Tuesday, 22 January 2013

How cyclists DOPE!

When this nasty subject appears in news papers, following another cyclist being exposed, my friends ask me what it means to dope and why athletes do/don't get caught more often. So with the whole Lance saga I thought this post was apt.

Blood doping is useful (very useful) in any sport that requires aerobic activity over a prolonged period. The longer that period the better. So it's inevitable that the Tour de France (TdF) being the longest bike race in the world will have some problems with doping.

So what is doping?
There are two main types of blood doping. The first is by injection of a synthetic substance called erythropoietin (EPO). Erythropoietin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that promotes development of red blood cells (RBC).
RBC are small containers that carry oxygen around our bodies. Since oxygen and fuel are essential for aerobic exercise it makes sense that extra RBC will mean a better supply of oxygen and therefore a better performance. It also contributes to a much speedier recovery, so that the athlete is on his/her  "A game" everyday of the race.
When an athlete is tested during competition the testers are looking for abnormally high levels of EPO in the blood sample. If detection is to be avoided then the athlete/ director sportive must time administration of the drug in a very scientific manner, in order that all the EPO has been utilized to make RBC and is subsequently left the system before the samples are taken by the anti-doping agency. In the years since Lance last won the tour, testing is not only executed during and after the event but also takes place in the off-season. This process along with the "biological passport" of the athlete makes doping of this kind much more difficult to mask or conceal. It is argued that this is why we now regularly hear that cycling has got much cleaner in recent years. I remain skeptical!

Another way of blood doping is by blood transfusion. What they do in this case is much more clever. But let's understand a little physiology first.

Our kidneys are the filter system for our blood. All day long they test the blood and remove metabolic waste such as uric acid (a byproduct of metabolism), lactic acid (a byproduct of exercise), broken or damaged red blood cells, ions and excess water. All this is called urine. The kidneys also do ongoing tests on the blood and if they detect low levels of oxygen they release, in its natural form, erythropoietin. This tells our bones to make more RBC (RBC are made inside bones). These extra RBC mean more oxygen is carried and this makes the kidneys happy so the production of EPO can be stopped.

An athlete who trains at high altitude where the oxygen is low will have unhappy kidneys. The low saturation of oxygen (O2) in the air makes the kidneys release EPO and the bones make more RBC. Relative to normal the athlete has a high saturation rate but because he/she is at altitude where O2 is low; the benefit is not had yet. If the athlete returns to sea level for a race they will have much high saturation of O2 in their blood due to the extra RBC that where produced while at altitude. Their performance will be much better than it would have been if they never did a training camp at the high altitude. After 2-3 weeks the athlete's RBC levels will return to levels similar to those before the high altitude training. This is all physiological and every long distance and endurance athlete on the planet uses this. Nothing illegal has been done. Yet!

Blood Transfusion!
While at altitude a litre of concentrated blood is taken from the athlete and stored in a refrigerator. Remember this blood has a relatively high concentration of RBC, which will be hugely beneficial once his/her levels have returned to normal. Then during a stage race, like the TdF, the "medics" can extract a litre of blood from the athlete and replace it with the blood, which was taken at altitude and conveniently stored in refrigeration. Now the competitor, once again, has higher levels of RBC, which means higher O2 saturation and a superior performance. This is illegal!  But if the athlete is feeling tired and losing time this can literally deliver him/her back to their peak performance over night. This method is very difficult to detect, remember no drugs were used. Testers now look for traces of the plastic from the inside of medical bags in the blood of athletes. Another reason why "they" say cycling is getting cleaner!

The health risks with both of these methods are high. Red blood cells constitute 45% of he blood, while plasma and white blood cells make up the remaining 55%. These levels give a specific viscosity to blood. If the viscosity is changed by increasing the % of RBC the blood becomes creamier. This thicker blood means that the heart has to work extra hard to pump it around the body. This isn't a problem while exercising because fluid replacement and movement is maintaining a balance. However when the body is at rest and the heart rate drops (usually significantly in an elite athlete) then the risk of a serious heart attack is elevated.

