Boosting Blood Is Dangerous

Posted: July 16, 1989

Competitive athletes always seem to look for the winning edge, that special ingredient to help them run faster or jump higher than their opponents.

Some training methods, such as strength building or nutritional planning, legitimately help mold men and women into superior competitors and make them better contenders than the next athlete.

Other elements include steroids, which are illegal, synthetic stimulants that temporarily provide athletes with an artificial means of improving their performances.

Recently, another way for athletes to gain an unfair edge over opponents has gained some attention in sporting circles. It is a process called "blood boosting," "blood packing" or "blood doping," and it is achieved by loading up on your own blood in order to provide more energy to your system. This added energy enables athletes to temporarily improve their aerobic capacity and performanc.

The process of blood doping was developed in the early 1970s by Swedish psychologist Bjorn Ekbloom as his method of improving endurance. Rumors of its use first caught the attention of officials during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, but no tests could detect it. Nevertheless, after those games, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) took the position that blood doping in athletic competition is unethical and unjustifiable. In addition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned it.

Despite those condemnations, blood doping is still used by some athletes. How does blood doping work? Several months before a competition, one liter of blood is taken from an athlete much the same way you'd give blood to the Red Cross. Next, the red blood cells are taken from the blood and frozen for preservation. The athlete trains for the next several weeks as his or her system begins to regenerate new red blood cells to replace the ones removed. When the athlete's blood cell count returns to normal (timed so that it occurs several days before the competition), the stored blood cells are infused back into the athlete's system. The purpose is to cause the athlete's hemoglobin count to rise by a full 5 percent to 10 percent.

Hemoglobin is the limiting mechanism in the body, the meter that tells you how much you are physically able to do. Think of hemoglobin as the taxicabs that carry oxygen to the muscles. Obviously, the more taxicabs you have, the more oxygen your muscles get and the longer they can endure a workout.

The point of blood doping is to artificially build up the amount of oxygen directed to the working muscles. For an elite athlete, whose muscles' ability to use oxygen is greater than the heart's ability to deliver it, the blood doping can temporarily improve performance.

In addition to carrying more oxygen to the muscles, the increased amount of hemoglobin derived from blood doping helps fight lactic acid, which contributes to muscle fatigue.

Blood doping also causes what is known as a "super-training" effect in athletes. If a person trains after blood doping, the additional oxygen in his or her system might cause the muscle cells to adapt to the more efficient use of oxygen. This change may continue even after the hemoglobin concentrations have returned to normal. Athletes who "super-train" probably feel an ability to perform at greater speeds and will probably beat the person next to them who trained at a lower, but more natural intensity.

Athletes who do engage in blood doping should know that the procedure could cause serious side effects, including heart failure or even death. Also, if the transfusion of blood is performed without basic medical standards of cleanliness, severe bacterial infections and other intense bodily reactions could occur. Also, when competing during hot weather, dehydration causes the volume of red blood cells to increase, and blood doping increases that volume even more. The result of this combination could be a serious case of blood clotting.

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