Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Diet gobbledygook

Nutrition is an area where misconceptions and prejudices reign. Despite an appalling lack of evidence, "experts" won't think twice about calling certain foods healthy or unhealthy, prescribing diets to lose weight, or telling athletes what they can and cannot eat. Unfortunately, the problem is not just limited to the popular press. It pervades training and coaching manuals, is endorsed by professional societies, and can be found in medical and scientific journals.

Let's get a few facts straight about food. Facts that are supported by real hard data, not someone's idea of how things should be done.

First, food quality in the Western World is exceptional. Food poisonings are extremely rare and very few illnesses are caused by tainted foods or water. Availability of good food and clean water have been major contributors to better average longevity. These contributions far exceed the contributions made by the medical profession, except for vaccines. It is probably fair to say that we live long lives primarily because of clean water, good quality food, and proper sewage systems.

Second, diets in the West are another matter altogether. Most Western diets are not healthy as evidenced by the obesity epidemic. The diets are too high in calories, too salty, and too high in carbohydrates. Food consumption in the West is no longer driven by hunger or need, but by desire. Too much food is available and too much time is spent eating and drinking, leading to excess intake. Most food items have also been manipulated to an artificial but highly desirable sweetness, saltiness, and spice level that is meant to promote overeating and is making food an addictive substance. Seasonal intake patterns have been removed leading to further excesses.

Thirdly, people are largely independent of their diet. Adults can survive and thrive on anything from an almost purely carnivorous to an almost purely vegan diet. And if properly conditioned, they can do effective work on pretty much any diet too. The contributions of diet to performance are minimal within a large parameter range. As long as there are no significant chronic deficits (and these are extremely hard to come by in the West), performance will not be impaired. Children are more sensitive, but even children rarely develop deficits in the US or Western Europe.

Fourth, there is no need for supplements, minerals, or vitamins apart from those present in natural foods. There is no evidence that such concoctions have any benefit whatsoever, and in many cases, serious adverse effects have been demonstrated. There are more problems with vitamin overdose than with lack of vitamins in the West. No supplement has ever been shown to be beneficial in a prospective study and many have been shown to promote the very illnesses they were supposed to cure. Despite being a multi-billion dollar industry that grows at double digit rates, the supplement industry serves no purpose other than consumerism. There is no scientific evidence that a "multi-vitamin" is good for you, but there is some evidence that it can harm you.

Despite all the hoopla and recommendations, performance in endurance events is not affected by diet and endurance events do not require a "special diet."  There are two important exceptions to this rule.

The first relates to having an upset stomach. Ignoring infectious causes, the most common culprit is slow digestion and uptake. That can happen when the workload is too high for too long or when the person is not well adjusted to the diet or both. You will not do well eating French fries while cycling unless you are used to doing so and unless you can reserve some of your cardiac output to digestion (i.e. you are not at your maximal heart rate for an extended period of time). In general, since fats take longer to digest, eating a lot of fat while exercising is not recommended but some people can do well eating fats and competitors have done well in RAAM eating cheeseburgers, pizza, and fries.

There are no performance or health advantages to a liquid diet. If the liquid diet is well balanced, there are no disadvantages either. It is a matter of personal preference.

Heavy workloads call for no food or easily digested items. Carbohydrates are the easiest to digest and result in the fastest energy delivery. Only anaerobic episodes or prolonged exercise require additional intake. You can easily run a marathon without eating or drinking and do very well too.

The type of activity also matters. Running is easily the most sensitive to eating and to eat while running requires training. Apart from high workloads and sweating that can lead to electrolyte imbalances (the gut is sensitive to electrolyte levels), running also causes bouncing and seems to promote diarrhea in sensitive individuals. Many elite distance runners experience an occasional embarrassing event. 

Running is almost entirely done on fatty acids derived from stored fats. There is no need to eat while running unless you run for more than a day on end.

The second problem is weight. Weight is the number one enemy of the endurance athlete. It matters less in some sports, such as swimming or track riding, but it is totally detrimental to other sports such as running.

There is overwhelming evidence to support the notion that carbohydrate-rich diets promote weight gain. Diets rich in fats (the French diet is very fat-laden) often lead to the lowest steady weight and are best to induce weight loss. This is contrary to the prevailing view of the medical establishment and nearly every nutrition science publication. Yet it has been repeatedly demonstrated in large studies.

The prevailing "medical" view however, is not based on science, but appears rooted in prejudice, as many investigational journalists have clearly illustrated.

Diets high in fats, even saturated fats, do not cause weight gain. They also do not cause or contribute to heart disease, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome. If anything, carbohydrate rich diets are the more likely culprit. However, before pointing the finger at any diet, it is good to remember that genetics plays a much bigger role than diet does. And the worst part of a diet is the quantity of calories consumed, not the composition of the diet per se.

Bon Appetit to all.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Calories and energy (once again)

The other day I was offered an energy drink sample "without calories." It happened at the expo for a major race. I was in a good mood, the drink tasted fine and the sales person was upbeat. So I decided to ask a stupid question: how can the drink have energy without calories? The friendly sales person did not get the joke. He seriously tried to help me by talking about carbohydrates, fats, and the like. It fell short.

Desperate, and suspecting he missed something important, he referred me to his expert colleague who pondered the same question. We had a bit of a back and forth and the "expert" finally agreed there was a minor problem "in my way of looking at things."

Well, he said, look at it this way, the drink does not contain energy, it releases your energy. There you go. My energy was trapped in my body. It could even make me fat if I was not careful. My body was good at storing energy, yet when it came to using it, it underperformed. No wonder we have so many obese people?

My energy was screaming to be released, apparently in vain. And that is why his company had developed this miraculous drink. So I could use the energy stored in my body. It is amazing what one can hear at health expos. Athletes must be very gullible indeed.

Energy and no calories. The trick? Caffeine.

At the risk of spoiling the fun, I want to just clarify a few issues.  A calorie is a unit of energy, much like a inch (or a meter) is a unit of length and a pound (or a kilogram) is a unit of weight. When you say a food contains energy but no calories you make no sense. It is like saying my arm is long but has no inches, or my backpack is heavy but has no pounds. If a drink has zero calories it has no energy. Ergo, it is not an energy drink.

Nobody requires special stuff to burn energy. We do it continuously. It is essential to life. If you cut off my energy supply I die. Right away. Every cell in a body needs a continuous energy supply. You cut it off and it's game over. Not all cells are equally demanding however, and some can use energy anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen). Ironically enough, the cells that transport oxygen (the red blood cells) are anaerobic cells. No fair stealing the cargo!

