Doping v. Genetics: What Caused Lance Armstrong’s Success?
Was Lance Armstrong's superior performance the result of drug use?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that this week, Lance Armstrong will appear on Oprah to discuss whether or not he doped (used performance enhancing drugs or illegal biology-enhancing tactics) during his cycling career.
So was Armstrong simply super fit, or was his superior performance the result of drug use? Fortunately, at the height of his career, Armstrong underwent comprehensive testing at the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. The results show that even without the use of drugs, Armstrong had some great genetic advantages:
- His heart can beat over 200 times a minute (much higher than average) and pump a very large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs. This means his VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen his body can utilize, was very high. This could have been partially influenced by drug use, but other “clean” pro athletes have demonstrated similarly powerful hearts and lungs. Armstrong just used his very strategically during races.
- Armstrong’s average muscle efficiency, which is the percentage of chemical energy that muscles are able to use to produce power, was also much higher than average, which allows greater production of power. A big part of this is Lance’s experience riding a bicycle, his extremely high “RPM” (over 100 compared to an average of 90), a good bike fit, and the ability to convert a very high number of fast-twitch muscle fibers to slow-twitch muscle fibers. This type of muscle efficiency is tough to improve with drug use.
- Armstrong had extremely low lactic acid levels during hard exercise. Since build up of acid can cause muscles to stop contracting, it certainly helped that he produced nearly half as much acid as the average person. Part of this also could have been assisted by increased blood volume from blood doping, or enhancing oxygen-carrying capacity of red blood cells, but much of that can also be genetic.
So while drugs could have been a factor in Lance’s domination of cycling, he was also genetically gifted, with incredible VO2 max, muscle efficiency, blood lactate buffering capacity and more.
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Lance Armstrong photo from Shutterstock