Monday, May 21, 2007

Nutritional Supplements

Most dieticians will tell you that you should try to get all of your nutrients from "real food" sources rather than relying on supplements. While I would advise athletes to work on their regular diet first before thinking too much about supplements, it is virtually impossible for most of us not to have some gaps in their nutrition without taking supplements. On top of that, simply getting "enough" of a given nutrient is not the same thing as getting the ideal amount for you. Some nutritional challenges that athletes face:

- Because endurance athletes are training and competing for extended periods of time, it is necessary to eat and drink while exercising. The most commonly used supplements for endurance athletes: bars, gels and energy drinks. Since taking a tuna sandwich on a ride with us just isn't practical (and even if it was, we probably wouldn't tolerate it too well), a bar that is easy to bring along, easy to eat, digests easily and has everything we need at the time to top off the stores can be ideal. Gels come in handy when we are exercising at higher intensities and can't tolerate solid food. Energy drinks keep us hydrated, help limit salt and electrolyte losses through sweat and help us to get enough Calories.

- We breath a lot of air. Just the simple act of breathing means that we take a lot of pollution, pollen and free-radicals into our bodies. These things can make it difficult to breath, make us sick, cause cellular damage and even cancer. Even the oxygen that we rely on so much is in itself toxic to our cells. Have you ever noticed that some endurance athletes that have been doing this for a long time look a lot older than they really are? Chances are it's the cellular damage caused by all the oxygen, free radicals and sunlight. One of the biggest things you will see in vitamin supplements marketed for endurance athletes is high doses of antioxidants. These antioxidants will help to reduce cellular damage, keep you healthy and young-looking.

- Vegetarian and especially vegan athletes face the special challenge of making sure they get enough protein, and in particular, enough iron from their food. Endurance athletes rely heavily on the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, which will be severely diminished if iron stores are low. Though plant based sources of protein and iron are plentiful, absorption rates are often lower than in meat based sources. Protein supplements can come in handy after workouts as recovery drinks, and iron supplements are necessary for many athletes, even many non-vegetarians. Like many supplements though, be careful not to overdo it, as too much iron can be toxic.

In short, athletes are not normal people. We routinely push our bodies far and above what can be considered "normal" and perhaps even healthy. But we do it because there is something special about taking ourselves to the absolute limit. To do that, we need a little help. For all the work we put into training and the sacrifices me make to compete, we want to do everything in our power to make sure that we can reach our maximum potential. There are lots of supplements out there that may be able to help us in lots of ways, but we need to be educated about them. I like to break it down to 3 simple questions...

1. Is it safe? The FDA does not regulate supplements, so it is important that we do out homework here. The last thing we want to do is actually hurt our performance, or worse yet, cause long term health problems because of a supplement. It is important that to read unbiased literature (not simply the manufacturer's studies), ask other athletes that have used the supplement about their experience, and try things in training before you try it in competition. Dosage is extremely important as well. Too little and there may be no effect and too much can be dangerous. Find out any potential side effects as well, and if you are considering taking something, make sure that the side effects don't outweigh the benefits. And make sure that you get your supplements from a reliable manufacturer, where you should have a minimal chance that you are taking something you don't think that you are taking.

2. Is it effective? There's no use using something that doesn't work, especially considering the high cost of so many nutritional supplements. Find out what the benefits really are. Will it help your recovery? Prevent cramping? Increase energy? Decrease perceived exertion? Increase threshold power? Increase sprint power? Help to build muscle mass? Help you lose weight? Make sure that whatever the supplement does, it is something that is important to you and will help you, not hurt you in reaching your goals. Again, dosage is very important. Find out how much you should take, when you should take it, what you should take it with and how often you should take it. Pay attention to the details.

3. Is it legal? Plain and simple, if it isn't legal, don't take it. You could make a pretty convincing argument that EPO can be safe if administered correctly and in the right doses. You could also argue that training too much is dangerous too your health, or to use the Dr. Ferrari argument, "Too much orange juice can kill you too"
. But guess what? EPO is illegal and it's cheating. If they made orange juice illegal, you wouldn't drink orange juice. My advice is to not waste your time arguing ethics. Just understand the rules and don't break them. My experience has been that the vast majority of athletes are well intentioned and do not want to cheat, but they dont always know what the rules are. It is your job as a competitor to familiarize yourself with the rules of the governing body that you compete under. Remember, USA Cycling is different from USA Triathlon is different from the UCI is different from the World Triathlon Corporation. If you don't know, ask your coach. That's what we're here for (amongst other things :)).

