There are times — last night was one of them — when I want the Internet to apologize for taking so much of my time and giving so little in return. Of course, I have only myself to blame for bingeing, but I still hold the Internet responsible for making it too darn easy to dive and keep diving into some random topic, attaining a superficial familiarity in said topic that pretends to be real understanding.
I’m embarrassed to tell you how much time I spent last night reading about Carnitine.
Let’s have a show of hands: who (besides Robin, who has forgotten more biochemistry than I will ever know) had ever heard of Carnitine before reading about it on letsrun.com?
Well I don’t mind admitting that I had never heard of it before. This is not surprising, since I’m constantly finding out how little I know about how my body actually works. According to the all-knowing Internet, Carnitine is a “quaternary ammonium compound biosynthesized from the amino acids lysine and methionine” (Wikipedia). I gather it occurs naturally in the body. It facilitates the use of fatty acids for energy in cells. The Internet also informs me that it is sold in several forms as a supplement.
The LetsRun story is all about efforts by the Nike Oregon Project to understand the benefits of one form of the compound, L-carnitine, for training and racing. The title of their piece is “Everything You Want to Know About the Nike Oregon Project and L-Carnitine Injections” and perhaps unconsciously echoes the title of the 1970s book “Everything you always wanted to know about SEX but were afraid to ask,” with the clear intent of promising good stuff within.
But after reading the article and embarking on a Google-fueled crash course in Carnitine, I want my money back, or my time anyway.
The gist of the LetsRun piece is that NOP and coach Alberto Salazar might have crossed a line. As they put it, “while no prohibited substances have been shown to be taken, injecting L-carnitine crosses many people’s ethical boundary of what should be acceptable in sport.”
I don’t see it. First, as a dietary supplement taken orally, the research seems overwhelming that it is harmless and ineffective in improving fitness/performance for those eating a normal diet. Although not a vitamin, the marketing and use L-carnitine resembles that of vitamins, and perhaps has a similar result of greatly enhancing the nutrient-richness of one’s urine.
Apparently NOP wanted to see if there was anything in the idea that injecting L-carnitine did have a measurable benefit. And maybe it will! But certainly there’s not enough science to say so yet. Perhaps NOP’s efforts will spur new research, and the new research will lead to either more pro runners and athletes using such injections, WADA banning them, or both. As to whether injecting a supplement in legal quantities for advantage crosses an ethical line, well, I guess there will be many opinions about that.
I feel quite confident that one impact of the LetsRun article will be to encourage a lot of people like me to launch a lot of searches for information. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Somewhat cynically, I think it might also boost sales of dietary Carnitine. That may not cross an ethical line, but I hardly think it’s a worthwhile result.
Wait, so you’re saying that the bulk order I just bought after reading Let’s Run isn’t going to help me break 17 minutes for the 5K?
Re the ethical question — I realized after reading the message board thread (or maybe just a page or two of it before being bored to tears) that there’s a huge misunderstanding of what constitutes a banned substance. I heard people say things like “anything that enhances performance is illegal” or “no, only if it’s deemed unsafe.”
The truth is, USADA/WADA has a very simple system that determines how it bans substances (I only know this because I had to take a 3 hour online course on PEDs as part of the USADA random pool):
1. Does it enhance performance
2. Is it unsafe?
3. Is it not “in the spirit of the sport”
If you answered “yes” to two or more of those quesetions – congrats! you’re a banned substance!
(Note – obviously, #3 leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but at least this is more clear than I understood before I knew about these 3 questions).