Here is another trick question that is often asked in physiology exams: how long does it take for your brain to die when there is no glucose? Hint: Brains are very energy intensive and they can only use glucose under normal conditions.

Most people think it takes a while. A few hours maybe? So, let's ask the question a different way, how long does it take for your brain to die without oxygen? That is better you say, everyone knows it takes only a few minutes (three minutes is often used). 

Have you ever wondered what your brain does with the oxygen? It oxidizes sugar (glucose). No sugar is equivalent to no oxygen. 

What throws people off is that everyone knows you have to breathe all the time to stay alive, but you don't have to eat nearly as frequently -although some seem to have missed the latter rule. The reason you don't need to eat all the time is because you can store substrate (fuel) but not oxygen.

There is glucose floating around in your blood all the time. The level of glucose is constant and your liver keeps it that way. It is a tightly regulated system and only your brain can use glucose at any time. The rest of your body has to do with fatty acids.

To keep glucose levels constant, your liver has access to plenty of stored glucose in the form of glycogen. If the glycogen runs out, the liver can regenerate sugar from protein. It can keep going like that for a day or two. Fortunately, that is rarely called for and most people eat 3-4 meals a day to replenish the stores.

Should trouble arise, there is another fallback mechanism. The liver can produce ketones from fat. Although you can and do make fat from sugar there is no way back.

During times of starvation, your brain can switch to ketones and stay alive. At the same time, your metabolism is throttled back too. All these combined give you several weeks to months worth of survival if needed. 

However, as any diabetic can tell you, if your blood sugar (glucose) level drops by even a small amount, you can go in coma and die rather quickly. The reason diabetics know this is because they have access to a rather powerful drug called insulin. And they have to measure their insulin carefully because insulin can play havoc with your glucose levels in a heartbeat. All diabetics experience hypoglycemia at least once in their lives. It is a rather unpleasant and potentially deadly experience that requires quick intervention lest it be fatal.

The latter also explains why so-called "hypoglycemic" attacks in otherwise normal individuals who do not inject insulin, are nonsense. Nonsense too are the prescriptions not to eat sugars before exercise lest you suffer from a bout hypoglycemia minutes later. Some extend this to simple sugars (versus the "healthier" complex carbohydrates) or to sugars and coffee. All of it is nonsense.

It is often explained in the following way: you eat too much sugar so you get an insulin response with an overshoot and then you start shaking and feel weak because of hypoglycemia. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for it whatsoever. Although it may sound plausible, it is not. Blood glucose levels are not to be messed with. Remember, no glucose is equivalent to no oxygen. No room for sloppy behavior here. No room for "a bit of an overshoot."

Not convinced? Ever seen evidence of people going in coma with convulsions after eating too much candy?  It does not happen. If it did, the US population would decrease rather quickly.

As for the complex carbs, it is another popular myth. Complex carbs are absorbed as simple sugars. It takes marginally longer to do, but the difference is irrelevant.  Carbohydrate breakdown in the gut is incredibly fast. Furthermore, as far as the blood is concerned, the only "visible" sugar here is glucose.

No evidence for fiber either. Absorption with or without fiber appears equally quick. Some have shown evidence that the presence of fiber may accelerate uptake instead of slowing it down.

In short, all the talk about glycemic index is pseudoscience. It is not even clear that the stated glycemic index of a particular food item is accurate.

There is only one thing to remember about carbohydrate. Too much makes you fat. And it does so because it is easy to eat carbs and to keep eating them. If you only eat carbs you are very likely to over-eat. And that is not good. Put some cream cheese on your bagel !

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shaving off seconds

Quite a bit of work has been done on the 40 kilometer (roughly 25 mile) time-trial. Although I would not consider 25 miles on a bicycle an endurance event, something can be learned from these studies. Twenty five miles is long enough so most power generation is done aerobically and therefore the findings are to some extent applicable to longer distances.

Time trials (TT) are easier to study than mass start races, where team tactics, skill, experience, drafting benefits, and other hard to measure variables easily cloud the picture. TT studies can be found in many publications and I won't repeat them here except to highlight a few rather self-evident facts. You may wonder why someone would care about things that are self-evident, but in this day and age there is so much information (read advertising) out there that many people forget the basics.

Not surprisingly, training provides the biggest gains, exceeding those of lighter bikes, aerodynamic frames, and other gadgets. Furthermore, the less "base" you have, the bigger the effects of training will be. If you are an experienced cat 1 cyclist, training will help but not nearly as much as when you are a novice or rookie. Still, elite riders can expect as much as 3% gain from a good program. That is certainly significant enough to make a difference. One would expect the gains of training to be even bigger for longer distances. Clearly, a 100+ mile ride requires training. You cannot "buy" your way into such an event.

Weight matters but only when you climb. You need to do a fair amount of climbing before you can see the benefits. For a short 25 mile time-trial, that means you need a pretty steep average grade, well in excess of 5%, but over a distance of 112 miles, things add up rather quickly. When it comes to weight, every little elevation change matters. Those numerous 15 ft "bumps" on the road may not show on the map, but when you add them all up, they can easily become a serious climb by the time you are done.

The best way to reduce bicycle weight in a race is not to buy a lighter frame, but to watch what you lug around. First take a look at your saddle bag. There is no need to carry a laptop computer with you in a race. There is also no need to carry enough supplies to cross the Kalahari in summer.

Two large full water bottles will add 3 pounds (1.3 kg), more than many frame fork combinations. While that may make sense on a long training ride in the hot sun, it is rather silly in a race or event, where you can get fresh, cold water every 10 miles or so. Grabbing a bottle will not slow you down significantly once you learn how to do it properly. But carrying extra weight will not just slow you down, it will also tire you out.

On the flats, aerodynamics matter the most. In mass start events, that means drafting. While most people can draft in a headwind, few seem to understand that you need to ride in a echelon to draft in a crosswind. This obvious fact seems common knowledge in Europe, but it is rare to see American riders ride that way. For time-trails and triathlons you need to resort to aero equipment as drafting is not allowed.

The gains from a proper aero position and frame can be quite significant. Some estimates for a 40K TT are as high as 2.5 minutes. Furthermore, these gains tend to be the same irrespective of your level of training. First and foremost, good aero means nothing flaps around in the wind. Watch that race-number. You can easily waste 10-20 W! That is a huge drag, even for an elite cyclist. The second thing to watch out for is items stuck to your frame. That $5 pump can easily nullify the gains from a $3,000 frame. If you "need" the pump, then be sensible enough to save the money on the frame.

