A new study on asthma and doping is about to be published. The lead scientist calls on the World Anti-Doping Agency to act.
Can asthma drugs help athletes improve their performance? Scientists from Ulm, Berlin and Cologne have found an answer to this question, which has been controversial for years: the drugs improve breathing and make the heart more efficient. The studies also show that muscle growth is also possible. The findings will strengthen discussions about the hot topic of asthma and the consequences for anti-doping regulations.
For study director Jürgen Steinacker from the University Hospital Ulm, the results of two years of research are clear: “The increase in performance is probably based on our data. With a load of 60 to 90 minutes, I put it at around two to three percent. In competitive sports, this difference is gigantic.” This can be 500 to 1,000 meters in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. “It can make the difference between victory and defeat”said Steinacker.
According to statistics, there are up to four times more asthmatics in competitive sports than in the general population. The high use of asthma sprays, especially in cycling and winter sports, has therefore been the subject of heated debate for years. Above all, the question of whether certain asthma drugs are also used for doping. So far there has been no scientific evidence of an increase in performance. So the idea of doing a study came up.
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WADA funds study
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) funded the Ulm project with a grant of $315,000. The scientists took a closer look at the asthma drugs salbutamol and formoterol. These are not prohibited in competitive sports, but belong to the limited-application means. WADA sets a limit for these agents. This dictates to the athletes how high a dose of a drug may be taken without it being considered doping.
In the past, there have always been cases in sports where athletes have tested positive for these asthma drugs. One of the most famous cases is that of four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome. He had twice as much salbutamol in his urine as the legal limit – and was acquitted after months of discussions. Norwegian cross-country skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby, on the other hand, has been banned for two months for excessive salbutamol use.
Study director calls for action
For the study, twelve healthy women and men inhaled the active ingredients formoterol or salbutamol or a placebo before intensive cycling. To protect the subjects, the administered dose was well below the limit values. Nevertheless, the performance-enhancing effect became clear.
Based on the study results, the Ulm scientist Steinacker calls for the current limit values for salbutamol and formoterol to be lowered even further in order to create fairness in sport. But it is also important to him to avoid unnecessary treatments and side effects. Because medicine is now more advanced, and asthma can also be treated without classic asthma sprays.
WADA sticks to rules
WADA interprets the results of the study from Ulm more cautiously and wants to stick to the current limit values. As long as the dose of the active ingredients remains low, there is no need to worry about performance being increased, said WADA Science Director Olivier Rabin of the ARD doping editorial team. “This study showed that the rules as they are now are good rules.”
Study leader Steinacker hopes that in the further debate with WADA there will be a rethink. The study will be published in the next few weeks – and then provide for further discussions.