Some sports have a cloud of scandals that follow them around, and none more so than elite cycling. The drug scandals that tarnish this sport have ramped up, recently targeting respiratory inhalers that are used to manage asthma, a condition which, interestingly, affects a higher percentage of athletes than it does of the normal population.
So what exactly is going on?
Asthma affects between five and 20 percent of the population. Among elite athletes, the incidences are much higher. Although there is much scientific speculation on why this is the case, we still don’t really know why.
People with asthma are often drawn (by themselves or their parents) towards certain sports to help control symptoms. For example in swimming, where warm humid air seems to help asthmatics by keeping the respiratory tract moist and less reactive during high intensity exercise. This may help explain why there are more asthmatics that are elite swimmers than the normal population. Working with Grant Hackett, this was the case with his respiratory system. His famous swim at the Athens Olympics while managing a “bronchial infection” is well documented. Managing his condition was a constant challenge for him outside of the pool, especially in climate-controlled spaces such as hotels and planes. Towards the end of his career, we started using a unique product more commonly used to help patients manage respiratory disease in hospital. The apparatus provided the airways with a warm humid inspiration and, with techniques adapted for athletic use, helped with post-training recovery. Hackett certainly felt the benefit from this intervention and our findings contributed to what is now the Fletcher Technique and its programs tailored specifically to athletes.
Back to Cycling…
Elite athletes, like Chris Froome tend to use their lungs at capacities that normal people never reach. If you’re reading this while seated, it’s most likely that you’re breathing 7.5 litres (7.5L) of air in and out of your lungs each minute. Athletes at peak exercise capacity can add 2000 percent on top of these numbers.
Imagine how much you would be puffing riding your bike up the steepest hill you know for hours on end. That’s what Froome and others do on a daily basis. Now imagine slightly restricting your breath, making it harder to breathe in – like breathing through a straw while exercising. Elite athletes that suffer from Asthma would be affected by small flare-ups of asthma, which restricts their breath and makes it harder to breathe air in. If I were an athlete and knew that there is a product I can use for immediate relief, that reduces my shortness of breath and therefore improves my performance and puts me back on an even playing field – I certainly would be using it.
Breathing has a significant impact on performance. I’m going to say that again so it’s drummed into your head.
Breathing has a significant impact on performance!
Making it harder to breathe during exercise reduces performance – and this is well researched. (Harms et al. 1997 – Respiratory muscle work contributes to reduced leg blood flow)
How does an athlete get asthma?
An asthmatic event is typically caused by cold, dry air, and also by allergens such as pollen and house dust mite. Dust mites are especially common, particularly when you are exposed to the dry air in aeroplanes and hotels constantly. Even if you sleep on a mattress that hasn’t been changed in a while, that can cause a big issue for asthmatics. There is also exercise-induced “asthma”, which can be triggered simply by breathing in fast.
Professional riders are catching planes everywhere, staying in different hotels each night, climbing at altitude which comes with changes in the humidity and temperature of the air and riding through different surfaces and environments – and when we look at all this together, it’s not surprising at all that there is a higher percentage of asthma sufferers in elite cycling. The question is, how do we best manage it?
Asthma is a condition which is as unique as the individual whom has it. Its easily diagnosed with a breath test, and it’s a easy test to fake if you want to be diagnosed with this.
Why would you want to be diagnosed with this?
We outlined above that when asthma flares up, it makes breathing harder which affects performance. An athlete will usually take 2 types of medication to manage their asthma.
- Prevention Medicine – used regularly, contains cortico-steriod, and is aimed at preventing an asthma attack. This is not why Chris Froome and others have been in trouble.
- Symptom Control – the typical puffer we know and see on the sports field, used to relieve shortness of breath and tightness in the chest, which can be the onset of an attack. Too much of this is why Chris Froome is in Barney Rubble!!!!!
There are lots of theories to what happened, who done it mystery, but when it boils down to it he took too much of this medicine during a stage of a race. He claims to have acted according to the Team Doctor, and he has well documented reports of using this medicine in competition, so why were his results way way over the mark?
- Some weak studies have shown a small improvement if you use the medication even without asthma. Theory is by reducing the tightness in the chest, and relaxing the smooth muscle in the airways it will make breathing easier and improve performance
- If you have asthma, and your having an attack in a competition you may over use the drug, you may metabolise it differently and end up with a positive test even though you have been conservative. Certainly this does not appear to be the case with Froome, the amounts found in his urine sample given his history, knowledge, team physicians, its hard to imagine accidentally doubling the limit imposed by WADA
- Should the drug even be banned at all?
- It is used as a masking agent along with Dieuretics
Bottom line is, if you make breathing easier you increase your performance. This is exactly what Fletcher techniques does, without the need to take any drug and run the possibility of being a Froomer. If you have asthma or another respiratory illness that requires medication use, talk to your team Doctor or Physiotherapist about timing, dosage and other options to manage asthma. Inspiratory muscle training shows excellent results on asthma symptom management and performance gains in cycling.
Good luck to all the Cyclists out there, hope to see Froome back in the saddle real soon.
James @ Fletcher techniques