Could the Blood of Elite Cyclists Save the Rest of Us?

Long a punchline, now an ichor: a new study with massive implications on exercise medicine

A show of cyclists rumbling through the Alps.
The best of us can save the rest of us, according to a new study in "Sports Medicine."
AFP via Getty Images

After two decades of doping scandals, it’s not typically a great sign when the term “cyclist blood” is in the news. But in the case of a study published this week in Sports Medicine, the blood of the World Tour’s best cyclists could have a positive impact on the future of exercise-medicine.

Researchers at the University of Colorado were able to reveal unique metabolic signatures in the bloodwork of the planet’s fittest athletes, which could help influence the way the planet’s not-so-fit adults choose to train or battle a metabolic disease like diabetes.

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Why Cyclists?

Dr. Iñigo San Millán, a co-author of the study and professor at CU, says the decision was simple: “We cannot understand imperfection — such as multiple metabolic diseases — if we don’t understand perfection in the first place.” From a researcher’s perspective, the metabolic functioning of an elite cyclist is essentially flawless.

Clever Blood Samples

CU researchers collected blood samples from “28 international-level, elite, World Tour professional male athletes from a Union Cycliste Internationale World Team” both before and after the cyclists completed (a) a long, steady bike ride of 180 kilometers and (b) an intense workout that pushed them to their limit, also known as a graded exercise test, or GXT. In order to preserve the samples without a need for immediate freezing, the scientists cleverly employed a novel technique called dried blood sampling.

Some Findings

During the GXT workout, the cyclists’ bodies produced more lactate and succinate — chemicals that show the body is working really hard and might be getting tired. This suggests the body was using a process called glycolysis (breaking down sugars for energy). During the long ride, however, the body relied more on breaking down fats for energy, which was indicated by an increase in long-chain fatty acids. Fascinatingly, the “exhausted” signals the body gives off when it’s worked really hard are similar to the signals seen in some chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and sepsis.

The Best of the Best

The scientists found that they could predict which cyclists would perform better, simply based on their blood samples. The cyclists who performed better seemed to have bodies that could efficiently keep breaking down fats for energy, even under high stress.

For Us Non-Elites

This sort of study provides researchers “molecular profiles of exertion.” By understanding how a “perfect” body metabolizes, say, a bi-pedaled trek in the mountains of France, doctors can glean a clearer picture of how the rest of us should exercise. For instance: someone whose body is better at burning sugar should probably prioritize high-intensity workouts, while someone whose body is better at burning fat should plug in long, steady sessions.

At a time when exercise prescriptions have already made their way to doctor’s offices, expect personalized, “metabolic-pathway-balancing” plans to become a critical component of preventative care in the coming years. Not to mention: administering blood tests after exercise could help healthcare providers detect metabolic diseases on the earlier side.

Ultimately — as if cyclist blood wasn’t redeemed enough — a study like this could lead to more comprehensive research into patients who’ve survived cancer or are suffering from long COVID. As the study’s press brief reports: “Patients who come into the clinic with long COVID had similar blood profiles to elite cyclists when they reached exhaustion.” Only a select few of us can complete a multi-stage cycling tour, but everyone deserves the data and tools to get moving again. The blood of those who move the most could help.

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