I am a huge cycling fan. I love the sport and spend countless hours watching footage on TV. I remain skeptical because I was a Livestrong devotee. I wore the, now shameful, yellow wristband and I bought all the gear, a "Trek Madone" included. So imagine how I felt a couple of years ago when it all began to come out. Around that time I switched my allegiance to "Alberto" but again I was disappointed by him and then let down by the "Schlecks". 

I was sickened by the Gold medal win by Vinokourov at the London 2012 games and I was appalled by the presence of David Millar on team GB. Remember both these guys along with countless others have been caught doping in the past. The British Olympic Committee banned Millar but himself and Dwain Chambers took them to court and the decision was over turned. I know Millar does a lot of anti-doping campaigning now, But a doper is a doper. I applaud the standpoint of the British Olympic Committee and if the rest of the world were to follow their actions I believe that a fantastic and honest sport is achievable. 
I remain very skeptical mainly because of the stance most of the cyclists take. Two of the top cyclists in the world at the moment are Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, both remarkable athletes in their own right. Both rode on Team SKY last year, a team known for it’s strong stance on anti-doping. Yet both of these felt it OK to support Millar in his bid to ride on team GB. Why? There are numerous other British riders who have never taken drugs so why not support those guys? Logic tells me that they all have something to hide. But who knows?

Lifetime bans are the only answer. Until then every big scandal will be the so-called last, remember Festina? Now Lance, next probably Contador.

A boy can dream right?

Vive le Tour!


Friday, 18 January 2013

Want it before you Chase it!

I’ve been asked by my favourite brother-in-law (I’ve only got one) to write a post on motivation in an attempt to get him going after the New Year. I suppose it’s a good topic to discuss and this seems like the perfect time of year. Over the past 15 days I’ve been running in Dublin (Ireland) and London (UK). The most notable thing I’ve observed on these outings is the large number of people who are also exercising. It seems the new years resolutions have been a great success thus far, perhaps due to the mild weather. But fret not, the cold weather has just about arrived with minus temperatures and the threat of snow, I presume with this prospect that the number of early morning runners will fade somewhat.

Racing triathlons and various marathons over the past decade has been a real joy. I am not the sort of guy who needs a real motivator in the sense that most people do or at least my motivations aren’t that obvious. What I mean is I don’t have a daily creed that I rhyme off or a giant poster of a fallen idol (I’m thinking of Oprah’s guest) that I look to for inspiration. I do these events because I want to; I exercise everyday because I want to.

I’m the kind of person who looks at things quite mechanically, I like to know how things work and I’ll question most things until I do. I don’t entrust my well being into the hands of anybody but myself. I know and understand the physiological benefits of, both, exercise and a reasonably good diet, so motivation, in my case, for the most part is not required. Fitness is just something I do and I feel that if we could coach our children in their years of secondary (High) school towards this discipline then they could aspire to a healthier, fitter and therefore happier life.

Once I have decided on a particular race I begin my schedule (just like I did last November) with 3 weeks of training at 70% of my heart rate max, along with cleaning up my diet. Then I begin training proper (Paris marathon April 2013) which is all based around 3 specific sessions: a long run (controlled heart rate), a tempo run (5K, 10K time trial) and an interval session.

My motivation for doing these training sessions is the thought of finishing the race in my desired time. Once you’ve achieved this you are hooked. That feeling as you cross the finish line and look up at the clock and think, “I’ve done it” is topped by no other. This is what drives me, it’s the thought that a meticulously planned training regime has come together and now I’ve managed to push myself beyond where I’ve been before to reach a new high, a new reality, a new meaning of who I am! 
On long training runs I think about family and friends, I visualise the days leading up to the race I am training, going through race preparation in my mind. I'm driven by that nervous feeling on race morning and the anticipation of the race start. I always visualise the last kilometer of the race, crossing the finish line and the craic (Irish terminology for fun, not hardcore drugs) we have with fellow racers after wards. I love the atmosphere behind the finish line, who wouldn't enjoy the company of a couple of hundred people high on their own achievement?
I watch YouTube videos of Chrissie Wellington and Chris "Macca" Mc Cormac racing in Ironman Hawaii. These two athletes are the stand out performers in my world and I've had the honour to train and race with Macca in Dubai a few years ago. I also have all the Ironman Hawaii DVD's which I watch if I'm losing sight of where I want to go. 

