Little Miss Grumpy Guts

I’ve been debating writing this for awhile now. It’s a bit of a long winded story. Well I’ll no doubt make it long winded because I like words so much. Was talking with a fellow athlete a few weeks ago who said even the little I told her gave her hope in her own current struggle with being an athlete and all that goes with it. But still I was sitting on the fence. I have sat down to try and write it once already and it sounded very poor me and whingey but then today Facebook kindly sent me a reminder that two years ago I was in Germany and 4 days out from Challenge Roth. Challenge Roth is my current Iron distance PB so I was pretty fit at the time. I took a selfie standing by the Roth sign and seeing that photo made me do a double take. To give some context I put it next to a selfie I took a week ago, following a mountain bike. This photo is three weeks Post Ironman Cairns so fitness wise I’m probably about on a par, maybe a little deconditioned right now. But boy oh boy what a difference two years has made. I sent them to my sister just to confirm I wasn’t seeing things because I never can trust my own opinions of my face :p.

Little Miss Grumpy Guts

When I sat down with the dietician that I had hunted up out of sheer desperation about November last year, she said to me, “I can see you have a lot of water retention round your face, due to inflammation”. I was rather doubtful that someone could tell that from looking at me for the first time in their lives. After looking at these two photos side by side however, I am a believer. You can see the inflammatory puffiness in my face standing next to the Roth sign. And so here we are, at the end of four frustrating years as far as triathlon training goes, and more years than I care to count of feeling rubbish and dealing with Little Miss Grumpy Guts but finally starting to feel like I have found those long sought after answers.

I have always had a Little Miss Grumpy Guts. I can remember even as a kid being out on a walk and all of a sudden I needed to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW! There were times at university when it was worse than others but I could have lived with it, it wasn’t stopping me from doing what I wanted to do. But then triathlon found me and that’s when it started to get more than just a little annoying.

As I started to get more serious with my training I started to get more frustrated with my gut. All my long runs were carefully mapped out to make sure I was running via public toilets or at least decent stretches of bush. I tended to shy away from running with others because I would have to stop for the loo so often. The thing that annoyed me the most though was the fact that I couldn’t do the interval sessions right because invariably I would be running into the toilet after each interval and so the rest between was never correct.

I talked to my doctor.

“Oh that’s just something that some runners get.”

I talked to a nutritionist.

“Maybe it’s because you aren’t eating enough.”

And then I got my first break. Ironically that break was an anaphylactic reaction in the middle of a long run. I was referred by the hospital to an immunologist and a few months after the incident I had the first appointment. After getting a history of the event and the full gamete of bloods and skin prick tests, it was decided that my official diagnosis was Exercise Induced Anaphylaxis likely as the result of having taken aspirin a few hours before the run. Not exactly the diagnosis that someone who was still trying to make it to her first Ironman needed to get (hit by a car before my first attempt, weather bomb shortened the second attempt to the half distance). Having a pretty thorough science degree, a sister who has had allergies all her life and is now a nurse I have some knowledge of how the whole allergy thing works and know that many allergies do manifest themselves as gut issues. So my next appointment with the immunologist I asked about the gut problems but was dismissed instantly as that being totally unrelated. I was however asked if I had considered stopping exercise.

I never went back.

It was a bit later after a particularly dismal race experience where I had to stop mid run for the bathroom that I finally got frustrated enough to seek out some further help. Dr Google unearthed a Functional Physician (has both Naturopath and Western Medicine Quals) in America. Out of desperation I emailed her with a brief explanation and history and she amazingly came back with the suggestion that I might have a salicylate intolerance and to try a low salicylate diet for a month and see how I went.

Oh my goodness. The difference was amazing. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch but after following a very strict low salicylate diet in the lead up to my next Ironman race, I had the first race where I didn’t have to stop for the loo in the middle of the run. I thought the problem was solved.

I missed fresh leafy salads and fruit and so I tended to be very strict in the month leading up to a race but a lot more relaxed in between.

About this time the LCHF bandwagon came bouncing into my place of work. It quickly became a big thing and everyone was raving about the performance benefits. I wondered a little about trying to do it on a low to moderate salicylate diet as well but was convinced that I could and so I jumped in boots and all.

I gained weight

I was told I wasn’t doing it right.

I tried harder.

I gained more weight.

I developed a love of cream in my coffee and cheese.

During this time training had started to be a bit of a drag. I loved being out training, I love to race but man was I tired, and every training session was an intense emotionally draining argument with myself just to get out and do it. I wanted to want to train but many days the wanting just wasn’t enough. But missing a training session came with intense feelings of guilt which in itself was emotionally draining.

