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What is Blood Doping?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Endurance sports, such as cycling or distance running, put a significant amount of stress on an athlete's entire system, from the lungs to the bloodstream to the muscles. In order to maintain stamina, an athlete's muscles require steady supplies of oxygen contained within red blood cells. In theory, more red blood cells should give an athlete a natural edge during competition. This questionable training philosophy is behind an illicit practice called "blood doping," also known as "blood packing."

Blood doping involves harvesting an athlete's own blood before a competition or finding a matching blood donor. This blood is usually processed in order to create a concentration of red blood cells, then frozen until needed for transfusion back into the athlete shortly before the event.

The belief behind this practice is that the extra red blood cells will deliver more oxygen and other essential elements to the athlete's muscle tissues, which means more stamina and endurance. In a competitive sport such as cycling, the difference between winning and losing can often be a matter of better conditioning, not skill or strategy.

There are a number of drawbacks to the practice. If the athlete donates his or her own blood, a process called autologous transfusion, he or she may become anemic and unable to train at a competitive level. Blood from a matching donor, called a homologous transfusion, could contain a blood-borne illness or infection. An athlete who plans on receiving a homologous transfusion can continue to train hard until the day of the procedure, however.

Standard blood doping fell out of favor after a number of scandals exposed the practice to sport officials and sponsors. Although tests for it have never been proven especially accurate, many elite athletes and their trainers gave up the practice voluntarily. The practice of storing and processing red blood cells for later use became more and more difficult to hide from the general sporting community.

A newer form of blood doping has largely replaced the straight blood transfusion method, however. A growth hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), originally used to stimulate red blood cell growth in kidney patients, became the newest way for certain athletes to boost their own red blood cell counts before competition. Synthetic EPO can be injected into an athlete's body, where it stimulates bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Only a very sophisticated drug test can differentiate between the legal natural EPO from the illegal synthetic.

A number of sporting events have been marred by the practice, or at least the suspicion, of blood doping. Random drug testing has discovered the illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, but accusations of blood doping can be notoriously difficult to prove. A blood test can show elevated levels of red blood cells, but many athletes have naturally higher levels because of legitimate training regimens and diets. More accurate tests are in development, but currently, the practice is most often proven through circumstantial evidence or eyewitness testimony from those who actually performed the transfusions or administered the synthetic EPO to an athlete already under suspicion.

Sports n' Hobbies is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Sports n' Hobbies, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Dec 19, 2012

@fify-- Professional athletes do use it but there are legal limits to how much blood doping can be done. I think it's 50%. Going above that is illegal and an invitation to death.

I don't recommend any kind of sports doping, but if people are going to do blood doping, I think it's best to do autologous transfusion. At least you know for sure what you're getting.

By fify — On Dec 18, 2012
@simrin-- It is dangerous, it's exactly what @anon259135 described. When blood volume is too high, it becomes thicker and that's when the risk of stroke comes in.

However, the truth is that people are using it. It's apparently very common among professional cyclists. Lance Amstrong has done it in previous races. But these people are very smart about it and they're doing tests regularly to make sure they're not overdoing it. They have personal doctors on call all the time. They're not just doing it randomly, so they're reducing the risks.

By SteamLouis — On Dec 17, 2012

Blood doping sounds crazy to me. Why can't athletes use one of those oxygen machines if they want more oxygen in their system?

I also don't understand how adding more blood to a system that already has enough would help in competing? Isn't it dangerous to add so much blood to the body?

By anon282805 — On Jul 31, 2012

I have a condition called polycythemia rubra vera

and it is having a serious effect on my life. The condition is incurable and the threat of heart attack, thrombosis and stroke is ever present. The bone marrow will not stop producing red cells - why would anyone risk this happening. I have done nothing to cause this condition and it is very rare. I will need blood venesection for the rest of my life and the life expectancy has been drastically reduced. For athletes to agree to any tampering with their cell production is beyond stupid.

By anon259135 — On Apr 04, 2012

@stolaf23: Actually, there are risks to blood doping. When a person overuses EPO, they blood becomes too thick. The person is now at a higher risk for heart attacks or strokes.

By anon225056 — On Oct 25, 2011

I think that it is a personal matter, and the rules should be applied for it.

By stolaf23 — On Nov 13, 2010

@recapitulate Since blood doping does not yet appear to have the same sorts of health risks as illegal steroids, there is less incentive to stop people who don't care that blood doping is illegal. Unfortunately, not everyone cares about unfairness or any general sportsmanship, especially when there doesn't appear to be any serious risk involved.

By recapitulate — On Nov 13, 2010

Considering how long it has taken to make people aware of both the risks of anabolic steroid use and the unfair advantage that athletes attain from their use, it will likely take a long time to make people understand that that some of the same problems apply to this practice. This is especially true since it is so hard to test or prove when blood doping has occurred.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Sports n' Hobbies, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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