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Friday, 10 January 2014

An experiment in Blood Doping, sort of...

Hold on, wait, don’t go calling WADA just yet….

   …It’s not like it sounds!!

  I’ve never given blood before or even felt the need to. But circumstances lately have made me realize just how amazing our NHS is and how we take it all a bit for granted really. So I thought I’d do my little bit to try and put something back.
  It’s also a bit of a triumph for me as I’ve battled a weird form of anaemia for a while now and to feel so confident in my army of little red cells that I can actually contemplate losing an armful is quite an achievement.
  However, I was also curious as to a more sinister side of this practice widely (allegedly) used by many professional cyclists over the years whereby blood would be removed in the off season, stored then re-infused in the lead up to big races in order to get an oxygen / endurance boosting effect – so called ‘blood doping’.
  Probably a year later than everyone else, I read Tyler Hamilton’s book 'The Secret Race' over Xmas in which he confesses all about the true extent of drug abuse, EPO and blood doping among the professional peloton.  Now, I had an inkling that a few people were cheating but, in my naivety, I had no idea it was being done on such an industrial scale! Hamilton reckons that reinfusing a pint of blood just before a race gives an increase in about 4 haematocrit points with a subsequent marked increase in oxygen uptake & hence performance.

  Okay, I wasn’t remotely interested in getting my missing pint re-infused next July in order to finally get under 21 mins (although I’m starting to think it’s the only way I’ll ever crack it!!), but I was interested in seeing how much losing a pint affected power output immediately afterwards. In a way this would give me a sort of inverted idea of how it might feel to get that extra pint back later if I ‘doped’, if you see what I mean.
  I know I have this annoying habit of turning everything into an experiment but I thought it might be fun. So the plan was to check my power output, then get a pint of blood removed the day after, then recheck my power output the day after that and compare the difference.

  So, one Thursday back in October I headed up to the gym and strapped myself into the C2 rowing machine there. I’ve had a bit of a break from cycling lately and am hoping to row competitively next year, so I’m fairly familiar with it, more so than the bike at the minute to be honest. Plus I’ve got it quite nicely set up for short power testing sessions too, so it would give me a good pre-donation benchmark.
  Bit of a warm-up then a short power run… and note the power and all the other settings.

  213 watts @ threshold.***

  Next, the scary bit!!!

  The next day I headed to the mobile transfusion centre up the road in Gorleston.  The blood donation road show was all unpacked and in full swing at the church hall by the time I arrived. I wandered in feeling slightly nervous but the friendly nurses soon put me at ease. I was given a booklet to read, a questionnaire to fill in and instructed to down a pint of squash before being seen.
  Some strange questions but you could sort of understand why:

  Had I had a tattoo or piercing recently?
  Had I injected drugs?
  Had I had unprotected gay sex?

  Anyway, I passed the quiz and tried to calm myself by reading a handy copy of National Geographic while I waited.  Then my name was called. EEEK!!!

  The first job is to jab your finger, take a drop of blood and drop it into a solution of what looks like washing up liquid.  Apparently, if the drop of blood sort of curdles and sinks, then that means your iron levels are good. If not, then you can’t donate.
  After a couple of seconds, my little blob of blood dropped like a depth charge to the bottom of the tube. Haemoglobin-tastic!!
  Then I was shown to a slightly intimidating looking chair and handed over to a male nurse….
  Small talk was swapped as my arm was swabbed and the strap wrapped around my upper arm, then time for the ‘procedure’.
  Quick poke in and… oh, that was easy (I have very nice veins apparently). A couple of test tubes filled for analysis and then the bag was connected.  The chair slowly whoosed backwards until I was almost horizontal and the tap was opened….
  “How long does it take?” I asked nervously.
  “Anywhere between four minutes and quarter of an hour…  Hmmm, you’re a gusher, you’ll be done in five mins easily!”

  And I was, more or less.  The needle was removed and I dutifully held a bit of cotton wool over the hole to stop it bleeding.

A pint of finest A+

  “I’ll raise the chair slowly,” said the nurse, “so your body can get used to it gradually.”
  While I was waiting, I couldn’t help snapping a pic of my blood bag. I think the nurse thought I was a bit strange.
  “There you go. If you make your way over to the table there, you can have a cup of tea or a soft drink. Because it’s your first time, you’re best to hang around for a while. Some people can feel a bit woosy or even faint…”
  Yeah, right!  This is me you’re talking to - jet powered shopping trolley pilot, super fit cyclist, Mr Indestructible. Feel a bit faint? Me? Not likely….
  As I sat sipping my cup of tea and composing a tweet featuring my bag of blood I began to feel very odd. I felt all the blood drain from my head and the sound in the room went all whooshy. My vision went slightly monochrome and started to tunnel.... Oh crap… no, how embarrassing…

Goodnight Vienna... Almost!

  I didn’t faint but I’m bloody glad I didn’t just leg it and start driving home.  It took a couple of minutes for my body to get a grip and I stood up very gingerly and walked out to the car park. I felt completely fine so made my way home.

  The next day it was as if nothing had happened. I expected to be knackered and out of breath but I felt ‘normal’ although the big test was to come on the rowing machine at the gym later.

  15 hours after losing a pint of blood - one sixth or 17% of my red blood cells – I strapped myself into the C2 and repeated the power test.
  Again, I didn’t actually ‘feel’ different but was immediately aware that there was no way I’d get anywhere near the previous output at the same intensity.  This was my ‘Inverse EPO’ moment and it felt horrible.  Threshold power output – 186 watts.

  27 Watts down. Blimey.

  I’d read that, in tests on elite cyclists, a drop of between 7 and 11 per cent was normal after donating a pint of blood but mine was about a 13% drop, probably because a) I wasn’t cycling and b) I’m not ‘elite’ either!

  Still interesting though. You can see how it would have a huge boosting effect in performance if you could gain an extra pint of blood. No idea what my PB power output on the bike is (guessing somewhere between 250-300 watts) but a pint’s worth of extra watts would make quite a difference.  If you consider that the top cyclists are knocking out 400+ watts, then the advantage for them is clear.

  So, a successful experiment!!

  I'm due for another visit to Dracula soon - I've done slightly more cycling training this time so I'll try the experiment again but more bike specific and see what the result is.

*** Athletes tend to record lower power outputs whilst rowing compared with cycling. Thought to be because of the greater inefficiency of the rowing action, plus the ‘wasted’ energy of sliding forward on the seat isn’t measured by the machine.



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