And I hadn’t really realized it but the gut was still play havoc. I guess I had just become so used to it being a thing that as long as it didn’t get in the way of racing, I’d deal with it the rest of the time.

I wasn’t sleeping properly but I’d never slept very well so I just brushed that off.

I repeatedly tried to come off my antidepressants but then some small change to my life and I would be plunged to rock bottom and trying to fight my way back out of the dark depths eventually ending up on a higher dose than before.

And then I got my big career break. An academic role at an Australian University. But that would mean I would have to leave my family, my triathlon family and my dogs. Shy little Anna who struggles to talk to strangers and doesn’t really do the social thing was upping stakes and moving to somewhere where she knew two people. I guess at least I did know those two people. I promptly broke my arm two months after arriving and had a close encounter with a deadly snake and suddenly I was struggling more than I ever had.

I was sleeping worse than ever and I was struggling to think. When your job is all about thinking, standing up in front of a room full of people and telling them what you know and trying to come up with knew ideas, not being able to concentrate and think is a pretty big problem.

The other part of my life, triathlon was also not going very well. It was now a year since I had raced and I was still trying to train but it was pretty haphazard and I think my coach had got a little bit sick of writing me programs that I never managed to do properly. And I didn’t have the training group I had back home that meant I still managed to get in some decent training every week. I was by myself and the wanting wasn’t enough to get me fit again.

I wasn’t doing a very good job at being a triathlete and I wasn’t doing a very good job at being an academic. For a perfectionist that’s a pretty tough place to be.

I decided it was time to get some help with managing the low salicylate diet. I went to one dietician who mucked me about.

I was exhausted. A blood test showed that my iron was down to 15, the lowest it has ever been so I was booked in for an iron infusion and I was told I would feel like a new person.

I didn’t. I felt ripped off.

Luckily I had that little piece of the puzzle, the salicylate piece and a website given to me by the previous dietician –

Yeah that sounded about right.

The website had a list of recommended dieticians so I started with that list and read the profiles of all those in the area which brings me to sitting at my kitchen table giving a detailed history and being shown links to many things that I would never have thought were connected at all. My chronic scalp psoriasis. My heightened sense of smell. The depression and anxiety. The gut issues. The anaphylaxis. The sleep issues. The fatigue. The brain fog. The lack of concentration.

And being told I looked puffy.

The conclusion was the I was probably intolerant to amines (high in fermented food -no more cheese) as well as salicylates. And while we were embarking on an elimination diet we should probably cut out gluten and dairy (no more cream) just in case. I was also told that I had chronic fatigue and I needed to take some time off and any exercise that I did do was only to be up to 80%

I was given a shopping list that literally covered 4 side of A4 paper which was the sum total of things I could buy from the supermarket including laundry and bathroom items and various brand alternatives. And I set about an official elimination diet. After the 4+ week wash out period we tried a dairy challenge. I promptly stopped sleeping properly, felt nauseous all the time, the brain fog descended, and I had an upsurge in grumping of the guts.

We tried an amine challenge. Similar effects.

Funnily enough, being told that I had probably pushed myself beyond breaking point finally hit home and I allowed myself two months of no training. I ran once or twice a week and cycled here and there but most of the time when I wasn’t working I was recovering. When I did start training again we were still working through challenges and so training was a bit up and down but it was more up than it had been in a very long time.

I went home for a few weeks and joined the crew for the Ironman training camp. I felt slow and useless compared to everyone else, compared to what I had been so entered the week of Wanaka Half with more trepidation than enjoyment.

A bout of vomiting the day before the race put a stop to any plans of racing. After a week of feeling vile after the illness I started to come right and I attacked training with a new vengeance. I wanted to get back to where I used to be. I was also starting to get this diet thing sorted out (once I could stomach chicken again). I had finally found that egg albumin and rice milk made a palatable protein shake (with all other protein sources being fermented and therefore high in amines or dairy based) and I had a few good recipes to fall back for day to day meals.

Leading up to Ironman Cairns I had a really good build. I was training more consistently than I had in years and things were looking good. I think coach was pleased with how I was training too which was a huge boost not having all that guilt hanging around. There were a few instances where I inadvertently got my amine levels too high (hard to manage when swimming involves immersing yourself in amine infused water 3 x a week) and I would be sitting at work struggling to focus, give up and go home and sleep the entire afternoon that demonstrated to me just how much of an effect the diet had been having on my body.

Come race day. I managed a 10.34. That’s only five minutes slower than my current PB and it was tougher conditions at Cairns compared to Roth. My training build had only been about five months and had been a bit hit and miss to start with so I reckon there’s a little more time we can pull back from the clock yet.