Lastly, it may surprise some, but caffeine, the only legal performance enhancing drug saves anywhere from 1 to 1.5 minutes over a 40K distance. That is more than half as much as your aero-frame, at a much better price point. 

Sugary drinks help too, but much less so. When it comes to sugary drinks (or carbohydrates), there is no significant difference between the various brands. Just as long as you supply the calories. In general, you should not exceed 300-400 calories per hour as that is the limit of what people can absorb in a race. There is little benefit from "long-acting" or "slowly digesting" carbs during a race. You need the energy right then and there. During a race is not the time to start storing energy or digesting food.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

VO2 max

I am sure that by now you heard of VO2max or maximal oxygen capacity. To some it is the "new new thing." The ultimate measurement. It probably helps that the standard method for measuring VO2max is a rather involved lab procedure that uses a breathing apparatus. It also helps that the name is a rather exotic sounding amalgamation of letters and numbers. Furthermore it refers to oxygen by its chemical symbol O2 and there is something to be said for that too. Pass the H2O please !

VO2max measures how much oxygen you can use to perform "work." It is expressed in liters of oxygen per minute or in milliliters (1/1000 of  a liter) of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. It is largely limited by how much blood your heart can pump around and not, as most seem to think, by how much lung volume you have.

The value is obtained by measuring oxygen consumption at maximal effort. In general, a step-wise approach on a treadmill or static cycle is used, where exercise intensity increases until a maximum is reached. All the while you breathe through an apparatus that measures your actual oxygen consumption (difference in O2 between inhaled and exhaled air). Needless to say, such efforts are not recommended for people with cardiovascular problems.

A very good approximation can be had by measuring your best time to run a fixed distance. Or, as many seem to prefer, running for a fixed amount of time and measuring the distance covered. The two are equivalent but I guess the latter is "preferred" because it is a bit more tricky to do?

Let's just stick to the 5K and assume you are an average person (i.e. not to heavy and not too skinny). Warm up properly and run your 5K as hard as you can but at a steady pace. I chose 5K because it is easier to run a fixed pace for a short distance. But we need at least 5K -some argue 15 minutes- and most people need to run for at least 15 minutes to become fully aerobic. So if you are in the fastest group, you may want to run a 10K instead.

Here are some good values (for 5K run, in ml/kg/min):
Time VO2M Speed Pace
13 minutes 82.1 14.3 mph 4:11 minute mile
15 minutes 69.6 12.4 mph 4:49
17 minutes 60.2 11.0 mph 5:28
19 minutes 52.9 9.8 mph 6:06
21 minutes 47 8.9 mph 6:45
23 minutes 42 8.1 mph 7:24
25 minutes 38.3 7.5 mph 8:02 minute mile

Average for males and females in the "general population" is 48 and 39 respectively. Top runners and cyclists are anywhere between 70 and 90 for males and 50 and 70 for females.

VO2max is generally seen as the best measure of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic power. It does not measure how much anaerobic power you can produce and so it is quite useless for sprinters, and practitioners of sports where anaerobic power is key, like soccer, basketball, football, etc.

For simplicity's sake, aerobic exercise is all exercise that is steady over long periods of time (tens of minutes to hours), or increases/decreases gradually over time to a new set point. Any rapid increase in energy output bypasses the aerobic system. High intensity efforts, such as climbing steep hills on a bike also use a fair amount of anaerobic power.

There are individual differences as to what constitutes a rapid increase, and training matters a lot. The better trained you are the more aerobic you will be in everything you do. But even the best trained individuals resort to some anaerobic power production and anything that takes place in under a minute or is very intense is almost invariably anaerobic. The same applies to all initial exercise (before warm-up).

VO2max is an important parameter for endurance athletes, and top performers in running, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing, rowing and canoeing have a high VO2 max. But VO2max does not tell the whole story and some athletes with lower measured VO2max have done better than others with higher readings.

Bottom line: Human performance in real life situations is not something you can capture in one number and your performance in the race matters more than the results of a fancy test.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Key parameters

America loves numbers. There are numbers everywhere you look. From sport statistics to the "seven habits of *you name it*  people," to the score of the latest vintage wine. Magazines abound with twelve special foods you should eat, ten tips to lose weight, and seven steps to success.

Numbers are compact and easy to remember. A numbered list brings structure where none existed before. Being quantitative is the hallmark of a scientific method. Science is based on numbers. Hard data they call it, and that is true provided the numbers are meaningful. To be meaningful, the numbers have to be obtained through repeated and accurate measurements in carefully controlled conditions. The trouble is, none of the numbers I listed before were obtained in this manner. They are deceptive numbers used to hide qualitative assessments and personal opinions. They give you the impression of precision, accuracy and reproducibility where none exists. Meaningless numbers like that are as plentiful as weeds in an untended garden.

Some numbers are used to describe and compare fitness and training. Triathletes seem obsessed with such variables, but other athletes are taking notice as well. Often these individuals go to great lengths and spend serious amounts of money to have someone make a few measurements for them. It "helps" that health clubs and gyms see profits in making and interpreting such measurements. Unfortunately, the readings are often made in incorrect ways and more attention is paid to fitting a schedule and the availability of equipment than to what is actually being measured.

Not only are the data at best quite shaky, they are almost always used in incorrect ways. That is not necessarily the fault of the person performing the tests. These people are often quite dedicated and strive for accuracy. However, ignorance, tight testing schedules, and profit motives all conspire to derail good intentions. Quite often only a single value is obtained under sub-optimal conditions. No time for repeats, sorry folks! 

Even more frequently that single value is then treated as a true reflection of reality without any consideration for variability and measurement error. The "true" value is then used in non-sensical comparisons to reach conclusions or draw inferences that are totally unwarranted and unsupported. Some will go as far as designing entire training regimens based on such questionable tests. These highly "customized" training regimens generally command high prices leading consumers to believe that they must be valuable.

Before you get too carried away, rest assured that there is nothing better than you best 10K time to assess your cardiovascular fitness. It is easy to measure, highly reproducible and you can do it anytime and almost anywhere. And in case you care, with the help of simple lookup tables you can get a very accurate estimate of your VO2 max and all the bragging rights that it entails.

