Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Supplements, Dope, and The Tour, Part II

I'm officially bored of this topic. Well, I'm not really. It's fascinating. But I'm ready for the cycling news to be about racing and training. It's getting better, for sure. A couple of years ago I stopped counting how many days in a row featured at least one doping headline on cyclingnews. This year we've had stretches of weeks at a time. The best thing, I suppose, is that the public is getting a bit more informed about it.

There is no better spectacle for viewing dopers than a grand cycling tour. Bodybuilding and track and field run a close second. One day cycling races a distant third. Next come sports more based on skill, where absolute strength is less a part of the equation.

The reason for this is EPO. Over the course of intense daily training it's natural for the body's red blood cell count to drop as the body breaks down and doesn't have time to fully recover. This lowers your blood’s oxygen carrying capacity and, essentially, your performance ability. For a one day race you can taper and peak. This isn't possible over time, especially when stage races are fast every day (none are as fast as le Tour). By injecting EPO you can offset the nature drop in haematocrit so that, essentially, you're fresher each day as other riders tail off. This is the reason that only 3 of the last 33 grand tour winners have not had some type of doping suspension.

Doping has been around forever, but nothing has changed grand tour racing like EPO. As Greg LeMond said, "You can deal with that other stuff." EPO provides a massive advantage during stage racing.

It doesn't, however, create supermen. They are born. It won't make a club rider competitive with a professional. It won't increase your lung capacity or your VO2/max beyond its natural predisposition. It simply allows you to maintain your peak performance for longer (after reading Elijah's research I should clarify this because EPO usage can ensure you're tapping whatever potential you have aerobically, which is extremely hard to do training naturally, so hard that some say it's impossible to do--David Walsh's Lance to Landis covers this in depth. The point I was attempting to make was that it can't elevate someone with a VO2/max of 60 (good weekend warrior athlete) to 80 (Tour de France rider). Changing your haematocrit changes your VO2/max slightly, but this can also be done naturally by training/supplementing. Among like athletes its advantage is huge. The research provided would suggest that it's also significant in one day races and, certainly, would take a lot of guesswork out of training to peak.)

Here's a good study (thanks Elijah):

Some EPO stuff

Peak performance is possible by natural means. By eating right, training right, and recovering well you can maximize your body's potential (at least to what sports science currently understands). This, however, is very hard to do. Doping makes it easier. If you dope than you don't need to get your diet and training and recovery perfect. Steroids (colloquial name for a lot of performance enhancing drugs) enable you to recover better from hard training, which is most cases is only an advantage over an even playing field.

This is why dopers don't always win. You see dopers lose, especially in one day events, all the time. The advantage isn't all that great. It just stacks the odds in your favor. But in a grand tour, EPO stacks those odds even further; to the point where it becomes almost impossible to keep up naturally.

Supplements are basically legal natural doping substances. “Dope” isn’t always bad--at least as in bad for you. It’s just using medicine to aid recovery. Almost all “dope” has a life enhancing characteristic. It's cheating as defined by a sport. Supplements fall into the “everything that isn’t defined as cheating” category, basically. By definition they are natural but many are synthetic “natural” supplements. Most of the reactions that supplements can be duplicated by eating perfectly. Supplements allow you to eat less well by, basically, condensing nutrition into a supplemental form for easier ingestion, which can also be administered via injection.

Because smart supplementation—and smart doping as well—can enhance your lifestyle, it’s a recommended thing for most people to do. Cheating in sports is defined by sport only. It’s not considered cheating to use EPO to recover from cancer or use a testosterone cream to offset the effects of aging. It’s only cheating when it comes to sport. For most of us, I recommend that we supplement whenever we can, provided that we know what we are doing. Eating well and exercising are the most effective ways to age gracefully but supplements and, sometimes, medicine, will give us more margin for error.


elijah said...

Steve, I hate to do this (because I hate people who do this) but I'm going to point out what I think (though, by no means am I sure) is an error with regard to your statement:

"It [EPO] won't increase your lung capacity or your VO2/max."

I'm sure more research would produce better sources, but -

1. This dude claims to have written his masters thesis on the topic:
"In summary, EPO increases haematocrit by instantaniously decreasing plasma volume, and after a week by increasing red blood cell mass." - http://guarden.wordpress.com/2007/05/29/how-does-epo-increase-the-haematocrit-in-elite-tour-de-france-riders/

2. And this dude sounds maybe legit:
"Blood doping has provided an avenue for athletes to increase VO2max levels artificially." - http://www.sportsmed.info/articles/epo.html

I looked this up because, after reading your post, my understanding of blood doping and likewise EPO treatments, from college sports physiology differed from your description.


Steve Edwards said...

I may not have been clear but I was referring to increasing it beyond one's natural capacity, which is the same thing you can do with training. While helpful, this can't make a cylcist or any athlete because these things can be changed very little. But I'm certainly not at the forefront of this research. That is my understanding from way back. I may not be privy to all the new shit, so I'm psyched to read this stuff. Gotta feed the monkey.

Thanks for the links.

Steve Edwards said...

I ammended my comment because it was way too vague. This is interesting research. Something I didn't know was that EPO seems to have some effect prior to the 14 days period where haematocrit is elevated and that VO2 get elevated immediately, meaning that a athelete that's been sick or injured could compete at a higher level sans appropriate training, immediately after injection. From my understanding, most EPO used during stage races has been loaded early and is given via blood transfusion (the reason when one rider is busted for a blood transfusion it's likely someone else that his team will also get nailed because they messed up their blood bags). From the looks of this, someone who woke up with allergies or ill could receive an injection and compete at a higher level that day. I did not know that.

I guess this is why all those Italian riders would say they had allergies or some type of flu after those big raids in the Giro where all the drugs got taken away.

Man, I could really use some EPO.

elijah said...

Yeah, that ergogenic aid stuff is way interesting. Maybe not a healthy interest.

SuccessWarrior said...

I haven't chimed in yet but I've reading your blog for a while. Hello from Wendover.

Steve Edwards said...

Just checked out your blog. Good stuff. You use much better photos than I do.

Anonymous said...

You guys, Vo2 max improves with doping but not very much, a few percent. What really improves in sustainable lactate threshold, like 20+ percent. Also, recovery improves with epo. Not so much with blood transfusions because the bagged blood thats been siting in the fridge is old and has dead cells that are useless. Some people on testosterone and other steroids see an increase in heamatocrit as well, up to 50% limit but many wont... Also, threshold sustainability improves, like from 30 minutes to 90 minutes in some people but not most! If you think most one day riders or any other pro rider is clean for that matter you are under illusions like everyone else!

elijah said...

It's 'delusions, not 'illusions'. A close friend I grew up with and continue to know, rides for BMC. He is a phenomenally talented athlete and clean as a whistle. Your accusation that all pro cyclists are doping serves only your ego. If you need to believe these folks are cheating to be that much better than you, fine. That's the mentality that will guarantee you never join their ranks. Not that they're worried, I'm sure.

Steve Edwards said...

I"ll second Elijah. I know a lot of professional athletes who are clean. Furthermore, I've always raced clean and, while I'm sure I could have been a tad better with some good dope, my results were (and are) pretty consistant with my tested ability level.

Numbers in relation to the effectiveness of drugs can be determined a lot of ways. I am 100% certain that nobody can increase any aptitude 20% of their natural ability. They can increase 20% easily over a number they may make naturally if their conditioning isn't sound. This is where the confusion reigns. People love to take number like this and say that athletes are made. Fact is they are not. You can't beat talent except with similar talent. Doping is just another way to get an edge.