Possibly even more noticeable than the race was the recovery after. Usually after a race I take four weeks off doing absolutely nothing and then I would still be feeling tired and sloth like. One week following the race and I was sitting on a bike while supervising a lab and pedalling away and enjoying mountain bikes in the forest on the weekends.

If anyone has gotten this far in the reading then here are my take aways from this journey.

  1. Don’t ever give up trying to find the answers. If you feel something isn’t right then it probably isn’t. Keep searching you will find the answers eventually.
  2. Diet is so important and it’s a good idea to find someone knowledgeable to help you figure it out. Don’t try and do it alone, even with some knowledge it’s a really complex thing to negotiate. I had a little knowledge but my tinkering inadvertently increased some of the things my body can’t cope with making things worse than ever.
  3. When training starts to feel like a drag and that goes on for more than a few sessions, or you are struggling to hit your normal pace or power, your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it.
  4. If for whatever reason you have managed to take yourself to breaking point, then it’s ok to take some time off to let the body recover. You have permission. It’ll thank you for it.
  5. If you have currently been given permission to have a break (I had to get permission from the dietician), then well done for taking the step. Make sure it’s a thorough break by not beating yourself up about not exercising right now. Chin up. You are more than your exercise pursuits. Enjoy the other things in your life. You will be back. Stronger than ever.

Little Miss Grumpy Guts is still there because my body is still more stressed than the average Iron guts. I can’t eliminate amines and salicylates from my diet without living on air and water and so I will always have to manage the stress levels. Hard interval sessions still often have bathroom breaks in the middle as the stress bucket tops up to overflowing, but it’s managed better. It’s not constantly pouring down the sides. I sleep now. I can think now. And I respond much better to the training that I’m doing. As far as I’m concerned that’s a pretty huge win.


Post-training Rehydration

Nailing hydration during training and racing is one part of the complex discipline of nutrition but possibly even more important is the post-training recovery. Not only is it important but also a little different depending on your long term goals.

No matter how well you hydrate during long or hard sessions, you will likely end up at least a little bit dehydrated and the longer and/or hotter the training the more likely this is. Simply because it’s really hard to get enough fluid in, with swimming and running being the harder of the three triathlon disciplines. But even when cycling hard, it can be difficult to get enough fluid in as the gut tends to reduce it’s functioning in order to redirect blood to the working muscles. So rehydration should always be part of your post training recovery.

In a recent sport science symposium I attended, there was a presentation looking at just that. What fluid is best for rehydration? Now we know that water is not as efficient at rehydration compared to something that has a little sugar and salt added to it (see last post for more detail). The researchers therefore focused on determining which was better, a sports drink (note this was a sports drink and so had a high carb content) or a milk based drink (Sustagen sport in this case). After getting volunteers to cycle in a hot environment for a sustained period, the change in weight from start to finish was measured in order to determine total body water loss. The volunteers were then given this volume of fluid to consume either in the form of a sports drink or Sustagen over a short period. Weight was then tracked over the next few hours to get an estimate of rehydration (note this is only an estimate because there was no measure of stomach emptying or blood plasma volume). What was noticed was that the milk based drink was able to keep the weight close to pre exercise weight better than the sports drink. Those consuming the sports drink got their weight back up but then rapidly pee’d the fluid out.

The researchers then repeated the experiment but rather than giving the volunteers the volume of fluid they had lost they were allowed to drink as much as they wanted to of either the sports drink or the milk based drink (main reason for this approach is that if you lost 2+ litres of body fluid during the cycle, it was a bit of a struggle for the volunteers to consume that much in a milk based form, plus it is more representative of real life). Those who consumed the milk based drink in this instance were able to get their body weight up closer to the pre exercise weight than those consuming the sports drink.

The explanation for this. The sports drink allows rapid rehydration, and will often overshoot the blood volume needed, at which point it passes through the kidneys to be filtered out, and so you end up in the bathroom, getting rid of that water you actually really want to hold onto. You may have also noted (what I call the leaking tap effect). Get in from training and have a drink and instantly the flood gates open and you’re suddenly sweating buckets again. This is because the body is really clever. It knows function starts to decline as you get dehydrated and so it stops cooling you down via sweating after a certain point and relies on other (less efficient cooling strategies). However as soon as you put some fluid into your stomach, sensors tell your brain don’t worry water is on the way, and so it knows that it’s ok to sacrifice a little water in order to cool you down because it can absorb it out of the gut to replace it. [Your body does the same thing with sugar, which is why holding a gel in your mouth, or swishing sports drink in your mouth can give you a quick burst of energy.] So your body actually ups it’s fluid loss when you start drinking.

