You might think that as a clean lifter you don’t need to worry about anti doping but, if so, you are wrong. The recent news about Sonny Webster’s failed drugs test, which he has blamed on supplement contamination, raises the question of what clean athletes can do to ensure they don’t unintentionally consume anything on the banned list.

The first and most important thing to understand is that, once you have tested positive for a banned substance, it is extremely difficult to appeal it on the grounds that you did not know you had taken it. One of the core principles of the World Anti Doping Administration Code is that athletes are personally responsible for everything they put into their bodies. Once there is a positive test, the burden of proof falls on the athlete. You have to prove that you took all reasonable steps to avoid taking a banned substance and the result came from something outside of your control. Even then, the usual result is a reduction of a ban rather than no ban at all.

So, it is of utmost importance that every athlete does all that they can to avoid ending up with a failed test in the first place.

There are two obvious ways that you could unintentionally end up with something in your system that is not supposed to be there:

  1. You used a banned substance without realising it was on the banned list
  2. You used a supplement and it had an ingredient that you did not know was there

We’ll look at each of these separately.

Not realising a substance is on the banned list

In the first case, ignorance is no defence. You have to make sure you know whether everything you consume is allowed or not. This includes supplements, prescribed medicines and even many over the counter medicines. For example a lot of cold remedies in the UK contain pseduoephedrine, a stimulant that is banned in competition over a certain (low) concentration. Is relief from a cold worth the risk of failing a test and getting a ban?

The WADA Prohibited List shows all of the substances that are banned, separated into those banned at all times and those that are not allowed in competition. It is up to you to make sure that any medicine you take and the ingredients of any supplements you use are not on the list. This can be easier said than done – sometimes slightly different names are used for the same drug and, without medical training, it is difficult to know whether two similar sounding drugs are actually the same thing. If you are not sure then you need to consult with a doctor or pharmacist. Pharmacists are usually quite happy to help as long as they are not too busy – take your list of ingredients and a print out of the prohibited list along.

A useful site for checking a medicine or ingredient against the prohibited list is the Global Drug Reference Online

If you are being treated by a doctor, you should always take a copy of the banned list with you to consultations. Many doctors will not be familiar with what is allowed for competing athletes.

If your doctor prescribes you something that is on the prohibited list, it may be possible to get a Therapeutic Usage Exemption (TUE). If you want to do this and you are a national level weightlifter, it is vital that you go through the process before starting to take the drug. Athletes at lower levels are allowed to apply for a retroactive TUE after a positive test but only have a short time to do it (5 days).  At the very least, you need to be absolutely sure that your doctor will support a TUE application. TUEs are only granted when there is no good alternative drug that will not give performance benefits.

One common drug that athletes are prescribed is Salbutamol for asthma, usually in an inhaler. The 2018 prohibited list sets strict limits on the dose that is allowed in a 12 hour period. Many other common asthma drugs that are delivered by inhaler are completely prohibited. If you use an inhaler, you will need to make sure you know the dose you are getting each time you use it and how many times you can use it in a 12 hour period in order to remain compliant.

Once you are familiar with the prohibited list and you have made sure that all of the ingredients in your supplements are allowed, the other risk you need to consider is that someone has put something in one of them that is not on the ingredients list. This will either be in the manufacturing process or someone adding something afterwards.

This should really be common sense but it is worth stating it – never take a supplement if you are not absolutely certain of its origin. That guy at the gym might be friendly in offering you some of his pre-workout but can you be one hundred percent sure of what is in it?

Contaminated Supplements

A banned substance getting into a supplement during manufacturing is probably the biggest threat for an athlete who is diligent with their anti-doping practices.  There are ways to reduce your risk though.

The first thing to consider is the reputation of the manufacturer. A long-established firm that caters to the sports market will have a lot to lose from a contaminated supplement becoming public. A brand that focusses on untested bodybuilders will probably not care so much.

Next you need to do some research. Does the manufacturer of the supplement also sell thing that are on the banned list? If they do, the likelihood of contamination is much greater (double according to some studies cited by UK Anti Doping) So, you want to use manufacturers who have nothing to do with anything on the prohibited list.

Informed Sport operates a testing program for supplements and manufacturing facilities. Companies pay them either to test batches of supplements for banned substances or to visit their facilities and confirm that their processes do not introduce the risk of contamination.

The lab behind Informed Sport offer two different testing programs:

  • Informed Sport     – each batch of a supplement is tested before it goes to market. Random samples are also purchases and tested.
  • Informed Choice – – the supplement is  randomly purchases and tested once per month

Each of these also offers a certified site program, where the manufacturing facilities are audited to ensure they make all the required efforts to avoid contamination.

The strictest requirements (and therefore in theory the lowest risk of contamination) would be for a supplement that is on the Informed Sport program and which is made by a manufacturer that is an Informed Sport certified site.

There are unfortunately some cases of unscrupulous manufacturers using the Informed Sport logo without being on the testing program. There is a list of these on the Informed Sport site. In any case, you should use the database on the site to check that supplements are on the program.


Like many things in life, there is no way to be absolutely safe, so you will have to engage in risk management. Even once you have done everything you can to reduce the risks, you will still need to weigh up benefits vs risks for everything you consume. Do you really need to use 20 different supplements from 20 different manufacturers, each with their own contamination risk?

The key thing is to take personal responsibility for making sure you do not fail a test. Get advice from your coaches, your doctor, blog posts like this one but ultimately make sure you understand the rules and what you can do to make sure you stay inside them.


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