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Placebo EPO boosts performance, study

A new doping test is much more effective.

Even thinking you’re doped can make you faster. Recent research on how the placebo effect improves race time found that athletes who thought they were using an EPO-like performance enhancer actually performed better, even though they were taking a fake.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow had 15 trained runners help with a randomized crossover study. The men were between the ages of 20 and 35 and had an average 10-km time of a little more than 39 minutes. All the participants ran two 3-km time trials, one at the beginning of the study and one at the end. The time trials were seven days apart.

Some of the athletes were given OxyRBX injections, a drug they were told that had effects similar to EPO and would make them better endurance athletes. The catch? OxyRBX was just a saline solution, not a performance-enhancing drug. The others went about their normal week without any drug or placebo.

Although half the runners were only injecting themselves with a placebo, they still saw a big jump in performance compared to the other runners who didn’t use anything. The OxyRBX group saw, on average, a 9.7-second improvement over 3-km. Researches also learned that the duped doped runners felt more motivated, thought they recovered better and noted racing the 3-km after the week of supposed drug use took less effort.

“The placebo may work by reducing perception of effort and increasing potential motivation in line with a psychological expectation of performance,” said researcher Jason Gill. The study has been published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

The control group improved, on average, less than two seconds.

The gains from the placebo, at 1.2 per cent, are notable, although not as great as actually taking performance enhancing drugs.