Milk based drinks on the other hand stay in your stomach longer. They actually curdle when they hit the acid in your stomach (mmmm tasty) but this means it acts more like solid food rather than a liquid. FLuids move straight from the stomach into the intestines, whereas food is drip feed a little at a time so that the intestines have time to process the food. Rehydration isn’t so immediate, we don’t have a rapid increase in blood volume and a kidney response, it’s a much more controlled process which is why it is able to maintain body weight for longer, or get closer to body weight, if allowed to drink as much as you want.

Milk based drinks have all the good stuff for rehydration, a little salt and sugar and water and also has the added bonus of a quick absorbing protein (whey) which aids in immediate muscle recovery as well as a more prolonged absorbing protein (casein) for sustained recovery later in the day. This is the science behind chocolate milk being a good recovery drink.

Females please note that there is not sufficient protein in chocolate milk for your recovery, you need to add some protein to this, in order to prevent muscle breakdown. Yay hormones.

So why does it matter what your long term goals are? Dehydration can actually have a powerful physiological effect similar to altitude training. Sustained dehydration signals the body that it needs to do something to prevent this happening and it does this by increasing the resting blood volume blood volume is increased and the kidneys don’t try to get rid of it). More blood in your body when exercising means its easier to get oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, which means you can work a little bit harder. Increasing your blood volume can be a good way to help you get ready for racing in hot and humid environments. If this is your long term goal, then holding off on rehydrating can be helpful. Not only is this training your physiology but also is a great mental training exercise, for those times between aid stations when all you can think about is an ice cold drink.

But bare in mind that you do not want to do this if you have another training session the same day,  or a really hard session the following day, as you are compromising your recovery.

Addendum: Rehydration immediately following exercise can be water, sports drink or ideally a specifically formulated hydration supplement but you do want to then have a milk based recovery drink also in order to maximise the rehydration. If you can’t have milk never fear. Having some solid food with your fluid has a similar effect.

If you are training to race in the heat then dehydration training can be beneficial. This should be started weeks or months out and should be carefully planned, to not interfere with key training sessions.


Hydration during training and racing

We are fast approaching Ironman NZ and NZ is having a week of unprecedented high temperatures. And so hydration during and after training and racing is an important factor to consider.

There are probably three different things you can consume during training, plain water, rehydration solution and sports drinks. These are all different and the first two at least have different places in your hydration strategy. Opps I forgot a fourth – coke – liquid gold. In order to understand their role in your hydration plan, whether it be training or racing, you need to understand the physiology of hydration.

When you drink, the fluid moves down into your stomach and if you have only consumed fluid it moves quickly into your intestines to be absorbed. Your intestines are set up with a rich supply of blood and a single layer of cells separating the inside of your intestines from your blood suppply. Water just has to pass through this layer of cells and you have got it to your blood to do all the good things it does, primarily maintin your blood volume so that it doesn’t get too thick and can keep taking oxygen and glucose to your muscles. The body is pretty clever and sets up things called gradients to help move things between different compartments (here it’s between the intestines and the blood). Gradients are simply one compartment with a high concentration of something and the other has a low concentration of something. If you are in a really full train or lift and the doors open, your instinct is to spill out into that area where there are less people and the body is the same. If something is in the area of high concentration, it wants to move to the area of low concentration in order to get more room. The concentrations we want to look at here is water (osmotic gradient), glucose (sugar) and sodium (salt).

The layer of cells separating the intestines and the cells are set up to move sugar and salt rapidly from the intestines into the blood so that you can use these for energy and other cell  processes. By moving sugar and salt across we change the osmotic gradient which results in sucking water into the blood as well. Rehydration solutions such as hydralyte that you give kids when they are sick are formulated on this principle. If you add a little sugar and salt the act of absorbing these into the blood stream also pulls water into the blood and promotes the rehydration process. Straight water doesn’t have this drive, a little bit of water will be absorbed but it’s much more efficient to aid the transport of water with sugar and salt. A number of sports nutrition companies such as nuun, osmo, Pure and SOS to names a few have used this strategy in formulating their rehydration fluids. Note that I don’t call them sports drinks because sports drinks typically have much more sugar in them and so change the whole process.

Take home message from that: Having sugar and salt in your intestines with the water makes you absorb the water faster.

That sugar and salt doesn’t need to be mixed in with the water in the form of a drink though to do it’s work. If you have eaten something or had a gel, then you already have sugar and salt sitting in your stomach and so add plain water to that and you have created a condition which facilitates hydration.