Throughout the next couple weeks, I will go over some specific supplements that may be of interest to you as endurance athletes. If you have comments or questions or would like more information about a specific supplement, please post a comment this blog or email me directly at

Race Day at Duathlon World Championships

Duathlon Worlds, Gyor Hungary - POST #3 - RACE DAY IS HERE! Well all of he waiting is over and race day has finally arrived! I did get some interesting news late Saturday regarding my start time that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Due to the enormous size of the waves, they moved us 40-44 year olds into the earlier wave which had an 8:30am start verses our previous 9:45am start. This would be a huge advantage for a couple reasons. First of all, it was going to be a scorcher of a day and in that hour plus the temps would go from about 70 to the mid-80s with plenty of humidity to boot. Turns out my finishing time would have been in the top 20 for the later wave (assuming I could still have gone as fast with the hotter temps), but my wave would be a different ball game all together as I was racing with the 20+ year olds, meaning the pace would likely be a tad faster. Before I share the details, let's roll back to last night. After my staple pasta dinner, I headed back to my room and occupied my evening hours by watching the age old war classic Kelly's Heroes on my lap top (PS - Hungarian TV offers very little in English save CNN, BBC and MTV!). Fearing I would not fall asleep (a pre-race curse), I made an executive decision and used a mild prescription sleep aid and it did the trick. I closed my eyes around midnight and woke to the sound of chirping birds at 5am, refreshed and ready to rock and roll. I spent the better part of Saturday seeking out the only pre-race meal I do - a banana, half of a danish and half a bagel with peanut butter on it. The hotel was kind enough to open the restaurant at 6am so we could all get a strong cup of coffee be our event. Around 7am I slowly made my way to the start line. We had to drop off our bikes last night in the nearly 1/4mi long transition area (meaning I had to memorize the name of the cross street my bike was parked near). I dropped off my helmet and cycling shoes and then headed to do a warm-up run and finish my pre-race prep, as I was still missing one vital element of the routine. I found a small side street and did some easy running mixed with striders and around 8am was able to complete the final part of my warm-up. You see, along with my set pre-race breakfast (which has not changed in over 20 years), I have one more thing I do before large events such as regional, national, and now world championships - I throw up! Call it a severe case of nerves, but for me it is a sign that my adrenaline is pumping. That out of the way, I headed to the start line and found my place among the 350+ others (I think I am going to be sick again). The group was very fidgety at first, but with about 30 seconds to gun time an eerie calm washed over the pack and for a moment there was nothing but silence. Then without warning - BANG! The gun went off and we were away! Before every race I write down my performance expectations. For each leg of a race I write down an A scenario (I am firing on all cylinders), a B case (a good day), and a C case (should have stayed in bed). Prior to arriving in Hungary, my A scenario was for a 2:06 total time, my B was 2:09, and C was 2:12. After previewing the course, it became clear that the first run was closer to 9.2K (than 10K) and the bike was 39K (vs 40K). I adjusted all of scenarios lower by 6 minutes - so my A was now 2:00 flat. The first run was in a word - FAST. No, I take that back - VERY FAST! On top of that, it was extremely humbling. At the 3K mark we headed up a small hill and all I could see ahead of me was a sea of bodies strung out over a 1/4mi long - I wasn't even in the top 1/3 of this group. My goal on the first run was to keep my Heart Rate below my Lactate Threshold level of around 175 and I did sort of do that. My first 4.6K split was 16:40 or roughly an 18:15 5K (ya, that would have been a PR - nice pacing Mike!) My legs felt fine and my next 4.6K split was 16:30 (about an 18:05 5K). I jumped on the bike and began the task of reeling as many people in as I could. This course was flat, but very technical, requiring many high speed corners and U-turns - perfect for a former bike racer like myself. I began moving up through the sea of riders and near the top end of lap 1, dove my Cyfac tri-bike into the S-curve only to see the rider in front of me hit a pot hole and go down hard. I had about 1 second to decide on diving right or left and thanks to the bike gods, I choose left and missed him by about 2 inches (of course I didn't see any of it as I closed my eyes and prayed I would clear his spinning bike!) I was averaging well over 28mpg on the 2 long straight-aways and was clicking off lap times near 18:10 for each of the 13K laps (roughly 55:00 for the 39K). The 2nd run was a legit 5K and in a word, it HURT! My stomach was cramping as the temperature was soaring and we had little or no wind to cool us off. On top of that, I felt a blister on my left foot that was painful, but I could ignore it for another 18-19mins. While I won't know how I placed overall or even in my age group until later tonight, that is always secondary to how I did relative to my own time goals. My 'A' scenario called for 2:00 flat and I can proudly say that my final time was 1:50:49. I had a good day, regardless where I end up! What an experience! I guess wearing that red, white and blue was worth a few extra miles per hour on the bike and some critical speed on the run! If anyone ever gets a chance to represent USA in an ITU event such as this - do not pass it up! For those aspiring duathletes - know that the long course Duathlon Worlds take place this October in Virginia! There are 2 more qualifying races left - the Blackwater Duathlon in MD this July and PowerMan Ohio this September! Why not give it a shot, you never know! A final thought. The nest part of this trip was all of the great people I met, especially those on Team USA. One of the neatest people I was fortunate enough to meet on this trip was one of our female athletes - Marge Stahl, who is 77 years young and is on something like her 15th Team USA. What an inspiration to everyone!

