If you have any physiology, performance, or nutrition related questions, email Ben at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of you have performed a VO2max test at some point to test your maximal aerobic capacity. Many also understand that this is a test of aerobic potential and has a large genetic determination. Through intense training (starting from no training) one can realistically expect to increase VO2max by 9-17%. What VO2max measures is the maximal ability of your skeletal muscle to use oxygen in the mitochondria to create ATP, and consequently work. There are many steps in that process from breathing oxygen into the lungs to exchanging oxygen from the air into red blood cells, distributing that oxygenated blood to the rest of the body by the heart and blood vessels, dumping the oxygen off at the tissues (in this case skeletal muscle), and finally, oxygen making its way into the tissue and then into the mitochondria where it can accept an electron to drive the making of ATP (our form of usable potential energy). A question that has intrigued some scientists for years is what step in that process is limiting? It has largely been determined that the ability to breath in oxygen is not the problem (which always makes me look at someone funny when their lungs were the problem during a hard effort), but there has been much debate over whether it is the ability of the heart to deliver oxygen to the tissues or the ability of muscle to use it. What is the weak link in the system?
Many studies have attempted to answer this question with some interesting approaches. For example, if you are doing leg exercise and reach a max, and then add arm exercise to the legs and your VO2max goes up, that would indicate that the heart had the ability to deliver more oxygen, but the legs were maxed out in their ability to use it since adding different muscle increased oxygen use. Recently, a very competent research group from Spain took a slightly different approach and asked what causes failure during an incremental exercise test? Anyone that has ever done a VO2max test knows that it ends in failure, so what causes that failure? The study was done with an interesting combination of incremental exercise tests that included normal air or hypoxia (low oxygen), with or without blood occlusion at exhaustion to “capture” anything that might be in the blood at that point, a quick muscle biopsy to look in the muscle, and then another all out sprint to see if there was a decrement in peak power generation.
From this unique study, here is what information was learned. First, at the end of an incremental exercise to exhaustion, the muscles still have the ability to generate power, even at a level far above the power at which failure occurred. What this means then is that your muscles have not actually failed. Second, the point of exhaustion is not due to lactate accumulation or the associated muscle acidification, and muscle lactate accumulation may actually facilitate early recovery after the exercise bout. This evidence is just another nail in coffin of the outdated concept that lactate causes fatigue. Please, don’t be that person that talks about lactic acid and fatigue – it just makes you look uninformed. Finally, the ability to make ATP in the muscle at a high enough rate to match the work still exists at fatigue. This last piece of information indicates that failure during an incremental test to exhaustion depends more on central than peripheral mechanisms. Therefore, it is the cardiovascular system (the ability to deliver blood) that is the culprit when you fail during a VO2max test.
There is a subtle distinction that I want to point out here so these data are not misinterpreted. This study does not indicate that improving heart function is the key to improving performance. During submaximal efforts (what we do 90% of the time) the ability of the mitochondria to use oxygen efficiently is the key to performance. This study only shows that during a maximal exercise test, like you do during a VO2max test, the ability of the heart to deliver oxygen is the limiting factor to a higher VO2max. Again, this is strongly indicative of genetic links to VO2max because just like hand size is a function of genetics, so is heart size. To read the full article, I have provided the web link.
If you have any physiology, performance, or nutrition related questions, email Ben at: email@example.com.
Aging is my primary area of research and in our lab we study what causes aging and how to slow it down. Our goal is not to make anyone live to 130, but rather to increase the period of time one spends healthy and compress the period of time spent in an age-related decline. There are many theories about how and why aging occurs. These various theories have different viewpoints from cellular function to evolutionary rationalizations. All these theories have merits and set a vantage point for the particular line of hypothesis testing. This column will explain a very simple theory and then explain why physical activity, such as cycling, helps slow the aging process.
One very simplistic way to think about aging is that it is the accumulation of damage over time. This accumulation of damage reduces the function of cells and tissues, thus resulting in even more damage. For the sake of analogy, think of something you own that gets repeated use – bike, car, refrigerator, carpeting – and it is easy to imagine how prolonged time leads to accumulated damage. However, the difference with these examples compared to your body, is that these inanimate objects don’t have integrated processes that are supposed to prevent damage from occurring in the first place or repair them when they happen. Why is it that the human body has processes in place to prevent damage but even this fails over time?
Our bodies have to constantly adjust to the environment around them whether that be heat, cold, solar radiation, invaders (viruses and others) and energetic stresses. When the body adjusts correctly, it makes the body stronger and more resistant to these environmental changes. When the stresses are extreme, there is maladjustment in the body and these stresses can be damaging. I’ve mentioned this concept before (called hormesis), which refers to the idea that a little stress is good and strengthens the system whereas too big of a stress is maladaptive and damaging. If you consider that aging is a very slow decline over time, you might view the accumulation of damage the cumulative maladaptation over time. However a damaging event does not always have to remain in the physiological record of an individual if it can be efficiently repaired.