All without spending a dime!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


In the early days of cycle computers you would buy a small device that read out speed, average speed, distance, and possibly cadence. Why people wanted cadence was always beyond me but that is another matter. One thing about those early devices -Avocet was a major brand then- was that they were easy to install, reliable, and had a very long battery life. They were essentially trouble-free. You installed them and you did not need to worry about them for at least another year or two. 

The data from these computers was accurate and reproducible. It was also useful and easy to interpret. However, as time went by companies saw the potential to increase their profits by adding more data, more storage, more features, and more "analysis." Today's cycle computers are overstuffed toys, full of unnecessary functions. These toys are also overly expensive, but provide little value other than entertainment. All come with often overlooked but major hidden costs.

The devices are tricky to install and tricky to use; they are often unreliable and work poorly under real life conditions; the data is frequently lacking or inaccurate and even more frequently not reproducible. Many functions are based on formulas or lookup tables and may not apply to you. And worst of all, battery life is just about non-existent. You are lucky if the device has enough juice for one long ride. Some GPS devices die within six hours.

The new gadgets also have several readouts leading some people to switch between screens instead of paying attention to the road. I have personally witnessed several accidents where riders hit the deck because they were fiddling with their cycle computers. Not only is there a data overload, most devices also suffer from very poor interface design. We may have to wait until Steve Jobs turns his attention to the cycle computer before things will change.

Newer gadgets also allow the user to download values. This ensures hours of additional wasteful  entertainment. Given the poor quality of the recorded data, one wonders how useful analysis can be. Some device makers are apparently aware of this problem and they sneakily "correct" the data coming from your gadget. In most cases they do so without warning you or without giving you the option to disable the "feature." Nearly all download programs smooth the data. Smoothing can be helpful but in many instances it is the instantaneous changes that have the highest information content. However, given the noisy nature of the data, it is probably just as well that these are smoothed out.

Some companies go even further. Most GPS devices will correct your recorded position when it happens to lie in the scenery instead of on the road. One can argue that this is a good thing. But what does it tell you about your speed or distance? If these are "corrected" too, then what did your expensive gadget really do for you?

One of the first "hot" features added was the altimeter. Altimeters work with pressure sensors that need to be nulled before every ride. Unless you are a airline pilot with access to air traffic control, that is easier said than done. Blame the interface, or the complex routine needed to reset the device; or the difficulty of finding out what the barometric pressure is at the time of the ride. Whatever the reason, the fact is that most people don't bother resetting their altimeters before a ride. What that means is that their data are off by a sizable margin. Never mind the temperature sensitivity. As the ride progresses and the temperature changes -quite common on the California coast- the meter starts drifting over time, making all readings completely useless. 

While most cyclists are aware of these problems, few seem to care.

It gets even better when you add a heart rate monitor. Not only can you pick up other people's readings unless you have a coded transmitter, you can also skip beats or record extra beats due to poor connections. The efficiency changes with skin moisture and can fail with no sweat or too much sweat. Movement of the strap can easily cause artifacts or missed readouts and many devices pickup EMG signals from the chest muscles. The latter is much more of a problem for runners who move their arms than for cyclists who often sit quite still. Even so, about half the time your readout is incorrect or unreliable for one reason or another. And it happens more frequently when you go hard. Needless to say that is also the time when the information is most valuable.

Once again experience shows that most users are aware of the problems but that does not seem to affect their enthusiasm for using the device. Nearly everyone I have talked to told me their heart rate monitor does not work properly from time to time. All have learned to ignore very low or very high readings, and most have developed some "intuition" for correct readouts.

Heart rate monitors have alarms to alert you when you cross a preset threshold. It is quite common to run by someone whose heart rate monitor is acting up and beeping furiously. Much like the neighborhood car alarm that everyone ignores, the owner of the device has long since stopped paying attention to the beeps. But he or she still uses the device in every race.

Ultimately the real problem here is not that devices give random incorrect readings. When used properly these tools can be quite informative. The trouble is that most people don't take the time to learn to use them properly. But they still rely on the "information" or defer to the meter. And in the process they no longer pay attention to their body.

Listening to your body is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as an endurance athlete. And one of the best ways to do so is to train without gadgets. Save the devices for a few tests that you can use to track your progress on a regular basis. At other times, you are better off with just a plain old wired speedometer. It will save weight and batteries too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Science and medicine in sports

Sport science papers often leave a lot to be desired. Despite all the hoopla about the scientific method, I found the field to be severely lacking in rigor. While I understand that it is difficult to work with human subjects and that good controls are hard to come by, the authors often fail to take into account how biased their samples are, and how poorly reproducible their findings turn out to be.

Working with the best athletes poses extra challenges. First of all, these individuals have personal goals that may not align with the study goals. They are likely to be secretive if a potential edge is expected. Nobody wants to be a control subject in a double blind study and few will participate unless it is expected to benefit them. But more importantly, top athletes do not have the time and the energy to spend on a rigorous research study. Their careers are short, and unless they are at the very top of a highly popular sport, they may have trouble making enough money to support the remainder of their life.

Readers, especially those of popular magazines are equally uncritical. They are eager to find an edge or know about a breakthrough. Breakthroughs are by their nature extremely rare and not responsive to publication deadlines. Yet everyone is eager to find an edge and many do find what they think is an edge. In such cases, they rarely want to verify their results. They do not want others to find out, and perhaps they are loath to burst their bubble too.

It doesn't stop there. The sports arena is one of remarkable contradictions. The quest for performance enhancing methods and substances is ever greater, and many companies tout the performance enhancing value of their products. They often resort to scientific-looking results to do so. Yet as soon as something is proven to enhance performance, it is immediately outlawed and its users are branded cheats and run the risk of being banned from further competition. 

It is curious to see how amateur athletes will take supplements and vitamins, yet complain when their idols use performance-enhancing "cheats." It is as if everybody knows that the magic potions don't work, or are illegal if they do, yet at the same time, everybody wants something to perform better. 

The rationale for these taboos is totally shaky. It usually comes down to some vague unproven claim of adverse health effects. The authorities do not want competitors to get hurt? Yet they do allow certain methods but outlaw others, although the final results are identical.

Eg. high altitude chambers, infusion of red blood cells, and erytropoietin all strive to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of blood. That leads to better performance. In many subjects these methods can be equally effective, yet while the first one is legal and extensively used by Olympic training centers -including the US center in Colorado-, the latter two are illegal and will cause the subject being barred from competition for a minimum of two years. So while everyone applauds the US Olympians who spend their waking hours in high-altitude tents, these same people will vilify others who resorted to "blood doping" or injecting EPO. 