And here is the important thing to understand. If you add too much sugar or salt (in endurance athletes the sugar is generally the issue) say in the form of having a gel and washing it down with a Nuun, then you have suddenly created a situation where the high concentration of sugar and salt is not in the blood pulling water into the blood, it is now in the gut. Your intestine cells will be transporting the sugar and salt into the blood like mad but it won’t be fast enough to fix this gradient issue. And when the sugar is high in the gut, then water wants to move towards that area in order to fix the osmotic gradient. I sometimes tell my students this is like a high and low water concentration. High sugar means low water and so the water actually moves out of the blood and into the stomach. And yes this IS a problem for two reasons. Firstly, we are trying to maintin blood volume to aid performance and so pulling water out of the blood into the intestines means our blood volume just went down, the blood gets thicker. Its harder for the heart to pump it to the working muscles. Oxygen and glucose delivery to the muscles slows and suddenly it feels a whole lot harder to maintain your level of exertion. Secondly, you have just increased the volume of stuff in your intestines. This is often accompanied by a sloshy feeling in the gut and very often GI problems, worst case scenario – diarrhea because the contents in your gut has heaps more fluid in it. Fluid that should really be maintaining your blood volume. And your gut doesn’t adapt so well to these rapid changes when you are exercising and so this issue of too much sugar in the gut is often the cause of GI problems that in particular runners experience. We don’t want to be stopping every 5 minutes for the loo and equally we don’t want to make it any more work for our heart to circulate the important stuff to the muscles so they can work.

Take home: Whether it is training or racing, rehdration fluid has it’s place (but not sports drinks – the carb content is too high) and that place is as rehydration when you have nothing else in your stomach. When you have just eaten or had a gel then wash it down with water and when it’s a gel you really need to drink about half a bottle of water (but thats something to discuss in a different post).

Now for coke – or as I call it, my happy juice. It’s a high concentration of sugar, salt and that all important caffeine. This needs to be washed down with some water. I actually dilute it one cup coke, one cup water put them together and drink it down on the run. [Don’t try this when not racing – it tastes feral at any other time].

I recommend all my athletes to use both water and Nuun ( or Pure the electrolyte on course at IMNZ) one bottle of water to every bottle of Nuun to keep it simple and to make sure they aren’t getting too much carbs in their gut at any one time. When it comes to the run, if you have had a gel or a blok/chomp etc then its water at that aid station. Aid stations in between i personally go for coke and water but rehydration fluid is also a great option. But don’t mix gels and coke, or gels and nuun.

Stay tuned for post-workout rehydration.

Training and Racing in the Heat

It’s moving into summer down under and the temperature is starting to edge its way into the uncomfortable realm with a high of 30 degrees on my ride today. Kona has come and gone and with that excitement we got a number of heat based questions via our weekly Foot Traffic facebook Q and A session. So it was quite fortuitous to be at a sports science summit where two presentations in particular focused on rehydration after exercise and the effects of heat on performance.

I’ll start with the effects of heat on performance because that seems to be a logical place to start. We have probably all experienced the energy sapping effects of heat at some stage during our training and racing and alongside this understanding there has been a lot of discussion around core temperature. In science we often measure the core temperature as a more accurate way to assess the heat stress on the body. As a result slushies had a brief feature in the endurance communities collective conciousness but one thing we found was that it’s hard to keep a slushie a slushie when you’re out on the bike in greater than 30 degrees for 4+ hours. I found a fantastic bottle in 2014 when I was on the Big Island that managed to keep the blocks of ice I put in it frozen for almost the entire ride which was bliss because water always tastes nicer cold but the volume of the effect of that internally applied cool fluid compared to the amount of externally applied fluid was pretty minimal.

The talk of interest was an AFL study (because Australians interestingly drop a lot of money into improving the performance of a sport who no one else in the world plays) but the previous work that he talked about was in fact done on cyclists because with cycling its pretty easy to get a similar sort of training scenario in a lab setting and we can thrash cyclists for quite a bit longer than other athletes. The key finding of one particular study where cyclists were allowed to cycle at their self-selected pace, was that when the difference between the core body temperature and the skin got smaller then performance decreased.

Your core temperature is going to heat up when you exercise, because our muscles are quite inefficient in their energy usage, and we use a variety of modalities to cool ourselves down. All modalities require pumping the hot blood from the centre of the body out to the skin to cool down. With sweating, the energy used to evaporate the water off your skin cools the blood at the surface of the skin which can then be pumped back towards the core and hot blood replaces it. Another, less effective method of cooling, but one that is relied on a bit more heavily in post-menopausal females, is conductive cooling, which relies on a heat gradient between the skin and the layer of air in close contact with your body. If the air is cooler then heat energy can be lost to the air from the skin effectively cooling the blood. If the air is moving around us or we are moving through the air then this layer of air is replaced by cool air increasing the efficiency of this process, however if the air is still then a convective process replaces the hot air at the surface of the skin with cooler air. Conduction is not nearly as effective as evaporative cooling, which is why we sweat and dogs pant.