Now let’s consider how physical activity benefits cellular structures. Recall that I said that the adaptation to a low dose stress in the body strengthens the cell to subsequent challenges. Think of endurance exercise as a low dose energetic stress. This stress forces the cell to adapt in order to supply and use energy better to avoid future stresses. This adaptation process requires the making of new proteins, since the proteins are what provide resistance to future stresses. In that sense then, exercise is always adding new proteins to the system. However, equally important to the making of new proteins is the breaking down of old ones. Your cells do not like to keep extra proteins around that are not needed because it is costs a lot of energetic currency to keep them running well. Therefore, the making of new proteins is usually accomplished by the breaking down of old proteins, or what is referred to as turnover or remodeling.
How does physical activity, such as cycling, slow aging? There are two primary ways physical activity is beneficial – preventing damage in the first place, and repairingdamage after it occurs. The making of new proteins and breaking down of old proteins is key to both preventing and repairing damage. First, physical activity synthesizes proteins that make the cell stronger, thus being less susceptible to damage. Second, if damage does accumulate, physical activity accelerates the making of new proteins and breaking down of old ones in order to rid the cell of damaged structures and replaces them with new ones. Therefore, exercise is both a preventative maintenance to the aging process and a repair process for some of the effects of aging that have already occurred.
Although in concept this all sounds super easy to understand, the genetic, molecular, and cellular processes that control this making and breaking down of proteins is decidedly complex. There are multiple points of regulation and multiple pieces of information, which are often at odds with each other, that are constantly integrated to make decisions about the making of proteins and cellular fate. For example, think about the age-related disease of cancer, the cell is getting signals to continue to replicate and grow (tumorigenic), while other signals are trying to prevent that from happening (anti-tumorigenic). How the cell makes that choice is what we strive to understand.
We know that exercise is a very potent stimulator of protein turnover and thus cellular maintenance and repair. At this point, physical activity is probably the most effective slowed aging treatment there is because no drug has been able to recapitulate the protein quality control mechanisms that exercise activates. When I am asked if the research in our lab has produced any breakthroughs to slow the aging process, I am forced to admit that we already know what works (exercise), we just don’t know enough about how it works. We continue research into learning how it works so we can understand better how to take advantage of those processes for human health. Because, as we are all too familiar with, exercise is not as popular as we think it should be.
If you have any physiology, performance, or nutrition related questions, email Ben at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1992, the prestigious scientific journal Science named nitric oxide (NO) the “Molecule of the year.” The reason it got this distinction was the new understanding of nitric oxide as an incredibly important signal, especially for causing the dilation of blood vessels. Because of the enormous clinical implications of this mechanism (think hypertension, other cardiovascular disease and even erectile dysfunction), three US scientists received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1998. Part of the importance of NO stemmed from its ease of being targeted pharmacologically. In fact, it was later found that many popular drugs that were already being used (nitroglycerine for example) were actually targeting the NO pathway. Because of the importance of blood flow, and hence oxygen delivery, to endurance exercise performance it was only a matter of time before NO manipulation emerged as a potential site of performance enhancement.
It was recognized relatively early that NO was formed when an enzyme named nitric oxide synthase (NOS) oxidized L-arginine (an amino acid) to NO. The NO derivatives nitrite (NO2-) and nitrate (NO3-) were byproducts of this reaction. Only more recently was it understood that in addition to the reaction catalyzed by NOS, there were reactions in which nitrate could be reduced to nitrite and then further reduced to NO (a scientific aside - these are redox reactions in which there are oxidations and reductions based on electron transfer). Since some food sources, particularly leafy vegetables, are high in dietary nitrate, providing dietary nitrate through the diet became a potential way to increase NO availability and hence blood and oxygen delivery.
The first evidence of potential exercise benefits was provided by a study conducted in Sweden in which dietary nitrate in the form of sodium nitrate was able to reduce the oxygen cost of a submaximal exercise bout. In other words, the subjects were able to do the same amount of work when cycling albeit at a lower oxygen cost (increased efficiency). These results were expanded further to dietary sources of nitrate, such as beetroot juice, with similar findings. One important study used beetroot juice with nitrate removed as a placebo control and found that the performance benefits were dependent on nitrate being present. Even though it was thought that dietary nitrate could improve exercise performance by increasing oxygen delivery, these study showed that exercise performance increased by an alternative mechanism of increased muscular efficiency.
What followed was a series of investigations in a variety of exercise modes, at different exercise intensities, and with different populations from untrained to highly trained individuals. Under a variety of conditions, these studies have consistently shown an increase in exercise performance, as measured by time to exhaustion or time trial performance. Although the exact mechanisms are yet to be fully understood, it is thought that the improvement in exercise efficiency could be because of a reduced energy cost of muscle contraction and/or enhanced mitochondrial function. The laboratory of Andrew Jones at Exeter University in the UK has been particularly influential in this area of study.
Besides the mechanism of action, there is still one great unknown with dietary nitrate supplementation – do truly elite athletes benefit from its use. It is known that a great many elite athletes use beetroot juice to enhance performance. However, studies in elite athletes are few (elite athletes are by definition rare), and inconclusive. It is clear that those at the sub-elite level (the vast majority of us) can gain a performance benefit from dietary nitrate, but at what performance ability that might stop is yet unknown. It is thought that the truly elite are operating at such a high limit that the margin of potential benefit is small. However, even in the studies of elite athletes that have inconclusive results, there are some individuals that show a clear benefit, while others do not. Therefore, it is a classic case of “responders” and “non-responders” that may be determined by ones normal nitrate/nitrite levels.
