Ask Stew: Should I Worry About PED Testing During SEAL Training?

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Preparing for BUD/S

After the most recent death during SEAL training, the Navy is investigating what went wrong. Whenever there is a death in military training, there was something in the safety, medical review and training process that did not work as it should have.

The most recent investigation was partially triggered by concerns over the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) by sailors, according to an investigation in The New York Times. But based on my experience, it would be wrong to say that use is prevalent and the idea that you need to use them to succeed is completely inaccurate.

Here is a question from a young man seeking to join the ranks of Navy Special Warfare that shares some of his concerns.

Stew, In a few years (after college), I plan to enlist and attend BUD/S with the hope of becoming a Navy SEAL. I have heard about performance enhancing drug (PED) use and higher than average attrition rates. Some say that you cannot get through SEAL training without taking these PEDs. I also hear they are testing now for higher testosterone levels and not allowing students to do hell week if they have a high ratio. What does this mean? Any recommendations or clarification would be much appreciated. Thanks, Brandon

Brandon: Thanks for considering service to our country. My opinion on this required some research. I didn't quite understand the testing process myself, but I thoroughly understand the reason behind the added testing due to the suggested links of PED use to a recent post-Hell Week death. While at the time of this writing there's no indication the death was directly related to PEDs, the investigation uncovered PED-related problems in the course.

To clarify your concerns, consider the following:

1. The Navy is now testing for PEDs at SEAL training by measuring the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio. The normal ratio among men is a 1:1 ratio. However, young men may have a naturally higher ratio.

The ratio of 4:1 is used by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), NCAA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for their testing threshold. Though it has claimed 95% accuracy in finding those who are cheating, there is a group of approximately 5% who are clean and have a naturally higher testosterone (or lower epitestosterone) level.

Professional sports allow for up to a 5-6:1 ratio, and the claim for accuracy increases up to 99% in catching those who are using testosterone to enhance performance and recovery. Some professional athletes using steroids tested with ratios as high as 14:1.

2. If you score above a 4:1 ratio, you are pulled from training. You are not kicked out unless it is proven you are taking these drugs. You must take another test to see whether the T/E ratio falls below 4:1.

So you get another chance to start the training again; you just must fall within the 4:1 T/E ratio standards. The reasoning for this standard is for students involved in a high-risk selection like Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S), the dangers of performance-ending ailments and even death can occur at greater percentage when the T/E ratio is higher than this standard. So do not do PEDs, period. You do not need them, and they make SEAL training even more dangerous.

3. Unfortunately, there is advice offered by quitters, cheaters and liars to "use PEDs or you will not survive BUD/S." This is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous to the student. When PEDs are abused and testosterone is much higher than normal, the heart can become less efficient at pumping. When enduring highly exhausting training in an aquatic environment, the chance for Swimmer-Induced Pulmonary Edema (SIPE) is increased.

This perfect storm of events starting with SIPE can snowball into becoming a heat casualty, rhabdomyolysis, and pneumonia.. If you are lucky, this cascade of serious ailments will be caught by medical personnel, and you are allowed to heal and continue training at another time. If these are not discovered and you have unknown heart efficiency issues in pumping fluid from the lungs, this condition can increase the chances of serious illness or death.

4. Attrition rates are high, but they have always been high throughout the history of SEAL training. In recent years, the attrition rates have been higher than the average norm of 80%, mainly due to the fact that the SEAL community is currently overmanned.

This high attrition rate will affect some year groups soon, and it is not sustainable to have attrition rates over 80%. BUD/S is not getting easier. It was just unsustainably difficult for the past year or two. It's also true that some winter first phase and Hell Week attrition has been in the 90+ percentiles throughout history.

Maybe it was a systemic problem within the BUD/S command, or maybe it is also a product of today's society that candidates are woefully ill-prepared for the test that is SEAL training. Perhaps it's a combination of both.

However, there have been changes made to the program. Most of the first-phase instructor staff has been replaced, medical testing has been added, and a warrant officer is always present as the safety officer for every evolution.

Attrition rates have decreased back to normal levels in the most recent two classes. If the testing deters students from using PEDs, the 5% error is well worth it if it saves lives and produces graduates who do not have to cheat.

My advice is to get a hormone testing panel to see what your testosterone and epitestosterone levels are before you join the Navy. Keep those records as you may be able to use them. Understanding your baseline can help you better manage the process and consider eating natural foods like soy, mint, dairy and nuts to reduce testosterone if necessary.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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