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Study: EPO Blood Doping Useless for Elite Athletes

Did Lance Armstrong wreck his career for nothing? A new research review finds EPO doesn't improve performance in elite athletes—and only harmful side effects.

Sorry, Lance Armstrong. That blood doping drug that cost you seven Tour de France cycling titles? it likely did little to improve your performance, according to Dutch researchers.

In a disturbing follow-up to the doping scandal that rocked the elite cycling world, researchers reviewed all available studies on the performance-enhancing benefits of recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO). The results of the review, published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, showed that—in spite of the popularity of the drug among athletes—there’s little evidence to show that EPO can improve performance in cyclists like Armstrong.

Most studies of the benefits of EPO involved patients with anemia caused by chronic kidney disease, and the closest thing in this research to Armstrong’s caliber were “endurance trained recreational athletes” or “healthy subjects”—a far cry from elite athletes. But why did athletes start using EPO in the first place?

It's known to stimulate the formation of red blood cells, which transport oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. Their thinking: increased oxygen in your muscles equals improved performance. But that's not quite right. Elite athletes already have a such a high VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake) that a small change in oxygen transport and use caused by EPO will have little effect on performance. Think of it like trying to warm a bucket of cold water—with a single drop of hot water.

On the other hand, EPO—which is banned from sports—has many potentially harmful side effects, such as:

  • Jump in blood pressure
  • Increased risk of blood clots
  • Inflammation
  • Lower blood flow (and oxygen) to the brain.

Will the new study, along with the fall of cycling’s king, succeed where the sports rules have failed? (That is, in convincing athletes to give up blood doping with EPO for good.) Only time will tell..

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