Although this column is usually not one to support supplementation, at this point there is pretty clear evidence that dietary nitrate, like that found in beetroot juice, can improve exercise performance. There is additional evidence (not gone into here) that this could be even more beneficial at high altitude, which a consideration in Colorado (although maybe not Fort Collins, which is considered moderate altitude). The research on the topic is still emerging and new products will continue to hit the market since many are on the beetroot bandwagon. To help you make informed decisions, I have included a link to practical recommendations from Dr. Jones: Beetroot recommendations.
In this column, I wanted to highlight two recent publications that I thought would be of interest given the hot days of summer. Both of these are completely out of my area of expertise, so I present a brief synopsis without interpretation. I will also provide the reference for interested readers.
“The effect of dehydration on muscle metabolism and time trial performance during prolonged cycling in males”
Rationale: There are a number of studies that have examined the physiological consequences of dehydration during exercise (and cycling specific) performance. However, maintaining hydration during a prolonged event is often difficult. Although it is known that fluid loss can contribute to a decrease in exercise performance, it is not known how much changes in energy metabolism contribute to the decrease in performance. Since it is known that glycogen depletion correlates with fatigue, it is possible that changes in substrate use (carbohydrate versus fat) could contribute to the onset of fatigue with dehydration. This study examined the effects of progressive dehydration on time trial performance and several physiological parameters by studying subjects after an overnight fluid restriction followed by further dehydration during the exercise bout.
Methods: Nine trained (but not elite) males completed the protocol. During the dehydrated trial, subjects did not drink fluids after 6 pm on the night prior to testing and abstained from fluids throughout the exercise trial. For the control trial, subjects remained hydrated. During the exercise bout, subjects cycled at ~65% VO2peak for 90 min followed by a time trial to complete a given amount of work in as fast of time as possible. Blood and muscle were sampled for analysis.
Results: With a 2-3% body weight dehydration, subjects had increased carbohydrate use, greater muscle glycogen use, a 13% decrement in performance (time to complete the time trial), increased heart rate, increased core temperature, and increased perceived exertion.
Conclusions: According to the authors, the results may indicate that athletes training in a dehydrated state induce a greater cellular and whole body stress, which may enhance adaptations when training, but will hinder performance during competition.
The effect of dehydration on muscle metabolism and time trial performance during prolonged cycling in males. Logan-Sprenger HM, Heigenhauser GJ, Jones GL, Spriet LL. Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug;3(8). PMID: 26296770.
“Does wearing clothing made of a synthetic “cooling” fabric improve indoor cycle exercise endurance in trained athletes?”
Rationale: In humans, the evaporation of sweat from the skin surface accounts for ~80% of heat loss during physical activity. Failure to adequately thermoregulate during exercise can inhibit exercise performance. Since clothing presents a barrier to evaporative heat loss, clothing that minimizes resistance to evaporation could enhance exercise performance compared to restrictive clothing. The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that wearing clothing made of a synthetic fabric promoted by the manufacturer as having superior cooling properties would improve exercise performance of endurance trained athletes under ambient laboratory conditions.
Methods: Twenty competitive male and female amateur athletes completed the study. The study was a controlled, randomized, double blind, crossover study with cycling exercise performed with synthetic clothing control or synthetic clothing advertised as “cooling”. Exercise testing was performed as an incremental cycling test followed by exercise to fatigue at a given workload. A variety of physiological parameters were monitored during the exercise bout.
Results: There was no difference in exercise time to exhaustion between the fabrics. Further, there were no differences in cardiorespiratory parameters, or core or surface body temperature. Finally, there was no difference between perceived comfort, cooling, or performance between the two garments.
Conclusions: According to the authors, wearing a garment composed of a synthetic “cooling” fabric does not improve exercise performance of trained athletes, nor does it enhance thermoregulatory, cardiometabolic, ventilatory, and perceptual responses to exercise.
Does wearing clothing made of a synthetic "cooling" fabric improve indoor cycle exercise endurance in trained athletes? Abdallah SJ, Krug R, Jensen D. Physiol Rep. 2015 Aug;3(8). PMID: 26290527
Many cyclists consider their greatest moment on the bike to come from winning a certain race or hitting a top speed on an epic Rocky Mountain descent. In Fort Collins, Colorado, however,many riders consider their most memorable moments to come from the local Wednesday night ride dubbed “Wednesday Night World Championships,” or simply, “Worlds.” For local pro Rich Davis, his proudest moment on the bike came after driving the group ride break with the U.S. National Champion Eddy Gragus, Olympic Trials winner and Redlands Bicycle Classic winner Randy Whicker, and fellow local Chris Stockburger. When the break turned West with the finish line approaching, Davis read the north wind and attacked in the gutter of the opposite lane. Gragus and Stockburger were dropped during the first gutter and Whicker held on with his infamous smirk. Whicker had played this same tactic on Davis countless times, but that night Davis was determined to drop him. During the second gutter attempt, Whicker still held on with the same smirk for one minute. Finally, on the third gutter attempt Davis shook Whicker and rode up the Cement Plant hill to the finish solo for the victory.
