For those who don’t know, the concentration and efficacy of a persons red blood cells goes a long way to determine how successful an athlete can be in endurance sports like cycling, cross country skiing and long distance running. It’s not the only determinant factor of course but the guy who can efficiently shift the greatest amount of oxygenated red blood cells is likely to win – especially if he can do this repeatedly over the 3 week period of a grand tour. The drug of choice used to produce this effect artificially from the early 1990’s until, well, now, has been Erythropoietin (EPO). Anecdotally this improves performance by 15-20% and bearing in mind the difference between a decent amateur and a top pro is probably less than 3%, you can see the impact and indeed the temptation to dabble with a little ‘go-fast’.
Top professional cyclists are usually looked after by a team doctor (that’s another story) and their blood will be checked on a regular basis. This is almost unheard of for amateurs – it’s not necessary because they are not training hard enough to do serious damage. More importantly, they are unlikely to be taking PED’s and therefore need a quick litre of orange juice and a saline drip because the drug testers are walking up the garden path. However, because of my chequered medical history (I had a liver transplant 20 years ago) my blood has been monitored and I have access to a full blood count at a maximum of 6 month intervals for the last 20 years. By happenstance, I suspect I am one of the few amateur (capital A) cyclists with a detailed blood passport. Deep joy.
Leaving aside a discourse on the concentration of red blood cells (hematocrit), the capacity of blood to carry oxygen is determined by the haemoglobin levels in the red blood cells. In normal adult males the level this ranges between 13-18 (g/dl). If you measure under 13 you are officially anaemic. Congratulations and welcome to the club. My last test showed a count of 11 which was a marked improvement over the previous months 10.2. Looking back at my results over the years, during 2005/7 I was routinely at 15 (g/dl) reducing to 13.8 (g/dl) later in the decade so at least I had a benchmark to work with.
I’m sure you’re fascinated, but what does this translate to in the real world? Good question. Well, 10.2 (g/dl) represents a decrease of approximately 20% over my normal haemoglobin level and blimey didn’t I feel the difference when I went out for a ride along one of my usual ‘lanes’ type routes. Technically speaking, I felt like crap. My heart rate was much higher than it should have been: standing over the cross bar before I started to pedal my HR was 115bpm, normally it’s 90bpm in this position. A very gentle rise of the road after 5 minutes riding, hardly noticeable under normal circumstances, saw me struggle to get to the ‘top’ with my heart rate exceeding my 10 mile time trial threshold pace of 176bpm. I was experiencing something my fellow racers will be familiar with, that ‘leg burning, might be sick, might lose control of my bowls’ feeling you get during a sprint at the end of a race or when climbing hard to stay with a disappearing pack. Only this time I was doing 4mph and being overtaken by elderly runners and women pushing prams. I turned back and rode home very gently feeling exhausted. And worried.
Anaemia is the antithesis of blood doping or EPO infusion. At my decreased haemoglobin levels I couldn’t hold club run pace for more than a couple of minutes before blowing. Translating the decrease in my performance to what an increase of 20% in performance would feel like I reckon I might have a shot a riding the Tour! It certainly gave me a better appreciation of what the clean riders in the pro peloton must have felt like when there juiced up colleagues rode away from them chatting whilst they were maxed out. I could not have responded to any kind of change in pace for more than a few seconds, it must have been soul destroying for them to ride with people boosted by 20%.
So, the obvious question, is there anything you can do to boost your red blood cell count or haemoglobin levels legally to make you go loads faster, you know, like eating spinach or taking ginseng? Not really, is the simple answer. Hyperbaric tents, altitude training etc might have an impact but for us, the amateur, asking to have your desk moved to the top floor and sitting in a tent isn’t really going to cut it is it? You can’t safely boost your intake of iron (the principle constituent of RBC’s) because your clever body has a way of regulating absorption to prevent you overdosing (unless you completely overdo it and kill yourself). A little bit of research indicated that spinach was a waste of time as it contains iron but it’s difficult for the body to absorb it from this source, secondly, and more disappointingly, you’d have to drink 15 pints of Guinness to get as much iron as you would from one egg yolk. Again, wobbling back to the office after a 15 pint lunch time session is going to be tricky although I suppose I could always eat an egg instead...
Sadly, unless you want to cheat, going fast is all about the boring things like training hard, and resting harder. Eating properly and staying hydrated and, if you think something is wrong with you, not being too much of a ‘bloke’ to get to the quack and get it sorted.
With the underlying cause of my anaemia hopefully diagnosed and treated I’m looking forward to a return to my pitiful normal level of 13.8. It’s going to take a while as the chronic anaemia has reduced my body’s iron to a level where it can’t restore itself to normal by diet alone so I’m on iron tablets. This also is the only sure fire way of increasing my magnetism...
Rich Smith is the author of ReCycled. A book inspired by transplant cycling and available via Amazon in paperback or as a download.
I’m fund raising for the GB Transplant Cycling team going to the World Transplant Games in South Africa in 2013. Please support us.