Thursday, April 5, 2012

Overeem, TRT, and Drug Testing

If you don't follow MMA you might want to skip this post.

I'm writing this just as news of Alistair Overeem's failed Testosterone: Epitestosterone test are coming to light.  As of right now his B sample hasn't been tested, nothing's been confirmed - as far as I know this is a huge mistake (not that I think it is).

Having said that, I've already read a few comments (some posted by professional reporters) that indicate that the authors don't understand this test or what it means.  I thought I'd explain.

We're all probably familiar with testosterone, a sex hormone produced in naturally higher levels in males than in females.  Testosterone positively influences muscle hypertophy (how big your muscles can be), recovery (how fast you can recover from a tough workout), mood, health, and a bunch of other things.  People's levels vary naturally - men almost always have higher levels than women, levels tend to peak in early twenties or so then decline gradually, and levels can be affected by your genes, stress levels, sleep, nutrition, various legal herbs, and even looking at naked women (seriously).  How much those things can influence T levels is relative - if you're at a 400, watching a bunch of porn and getting a good night's sleep might get you  up to 500, but it won't get you to 1200.

Incidentally, one way to permanently decrease your T levels is repeated head trauma.  Think about that in terms of fightsports for a moment.  And one of the most serious consequences (in my opinion) of depressed T is increased risk for depression (along with heart disease)... think about that the next time a former fighter commits suicide.

So we can all imagine that if you're going to compete in almost any sport that involves strength and/or power, higher T levels, at least up to a point, are going to be beneficial.  They'll allow you to train harder, recover faster, hold more muscle in the face of high stress, and generally be, all else being equal, a better athlete.  How do you get higher levels of T?  Sleep, nutrition, porn - they'll all help a little bit, but the most effective way is to add testosterone to your system - inject it, use a cream, whatever.

Of course, that's against the rules.  Mostly.  There's an exception - Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT).

You see, if a normal joe (like me) has low T levels - that is, significantly lower than those of an average male of our age (roughly mid-600's are average) - we can go to our doctor and get a nice legal prescription for injectable T or a T cream.  Boom, levels go back up, but, depending on how much we take, our levels may not be very high - they may still be on the low side - just higher than they were.  If your T level is 200 and you use a cream or injections to get up to 500 your T level is still lower than the average guy on the street.

Now to compete in MMA there are all kinds of hoops you have to jump through - just because something is legal doesn't mean it's okay with the athletic commission (see Nick Diaz, marijuana).  They'll accept a fighter on TRT if they go to certain doctors, file specific forms, tell them ahead of time, etc. - like I said, there are hoops to jump through, but the use of TRT isn't banned outright.  In theory, they would test you to make sure you weren't on a high enough dose of TRT to give you a competitive advantage.  Basically, if I can show them that I'm using TRT to bring my 200 up to an 800 (still well within the range of "normal"), I'd be okay, but if I bring my 200 up to a 2000 I wouldn't be allowed into the cage.

There ARE tests that check your overall T levels - blood tests, not urine as far as I know - but that's not what Overeem failed.

You see, along with T, your body makes another hormone called Epitestosterone (E) that isn't very interesting - it doesn't do too much that we're aware of, and doesn't seem to help with athletic performance.  About the only reason we do care about E is that humans tend to make about as much of it as they do of T - in other words, for pretty much everybody, whatever your T levels are, your E levels will be almost exactly the same.  Have a lot of T (say, you're a teenager watching porn)?  You'll have a lot of E.  Have a low T?  Low E.  The ratio stays at around 1:1.  But what if you inject a bunch of extra T?  Well, the ratio gets out of whack, because it's the stuff your body makes that comes out in a 1:1 ratio - when you inject extra T there's no feedback loop that has your body ramp up its production of E.

Overeem's reported T:E ratio was 14:1.  If that's true it ONLY means that he had a lot of artificial T swimming around in his system.  As far as I know he doesn't have a TRT exemption - that information may be available - but we don't actually know if his T levels were really high OR if his natural T level was ridiculously low an he used supplemental T to get his overall levels to a high-normal range.  I'm not saying that is the case - I'm just saying that we don't know if his T levels were very high, offering him some competitive advantage - only that he was injecting (or smearing through cream) extra T.

Now if Overeem hadn't applied for a TRT exemption and was still applying/ injecting extra T then it doesn't matter if his overall levels were higher than normal or not - he broke the rules, he'll be punished for it.

Please note that I'm not arguing in favor of the current regulations (or against them), I only think we should be clear on what the various test results actually mean.  I'm a little sympathetic to the view that the athletes should be allowed to drug up however much they want to - we're not seriously worried about their health, are we?   If we cared about the long term health of athletes they'd all be in headgear, if combat sports were even legal.  Forget football.  Or marathon running.  High level sports is not good for people!

One last note - if you're an amateur athlete buying illegal drugs to improve your performance then you're an idiot.  Overeem makes hundreds of thousands of dollars to risk his health - if you're an accountant who trains in martial arts for fun, to risk your health at 60 for your hobby is just dumb.  When you buy steroids from some guy at your gym you don't know what's in them, the purity level, etc.  Now if you have low (or low-ish) T levels and you want to get TRT from your doctor, that's another story (the pharmacy will sell you real T, no rat poison in it).  I don't claim to be an expert on Hormone Replacement Therapy, but I suspect that artificically replacing your T levels back to where they were when you were in your mid-20's will have only positive side effects for most people (but I'm NOT positive about this).  

So, stay away from illegal drugs, but consider legal ones.  Osu!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Podcasts to Listen to and Fiction to Read

First of all, a deep apology for not posting lately. Between training for my new job, a heavy travel schedule, and trying to get enough sleep I just haven't had time. I've done hardly any formal karate training in almost two months either!