For roughly 40 years, Worlds has put Northern Colorado cyclists through the ringer. From weekend warriors to Olympic Champions, cyclists of all levels have been shaped by one of the most notorious group rides in the country. Welcome to the Northern Colorado School of Bike Racing.
Spring Creek Velo Club started the ride in 1975 during what were known as the “pot luck” days of racing in town when everyone knew one another. Originally, it was not Worlds, rather an extra midweek training opportunity to give a team member company on his commute home to Windsor with a sprint point at the city limit sign. Over time the ride grew, as World’s became a regular training ride for many who had just enough time after work to throw on their ride shorts and make it to the Bike Broker located near Riverside Avenue and Prospect Road.
When the Bike Broker moved to Old Town Fort Collins, the route shifted to the north. The group would head east out of town on Vine Drive to the Interstate-25 Frontage Road. When the group hit the Frontage Road and turned north, it was game on as soon as the first attack went. The frontage road is where many cyclists have properly learned to echelon as it is mostly pancake flat and a headwind is always present for the 17 miles before the turn west on Buckeye Road. Buckeye Road is where many cyclists have gone into the red in order to hold on to the infamous Randy Whicker’s wheel following his gutters in the opposite lane.
For local rider Scott Queen, one of his proudest moments as a cyclist came when he was the only rider to hold Whicker’s wheel in the gutter as the two made it up the Rawhide Energy Plant Hill and established that evening’s break. The six mile stretch of Buckeye Road is where the ride gained its notoriety to develop riders physically and mentally. During a typical week of the ride’sheyday, Buckeye Road is where a three to four man break was established with the peloton itching for the turn South onto Terry Lake Road. For a long time, the group would finish going all the way south for 16 miles to highway One (See map below). Long time local pro Dwight Hall recalls the finishing 5 miles to never have dropped below 30 miles per hour before the finish line change.
As development began to shift north of Old Townwith the growing Fort Collins Country Club, the route again underwent a change. The 16 mile south-bound section shortened to six miles with another west turn onto Owl Canyon Road. For a short two miles, gutters and attacks would again ensue if the break had been caught or if a chase group needed to be established. For seven miles, the route again enjoyed a tailwind after turning south onto County Road 19 before the finishing mile and a half up the Cement Plant Hill to the west where gutters and attacks would again take place all the way to the finish line. Between the sheer difficulty of the wind on this route and the tactics played out by the strongest riders in attendance, the ride rarely saw the win go to a sprinter, rather the strongest or craziest rider left would take the prize of local bragging rights for the week.
When a sprinter sitson in the break, it’s local law to respect those who have done all the work and not sprint for the win. In 2006, local rider Will Hickey learned this the hard way after sitting on for the final 15 miles then coming around at the end to take the sprint win. As Hickey turned around after winning that evening expecting a congratulations from the fellow breakaway riders, he was met with disappointment from fellow local Evan Ruznaski, who simply put his head down and said, “That’s not okay, not okay.” At Worlds, you work for the win.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the ride saw its peak in numbers, eventually with the AC Pinarello Continental Team leading the charge. On any given Wednesday, at least 20 pro or elite riders were in attendance with another 40 strong local riders showing up to earn the respect of the pros during every rotation. At some point during this 20 year run of Fort Collins being the Colorado cycling hub, the old local saying “If you can win Worlds, you can win any Pro/1/2 race around” came to life. The difficulty of Worlds continued into the 2000’s with the Domestic Elite team Legacy, which eventually became Ciclismo, leading the way in numbers. Additionally, continental riders from Jamis and Jelly Belly often joined the paceline. The most well known rider of today’s pro peloton to frequent the echelon was Tejay Van Garderen, who went to high school in Fort Collins and raced for local domestic elite team, Team Rio Grande Racing.
In 2006, Brad Cole moved to Fort Collins on a Monday from Kansas City to further pursue cycling. Cole had long heard rumors of Worlds. Before unpacking his bags, Brad showed up that Wednesday evening to see why this ride had the reputation it did. That night, local riders Forest Newman and Dan Workman crashed at the Buckeye Road turn. Newman injured his head and Workman had to have surgery on his knuckles. This is when the “oh s***” moment hit Cole. Cole spent five seasons racing on the National Race Calendar for Legacy, Ciclismo and the Rio Grande, and he can hardly remember a race that was more intense than this local Wednesday group ride.
Eventually, the numbers at Worlds began to decline and the ride nearly became just a memory for many. One could argue that residential and economic development has drastically shifted further south in town the last ten years thus making the traditional 5:30 start time not as attainable. More likely, the difficulty of the ride is what led to the shift in rider choice of what local Wednesday ride to attend as the “Wednesday Open Ride” or “WOR” began from the south end of town and quickly grew. In addition to the other option of a Wednesday evening group ride, grassroots racing in Fort Collins has grown beyond comparison to anywhere else in Colorado. With the rotation of local circuit races and criteriums on Tuesdays during the summer and a rotation of time trials on Thursdays throughout the Spring and Summer, riders can choose from multiple rides to fit their desired intensity efforts.
