The Supplement Files: Triathlete Edition

Q: What’s the quickest way to get on Wolfgang’s sh*t list?

A: Ask him how many treadmills he has in his gym.

 New Year’s is a time of celebration, of saying good-bye to the past and looking forward to new beginnings.  However, in order for me to truly start off 2012 with a clean slate and conscience, I must first come clean.  There’s something which I have been keeping from you, a secret which only a select few outside of my family know.  Here it is:

I am a former endurance athlete.

Whew…I feel better getting it off my chest.  Actually, that wasn’t as bad as I thought!  But seriously, in a community that’s well aware of the negative physiological effects aerobic activity induces on the central nervous system and overall health, strength coaches are frequently surprised when they learn of my long distance running past.

My initial exposure to long distance running, came out of family tradition.  My forefathers, originally from Northwestern Mexico, were a group of indigenous people with a rich history of long distance running.  When my grandparents migrated to Texas, they made certain to impart their traditions to their children and grandchildren, especially that of endurance running.

At the age of twelve, I started accompanying my father on fifteen mile training runs.  At the age of seventeen, while on a summer break from school, I decided to go on a fifty mile run.  To demonstrate how much endurance running was a regular part of my life, the only preparation I took, was to measure a ten-mile section of road that traversed through the center of my home town, McAllen, TX.  My intentions were to run this ten-mile section of road back and forth, a total of five times.  I selected this particular ten-mile section because it contained a large concentration of fast food restaurants, which I planned to use for restroom and water breaks.  Yeah, I was that naive.  Who needs a support team, hydration and medical stations when you have the testicular fortitude of a seventeen year old?

At the twenty-mile mark, I stopped into Shipley Do-Nuts, a local donut shop, for three donuts.  I was hungry.

At the forty-seven mile mark, my shoes fell apart.  Literally.

While I was used to running on dirt roads and fields, the forty-seven miles I had logged, represented the longest I had run on paved roads and sidewalks.  I overestimated the abuse my running shoes could endure and had to resort to wrapping the shoelaces around the shoes, to keep the soles from falling off.  Knowing, that at least for that day, my quest for running fifty miles was done, I began my three-mile walk home.

My goal for sharing this story with you, is not to impress you, but to impress upon you, what little we knew about sports nutrition and optimal recovery techniques back in the 80’s.  Back them, my normal post-run recovery consisted of a three-mile walk, to “flush lactic acid” from my muscles and a 32 oz lemon-lime Gatorade.  And let’s not forget my three donut race snack.

And now, over 30 years later, we haven’t fared much better.  Although we currently have a wealth of scientifically validated information concerning optimal recovery techniques, specifically concerning the use of nutrition and supplements, the information goes largely ignored.  For instance, one popular triathlete sports nutritionist states “Chocolate milk is a great recovery drink.”

We have put men on the moon, we have eradicated numerous diseases such as polio and we have even invented materials with sufficient tensile strength to contain Sofia Vergara’s ample bosom, but the best we can offer athletes for their exercise recovery is chocolate milk?

Being a firm believer of the adage “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” I am here to offer my solution to the recovery quandary, specifically for endurance athletes.

Enhanced Recovery for Improved Performance

 In any sport, where you not only compete against other competitors, but against the clock, speed is king.  Mere seconds can make the difference between setting a PR or your friends lamenting “There’s always next year!”  Unfortunately, athletes frequently overlook the single most important determining factor of improved performance: recovery.

Meet Hans Seyle

Hans Seyle, a Hungarian endocrinologist, devised the term “General Adaptation Syndrome,” which explains how the body reacts to both physical and non-physical stress.  Seyle’s research demonstrated that when introduced to a stressor, the body initially adapts to the demands placed upon it.  For athletes, the initiating stressor can be:

  • a new training program
  • increase in volume/mileage
  • increase in training frequency
  • training in unfamiliar weather conditions

But if the stressor continues uninterrupted, without allowing complete recovery, then the body’s resources are depleted to the point where it can no longer maintain normal function.  Athletes know this stage as overtraining and it usually manifest as a depressed immune system and/or injuries.

The key therefore, when seeking consistent improvements in sports performance, is the proper management of your fatigue.

The following is a supplement program I designed for a Ironman Triathlon top 35 finisher.