This bipolar attitude has created a whole subculture of illegal performance enhancing substances and a similar subculture of testing for such substances. And while studies clearly show that some individuals can take these illegal substances without testing positive, while others cannot, the establishment continues to discriminate between the two, to uphold its "moral high ground."

History has shown that this attitude is unproductive. The "cheats" will continue to cheat and will not be deterred. Instead they will go and find newer ways to evade the rules. The game of cat and mouse can go on forever. In the process tons of money is wasted on needless testing and law enforcement while a whole subculture of providers, who stand to gain more the more illegal their products are, develops and thrives.

Perhaps the worst effect is that people are experimenting with powerful drugs without any medical or scientific oversight. No new knowledge is gained from this large scale experiment. Yet knowledge about performance enhancement would benefit society as a whole.

Instead, people get hurt, careers are destroyed, money is wasted, legal issues are raised, while nobody seems to care. This is a war of ideologies, a witch hunt that ultimately benefits nobody but the drug pushers and the odd consumer who is lucky enough to get away with it or be in a sport where nobody cares very much (like baseball).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nutrition and supplements

There is no shortage of nutritional information. And yet most people in our society suffer from eating induced disorders such as obesity, type II diabetes, hyperlipidemias, etc. That in itself should tell you something.

Unfortunately, most nutrition information is downright wrong and nearly all of it is unscientific. Even government guidelines are highly suspect and the government is powerfully influenced by many food- and farm-lobbies that stand to gain or lose enormous amounts of money from endorsements or lack thereof. There are simply too many people with too much money at stake to enable objectivity. Even if everyone was held to high ethical standards -and they are not- the field would be heavily biased and unsuitable for scientific discovery.

For example, the Washington Post reported recently that a campaign by Health and Human Sciences Department to advocate breast feeding was very successfully toned down at the request of infant nutrition companies. Such things can and do happen and they happen a lot.

Government officials are beleaguered by diary farmers that want you to drink milk and eat cheese, by cattle ranchers who want you to eat beef, and by the poultry industry advocating eggs and chicken. Not to mention the fishermen who want to sell fish and the corn farmers who want to douse everything and everyone in high fructose corn syrup. The list of constituents with something at stake is just endless. Unfortunately, no science can be done in this type of climate.

Athletic food intake is, if anything, even more problematic. The specialty food industry is one of the most rapidly growing market segments and that means lots of interest from business and politico's alike. Everyone loves a growing market and nobody wants to spoil the party. Nobody would even dare to attempt to, and doing so would mean a certain DOA.

Food also has important cultural and religious overtones. Nearly all religions regulate food intake, often prescribing what people can eat and when. Against such forces, no objectivity can prevail. Science practitioners are human too, with their own ideas, cultural baggage, religious beliefs, and prejudices. As Michael Pollan pointed out, nutritionism, as the ending "ism" suggest is not a scientific subject but an ideology. And "ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions."

Fortunately, humans have an elaborate digestive system, and one function or benefit of such a system is that it makes one largely independent of what and when you eat. That is especially true now that a veritable treasure trove of clean, high-calorie food is readily available. If anything, we have too much good food that is too easily accessible. 

It is therefore a total irony that people think they need supplements, vitamins, and other "magic" potions. It is safe to say that any such items are totally unnecessary and a waste of money. If anything, these useless items can only lead to disease, and hypervitaminoses are more of a problem in the West than lack of vitamins.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to take any vitamin or nutritional supplement. Once again I never have and I never will. It is a total waste of money and can only harm you. Yet nobody has the guts to admit to it. Most coaches will tell you to take a multi-vitamin. It is baloney and serves no purpose. 

You don't need vitamins, mineral supplements, protein supplements, lycopene or quercetin or any other supplements to perform or stay healthy. These things do not work and the "scientific evidence" backing them up is not there.

The golden rule for food is, eat but don't eat too much so you stay lean. Weight is the great enemy of most endurance athletes. Always eat a variety of foods and be careful with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, or sugars, provide a quick energy boost but it is easy to eat too much as carbs do not signal satiety as protein and fats do. A diet based most only carbs will leave you perpetually hungry and presents a great risk of overeating.

Unlike what you may think, fats do not make you fat. Carbs do. Ask any cattle-farmer what they use to fatten the cows. Ever heard of corn-fed beef?

Nutrition is the one area where you will do better the less you listen to the "experts" and the more you stick to nature. Never eat prepackaged and prepared foods unless you have no other option and are in danger of acute starvation. A candy bar is great while cycling, but it is not nutrition and should not be treated as such.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

If Lance spins fast, so must I

Adaptation is very individual. Every body is a different machine and every body adapts to exercise differently. What works great for one person, may not work at all for another. There are many exceptions to every rule, and therefore all rules are suspect.

Despite the individual nature of adaptation there is no shortage of rules, declarations, and prescriptions on how one should do things and why. There is also no shortage of "scientific" explanations as to why you should do this or that, or not do the other. Often "scientific" explanations are sensible but that does not mean they are true. Almost always, they are not scientific either. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in science is that sensible post-hoc explanations are a dime a dozen. They are also meaningless. Unless you can predict the outcome with some certainty, you have no understanding whatsoever.

One reason for the success of all these rules, despite their shaky foundations, is that humans love rules. Humans like structure in their lives and they like to know what is expected of them. Kids grow up listening to their parents and finding out the pitfalls of not heeding advice. When they grow up, they substitute their parents with real and imaginary figures of authority so they can maintain their comfort levels.

Social species also admire individuals who are good at something. They try to emulate them to get equally good, or at the very least, to please their idols. Such social behavior is highly productive and a major component of learning. Learning works by imitation. Yet when it is too rigidly enforced it often falls short of expectations. And training is one such area where rigid enforcement often produces poor results.

Publications love providing rules. They do so because it helps them sell copies. People like to be told what to do, and they like to feel they get their money's worth. A top ten list is easier to produce, easier to digest, and sells more copies than good advice. Top ten lists have invaded all media to the detriment of information content. Readers are becoming consumers of rules. It is not good.

There are no rules as to what cadence you should ride, or what foods you need to eat, or how you have sit on your bike or lie in the water. There are things that don't work, such a cadence of 0 or 500, but apart from that, nothing much can be said. Some great cyclists spin like maniacs, while others are slow crankers. Scottish legend Graeme Obree developed two very different nearly optimal aero positions and set world records with them. The UCI rule addicts quickly disqualified him. They could not stand it that a non-professional, using non-conventional methods, beat everyone else.