In the last five years, there have been consecutive weeks where five or less cyclists have gone out to battle in the Northern Colorado plains. Most recently in May, local pro and two time National Champion Zack Allison went out to the ride on a rainy evening and discovered he was the only rider in attendance. Despite not having anyone to compete against, Allison still rode against the north wind that Wednesday as if there were 20 other pros attacking from every direction.
This draught of riders showing up is a big reason why Dan Porter, a well known local cycling enthusiast, pushed for a route change that would alternate every week, an attempt to put new life back into the dying ride. One week to remain the long route that finishes up the Cement Plant and the following week to cut across west at Owl Canyon Road, rather than continuing North. On the evenings that the route headswest early on Owl Canyon Road, the Cement Plant acts as the midway sprint point before the route continues further west through a gravel road that eventually puts the group northbound onto Highway 287 for half a mile before turning west again to go past the Noosa Yoghurt headquarters, more commonly referred to as the Dairy Loop. In Colorado, race organizers have a fascination with including dirt roads into circuit races;Fort Collins riders usually feel they are more prepared for these races after they have learned the proper ways of riding gravel during Worlds. After the Dairy Loop, the ride heads up the dams of Horsetooth Reservoir where climbers finally have an advantage, if they manage to hang in, as the finish is located on the top of Centennial Hill.
When this alternating route schedule still didn’t bring out the numbers of days past, Porter proposed an A group and a B group in which the B’s started five minutes prior to the A’s. Although a new format was presented, the ride’s personality remained as the B’s became the breakaway and the A’s became the chasing peloton. This change was not met with applause from everyone in the community. Many locals were more concerned with the style of the ride over the numbers in attendance. Despite the difference of today versus ten years ago, riders still show up with the tenacity to go battle in the wind regardless of the group they choose to ride in. Ultimately, if the community wants to return to the days of old, riders will begin to abandon the 5:30 B start time and everyone will wait for the 5:35 start time. Likely a B group will naturally form as it did for thirty years.
So what gave a few years ago and what still gives on some Wednesday nights? After conducting research with long time local riders through phone calls, emails, and Facebook forums, one subject stands out: Coaching styles. Before the ride began to die there were no coaches holding a rider back from going out and riding strong and trying new tactics or from getting dropped and potentially morally defeated. Today, there are a lot of young riders in town who have never been to Worlds yet race every weekend, some on the National Race Calendar. With the risk of moral defeat during a “mere” group ride, burnout can become a real issue. From a coach’s standpoint, it makes sense financially to not include Worlds in the weekly training plan. That coach could potentially lose out on money every month if said burnout is to occur. But what about the other end of that argument? If a rider routinely goes to Worlds and further develops the ability to read a race, these lessons will be applied to an actual race on a weekend. Results will get better with every passing Wednesday just as they did for many riders for thirty years. Could it actually be safe financially for a coach to send a rider out to Worlds?
Coaching styles aside, this Wednesday ritual will continue to regain prominence in the community and again be known as the hardest group ride in the U.S. There are enough riders in town that were in attendance every week for ten to thirty years that still show up on occasion and encourage those that might be newer to the ride to bring the tenacity that was guaranteed for so long. Local rider Don Spence, a frequent attender during the 1990’s, put it best: “I rarely took anything personal at Wednesday Worlds… I simply enjoyed spinning and playing bike chess with the strength that showed up. What I remember is the great respect for your effort, strength, and tenacity.”
Worlds will continue to be the driving force behind road cyclists that call Fort Collins home. No matter the numbers that show up on any given week, the lessons learned in this painful echelon will continue to groom cyclists of all abilities for years to come. Most recently, on the Wednesday of July 22nd, the echelon saw a current stars and stripes winner and former rainbow jersey winner. Currently, it’s not an every week occurrence for riders of this pristine to show up, but the hard work of many involved in the grassroots cycling scene to rebuild Worlds is without doubt taking notice.
Routes: (if routes aren't loading, click on the route title)
On various social media dedicated to the local Fort Collins cycling scene, there has been much discussion on the importance of certain local training rides and how to increase rider participation. In general, those that care about the rides have been very responsive and sensitive to suggestions to improve the rides. There is one discussion that has popped up repeatedly over the years that I would like to address. The discussion usually goes something like this: “These hard rides are the best way to get stronger. At first you get dropped, but you keep trying and you keep getting stronger and eventually you hang in there.” There is usually this addition too: “Just look at Joe Blow, he used to get dropped all the time but he kept coming out and now he is kicking our butts.” At the risk of really dating myself, I like to refer to this last part as the George Burns argument. George Burns lived to 100 years old and smoked cigars every day of his life, so that must mean that smoking will not kill you. There are of course people that defy the odds, but those people should not be considered the norm (because they defy the odds). In the same manner, there are those that get their butt kicked and keep coming back and get better, but there are many others who no matter how hard they try - and of no fault of their own - will not be able to hang. Below I will explain further.
