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Drug Testing in Freediving

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New Member
Sep 11, 2003
It was suggested in another thread that there is no need to test for performance enhancing drugs in freedivers for competition or record attempts, because these drugs do not offer an advantage. Please correct me if I am wrong, but with my limited athlete drug knowledge I can see this for most performance enhancing drugs, except for one glaring exception. Most performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids and stimulants (such as amphetamines, caffeine, etc.), would likely increase the metabolism enough to offset any other advantage. EPO though might be the exception.

Studies have showed EPO can increase the O2 carrying capacity of the blood by 7 to 10%. This seems like it would be a definite advantage without any increase in metabolism. As we know from professional cycling, the worst side effect of too much hematocrit from over use of EPO is heart attack and death!

With the public already so suspicious of the health consequences of freediving it appears to me that the worst thing that could happen to the sport is for an athlete to die from a heart attack in a competition or a record setting event.

Like I said maybe I don’t understand it all, but the way I see it, drug testing, at least for EPO is ultra important in our sport. I applaud the AIDA for taking a stand on this!

Maybe if there is an improvement the AIDA could make is to do away with expensive after the fact testing that includes the drugs that would not benefit freediving performance and have more testing for EPO (or too high of hematocrit) before events. I believe in the Tour de France they test the hematocrit level every morning before the days race to make sure its 50 or less percent. They do this for the athlete’s protection as well as the health of their sport.
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Without weighing in on the ethics of doping, I just want to point out that there are a lot of drugs that can influence apnea performance. For example, diazepam (Valium) and it's cousins decrease the ventilatory drive response and are sometimes used to decrease discomfort associated with hypocapnia. Testosterone analogs can improve the efficiency of glucose metabolism and would probably contribute (positively) to how long you could remain concious w/o O2. Also, there are some papers suggesting that certain forms of DiHydroTestosterone have a role in adaptation to anaerobic stress. Drugs that increase dopamine levels (mostly stimulants) could provide a sense of well-being that could enhance performance (there's a balancing act here, since they often raise metabolic rate). I've heard that marijuana can help w/ breathholding (relaxation? vasodilation?).

As you pointed out EPO could be helpful by increasing hemaocrit levels. However, there have been a ton of posts on EPO, some of them indicating that exogenous EPO is not the only way to elevate hematocrit levels to extreme levels.
Thank you for your informative post. I was not aware that valium could enhance apena performance.

I am aware of other methods to increase hematocrit levels, but I was under the impression that pretty much only exogenous EPO was capable of raising hematocrit levels to dangerous levels. If there are other methods that can do that, then that is an interesting topic. I believe that is why in bicycling they don’t accuse the cyclist of using EPO if their hematocrit level is too high, but just not allow them to compete that day. But if this situation ever happened to a top cyclist, the media and others would surely imply their was drug use.

Not that you suggested this, but I think we need to focus on the most important reason for drug testing, which is diver safety. Although the level playing field and long-term health arguments are important reasons to have drug testing, when there is something out there that is absolutely an advantage, but if too much is taken can kill a person right in their event, then drug testing becomes more than just important.
My opinion,
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Hematocrit alone tells you nothing about how 'safe' a diver is. If the body raises the hematocrit naturally, then it also adjusts fibrinogen and other viscosity agents to thin the blood. If you take EPO to raise your hematocrit, those natural adjustments do not happen, and it becomes unsafe.

Sebastien Murat reached a hematocrit of 63% by exhale-apnea training; that is 13% over the 'allowable' limit for cycling races (of 50%). Seals and whales can have hematocrits of 68%. Andean natives can have natural hematocrits of 79%. Even people climbing mount Everest can get to 58%.

Diving is very different from cycling. If you want to test for EPO, that's fine. But don't disallow an athlete from competing because his hematocrit is too high -- whales and seals are the creatures we try to imitate. Why not pull the seal out of the water and tell him he is not allowed to dive because his hematocrit is too high.

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
63% is pretty impressive for someone at sea level.
Is that before or after splenic contraction?
I am going to try and talk my GP into taking before & after blood tests so I can see just how much the MDR bonus is worth.
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