Lance Armstrong’s Secret?
The recent drug bust of 2006 Tour de France victor Floyd Landis for having a level of testosterone considered physiologically impossible without pharmacological assistance—i.e., steroids—has again focused attention on the problem of drugs in sports. Landis showed a testosterone to epitestosterone level of 17-to-1. The highest normal level is set at 4-to-1. Even worse, another test revealed that the type of testosterone found in Landis’ blood had a synthetic origin, based on the number of carbons. Landis still proclaims his innocence, but he’ll have a tough time convincing anyone that he didn’t resort to drugs for his victory in France.
The greatest cyclist ever, Lance Armstrong, also an American athlete, has been continually accused of using everything from anabolic steroids to growth hormone to attain his record seven victories in the Tour de France. Like Landis, Armstrong denies using any type of illegal drug. Yet his feats in the grueling race, during which cyclists burn more than 5,000 calories a day, seem superhuman.
A pair of researchers from the Netherlands, however, have offered an explanation for Armstrong’s success. They note that Armstrong has always passed every type of drug test, not only during the actual race but also at home, during race-free periods. They think he won because of a quirk in his metabolism—in the way his body handles pain and fatigue during exercise.
As every person who’s ever lifted weights knows, the onset of fatigue during an intense set is heralded by a burning sensation in the muscle. That burn is caused by a buildup of lactic acid that is the consequence of a lack of sufficient oxygen. It’s called anaerobic metabolism. The lactate portion of lactic acid isn’t the problem, however; it’s the acid, or hydrogen protons.
Increased acidity in muscles interferes with the activity of energy-producing enzymes, leading to a rapid loss of muscular function until the excess acidity is neutralized. The lactate portion travels in the blood to the liver, where it converts back into glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. That creates a continuous source of usable fuel. Studies show that regular endurance, or aerobic, exercise leads to a twofold increase in gluconeogenesis at rest and a threefold increase during exercise. That maintains blood glucose during long-term exercise. It also leads to less lactic acid produced during exercise and thus more muscle endurance.
You can see how that relates to Lance Armstrong’s athletic success if you consider his training program. At age 12 Armstrong swam 2.5 miles and cycled 10 miles before going to school, then after school cycled 10 miles and swam another 3 3/4 miles. At age 13 he won the triathalon for iron kids. When Armstrong won a grueling hill phase of the Tour de France, he said that he felt not a second of pain. When researchers tested him at the University of Texas, he was found to produce only a quarter as much lactic acid as other world-class cyclists.
While some of those attributes may be written off to genetic gifts, it was nonetheless true that Armstrong was already regularly engaged in vigorous training by the time he was 12, so he had years to perfect his extraordinary athletic metabolism. In that respect, he’s similar to former baseball player Mark McGwire, who hit a home run at his first time at bat, then went on to set a local Little League home run record at age 14 that still stands today.
What makes Armstrong’s success particularly extraordinary is that he survived cancer to win. In October 1996, Armstrong was stricken with an aggressive and rapidly spreading cancer that could easily have killed him. The diagnosis was a choriocarcinoma of the testes, which had spread to his lungs and brain. In order to grow and spread, tumors require oxygen for energy. After two years of successful treatment with chemotherapy and surgery, Armstrong returned to competition against all odds.
The Dutch researchers’ theory is that Armstrong, who already had a superhuman lactic acid disposal system within his body, experienced a further upgrade in that system because of the presence of the tumor. That is, having a potentially lethal cancer acted as an ergogenic aid for Lance.