It is generally agreed that a high VO2max is requisite for elite endurance exercise performance. This statement does not mean that a high VO2max guarantees elite performance, and it does not mean that elite performance is tightly correlated with VO2max (or else we would just do VO2 max tests and call it good), it simply means that it is a minimal requirement. The ability to have a high VO2max is largely genetically determined. Through intense training (starting from no training) one can realistically expect to increase VO2max by 9-17%. However, there are some studies that have reported improvements of around 20-25%. If you had a VO2max of 40 ml/kg/min, that training could get you to 48-50 ml/kg/min, which is still not enough to be an elite endurance athlete. If you are genetically gifted, and already have a fairly high VO2max, those improvements mean a great deal and could push you to the elite level. A recently published paper (referenced at the end of this column) profiled Olympic medalists and also-rans (from the Olympics) in XC skiing and cycling. The VO2max in male competitors (non-medalists and medalists) spanned the very narrow range of 77-83 ml/kg/min. Therefore, there is clearly a requisite VO2max that not everyone can obtain.
You may ask then, what limits the ability to improve VO2max? VO2 max is largely determined by the ability to deliver oxygen (heart and blood) and the ability to use oxygen (mitochondria in muscle). The ability of the heart to get the blood (and hence oxygen) to the system is the cardiac output. Cardiac output is then determined by heart rate and volume pumped per beat (stroke volume). Maximal heart rate is not really trainable, thus training-induced benefits must be through stroke volume enhancement. Although this can improve, it cannot improve infinitely. The oxygen is carried through the blood bound to hemoglobin. It has been shown that elite endurance athletes have very high hemoglobin mass (concentration x blood volume). Therefore, they have a great ability to deliver oxygen. This factor has limited trainability, but is the target of other means to improve performance (altitude training, EPO, etc). Finally, the muscle has mitochondrial that can use the oxygen, but the improvements from increased mitochondrial mass is a little different and discussed below.
If we have a limited ability to improve our VO2max, how else could we improve performance? The one with the most potential is mechanical efficiency. What mechanical efficiency refers to is the ability to do more work with a given amount of oxygen. Therefore, you can do more work before reaching your maximal ability to use oxygen. Although it is pretty clear that years of training can improve running economy (not strictly the same thing, but close enough for our discussion) it is doubtful that mechanical efficiency improves with cycling training. What can improve with cycling are the benefits from mitochondrial adaptations. With training you can increase mitochondrial mass and therefore the ability to sustain a higher percentage of your VO2max. Your max ability to perform work may not improve, but your ability to sustain a higher percentage of max does. This adaptation is a primary benefit of training.
To circle back a little now, a high VO2max is required for elite endurance exercise performance; however, the ability to improve VO2max is limited. Exercise training improves mitochondrial function and may (big maybe here) improve mechanical efficiency allowing one to get the most out of their VO2max. Through training, we all have the ability to improve within our maximal VO2max. What that means is that through training, we can all be the best our physiology will allow us to be. However, there are some out there, unfortunately, that will never be able to improve to the point of being able to compete at a high level. These are not people who are not trying hard enough, or are not motivated, they are genetically limited and are doing the best with what they have. There are those out there who by attending a hard group ride will be able to improve to the level to be able to compete. These individuals are trying hard, but also have the genetic predisposition to get to a high performance level. But, there are those that no matter how hard they try, will not be able to get to that level. It is not for a lack of trying, it is from the lack of genetic predisposition. I therefore take exception when it is implied that the hardest group ride in town is “the only way they will get better.” There are other rides that will allow them to get better without simultaneously discouraging their participation (or ways to design a ride to accommodate all abilities). Participation in cycling in general is what is important, not on a specific ride. We should do what we can to be encouraging to all abilities so they can compete within their comfort range and ability.
Reference of interest: Performance Enhancement: What Are the Physiological Limits? Lundby C, Robach P. Physiology (Bethesda). 2015 Jul;30(4):282-92. PMID: 26136542.
Commander Crash McLarson, that’s probably what my name should be at this point. Crashing sucks and it’s been a bad year for crashes. In all the years I’ve been a mountain biker I can remember at least 6 big, helmet cracking crashes. So far this year I’ve had 4, although only one was a helmet cracker.
As I sit writing this now, I’ve just had what are among two of my most severe crashes ever within 6 days of each other. In the first, I was going north on Blue Sky in the rain and wanting to get back to the car. I was approaching the tunnel under the county road at mach 6 (like I have literally hundreds of other times) and the instant my wet, sandy tires hit the concrete the bike disappeared out from under me. This caused me to slide about 30 feet down the tunnel on my side at mach 6. The only thing I really remember was yelling F___K!!! at the top of my lungs as I felt layer after layer of skin being peeled off my right arm and leg. As I came to a stop, still tangled in my miraculously unscathed bike, the last reverberations of my exclamation still echoed through the tunnel.
Crash number two that happened six days later was pure stupidity on my part but it involved an alternate line, a blind jump/drop, and landing front wheel first on a perfect wedge shaped rock which sent me head first in to another perfectly shaped helmet cracking rock. Apart from a bruised and cut up knee and sore neck, I wasn’t as injured as the last crash, my bike one the other hand had a tacoed rear wheel and bent rail on the saddle. Along with the cost of replacing the BRAND NEW helmet that was on its second ride (ditto for the saddle…ditto for the bike, actually) that ended up being an expensive bit of misjudgment.
