Certainly in the 90s, a period that is often referred to as the EPA era, EPO was the favorite stimulant for many endurance athletes around the world. However, most people – despite having a global view of it – cannot tell you what EPA actually does. That is something we are going to change in this piece.
Why do athletes use EPO?
When it comes to performance in top sport, many athletes are willing to go very far to have a physical advantage over the competition. In the first instance you can think of the most modern training methods, top sports facilities, altitude training, innovations in the field of nutrition, sports psychologists, recovery methods – all to realize a complete package that enables their bodies to deliver the best possible performance.
Top athletes are often extreme winners and willing to enter a gray area if they think they can take advantage of it. Many practices are then seen as controversial and are therefore banned by sports associations. One of those practices is a phenomenon that we know best under the collective name of blood doping. This is aimed at supplying the muscles with more oxygen, something that certainly provides a major advantage in the world of endurance sports.
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What exactly is blood doping?
Blood doping is a method to improve athletic performance by artificially increasing the number of red blood cells in an athlete’s body. Because red blood cells transport oxygen to the muscles, a higher number of red blood cells can significantly improve the aerobic capacity of an athlete and delay fatigue.
Athletes who were looking for a way to increase the number of red blood cells started to keep their own blood, to add it later (or the blood of someone with the same blood type) so that the total of red blood cells got higher
This practice is prohibited in all professional sports, due to the unnatural nature of this method. Because you get a substantial athletic advantage over someone who does not do this and therefore this is considered unfair, making it prohibited.
What does this have to do with EPO
EPO – an abbreviation for Erythropoietin – is a synthetic variant of a hormone that is naturally produced in the body. This hormone is mainly produced in the kidneys and stimulates the production of red blood cells. However, if you produce this hormone yourself, you can also add it to the blood artificially.
Athletic benefits of EPO
Since EPO ensures that more blood and more red blood cells are produced in your body, the muscles can be supplied with more oxygen and for that reason they will acidify less quickly (a situation where there is more lactic acid than oxygen in a muscle) than with a person who has not used an EPA.
Moreover, it also has an additional advantage if competitions take place under warm conditions. This is because the body can cool itself by transporting more blood to the surface of the body, where it cools more easily than blood that is deeper in the body.
Blood that is transported to the surface of the body can no longer act as an oxygen transporter to the muscles. However, because a user of EPO has more red blood cells, the oxygen transport simply continues, so that acidification will occur less quickly.
A user also has more water in his body than a non-user, since for a large part blood consists of water. So if you use EPO you acidify less quickly, dry out less quickly and you suffer less from warm weather conditions. A huge advantage over the competition.
Why is it so dangerous then?
Since there is considerably more red blood cells in the blood of an EPO user, the blood becomes a lot thicker. If blood gets thicker, it will be difficult to get through thinner veins. This can have very serious consequences for your health in the form of a heart attack or a stroke. This situation has also occurred several times, both in professional and amateur sports.
When the weather is warm, an EPO user has the advantage of a smaller chance of dehydration, as indicated earlier. However, this entails a great risk: if the person in question starts to sweat a lot, his blood automatically becomes even thicker, which only increases the chance of a heart attack or stroke.
Why was this so difficult to detect?
For years, especially in the 90s, there has been no suitable method to prove the use of EPO. What they did was take a so-called “health test” (hematocrit value). This means that your blood cannot consist of more than 50% red blood cells, since the risk of a heart attack or stroke is too high at that time.
Which sports is this product suitable for?
Actually for all sports where your endurance (cardio) plays a major role. That does not only have to be cycling. You can also think of martial arts, athletics and marathon running. Basically everything that requires a long-term effort.
For example, it makes no sense to use EPO as a weight lifter or sprinter, since that is an explosion where you have no advantage if you have more endurance because you have more red blood cells.
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