 Ironman 2.0 

 In a poll I came across a few years ago, athletes from numerous sports were asked where they turned to for answers, when they had questions concerning sports nutrition and supplements.  The results were surprising.  Over 45% of athletes who participated, stated they turned to websites, an addition 35% stated they turned to magazines, and the remaining 19% stated they relied on books for information.  I say this is surprising because, in reality, anyone can set-up a website and become an instant authority on any subject in less than thirty minutes…just ask any Crossfitter.  The internet, which makes it easy and in some cases anonymous, to disseminate information which may be false or biased is no longer the sole domain of commercial enterprises.  As for magazines being reliable sources of information, good luck!  It’s common for magazines to publish articles with a commercial slant, especially towards their paid advertisers.  Additionally, a client recently sent me a copy of an article written my a Registered Dietician, who wrote, that if you ate in accordance with US government guidelines, there wouldn’t be a need for supplementing vitamins/minerals.  Oh, really?  Well, let’s see what science and peer-reviewed studies have to say about this:

 “Only supplementation was able to significantly boost nutrient levels and confer beneficial effects on general welfare, physical performance, and resistance to infections. Therefore, it appears that nutritional supplements are advisable for everyone…food is too weak to replete depleted cells and bodies.”

Advances in Therapy, Volume 24, Number 5/September, 2007

“Suboptimal folic acid levels, along with suboptimal levels of vitamins B6 and B12, are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, neural tube defects, and colon and breast cancer; low levels of vitamin D contribute to osteopenia and fractures; and low levels of the antioxidant vitamins (vitamins A, E, and C) may increase risk for several chronic diseases.  Most people do not consume an optimal amount of al the vitamins by diet alone…it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.”

Fairfield, Kathleen M., Fletcher, Robert H., The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 2002

 The above mentioned studies, specifically mention that foods are too weak to nutritionally support the “average person.”  What does this mean for the athlete, specifically the endurance athlete?

Here endeth the lesson, now let’s get to the good stuff!

The Good Stuff

The key for optimal recovery, is not to wait until you’ve finished your training to begin your supplementation.  By utilizing supplementation, prior, during and after your training or competition, you minimize the following negative effects:

  • catabolic state
  • elevated cortisol
  • muscle fiber damage
  • stressed adrenals
  • depleted glutamine stores
  • oxidative stress

The Supplement List

 Vitamin C

While everyone is familiar with its positive effects on the immune system and antioxidant capabilities, vitamin C has also been shown to curtail the negative physical and psychological effects of long-term exercise.

During exercise, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which activates the “fight or flight” response.  One of cortisol’s primary functions is to introduce glucose from muscle tissue into the blood stream where it can be utilized for immediate energy production.  However, cortisol has other effects such as elevated blood pressure, reduced immune system activity, excessive muscle breakdown and affects calcium balance, which become of concern if levels are allowed to remain chronically elevated.  Fortunately, numerous peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated vitamin C blunts the release of cortisol, allowing the body’s physiological processes to return to normal, by enabling a relaxation response which initiates the recovery process.

As for its immune boosting properties, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, involving ultra marathoners, demonstrated that vitamin C prevented the development of upper respiratory infections.

One of vitamin C’s lesser known functions, might interest all athletes: the maintenance of connective tissue.  Vitamin C assists numerous enzymes involved in the synthesis and maintenance of collagen, which keeps cartilage, ligaments, tendons strong.

Vitamin C is required for the synthesis of carnitine, which transports fatty acids into mitochondria, where it is utilized for energy production.

To minimize any potential gastrointestinal distress associated with higher dosages, a buffered form of vitamin C should be utilized.

Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs are comprised of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.  They are essential because the body cannot produce them and must come the foods you eat.  BCAAs have shown to increase exercise endurance, especially exercise conducted in high temperatures and altitudes, and counter fatigue induced declines in mental functioning.

However, the primary benefit of BCAAs is their ability in decreasing muscle fiber breakdown during exercise.  The less muscle fiber damage produced during training and competition, the quicker your recovery.

Additionally, studies conducted with triathletes at the 1997-98 Sao Paulo International Triathlon, BCAAs inhibited the reduction of blood glutamine levels.   This was a crucial finding, as a decrease in blood glutamine concentration is an indication of immune system suppression.  In the studies, triathletes who supplemented with BCAAs, maintained their blood glutamine levels and considerably reduced their incidence of infections, compared to those triathletes given a placebo.

Glutamine

Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body and provides numerous benefits for athletes seeking optimum performance and recovery:

  • reduces inflammation in muscle tissue, thereby reducing soreness and speeding recovery
  • preferred fuel of immune system cells, especially during prolonged, intense exercise
  • prevents the breakdown of muscle fibers
  • increases muscle cell hydration
  • required for the production of glutathione, known as the “mother of all antioxidants.”