Think back to that studies conclusion, reducing the gradient between the skin temperature and the core temperature results in reduced performance. Which makes sense if the skin is our conduit for heat loss, then the cooler the skin is relative to the core temperature the more heat loss we will be able to achieve

In a humid environment like Kona, or in my case the Gold Coast in summer, the air is already saturated with water and so evaporation doesn’t work so well, once you have 100% saturation no more water will fit in the atmosphere and so evaporation stops happening altogether and you usally get rain.

Which brings me to an observation one of the Foot Traffic athletes made regarding the Pro-race in Kona. It appears there was a greater application of fluid externally than internally. Don’t get me wrong internal fluid application is important to try and offset the dehydration effects of sweating, and in Kona this will be worse because the body will try and sweat more as your body heats up to try get some relief but the evaporation isn’t working. The external application of water can assist in two ways. If it’s humid and evaporative cooling isn’t very effective, applying cool fluid to the body will help to reduce the skin temperature, it’s why ice cold sponges on the run feel so good. If it’s not as humid then the external application of water can replace the sweat, it is evaporated off the skin and results in cooling of the skin. In both cases, the skin is being cooled and that gradient between skin temperature and core temperature is increased.

I’ve been in races where people come across the finish line complaining about the sprinklers and hoses the locals have out on the run because they get blisters. When I see a hose, blisters be damned, I’ll take the cooling any day. It feels good and there is a reason it feels good. Things your body doesn’t want you to repeat feel bad, things that are good for your body feel good. Your body in it’s own way is telling you to get some more of it because it’s beneficial to you.

So how does all of this lead to a performance decrement? Well the leading theory is currently that, the lower the gradient between the skin and the core temperature, the more blood is pumped to the skin, but the skin is less effective at cooling this blood down and so it kind of pools in the skin (we have complex regulatory networks of blood vessels in the skin which allow more blood into the skin in hot circumstances). If there is more blood hanging out at the surface of the body there is effectively less blood going to your lungs for oxygenation and back to your heart for pumping to the muscles. A descrease in stroke volume is observed (for the science geeks). Or a decrease in blood going to the muscles to do work.

So how do we improve performance in the heat. That goes for training and racing, because even in training we are looking at pushing the body to new limits. Keep the skin as cool as possible and then your body will cool itself down.

To eat or not to eat, that is not a question

Because I’m in the throws of planning a nutrition session for the Saint Kentigern College Cycling team and coming off the back of some female specific seminars, I figured a nutrition post is probably in order.

It was a while back that I was having a discussion with a fellow Foot Traffic athlete. They are data mad and was describing the very real struggle they have post training. Do I shower, upload my data or eat first?

There should however be no question. Always, always, eating should be the top priority. Replacing any energy deficit you may have built up (more about this later) but more importantly, getting the important nutrients (protein and carbohydrates) to the muscles you have just worked so they can start the repair and recovery process as soon as possible.

The aim of training is to get stronger and therefore faster. The way in which this occurs is that we stress the body, specifically the muscles, bones and cardiovascular system, just beyond what it is capable of. This shocks the body a little and tips the seesaw slightly out of balance. The key here is ‘slightly’. Small changes in balance within the body trigger a cascade of responses resulting in the body adapting to meet the new level of stress that it has encountered. If you push the seesaw too far out of balance, however, or don’t allow it to adapt and accommodate adequately before introducing the next round of stress then the seesaw leans further towards injury and illness and the further over it tips, the more rapidly it descends towards these less than ideal outcomes.

So how soon after training do I need to eat? Within 15-30 mins but the earlier the better, and for females that 15 minute mark is even more crucial than for males. But remember you then need to have a proper meal within the hour.

What should I eat? Something high in fast absorbing proteins, particularly leucine. Whey protein powder is probably the best source as it is a rapidly absorbing protein but if you are vegan or allergic then plant protein sources are fine but you need to take about 50-60 g compared to the 30 g you need of whey protein. Branch chain amino acids or BCAA’s can also be handy here as they are very high in leucine, which is essential for triggering muscle growth. It should also have a good dose of high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates. Carbohydrates top up your muscle glycogen stores (energy for next round of exercise) as well as help to get more of that muscle repairing and developing protein into the muscles where it is needed. Why high GI? Isn’t that bad? The glycemic index is simply a measure of how quickly the food causes a spike in blood glucose compared to pure glucose, pure glucose having a GI of 100. In this case we want those blood sugars to be elevated quickly because that means the sugar is going to be getting to our muscles quickly. So basically any carbohydrate sources which are easy to digest and absorb by your body.

