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Analyzing the blood of elite cyclists could help prevent chronic diseases

A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus has recently examined the metabolism of elite professional cyclists both during training and in a world tour by using metabolomics. This groundbreaking technique allows experts to study thousands of metabolites (small molecules produced when the body breaks down food, chemicals, drugs, or its own tissues) from just a few drops of blood. 

Until now, scientists had to immediately freeze blood samples upon collection. However, the CU Anschutz team has managed to adapt a method to dry the blood, which enabled them to accompany the cyclists into the field and monitor their performance in a real-world setting.

According to the experts, since elite athletes come closest to representing physical perfection from a fitness point of view, better understanding their metabolism could help treat and prevent a variety of chronic diseases. 

“We cannot understand imperfection – such as multiple metabolic diseases – if we don’t understand perfection in the first place,” said study co-author Iñigo San Millán, an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“We’re focusing a lot on what happens to the mitochondrial function of cells. This mitochondrial function is what we see dysregulated in so many diseases. If we can get signatures without having to be invasive, we can detect dysregulations of key areas ahead of time, before a disease develops.”

This study demonstrates the feasibility of using metabolomics combined with a dried blood collection technique to monitor a variety of sports performances, and could possibly lead to a more personalized exercise-as-medicine approach to protect individuals at risk for conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

“By identifying these healthy metabolomic signatures, we are able to take that information into patient populations with health complications, like those who are cancer survivors or those who are suffering from symptoms of long Covid,” said lead author Travis Nemkov, an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at CU Anschutz.

For instance, the scientists discovered that patients with long Covid had similar blood profiles to elite cyclists when they reached exhaustion. Such findings could allow medical professionals to create more individualized exercise plans to restore the health of their patients.

“We believe this technique opens a window into a variety of potential new therapies for those suffering from metabolic diseases. There are tremendous possibilities ahead,” concluded senior author Angelo D’Alessandro, a professor of Structural Biology and Biochemistry at CU Anschutz. 

The study is published in the journal Sports Medicine.

More about elite cyclists 

Elite cyclists are professional athletes who compete at the highest level of bicycle racing. These cyclists have exceptional physical abilities, honed through years of rigorous training, dedication, and experience. They typically compete in various types of races such as road, track, cyclocross, and mountain bike events. 

Some of the most famous races include the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España, which are part of the prestigious UCI WorldTour.

Key characteristics of elite cyclists:

Exceptional physical fitness

Elite cyclists have incredible cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, and power. They also possess impressive VO2 max levels, which refers to the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can utilize during intense exercise.

Mental strength and focus

Elite cyclists need mental fortitude to cope with the pressure of competition, intense training, and the strategic aspects of racing. Mental resilience is crucial in overcoming setbacks such as injuries or poor race results.

Technical skills

Mastering bike handling skills, like cornering, descending, and navigating tight spaces in a peloton, is essential for elite cyclists. They must also be adept at reading race situations and making quick decisions to exploit opportunities or respond to threats.

Nutrition and recovery

Proper nutrition and recovery practices are essential for elite cyclists to maintain optimal performance throughout a long racing season. This includes monitoring caloric intake, hydration, and ensuring proper rest and sleep.


Cycling is often a team sport, with each member playing a specific role to support the team leader or sprinter. Elite cyclists need excellent communication and collaboration skills to execute team strategies effectively.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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