Crashing sucks not only because of injury and expense but the fact that it’s so damn demoralizing has got to be the worst part of it. After big crashes, I don’t have any confidence in anything; I ride slow and squirrely and target fixate on everything that I’m sure is going to kill me on the trail. I feel like I have crash PTSD and can’t relax, concentrate, flow, or enjoy myself.
After a big crash, or a series of them as has been the case recently, I always try to analyze where I went wrong because that’s just how I work. I feel pretty fortunate because my childhood of BMX and long history of mountain biking means that I rarely go ass over teakettle but I have come to the realization that my experience may be part of the problem.
One of the most common causes of crashing in my case is overconfidence. I’m not talking overconfidence like ‘Yeah, I can clear that 30 foot gap no problem’ I’m talking overconfidence like ‘I’ve ridden this line/ trail a zillion times before without an incident so I’m not even thinking about it’. I guess another way to look at it would be to call it complacency; one gets confident in their skills and speed on a particular stretch of dirt and gets a little sloppy, or tired, or distracted, and wham, it’s over.
The opposite can also bite you. I think that big, technical, fast, or burly lines are as much mental as physical and when you start questioning your skills, line choices, or ability in the middle of it all, that’s a perfect recipe for crash-disaster.
Another problem in my case is forgetting what bike I’m on and the limitations of the bike that I’m on. I do most of my high speed and technical descending on a long travel, full suspension bike. The beauty of a bike like this is that it lets you go really, really fast through really gnarly terrain. Because long travel bikes tend to be rather forgiving of poor line choices, unseen obstacles, or general ‘oh s**t’ moments, you start to feel pretty invincible after a while. 3 out of 4 of my crashes this year have been on a hardtail and it’s totally my fault because I was expecting the hardtail to work the way a 6” travel bike works when you make a bad decision. As full suspension bikes have gotten better and better, my descending times have gotten faster and faster. I forget how much I have to slow down on a hardtail in those situations. I now have to consciously remind myself that the descending speed that I’m used to and that feels ‘right’ applies to long travel only. For the hardtail ‘right’ is about 25-30% slower and the bike won’t automatically soak up mistakes; that’s my job.
I’ve talked to several people who don’t want to ride mountain bikes because of the crash potential. The truth is, crashing a mountain bike is all on the rider. The terrain is what it is and the rocks aren’t moving. If you crash, it’s your fault. If you don’t want to crash, walk your bike through the area you’re not sure about. Dealing with the variables of cars or group rides on the road is not something I’m up for. If I crash I want it to be my fault, not someone else’s mistake that takes me down.
A couple things I’m actually in awe over are the ability of a modern bicycle helmet to absorb kinetic energy and protect one’s brain and the ability of a middle aged human body to absorb kinetic energy without any real serious or permanent injury.
I think I’ve cracked 7 helmets in the past 25 years (4 in the last 3 years) and survived without a scratch, concussion, broken skull, paralysis, or death. In 5 out of those 7 head impacts I can’t even imagine what would have happened If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet. There’s a possibility I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, that’s for sure. One wouldn’t think that a cheesy Styrofoam bowl sitting on top of your head could do all that, but brother, it does it and does it well. I think I’ve retired more helmets to the rocks than I have due to age and I’m always blown away by their ability to do their job. Thank you, helmets!
I’m fortunate that I’ve never been seriously or permanently injured (knocking on wood) while mountain biking ( I do have one permanent BMX injury). All of my injuries have boiled down to road rash, cuts, or bruises, and I’m pretty sure I broke a pinky once but that’s the only thing I’ve broken. Out of all of these, road rash is the worst; in many ways road rash it the worst injury period. It hurts like hell 24/7, takes a long time to heal, and depending on where it is you may not be able sleep, wear clothes, or shower. You inevitably bang it or scrape it against something at some point and want to scream at the top of your lungs. It itches like crazy as it heals and everyone is constantly asking what happened. Crashing sucks for sure but road rash sucks 10,000% more.
I’m definitely not proud of my crashes but I can learn something from them. The immediate effect of crashing is that it slows me down and causes me to re-evaluate things like technique and mortality. Once the confidence returns and the crash PTSD disappears, I’m likely to be a little more humble and a better rider who is more concerned with self-preservation. As much as I love speed and have a hard time resisting the urge to go really fast, there are numerous places in the area where an ill-timed rock ricochet could send one off trail in to a life threatening situation in the blink of an eye. I never thought about this much before but I have been lately and it’s slowing me down quite a bit.
I have seen the frustration of beginning riders dealing with the steep learning curve that comes with learning to ride off-road and my heart goes out to them. I couldn’t imagine learning mountain biking skills as an adult. The only advice I can give you if you’re in this boat is to keep riding, keep learning, practice those skills, and don’t quit. If it makes you feel any better, we all crash, every one of us, so you’re definitely not alone.
I was so pissed off and fed up after my last crash that I stopped and bought a new helmet and saddle on the way home, replaced the tacoed wheelset on my bike, got up at 5:30 the next morning and rode 29 miles through both of my previous crash sites just to prove that I could complete a ride without crashing. The good thing is that I didn’t crash, had a good time, and feel 100% better about things.
