Endurance training can lead to what has been termed 'sports anaemia'. Although under normal conditions, red blood cells (RBCs) have a lifespan of about 120 days, the rate of aging may increase during intensive training. However, RBC deficiency is rare in athletes, and sports anaemia is probably due to an expanded plasma volume. Cycling, running and swimming have been shown to cause RBC damage. While most investigators measure indices of haemolysis (for example, plasma haemoglobin or haptoglobin), RBC removal is normally an extravascular process that does not involve haemolysis. Attention is now turning to cellular indices (such as antioxidant depletion, or protein or lipid damage) that may be more indicative of exercise-induced damage. RBCs are vulnerable to oxidative damage because of their continuous exposure to oxygen and their high concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids and haem iron. As oxidative stress may be proportional to oxygen uptake, it is not surprising that antioxidants in muscle, liver and RBCs can be depleted during exercise. Oxidative damage to RBCs can also perturb ionic homeostasis and facilitate cellular dehydration. These changes impair RBC deformability which can, in turn, impede the passage of RBCs through the microcirculation. This may lead to hypoxia in working muscle during single episodes of exercise and possibly an increased rate of RBC destruction with long term exercise. Providing RBC destruction does not exceed the rate of RBC production, no detrimental effect to athletic performance should occur. An increased rate of RBC turnover may be advantageous because young cells are more efficient in transporting oxygen. Because most techniques examine the RBC population as a whole, more sophisticated methods which analyse cells individually are required to determine the mechanisms involved in exercise-induced damage of RBCs.