The less people understand something, the more rules and advice they have. That is clear when you look at swimming. Fluid dynamics is poorly understood and requires supercomputers to solve even trivial problems. A human body is not a trivial problem. Furthermore, even in trivial cases, flows are often counterintuitive. But all that has not stopped swim "experts" from proclaiming wisdoms about total immersion, corkscrewing through the water, and other wacko ideas. They also charge big bucks for it, which has the unfortunate effect that some people think they have to be good if they are so expensive.

The limitations of rules apply everywhere. Some people can eat cheeseburgers while riding RAAM, while others throw up when they eat the wrong candy bar. Some eat fruit galore, while others suffer from diarrhea as soon as they start running.

The take-home message is that you need to find out what works for you. To do so it may be helpful to imitate others who do things well. However, if you don't make progress, don't be afraid to reconsider. Do what works for you, and once you find something that works stick with it. Always learn to listen to your body. It is the most important thing you can do. And remember that the stars have more leeway than you. They can get away with things, but you don't. So if Lance spins fast, maybe he can afford this less-than-efficient method and still win. Chances are, you can't, so don't be tempted.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Misconceptions: fixing problems

It is important to realize that your whole body adapts to exercise. Not just those parts that you read about in magazines and that you therefore consider important and critical. While you may only worry your heart rate or your VO2 max, your joints and ligaments also adapt to a particular type of pounding or stretching;  your muscles adapt to the stresses they endure. Your feet adapt to striking the pavement, your shoulders adjust to the reach in swimming. All these adaptations are essential for you to get better and to endure the stress of racing.

These adaptations are not always pain-free, and may at times require a fair bit of remodeling. That takes time to do. Real remodeling goes on all the time and is quite visible on x-rays of long bones. As stresses change, so does the alignment of the bone matrix and the calcium deposits. And when stresses disappear, as in zero gravity, so does the bone.  Similar changes happen in ligaments, muscle, and connective tissue. These are real changes that take real time to happen, so be patient.

People are often eager to "correct" what they perceive as problems. More so when these "problems" are accompanied by some aches or pain. This tendency is not just limited to the athlete. Coaches and even casual observers will chime in and eagerly recommend fixes. They may do so without you asking. They will note that your foot moves this way or that, or that you swing your leg out a bit. They will tell you to get orthotics, special shoes, or use wedges and adjust your cleats. As soon as you show the slightest sign of discomfort, tons of advice will follow. It is best to ignore it, however well-intentioned it may be.

A certain amount of pain and aches is normal and to be expected when you first start training. It is very important to give yourself time to adapt and not to intervene early to "fix" problems. Nearly everyone has some alignment problem or another, but nearly all will do fine without fixes. The ones who are keen on fixing are often the ones who suffer persistent trouble.

If you are too eager to fix things, you will end up making them worse. That means for example that you should always buy neutral running shoes first. Do not buy "support" shoes unless you want to train your feet to remain weak. Even if you "overpronate" or "underpronate," or whatever else the observant shoe salesperson advises you, ignore it.

It is important to realize that the stresses won't go away if you correct something. You just end up forcing your body to adapt to a different pattern. You may think you fixed things and now your body can get back to the important business of running, but instead what you have done is forcing your feet to conform to a funny shoe with a weird bump. And now your body has to adapt to that and to running. It is no surprise that we ultimately end up with people throwing out their shoes and going back to barefoot running.

The take-home is simple: do not ever correct things you "think" need correcting. Do not subject yourself to the latest money-maker of all, video-analysis. Video analysis has limited applications, for example in sports where body position matters and your body sense is a bit impaired as happens when your first start swimming as an adult. In those cases, watching yourself swim can be helpful. The problem is however, that once gyms, health clubs and coaches pay for video equipment, they tend to want to use it for everything, including "correcting mistakes."

Only correct things that cause persistent pain for long periods of time -say over six months or more. Or problems that get worse quickly. Always attend to those that show objective signs (such as swelling or increasing deformations).  

In all cases, only correct gradually and give your body time to adjust. Best is always to back off a bit and see if things won't get better by themselves. If not, try small adjustments. Or seek the advice of an experienced medical professional. Someone who is used to working with athletes.

If matters continue to deteriorate you may have to stop altogether, at least for a while. When starting up again do so very gradually and ramp up slowly. If the pain is very well localized and very consistent, you may need to intervene more quickly as this may be indicative of a real problem. More diffuse pain that jumps around from one day to the next is generally less problematic, and more likely to go away on its own -although it may take months to years.

When I first started running, I suffered bad headaches after a few miles. These went away within a few weeks. But not without friends recommending that I run on trails instead. I also always had knee pain in one or both of my knees. This came and went for several years, before it finally disappeared. These days, my knees rarely hurt. Similarly my foot strike was very "off" and I twisted my ankle quite a few times (a reason why I prefer the road, it is flat). I also wore out my shoes very unevenly. Both the ankle twisting and the uneven wear went away entirely on their own. Now there is just a slight hint of uneven wear left. 

Remember the old remedy for all problems: more miles. No whining either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dehydration and cramping

Here is another very common falsehood: cramping is caused by dehydration. Nearly everybody will tell you that cramping is the result of dehydration. They will advise you to drink more water and some will tell you to consume salt tablets. The more commercially inclined will recommend special drinks or special tablets. It is all hogwash. Unfortunately, it can also be very dangerous. Overhydration and resultant hyponatremia are quickly becoming the key problems in endurance events. The prevalence is very high but luckily it does not always cause trouble. Trouble in this case, often means brain damage or death. It is no laughing matter.

I am not sure where the obsession with drinking started. Maybe Gatorade (Pepsico) had something to do with it? Maybe it originated in California or the Southwest, home to many endurance racers, and areas where dehydration can be a real life threat. Maybe the bottled water companies had something to do with it? Whatever its origin, it has gotten out of control in more ways than one. One indication is how it has entered everyday life. This is clearly illustrated by people walking around in cities carrying water bottles. It can also be seen in "health trends" that advise you to drink a gallon of water everyday. Or triathletes carrying enough water to cross the Kalahari in the bike leg of a sprint triathlon that takes less than an hour to complete.

Clearly too many people stand to gain monetarily from this craze so a reversal will be difficult to achieve.

