I am finding discussing the use of drugs in East German swimming very interesting. My previous two posts have argued that the involvement of the state in the drug programme, forced on the GDR National Swim Team, was wrong – but in the example of their High-Altitude Coach, employed by me in New Zealand, there were mitigating circumstances. In the case of Mike Regner my posts were the case for the defence.

I received the following email in response to the Swimwatch posts. It is deeply interesting. It puts the case for the prosecution far better than I did. Here is what the email says.   

“One point needs deeper consideration: the mention of 100k etc and how that showed western coaches and programs and swimmers what they were not doing… true but what needs to be taken into account is what the GDR girls and former teammates of my own wife etc etc have to say about that, as well as the scientific records that point in the same direction: as you know, recovery and its meaning to the ability to go hard again session after session after session are important factors. 

The doping and the dosages of that were timed to make the windows of recovery between monstrous amounts of work much narrower than other swimmers who were not being assisted could manage. Take this example:

day 1 … morning swim set 8.5km…. 2-4pm, 20km cross country ski … 6-8pm … 8-10km back in the pool

make that 14 days, alternating ski with weights and other cross=sport activities…. and during that period provide the drugs that speed recovery, enhance muscle growth and allow the athlete to return feeling ready for the next session throughout that 2-week camp (one of several across the course of a year) and then consider the advantage the drugs conferred not just on race day but on many, many training days. It wasn’t that the best of the west were lazy etc… they simply couldn’t have kept up with it; or at least could not have matched it but could probably have achieved more than they thought possible at the time, which may go some way to explaining what the unassisted among Americans were capable of during those years when they remained the biggest threat to GDR dominance.”

The email seems to be making two points. First the East German use of steroids enabled their athletes to train harder than in the west. Second, the East German use of steroids enabled their athletes to benefit from the training more than was possible without drugs.

I disagree with the first argument and agree with the second.

I see no reason why athletes in the west, without drugs, could not have managed two or even ten weeks of the East German training shown in the email. I have repeated their training in the first table below.

Time Training
Morning Swim 8.5k
Lunch Weights or cross-country ski or run
Afternoon Swim 8-10k

I have coached several swimmers (Rhi Jeffrey Olympic Gold, Toni Jeffs Commonwealth Bronze, Jane Copland Oceania Silver) who have swum, without drugs, the following daily schedule and have done it for a ten-week period.

Time Training
Morning Swim 10k
Morning after the swim One hour of weights
Afternoon Swim 6k

My wife Alison who ran for New Zealand and Great Britain frequently did ten weeks of the following schedule, without drugs. The total was 110 miles in a week.

Time Training
Morning Run 13k
Lunch Run 6.5k
Afternoon Run 6.5k usually hill repetitions

Before the Mexico Olympic Games, I trained with Pru Chapman who swam the 200IM at the Games. We were coached by Wellington doctor, Dr. Ongley. Leading up to the Games once a week, on a Saturday, he set us the following program.

Time Training
Morning 6-8am Swim easy distance 6k
Morning 8-8.30am Breakfast usually 6 raw eggs in a milkshake
Morning 8.30-10.30 Bike ride around Wellington bays
Morning 10.30-11.30 Heavy weights
Morning 11.30-12.30 Pirie 100m running sprints – usually did about 80
Afternoon 12.30-2.30 Lunch and rest another serving of 6 raw eggs in a milkshake
Afternoon 2.30-3.30 Light weights high repetitions
Afternoon 3.30-4.00 One Mt.Victoria hill sprint to exhaustion
Afternoon 4.00-6.00 Swim sprints 5k

 And so, as you can see, doing the East German training is not a problem. I would have no difficulty setting the weekly schedule described in the email. In fact, I’m surprised they only did it for two weeks. Lydiard, and I suspect Jelley and certainly me would have wanted at least ten weeks.

And so, if doing the training can be done without drugs, what benefit are they? Why did the East Germans have a state programme devoted to their use? To understand that we need to clarify two problems associated with the amount of training shown in these tables.

Problem One  

In order to swim or run these programmes takes years of conditioning. Lydiard thought five years. I think that might be optimistic. Being strong enough to handle any of the training shown in those tables takes a long time. I was never strong enough to handle Dr. Ongley’s Saturday schedule. Every week was spent recovering before doing it again.

Problem Two  

The purpose of training is to race faster. As a general rule the harder you can train, and recover, the faster you will race. Getting western swimmers and runners to do the East German training is not a problem. Making sure they recover in order to achieve a racing benefit is the trick.

And so, the reason East Germany was into drugs was not to do the training. We can all do the training. The reason they used drugs was to solve Problem One and Problem Two. Eventually, with time, clean athletes and coaches have solved the same two problems. Five or six years of time. The East German’s wanted results a lot quicker than that. And that’s what drugs provided. What takes a clean athlete 5 or 6 years to achieve East German chemists got it done in weeks.

PS – Every week as part of my treatment for a kidney problem the local hospital give me three injections of EPO. The boost I get is immediate and startling. No, I’m not dusting off my Speedos in preparation for the Paris 100 free. But it does highlight the incredibly dangerous temptation of all those drugs.   

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