A couple of new things to keep your eyes (or ears) on:

If you follow kickboxing (and if you don't, you should) there are 2 podcasts coming out that you should be listening to. The first is Warman's Kickfighting Show, and despite the slightly World of Warcraft sounding title it's very sober, intelligent discussion of kick-sports (kickboxing and Muay Thai). The second is the podcast associated with the lovely LiverKick site. Search the site for podcasts and you'll see their own listed.  It's very good coverage of the sport.

Another absolutely wonderful site if you're at all interested in fighting sports is Fights Gone By. It's supposed to be coverage of classic fights, and it has wonderful links to classic fights in boxing, kickboxing, and MMA, but what makes it really special is the in-depth analysis of the fighting techniques used. It's the kind of site where you'll see a Mirko Cro Cop head kick, but unlike other places, it comes with exhaustive analysis of all the things Cro Cop does to make that head kick land.

Now any coverage of fighting sports is going to have some, but not perfect, relevance to unregulated combat. If you're into self defense you can't use kickboxing or boxing techniques as they are used in the ring exactly - gloves and tape and rules change the game. But a lot of the ideas do cross over to some extent, and if you enjoy fight sports for their own sake you'll enjoy them much more if you better understand what's going on. As wonderful as a big knockout it, it's much more enjoyable when you can see how the fighter set it up, got his opponent's defenses down, etc.

If you're interested reading more about conditioning and strength training while I'm not posting anything new hit my blogroll - especially Brett Contreras' site - I consistently find his posts entertaining and educational.  If you're willing to buy some products (there's stuff on the site worth checking out for free too) definitely consider 8 Weeks Out, he has a ton of really good material that's changing the way the strength world is looking at endurance training.

I've mentioned before that I have a weakness for martial arts related fiction.  I love material ranging from books that center on martial arts using characters to movies with MA themes to American and Asian comics (manga and manhua) that center on MA sports or MA using characters.  Loving martial arts and liking MA fiction go together like liking science and liking science fiction - lots of science lovers and scientists love sci fi, lots of them hate it.  A lot depends on how critical you are - how good you are at suspending disbelief when you read/ watch the stuff.  If a character dodging bullets really annoys you (because it is so unrealistic) you're not going to love Dragonball.  You might like Hajime no Ippo, though - that's a fairly realistic series about a Japanese boxer - no bullet dodging, no energy beams, just opponents with strong jabs or who fight left handed (both of which, you know, actually happen).

I'm not going to recommend any movies here - well, I lied, watch both Black Belt and High Kick Girl, I loved both, and anything starring Tony Jaa.  Other people do a much more comprehensive job of reviewing/ recommending MA movies online (try Kung Fu Cinema for reviews, news, etc.).

For books I'm a fan of Steve Perry (not the one you're thinking of) - he's a real life silat practitioner and his books have very strong MA themes.  His blog has links on the side to e-book versions of all his stuff.  Start with The Man Who Never Missed.  It's sci fi, and maybe it's not great literature, but they're fun reads and feature lots of MA action.  Another guy who used to write a LOT about MA is Eric Lustbader.  I grew up on his books - he broke out with The Ninja - and wrote a ton of bestsellers about MA in modern times.  It's pretty much all trash, but entertaining trash.  He's moved away from the MA themes in the last 15 years or so, so if that's what you like, start with his older work.

On the American comic side I'm mostly a reader of Marvel comics (nothing against other companies).  The best MA comics are from the past - if you can read (or torrent) a set of Master of Kung Fu comics from the late 70's that title was surprisingly good.  I liked the Iron Fist comic that was published just a few years ago - very strong MA themes - but  most of the time Iron Fist is just another superhero who happens to use MA, there aren't really much in the way of MA plotlines in his stories.

If you really want to hit the motherload of MA themes comics, you have to go to Asian sourced stuff.  There's a lot of material, and it really runs the gamut in terms of realism (from bullied teenagers taking up MA as an after school hobby to planet destroying aliens kung fu fighting) and seriousness (from very serious, like Holyland, all the way to ridiculous).

The cool thing about reading manga or manhua (manga are Japanese, manhua are Korean, and the manhua are usually read left to right, the Japanese stuff right to left) is that you can read/ sample all the good titles for free.  Many are unavailable in English (in any legal/ official form, no matter what you're willing to pay), so there's a dedicated online community of scanlators (scan + translate = scanlate) who scan the comics, put in English words, and release the results for free.  You can bittorrent the results, or, more easily, there are online readers where each page is a web page.  Click on the page and it takes you to the next page.

The legality of these sites is sort of questionable.  If you're morally opposed to using them, I understand, but bear in mind that many of these series are otherwise unavailable to English speakers.  If I read Holyland on, I'm not taking money away from the author - I literally can't buy that title in any store in a format I can use.

I'd rather not link to these sites.  Go to google and put in "read [titleX] online" and you'll find a half dozen sites that show it.

If you want something realistic (no superpowers) try Holyland, All Rounder Meguru, Shamo (Shamo is really, really, dark and not suitable for children), and Hajime no Ippo.  There are also a bunch of manga based loosely on historical samurai/ ninja stuff, and some are very realistic (some not so much).

If you're okay with some level of "super" abilities there are more options.  For historical/ fantasy stuff (not set in a world like ours) Naruto's the best, Hunter x Hunter, Gamaran, Basilisk, and Samurai Deeper Kyo.  For stuff in a modern setting try The Breaker, Baki (3 different series, same character), Tough (2 series), Karate Shoukoushi Kohinata Minoru, Tower of God, the God of High School (much better than it sounds).

I'm sure I'm leaving out some good stuff.  Feel free to post additional recommendations to comments.  If I have time I'll try to post more thorough reviews of some of these titles in the future.