  • Protein shake made with your choice of protein powder and drinking chocolate (most protein powders are very low in carbs so you will need to add some – this is why I like to use a plain unflavoured protein powder, so I can add my own flavours and carbs and so I can avoid Stevia and it’s derivatives because I think they taste vial)
  • White bread sandwich with nutbutter
  • White bread sandwich with marmite and cheese (Yes, I’m a kiwi so I like Marmite and the salty hit after training is GOOOOD)
  • A green smoothie made with yoghurt and a tablespoon of nut butter
  • Yoghurt with museli and some chopped fruit or berries
  • Protein balls
  • Your imagination is your limit, but make sure it’s either easy to prepare and take with you (won’t go off in a hot car during a 5 hour bike ride) or quick to prepare as you run in the door

Do I have to eat after every workout? No. Easy recovery workouts are just that – recovery  – and therefore should not be stressing your body beyond what it is currently capable of. Ergo no need for repair and adaptation to occur.  Any workout that leaves you tired or sore however, no matter how long or short it is requires you to target that nutrition to the places it is needed.

And while we are on the topic of times when you absolutely should eat something, before early morning training is one of those times. As endurance athletes it’s easy to buy into the messages suggesting various forms of ‘fasted’ training help you to tap into the ample supply of energy you have stored in your body fat. However, missing in these arguments is the important message that fat is actually really hard to burn – try putting a lump of fat and a lump of bread separated in the oven and crank the heat up and see which one catches fire first. The reality is, we have to put more energy in to get the fat into a form so that it can then be used to provide energy than we do for carbohydrates. So if you haven’t eaten all night, and bear in mind that during sleep is when your body does most of it’s repairing and recovery (read high energy expenditure), your quick access energy tank (carbohydrates stored in the liver) are pretty depleted. If you then try to train, your body is less likely to want to waste some of its limited carbs to generate energy to liberate fats for burning and is more likely to try to shut you down instead and get you to stop wasting what little carbs are left. The body in all it’s magnificence has one goal in mind: to keep you alive. Training on low energy is perceived by the body as a life threatening stress, so it isn’t going to respond the way we want it to and do what we think is logical. Unfortunately females, this is even more true for you than it is for the males because of differences in hormones.


Sometimes – Somethings gotta give.

After four weeks of running all over the city for various scans and follow-up appointments I now have the diagnosis and prognosis. Officially medial tibial stress syndrome grade 2-3, another 2 weeks off before I can begin the slow trot back to running. And while I’ve been kept busy with a new job, I’ve also had plenty of time to think in the mornings and evenings when I’d normally be out training but instead sit at home twiddling my thumbs.

leggie leg leg

I once had a friend tell me that I needed to sit back and acknowledge what a huge achievement my PhD was because we often lose sight of that when we spend our days surrounded by likeminded individuals striving towards the same goal. And in no place is this fact truer than in triathlon. Triathlon is an all-consuming sport. Even when training for the shorter distances, so not trying to squeeze in 6 hour cycles and 3 hour runs, we are training to be awesome at THREE sports. And it is very easy to lose sight of that when you are surrounded by equally nutty individuals.

It’s all come back to bite me recently. I’m very good at the ostrich approach, thinking that I’m coping fine until suddenly I’m not. And if I’m brutally honest, I knew that something wasn’t right for a while. But being my stubborn self with an ounce of super hero syndrome I tried to press on. Life had become stressful and I was struggling to fit it all in. Getting up early to train was hard, training wasn’t as enjoyable as it should have been, and while I enjoyed it once I got out there, it was an exhausting mental battle to get out the door. This shouldn’t be the case with a HOBBY. I don’t do triathlon to add more on my plate. It is my escape. Yet I had lost sight of that. I convinced myself that I could manage it all if I just dropped the training volume a bit. But to be honest this just added to the mental anguish because I knew I now wasn’t training to my full potential. Add a bit of financial stress into the mix and suddenly diet isn’t perfect either.

So with buckets of cortisol coursing through my system, less than ideal nutrition and an ever mounting fatigue that I couldn’t get on top of, something was going to have to give to make me wake up and realise I needed to stop.

As a sports biomechanist, with a focus on overuse injuries, I will be the first to argue that stress fractures are not as simple as too much training. You can get away with high training volumes, rapid increase or a slightly funky gait if that’s all your body has to deal with. But add life into the mix and it can become more than your finely tuned system can cope with. I’ve talked to another athlete who was recently pulled up short with a stress fracture and she also admitted to life events playing a part.

Triathlete’s are generally from a similar personality mould. The one that always ends up in a high stress life. Who piles task on top of task and wants to believe they are superman. And it is oh so hard to admit that we are not. That actually we need a break from something. Unfortunately, taking a break from life is very rarely an option.

