Blood doping has been all over the sporting news over the past few years, especially since Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace and the growing body of historical evidence of blood doping in elite cycling.

But what is blood doping? What does it do and what are the side effects?

To understand this fully, is it important to review some basic human biology, particularly the function of red blood cells and energy pathways.


Red Blood Cells (RBCs)

The body needs oxygen to live. Without a good supply of oxygen our muscles, organs and other cells die, so the body needs a constant supply of oxygen to most parts of the body.

It does this via the bloodstream and specifically via RBCs.

RBCs have lots of haemoglobin; the molecule that binds oxygen to the cell, so that the blood stream can transport it around the body. Each cell lasts for around 3-4 months, so new RBCs need to be made (they are made in bone marrow).

One of the hormones that is responsible for creating new red blood cells is erythropoietin (EPO). EPO (made in the kidneys) sends a message to the bone marrow to stimulate the making of new RBCs.

Energy pathways

There are three ways that humans use energy for sport:

– Creatine phosphate pathway
– Lactate pathway
– Aerobic pathway

Put simply – the creatine and lactate pathways do not need oxygen to work (they are anaerobic), however they do not work for a very long time (less than 3 minutes typically).

They also are the preferred energy sources for the powerful, strong muscles (like the muscles you would use in the 100m sprint).

blood doping_2So the longer the sporting event, the more the body will need oxygen as a fuel source so that the muscles can keep working.

What is blood doping?

We know that we have RBCs that transport oxygen to the working muscles, and that the longer the sporting event the more need we have for oxygen.

So the question is, how do we get more oxygen into the muscles, so that we can go faster, for longer?

We could increase the amount of oxygen we breathe in, but it wouldn’t do much good.

We do not use all of the oxygen we breathe in anyway as there aren’t enough red blood cells to carry that oxygen to the muscles, the left over oxygen that we don’t use is simply breathed back out again. The only way to get more oxygen into the blood and the working muscles is to increase the amount of RBCs in the body.

There are two ways to do this:

1. to increase the amount of EPO going to the bone marrow so that they can produce more blood cells.

2. physically add more blood cells to the blood stream; this is done via a blood transfusion. This can be done in two ways; you can use your own blood (homologous) that has already been taken out of the body or you can use somebody else’s blood (analogous).

This is blood doping – the process of increasing red blood cell count for a performance gain. It is illegal and banned by all of the major anti-drugs bodies throughout sport.

In tomorrow’s article, I will be discussing the side effects of blood doping and the heated debate surrounding professional athletes.

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