Under normal physiological conditions, the body is able to produce sufficient glutamine to meet its daily needs.  However, during intense exercise, your muscles release waste products such as lactic acid and ammonia, which hastily deplete glutamine levels, up to 60% of your body’s supply.  And to further complicate matters, these waste products continue to diminish glutamine stores for hours after the completion of training or competition.

In a study involving marathon runners, only 19% of the athletes who consumed glutamine post race, experienced any illness, compared to 51% if athletes who consumed a placebo.

Due to its abilities to both strengthen the immune system and accelerate recovery, glutamine is a must for any endurance athlete serious about their health and performance.

Greens Powders

The human body is designed to function within a specific pH balance (acid/alkaline).  For optimal health and athletic performance, a slight alkaline balance is required to ensure the acidic metabolic waste produced by cells is removed from the body.  This is vital, as an acidic environment promotes diseases and of particular concern to athletes, systemic inflammation.

Unfortunately for athletes, exercise, particularly endurance exercise, rapidly shifts your body towards an acidic state. If this acidic state continues unfettered, your muscular contractions will become progressively weaker, severely handicapping your physical capabilities.  Furthermore, increased acidity inhibits energy transfer between cells.

Greens powders, due to their vegetable and fruit ingredients, shift the acid/alkaline balance towards the a performance enhancing alkaline state.

Whey Protein

Due to their near obsessive focus on carbohydrates, the majority of endurance athletes are protein deficient.  This deficiency is the first issue I focus on resolving when hired for consultations, as protein is mandatory for the repair and maintenance of muscle tissue.  Even a slight protein deficiency will severely prolong recovery, increase fatigue and suppress the immune system.  Additionally, a whey + carbohydrate beverage significantly increases muscle glycogen replenishment rates over a carbohydrate only beverage.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the most utilized macronutrient among all athletes.  Unfortunately, they fail to make use of them in an advantageous manner.  To ensure maximum uptake by the muscles, a carbohydrate based beverage must achieve a 6-8% concentration.  Anything exceeding the recommended concentrations will fail to match bodily fluid osmolality, risking stomach distress due to slowed gastric emptying.

Electrolytes

Endurance athletes, due to their constant need for hydration, run the risk of hyponatremia or “water intoxication”, an electrolyte disturbance in which sodium concentrations in the blood are lower than normal.  While it used to be an extremely rare occurrence, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent as newcomers are competing in endurance events, specifically those utilizing a “lottery” entry system.

To minimize their risk of hyponatremia, endurance athletes should keep the amount of plain water consumed to a minimum.

The Magic Is In the Details

 The following event day supplement program was designed for a male, elite triathlete weighing 165 lbs/75 kg.  Over a three-month period, we experimented with dosages, relying on objective and subjective measures of performance, perceived effort, fatigue and mental status.

Thirty Minutes Pre-race

75 g carbohydrates

25 g whey protein

20 g glutamine

20 g BCAAs

1 tb greens powder

1 g vitamin C

300 mg electrolyte mix

Transition 1

1 g vitamin C

Bike 

Per water bottle:

70 g carbohydrate

20 g whey protein

15 g glutamine

15 g BCAAs

2 tsp greens powder

300 mg electrolyte mix

Transition 2

2 g vitamin C

Post Race

150g carbohydrates

30 g whey protein

20 g glutamine

15 g BCAAs

1 tsp greens powder

Consume every 2, 4 and 6 hours post-race.

You probably noticed this supplement protocol, omits any pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all, multi-ingredient supplement formulas.  While the manufacturers of these formulas claim ease of use as one of their main benefits, their true motive is one of profit.  Mutli-ingredient formulas have a higher profit margin than individually packaged supplements.  However, only by combining individual supplements to create a formula for your individual needs, can you truly maximize your recovery and performance.

Conclusion

 Being a triathlete requires considerable investment, both in time and financial resources.  By taking proactive measures,  you ensure the numerous hours you spend pushing yourself physically, as well as the money you’ve spent on bicycles, wetsuits and running shoes pays off in the form of improved strength and efficiency.  It’s important to realize the same physical training which improves your performance, also depletes your physical and mental resources.  If you don’t fully recovered from today’s training session, then you won’t gain anything from tomorrow’s.  And to continue training in a fatigued state, will only lead to overtraining, injuries, or plateaus in performance.

Remember, proper supplementation will not only considerably improve your performance, but ensures you derive maximum benefit from your $5,000 bicycle.

Wolfgang nicknamed me “Slow Twitch.”

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