The key recipe in all this is that you must want to achieve something before you start training. If you don’t have an objective to work towards you might as well not start. Once you decide on an event or a goal, not matter how short, you will instantly have something to measure yourself against. Then start with the 3 workouts described above. Each run will be motivated by the desire to out do the last, some weeks you will succeed and some weeks you wont but this is all part of the enjoyment. Watching your body respond and adjust to this challenge will demonstrate to you the benefits and once you begin to see and feel these small changes nothing will hold you back. All you need to do is actually want to achieve something. By wanting something I don’t mean just saying, “Yes! I’d like to run 5km in 25mins”. You have to want the challenge. You have to want the training and the task of implementing an action plan. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices and change some old negative habits because if you don’t, it won’t mean anything and you wont succeed.

Remember the old maxim: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

On cold wet Sunday mornings when I know I have to run for 2hrs 45mins, I get motivated by the fact that I can, by the thought of all the people who I believe can but don’t, and by the desire to achieve something which I haven’t achieved before. An end goal that says “look what I can do”, I quite often visualise the scene from “Cast Away”, the Tom Hanks movie, as he stands on the beach after creating a fire and he shouts “Look what I have created”. 


Friday, 11 January 2013

Low carb diets and running injuries!

Runners and triathletes who train or race on a low carb diets beware! Like I said in the last post, physiology is physiology! You cannot pick and choose which aspects of physiology you favour and you cannot expect to excel in any sport if you ignore the physiological rules set down by evolution.

We need carbohydrate to function at our maximum potential of speed and endurance. It's easier to get away with bending the rules if you run or race short distance, but if you are running 10km or more during training and racing then "you can run but you can't hide" or should I say "you can run but you won't excel" at least not to your potential.
Steve Prefontaine said "to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice your gift" well "to eat anything less than the best is also a sacrifice of your gift" and without a full fuel tank your aren't going to cover the distance at maximum speed.

Before just about every long distance event (half marathon, marathon, half ironman, ironman and ultras) I've taken part in there have been carb loading parties. Did you ever wonder why? Why not protein parties or fat festivals? The answer is simple, without fuel you cannot move, without appropriate (carbohydrate) fuel you cannot compete.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel we use day to day. It's also the fuel we use when we begin any exercise; it gets us going and the rate with which we can burn it determines our pace and rhythm before we can start to burn our fat stores. A good start is half the battle and fuelling on a low carb diet will set you up for a poor start and an even worse finish.

The key to nutrition when training and racing is not to choose a low carbohydrate diet but a diet of slow releasing carbohydrate (see previous post). This produces energy on a gradual time scale. Avoid sugary foods and simple carbohydrates. Not only are these going to send you on a roller coaster of high and low energy due to their consumption rate, they will also inhibit the growth hormone released after exercise which promotes recovery and repair. As well as spiking your insulin levels that will then affect water levels, which will cause thirst and poor hydration.

In the final kilometres of a long distance race like a marathon, simple carbs can be used to spike you energy and get you to the finish line. However I would not advocate using this method of nutrition on long training runs or cycles due to the inhibition of human growth hormone (HGH) after exercise. Without the release of HGH and endorphins the repair process will be prolonged and your energy levels will take longer to recover. Poor energy and ill repaired muscles will set you up for injury on your next training session or race.
Another mechanism of injury on a low carb diet comes about when all the carbohydrate stores are spent before the body has time to start burning fats. This forces our cells to burn proteins, which will cause muscle, tendon and bone breakdown resulting in muscle tears, tendinitis and stress fractures.

Don't get fooled by thinking that you can shed a few pounds by eliminating carbs from your diet and running an extra few kilometres a week. Although this may be possible on a short-term basis the risk of injury and illness is increased dramatically using such methods.
You will be far stronger and healthier if you choose the correct carbohydrates and correct portion size for you, accompanied by adequate fats and proteins. Reducing your sugar or simple carb intake along with doing some resistance training will benefit you far longer. Long term this will yield far better results than any crash diet plan.