Recently, American cyclist Floyd Landis won the grueling test of endurance and athletic power known as the Tour de France, succeeding
another American, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong. Before he could savor his victory, though, sports officials announced that Landis'
urine had tested positive for testosterone. Within days the finding was confirmed by testing another of his samples; however, Landis
pleaded innocent to the charges of doping, saying that he used no banned substances in his quest to win the race. Landis' protestations
seemed hollow with the announcement that his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio was 17-to-1. The normal ratio is 1-to-1, with an
upper normal limit of 4-to-1. Anything over 6-to-1 is considered proof of testosterone use, though some rare athletes have a natural
ratio of 10-to-1.
At this time no adequate explanation has been offered for Landis' highly elevated testosterone levels, though he still denies using any type of testosterone drug. it isn't the first time that rumors of rampant drug use by Tour de Prance athletes have emerged. Armstrong has been dogged with accusations that he used various banned substances during his championship tenure, despite never having failed a drug test.
The drugs most often linked to endurance events, such as the Tour de France, are those related to blood doping, which in years past meant stored red blood cells were injected back into the body, leading to an elevated hemoglobin level in the blood. That, in turn, gave the blood increased oxygen delivery capacity, which translated into increased endurance and diminished fatigue.
The original blood-doping system wasn't perfect, however. The technique could lead to an overabundance of red blood cells, abnormally thickening the blood. That not only decreased oxygen delivery to muscle but also increased the risk of internal blood clots and strokes.
That form was supplanted by recombinant erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone produced in the kidneys that boosts red blood cell production much in the manner of the old blood-doping technique. Some of the same side effects, such as increased blood thickness, can also occur with EPO. One advantage of EPO is that it's hard to detect in doping tests.
Newer tests, however, take advantage of the fact that EPO and a longer-acting version called darbepoetin both contain additional sugar chains in their structures that aren't present in naturally produced EPO. When they detect those extraneous sugar residues, the test is considered positive for EPO.
While the advantages of using EPO seem clear for various endurance sports, the picture for anabolic steroids and endurance sports is murkier. No one questions the effectiveness of steroids for sports that involve strength and power, but the medical literature examining them in endurance sports is equivocal at best.
Steroids aid such sports through improved training recovery. Athletes walk a fine line between making training progress and overtraining. Anything that forestalls overtraining tips the balance toward progress. Steroids may help prevent overtraining through their pronounced anabolic effects on muscle and their positive effects on the restoration of muscle glycogen, the rate-limiting fuel source for most sports. Positively influencing the rate of glycogen synthesis would be a definite advantage.
Steroids provide a minor blood-doping effect because they promote EPO synthesis in the kidneys. Anadrol-50, a popular oral anabolic steroid, was originally used in medicine to treat a hereditary disease called Fanconi anemia. The increased red blood cell production could offer endurance athletes an edge.
Many endurance athletes use human growth hormone, not to increase muscle growth but to foster greater training recovery-and because GH offers connective-tissue protection. It may help prevent injuries incurred during hard training and speed the healing of those that do occur. GH also promotes beneficial body composition changes, mainly lower bodyfat levels.
Along with the advantages of various anabolic drugs, there are a few significant problems linked to their use. The most notable disadvantage is getting caught in a positive doping test. Both anabolic steroids and OH have potent water-retaining effects that could prove a problem in events that require speed. One way around that is the diuretics many bodybuilders use to counter the water-retaining effects of anabolics. Since diuretics are also banned in most sports, athletes use versions that pass under the drug-detecting radar. Such "designer diuretics" are widely used in bodybuilding, especially in the pro ranks.
A recent study examined whether using two types of anabolic steroids improved endurance performance. Endurance athletes took either a placebo or testosterone and nandrolone (Durabolin) 12 times for a month. The doses and use of the drugs mimicked the ones used by real-world athletes. Interestingly, those who used the drugs showed no improvements over those who used the placebo.
The notion that testosterone use was largely responsible for Floyd Landis' Tour de France victory is mistaken at best. Odds are good that dozens of other cyclists in that race were using similar drugs but weren't tested. Or they may have used so- called designer steroids that aren't detectable in testing procedures, or perhaps human growth hormone, also undetectable. Landis won on his athletic ability, not his alleged testosterone use.
Those who doubt the assertion can easily test it by traveling to France, renting a bicycle, then following the route of the Tour de France. My guess is that you won't get far, even if you triple the dose of the steroid used by some pro bodybuilders. As the saying goes, it's not the wand-it's the magician.