Dehydration is also blamed for loss of performance. We are told that as little as 10% dehydration can cause an enormous -some say 50%- loss of performance. That has many racers worried. The truth however is a bit more complex. On the one hand we have various individuals tested to exhaustion on various devices, where results show that people get tired and dehydrated when exercising for long periods of time. Many of these people also develop cramps. Both correlations are often misinterpreted as causal mechanisms.

On the other hand, we have record-setting performances by well-trained athletes, who are often very dehydrated when they finish the race. Occasionally we see people collapse and guess what, when you check their hydration levels, you find they are quite dehydrated. These people too, often develop cramps.

Then there is the magic moment, when someone develops a cramp and stops to drink and swallow a few salt tablets. And guess what? The cramping goes away. The question is, why? The answer is rather simple: they slow down or rest for a while.

Scientific studies have shown that cramping has nothing to do with hydration levels, but is instead related to inadequate training. The best remedy is to stop what you are doing. Even a short break will do wonders here. If you want to avoid cramping, you need to train better. And better means you need to mimic the race situation both in intensity and length.

The less well trained you are, the faster you will dehydrate and the more of an effect the dehydration will have on your performance. When you are poorly trained, drinking more will have little effect on your performance, although it may correct your dehydration. If things go really poorly, you may over-hydrate and end up in the hospital.

I will discuss this in more detail later, but for now it should suffice to say, that you should be able to run or bike for an hour in average ambient temperatures without having to drink at all. There should be no effect on your results. If anything, the loss of water should enhance your performance, as you will now be lighter. But don't extrapolate to longer events. Here you certainly do need to drink something.

Monday, July 14, 2008


One of the most common and difficult to combat misconceptions is stretching. Stretching is probably the most popular and most practiced waste of time in the racing community. Runners are especially prone to it, but even cyclists, swimmers and triathletes can't keep quiet when it comes to stretching. It may therefore surprise you to learn that there is no scientific evidence to show that stretching does any good at all. To put it simply: it is a waste of time.

Along with yoga, pilates, core exercises, massages, etc. Mind you, I am not saying that these activities cannot be enjoyable or relaxing. I do enjoy a good massage, but preferably in another setting. I am also not saying that you should not engage in these activities if you find them pleasurable or fun. All I am saying is that these will do nothing for you performance-wise, and that if you are on a tight schedule, all you can hope to accomplish here is waste more time.

Studies clearly show that stretching does not prevent injury. It doesn't strengthen your muscle or in any way enhance your performance. Gentle rubbing and stretching does provide some relief when you have a cramp but resting the affected part is probably key. Cramps go away when you stop working the affected muscle. Remember that when you stop to stretch, or to dig up some salt tablets, or to take a drink, it is the rest that matters, not the placebo action.

Since I never engaged in any athletic activity until I was well over 30, I never thought of stretching. My friends at the time were not athletic either and when I suddenly started riding a bike, they were as puzzled as I was. They certainly never told me to stretch. As a matter of fact, they weren't all that interested in all my bike talk and for sure wished it would simply go away. I was never officially part of a club or a team, and I would meet the people I was riding with along the course, so I never saw anyone stretch either beforehand or afterwards.

I never stretched and I never will. I tried it a few times for social reasons but found it to be of no benefit and a huge waste of time.  Whenever a training partner insists on stretching I make a note of it, and the next time I meet them along the course. I always just start running, biking or swimming. There are only so many hours in a day, and I can ill afford wasting time forcing my body into weird positions that are slightly painful.

While I do experience my fair share of aches and pains, these are no different from what others with similar training intensities go through. I have been fortunate to have had very few objective injuries. And it is not for lack of trying. Or for lack of predisposition. My leg alignment for example is quite poor, and my foot strike is far from perfect. Yet I run marathons in light racing shoes, with no orthotics or other contraptions.  And I don't waste my time stretching. Neither should you.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Misconceptions: weight lifting

Weight lifting or pumping iron as it is affectionally called is very popular in the US and Western Europe. So much so that most athletes and coaches think is a necessary part of any good training program. They will tell you that strength training is essential and that strength training equals lifting weights. I think it is misguided and false.

The gym business is big business and the success of gyms has contributed to weight training recommendations. While gyms have added "cardio" equipment to attract customers, gyms are primarily a place for body builders. Gyms may be fine for a light cardio workout, but these are not good places for endurance athletes to be. Unfortunately, most trainers and coaches work out of gyms or are affiliated with gyms or health clubs so they may feel compelled to help sell the product. Whatever the justification, I believe gyms and clubs are to be avoided as much as possible. Any kind of weight training builds bulk that is a nuisance to the endurance racer. 

I have never done any weight lifting as part of endurance training and I do not plan to start now. I think it is a waste of time and can only have negative effects. Even if Ironman Dave Scott, "the man" disagrees. Dave Scott is naturally gifted and he can afford some extra bulk, but most of us mid-packers cannot.

Never fall for muscle building, high weight, low rep schemes that are favored by body-builders. I would advise to also stay away from low weight-high rep schemes that are supposed to mimic endurance exercise. Bicyclists and runners would do much better by riding or running hills with some extra resistance. For runners, dragging the old car tire up the hill is a much better workout, whereas bicyclists should try to ride high gears at a lower cadence. Swimmers can drag a small chute through the water. These may sound like old-fashioned methods, but they are tried and true and won't hamper you by developing unwanted muscle mass.

It goes without saying that one should do strength training. However, weight lifting is the worst kind of strength training an endurance athlete can engage in. It is a poor substitute for practicing your favorite sport in its natural environment. There are much easier ways that provide much better training. Adding weight to the bicycle, riding in high gears, climbing hills or battling headwinds, are all better ways to work out and build strength.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Health and a word of caution

Although there is no doubt that endurance racers are, on average, in much better health than the sedentary adult population, it is equally certain that theirs is not the optimal health strategy. In other words, if you primary motivation is to get healthier or lose weight, you should probably focus on becoming more active but stay well short of racing. Racing is a stressful activity and as such it carries a certain amount of risk. You should not engage in racing unless you are willing to accept that risk.

Any emergency room doctor will tell you that competitive sports lead to increased injuries. Sometimes the injuries are caused by outside forces, as when cyclists come in contact with traffic, or when golfers or climbers get hit by lightening. At other times, collisions with competitors are to blame. More often though, accidents and injuries are intrinsic to the practice of the sport and they happen even without contact with other competitors. Sometimes they happen without a distinct or well defined incident. We all heard of shoulder injuries in swimmers, tennis elbow, shin splints, iliotibial band, achilles tendonitis, and the like. 