Friday, May 18, 2007

2007 Duathlon Worlds in Hungary

Duathlon Worlds Gyor, Hungary -
Previwing the Course! Well, the weather in Gyor remains great and looks to stay this way into the weekend of racing! Temps in the upper 50s in the morning, climbing into the mid-70s by early afternoon, with gentle breezes - perfect for a fast course! Thursday about 15 of us from Team USA tried to jog the run course, but found that to be a daunting task, as we are quickly figuring out that road signs in Gyor are a rarity! Another problem we had is that the map showed a big sweeping left bend about 1/2 mi into the first run - something we could not find right away even though it was staring right at us in the form of an off-ramp from the nearby highway (and yes, the traffic was coming at us, so we did not even consider it an option). Friday we got to ride the bike course under the supervison of a police escort. The ride was more like a huge MS ride, with 900 cyclists following a police car at 10 mph while he lead us around the 14k course. As for the couse, it is very flat, and has numerous technical corners including five 180 degree turns for every lap (and we do 3 laps). Two of the U-turns require us to take a left from the main road, ride about 100 yds and do a U-turn back to the main road - somewhere the course designer is laughing at us! If you are traveling to a new race, it is so important to take the extra time to preview the course as it will save you many headaches come race day. I can not even begin to tell you how many stories I've heard of athletes missing turns in races. In fact I saw it happen just a few weeks ago at a duathlon near NYC. I was behind a guy who made not one, not two, but three wrong turns on the bike course which cost him a top 2 finish. This especially holds true for smaller races, where you might not have a group of equally paced athletes to follow on the bike or run. Same goes for checking out the transition area. Which way will you be entering from the swim or in my case, the first run. Where will you exit with your bike? And then, where will you re-enter with your bike and head out on the final run. All stuff you need to know. If you do have time, I find it very useful to bike or drive the bike course. See where the turns are, look for landmarks to help you. How is the road - any large potholes you need to be aware of? How about the hills. One race promoters idea of 'rolling hills' may not be your own and if that is the case, do you have the proper gearing? The right wheels? The course here in Gyor is flat save 2 bridges we ride over, but it does have five 180 degree turns on every lap! That is a lot of slowing down, turning and re-accelerating, and coupled with many right or left turns, I am seeing quite a few road bikes here (which tend to corner better than a triathlon bike). With very little to separate the riders (such as a nice climb), it is clear the course will be packed, and it will be hard for the pure cyclists like myself to really get going and get advantage on the runners. So it looks like a runners' race, and I am going to have to turn in an impressive opening 10k to stay competitive! My next post will be Race Day Prep and how things go for me and Team USA come Sunday!
Mikael Hanson, Cadence Cycling & Multisport, Director NYC