My body has finally forced me to take a break, and it’s becoming clearer just how necessary it was. My crazy heart beats which are usually my indicator that I’m treading perilously close to the overtraining boundary has still not calmed down six weeks post A race. I am generally strict about 4 weeks of nothing post an Ironman race but by then I am itching to get back. While getting on my bike brings a smile to my face, I am in fact not ready to get back into the stupidly early mornings and the hours of listening to myself think.

It’s so important for us to realise that we are, still just human and that if we aren’t giving our bodies the chance to recover, with sleep, calm and good food, something IS going to BREAK. So make sure you schedule in some you time, somewhere in that hectic schedule. Take time out with your family. Have a good meal and a good sleep. Because if it’s not an injury, it could so easily be something more final like a heart attack.


The Importance of Your Bike Fit!

I have seen it mentioned a number of times lately that as triathletes, we are not cyclists. I would argue that we can learn a number of things from cyclists and cyclist related research. I couldn’t agree more, however when it comes to bicycle fit. Recent research has shown that triathletes have a different position on the bike compared to cyclists.[1] The research looked at joint angles (e.g. ankle, knee and hip angles) of triathletes on time-trial bikes compared to cyclists on road bikes and so we would expect some differences. I would argue however, that for the purpose of injury prevention, triathletes set-ups need to be different regardless of whether they are riding a time-trial bike, a road bike or a converted road bike with clip-on aerobars.

In the early days of triathlon, the sport was promoted as having a lower injury risk due to the cross-training effects of training for three sports rather than just one. The idea of cross-training is that the heart rate can be elevated with the associated cardiovascular benefits, however the muscles, bones, tendons and cartilage that have been getting a pounding during regular training get a break.

For endurance athletes, ‘overuse’ injuries are the most common and also the most frustrating, tending to resurface again and again regardless of how thorough the rehabilitation plan. But why is it that some athletes seem to breeze through hours of intense training without anything worse than a little DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) while others seem to suffer from the injury curse?

I believe it all comes down to balance. Balancing the work that the different muscles are required to do and the strength of all the muscles too. Some people are naturally gifted with perfect biomechanics, however even these people can develop overuse injuries should they neglect balance. For those of us ‘blessed’ with unusual joint shapes, lax ligaments and quirky gaits, developing a balance that supports these unique traits is even more important (and perhaps luckily, more obvious). We can achieve great things against great odds, as long as we understand our limitations and work with them.

Cycling TGA

So how does your bike set-up come in to all of this? Many people when asked to identify the cause of an injury will report it to be running related. Don’t get me wrong, running is often the movement that leads to the pain and is most disrupted by an injury. Often these individuals have tried all the running related rehabilitation options with limited success. They have also kept up swimming and cycling where possible as we all try to do. No matter what distance you are training for, right up to ironman and for a few beyond, the amount of time we spend on our bikes far outweighs the time we spend in the pool or on the pavements and trails. The number of muscle contractions occuring over a week of training for cycling trumps both swimming and running.

In research, running gets the injury focus because the load (impact and tissue stress) put through the body can reach up to 6-8 times our body weight. Cycling on the other hands sits at a respectable 1-2 times and so it is pretty safe to assume that cycling is not going to load the tissues of the body beyond their physiological limits. I do not dispute that the loads of running are more likely to result in injury, what I would argue is that the way an athlete moves and their ability to accommodate the loads of running can be influenced by their cycling.

Over the past four years I have researched Achilles tendon injuries in triathletes. The research focus was the mechanics of running but when determining the reasons behind the different movement patterns observed, I kept coming back to muscle strength and muscle balance. Many of you will be familiar with rehabilitation exercises that require 10 repetitions and 3 sets a day. If large numbers of relatively minor muscle contractions over the course of a few weeks are able to improve muscle balance, then just think how great an influence cycling has on muscle balance.

Which brings me back to triathletes are not cyclists. Purely because cyclists do not also have to run long distances, and so it is important that the bike set-up reflects this. It is important to try and keep the legs a bit fresher for the run. It is equally important to ensure that we don’t over-strengthen muscles at the expense of some of the important running muslces. Over-strengthening can create imbalances.  Imbalances can stress the tissues of our bodies beyond breaking point and start the chronic injury cycle. Maintaining the balance of muscular strength for both running and cycling is as important if not more than the balance between maximum speed and power on the bike and maintaining fresher legs for running.

A good bike set-up is paramount to maximising your triathlon experience. Done by someone who understands the differing demands of triathlon and the specific distance you are training for. And possibly even more important, a bike fit which is specific to YOU and all your strengths, weaknesses and quirky bits.

  1. Bini RR, Hume PA, Croft J. Cyclists and triathletes have different body positions on the bicycle. European Journal of Sport Science 2012;14(sup1):S109-S15