit meth (methamphetamine) or prescription stimulant Adderall, to boost performance and alertness levels. Ingesting amphetamine in any form can increase self-confidence and energy, while also decreasing appetite. These properties lead some boxers and wrestlers to take amphetamine products as a weight loss tool.

Prescription painkillers

Prescription opioid-based painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone are intended for the management of severe pain. In addition to their pain-relieving properties, opioids also induce a relaxing and euphoric high.

While some athletes start taking opioids with a supporting prescription, others use opioids non-medically.

Whether athletes use opioids for medical purposes or in an attempt to improve performance, tolerance and dependence can develop, often leading to addiction in the form of opioid use disorder.

HGH (human growth hormone)

Athletes sometimes use HGH (human growth hormone) to improve overall performance and to build muscle mass. This prescription injectable is often diverted for non-medical purposes.


Erythropoietin is a drug that triggers an increased production of hemoglobin and erythrocytes (red blood cells). These properties can lead to increased oxygen delivery to the muscles.

Some athletes use this substance to increase aerobic power and endurance.


In drug use in sports, if an athlete needs to pass a drug test or to lose weight, they may try using diuretics. These substances alter electrolyte and fluid levels in the body.

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Why Do Athletes Use Drugs in Sports?

There are many reasons why athletes use illicit drugs and prescription medications.

  1. To improve overall athletic performance: Many athletes seek to gain an unfair competitive edge by using performance-enhancing drugs. Doping is widespread, impacting all sports, all levels of competition, and all ages
  2. For managing physical injuries: Some athletes who sustain physical injuries use prescription opioids or medical marijuana for pain management. This can lead to misuse and abuse, and can also cause physical dependence and psychological addiction to develop.
  3. To self-medicate the symptoms of mental illness: Athletes are less likely to seek help for mental health issues than for physical injuries, causing some athletes to self-medicate the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental health disorder with drugs or alcohol.
  4. As a coping mechanism: Athletics is a highly pressurized field. The stress and pressure, both on and off the field, leads some athletes to use drugs as a coping mechanism.
  5. To counter peer pressure: With drug abuse so rife in athletics, some athletes find themselves using drugs just to fit in.

The Risks of Using Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Sports

Drug use in sports can have serious and potentially life-threatening consequences.

Using any addictive substance causes tolerance to form. When this occurs, the effects of the drug are diminished, prompting many people to use more of the substance. Increasing consumption accelerates the development of physical dependence. If you become dependent on a substance, its absence will cause intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms to manifest. Addiction is clinically termed substance use disorder. Substance use disorder is a chronic brain condition that is incurable but treatable.

In addition to the dangers of addiction and overdose, athletes run the following risks when they use drugs while competing:

  • Bans or suspensions: The primary risk athletes face when using drugs is violating the rules of professional athletics organizations. These organizations have strict rules against the use of recreational drugs or performance-enhancing drugs. Violating these rules leads to the suspension or banning of many athletes. In some serious cases, medals, prizes, and titles can be revoked. Brett Favre, Steve Howe, and Lance Armstrong all faced these consequences.
  • Early retirement: Athletes who abuse drugs to the point of developing addiction may be forced into an early retirement due to the adverse outcomes triggered by drug addiction, including impaired athletic performance.
  • Health problems: Athletes who use anabolic steroids may bring about liver damage or kidney damage, as well as triggering hypertension and cardiovascular problems. Using steroids can also cause mental side effects, including anger, depression, and violent outbursts. Males using steroids may experience fertility issues, while women using steroids may experience the development of male characteristics alongside menstrual changes.
  • Overdose: Athletes who abuse opioids are at heightened risk of a deadly opioid overdose.
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Drug Addiction Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

If you have participated in drug use in sports and have developed an addiction to prescription medications or illicit narcotics, we can help you initiate a sustained recovery here at Renaissance Recovery Center in Orange County.

We offer a variety of outpatient programs, delivering supportive and structured drug addiction treatment without the cost or the inflexibility of residential rehab.

Choose from the following programs depending on the severity of your addiction and your personal circumstances:

At Renaissance, we provide you with a whole-body approach to addiction recovery. Access a personalized array of these therapies and interventions:

Once you complete your treatment program, you can transition to a less intensive level of treatment, or you can move straight back into daily living. Either way, your treatment team will equip you with a comprehensive aftercare plan, including access to our alumni program. You will also benefit from relapse prevention and management strategies to maximize your chances of sustaining remaining abstinent from addictive drugs.

Begin your recovery journey today by calling 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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