All activities can lead to injuries, but endurance sports are especially likely to cause overuse injury. Always ramp up slowly and prepare properly for any endurance event. However, be forewarned that even the most careful and best trained athletes do get injuries occasionally. And some injuries can cause permanent damage or even death. Deaths have occurred in all segments of ironman races. Deaths occur in swim races, marathons, and double centuries. Some popular prescriptions such as drinking a lot have given rise to deaths so be careful who you listen to and when.

Athletes can be more susceptible to infection, and certain cardiac ailments. Some will develop heart rhythm disorders or aggravate existing but subclinical ones. These can lead to sudden death. But perhaps the greatest danger to the heart comes from cardiomyopathy and cardiac hypertrophy with insufficiency. These conditions develop insidiously and are often only diagnosed when it is too late. It is hard to predict who is at risk, other than to look at family histories. Echocardiograms are of some use but early signs are often missed. Over time, genetic or other tests may become available, but it seems likely that all tests will do is give you some likelihood of developing the condition. It will still be up to you to decide what to do.

The bottom line is that endurance racing, as any other human endeavor entails risk. Checkups and tests can be done to minimize that risk, but none will ever eliminate it. Tests and diagnostic procedures produce false negatives, and occasionally people die who were given the all clear weeks earlier.

It is ultimately your decision and your responsibility. You should never engage in racing unless you are aware of and willing to accept the risks. Be aware that the more you push yourself, the riskier things get. Also be aware that everyone is different, and that some things may make one person stronger, while making another sicker. Statistics are good at predicting overall behavior but their application to individual cases is minimal and often misleading.

You have been warned.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Common misconceptions

I will first deal with some of the most common misconceptions about training and preparation. 

First and foremost there is the notion of "being in shape." This is usually understood as having the ability to tackle anything that is physically demanding without undue stress. People will say, he or she is in shape, I am in shape, and they may assume that therefore, I can work hard, run an ultramarathon, cycle a double century, or finish an ironman.

The problem with this concept is twofold. One is the general nature, the implication that one has the ability to do any kind of work, be it physical construction labor, cycling, swimming, boxing, etc. The general part is quite problematic because we are all bodies that adapt in a highly specific manner to certain environmental conditions and stresses. For most fitness parameters far reaching adaptations can be had and may be needed for success. Without specific training, you will not display these adaptations, and while you may think you are "in shape" you may not be ready for a particular activity.

The second problem is that, while most people equate being in shape with being in cardiovascular shape, others think of it as being trim and muscular. These are two very different states. The first one is far better suited for endurance activities, but even when you are in good cardiovascular shape you should not engage in any endurance activity without specific training. As for the body-building types, with few exceptions, these individuals are very ill prepared for endurance races.

While there are some common cardiovascular fitness elements in all continuous strenuous activities, every activity, be it cycling, running, canoeing, has some highly distinctive components and these components matter a lot.

It is also typical to think that the specificity is limited to the neuromuscular system. I.e. you need leg muscle for cycling and upper body muscle for swimming. While that is certainly true, the differences don't stop there. Every activity produces changes throughout the body, and these adaptations affect every organ system and tissue. Ignoring these facts leads to failure and injuries.

You may be able to run an ultramarathon easily, but that does not mean you will race a double-century, and vice-versa. As a matter of fact, the more fit you are the more likely you are to get injured when you attempt to try something like this.

Lance Amstrong is a great cyclist and he is certainly in great cardio-vascular shape. Yet he suffered miserably when he attempted his first NY marathon. That is not because running is harder than cycling. It is because Lance was ill-prepared and not adapted to running distance. So it should be no surprise that he found his marathon harder than anything he had ever done before. Or that he got injured and suffered shin splints, a very painful condition.

The same rules apply to everyone. Don't go racing an endurance event without specific preparation. Being "in shape" is a meaningless concept unless you specify what it is you are in shape for.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Endurance races

Let's define upfront what we mean by an endurance race. This turns out to be more tricky than one would think. Years ago, the marathon was the quintessential endurance event, but these days, that is no longer the case. It seems the iron-distance triathlon (IronMan) has replaced the marathon for those in the know. For runners, the ultra-marathon, covering 50 or even 100 miles is quickly becoming synonymous with endurance. But what about multi-day, self-supported events such as Badwater, RAAM, etc? Clearly these races need a whole new level of preparation and training.

For practical purposes I would propose that an endurance event is an event that takes anywhere between 8-36 hours to complete. I.e. it is an all day event that requires food and drink intake during the race, but is not interrupted by sleep or recovery. Multi-day events with mandatory rest periods, such as stage races are also included even if the individual stages are less than 8 hours in duration.

However, I do exclude self-supported events that run over multiple days. These are races where the participants are responsible for logistics and need to bring their own support crews. Furthermore, I want to exclude supported multi-day events, such as randonneur rides that don't have fixed rest periods.

The emphasis of this blog is on races or timed-events, where participants attempt to finish with a certain placing or within a certain time. Most races are identified as such, but some are not, often for unrelated reasons having to do with permits or liability insurance. I prefer to ignore these fine points and call the event a race once a substantial number of participants see it that way. 

This blog is for those seeking to improve their performance as measured by time or standing, rather than just worrying about getting to the finish line.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Going Long

In this blog I hope to highlight some of the things I have learned about endurance racing.  Most of these come from personal experience. I learned the hard way, without the benefit of a coach or guide. In some sense I am happy I did. It may not be the fastest way, but I certainly figured out what works and what doesn't.  I hope that by reading this blog you may avoid some of the mistakes I made. 

One would think that with all the information out there, things would be easy. However, I found that much of it is misguided and a lot of it is quite wrong.  The field is also driven by advertising and the desire to make money and much of the "information" one can find is nothing but blatant advertising for products that you don't need and that in some cases can harm you. These products are often portrayed as breakthroughs based on scientific insights. In almost all cases they are neither breakthroughs nor scientific.

I have been an endurance racer for a while now. I started out more than 10 years ago as a road biker, then I took up running and more recently I have been competing as a triathlete. I am by no means a natural talent. I also started quite late in life and never practiced any sports until I was well into my 30's. I did not start competing until I was over 40.

Over the last 4 years I have tried to improve my performance and despite being "over the hill" as some might think, I have been able to improve every year since, both in absolute (time) and relative (position) terms. I guess I must be doing something right.

The focus on this blog will be on endurance racing, not just finishing endurance events. The goal is to be competitive in events that pretty much take up a whole day. I will clarify my definition of an endurance event more in the posts to come.