In the world of aviation, they say that a good landing is any landing you walk away from. I think we can probably steal that one for our purposes here as well. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘good crash’ but as long as you walk (or limp) away, things are going to be all right.
There are two recent articles that I would like to share. Quite often a new approach will permeate the cycling scene and others just accept that it works because some athletes that are really good are using the approach. A lot of times the athletes that are good will be good no matter what they do, so it is really hard to make a judgment purely on that basis alone. Until a controlled study is done, we never really know how well a new approach works. Below I will highlight two studies using rationale and results directly from the published paper. I will include the reference in case anyone wants to read the publication.
Paper 1 – Gluten free diets: Lis, D., Stellingwerff, T., Kitic, C. M., Ahuja, K. D., & Fell, J. (2015). No Effects of a Short-Term Gluten-free Diet on Performance in Nonceliac Athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Background: Previously the authors of the current paper performed a survey of 942 non-celiac diseased athletes and found that 40% used a gluten free diet at least 50% of the time. The reason for the gluten free diet was often a self-diagnosis of gluten intolerance. The athletes surveyed believed that a gluten free diet would provide a healthier diet, increase exercise performance and decrease GI distress and inflammation. The problem with a gluten free diet is that it could result in dietary deficiency if not accompanied by other changes. To date, no study has actually examined if adoption of a gluten free diet enhances exercise performance as commonly believed.
Study design: Thirteen competitive cyclists (male and female) free of celiac disease enrolled in a double-blind, placebo controlled, cross-over design. The subjects consumed a control or gluten free diet for 7 days prior to performance testing with a 10-day washout period between diets. A dietitian controlled and monitored all aspects of the study.
Results: There was no difference in parameter associated with performance in a 15 km TT. There was no difference in GI symptoms during the 7-day periods or during the exercise performance test itself. There was no difference in overall well being during the study period. Finally, there was no difference in markers of gut inflammation or systemic inflammation.
Take home: Although only 5-10% of the general population has a diagnosis of celiac disease, a survey indicated that over 40% of athletes have adopted a gluten free diet. Results from this study indicated that adoption of short-term gluten free diet did not improve exercise performance, gut inflammation, systemic inflammation, or overall well being. Of note, although the diet in this study was only employed for 7 days, clinical studies indicate that true gluten intolerance is apparent hours to days after consumption of gluten. Therefore, this study does not support a positive benefit of a gluten free diet in athletes that do not have celiac disease.
Paper 2 - Vercruyssen, F., Easthope, C., Bernard, T., Hausswirth, C., Bieuzen, F., Gruet, M., & Brisswalter, J. (2014). The influence of wearing compression stockings on performance indicators and physiological responses following a prolonged trail running exercise. European Journal of Sport Science, 14(2), 144–150.
Background: Although less prominent in the cycling scene, compression socks are heavily used in running and triathlon. Studies to date have consistently failed to demonstrate a performance benefit for the exercise bout or the subsequent recovery from that bout of exercise, despite athletes’ reporting that the socks make them feel better. The current study added to the current literature by examining a trail-running bout of exercise of high intensity and long duration to simulate competition. In addition, the course had uphill and downhill sections that are not possible to capture in a laboratory setting.
Study design: Eleven trained experienced male trail-runners were recruited for study. The subjects took part in both laboratory (for characterization) and field-testing. The subjects performed familiarization trials of the course prior to the experimental trials. The subjects completed 3 laps of a course with uphill and downhill segments for a total of a 15.6 km run for each trial. Data was collected in less than 40 sec between laps to get performance during the exercise bout and at the completion of the test.
Results: There was no performance benefit (run time) when using compression stockings. In addition, there was no benefit of the compression stockings on heart rate response, rating of perceived exertion, muscle oxygenation, or maximum voluntary contraction.
Take home: As with other studies, the current study failed to demonstrate a positive effect of compression stockings when worn during a race-paced running effort over a 15.6 km course. Interestingly, the study failed to decrease the ratings of perceived exertion as well, which is counter to the subjective “they make me feel better” reports. This experiment does not support the use of compression stockings during competition.
In the following article I will present an unofficial guide to mountain biking trail etiquette. I will admit that when I was younger, there were probably times when I needed an ‘etiquette lesson’ on the trail. In a couple of cases I received an Instant Karma Etiquette Lesson and ended up looking and feeling like a giant tool. As I’ve gotten older, trail etiquette (or more specifically, the lack thereof), has become one of my biggest frustrations when mountain biking.
The most basic reason for following proper trail etiquette is that it keeps you and other trail users safe. If you want a more self-serving reason, it ensures that mountain bikers will continue to have trail access. Another reason is that it’s just the right thing to do.
If you’re new to mountain biking, take some time to learn some basic trail etiquette skills; it’s expected of you by other trail users. If you’re an old hand, take some time to review.
A few general rules:
Bikes yield to everyone on the trail! Yielding usually means stopping and stepping aside so that another trail user can get past you. On very wide trails or gravel roads, you may be able to safely yield by riding far to one side…this depends on the specific situation and the type of trail user you are passing (more on that later). Blasting a line off-trail around another user is not yielding.
Yielding always means slowing down as you pass the other trail user. Always. Bikes are loud and intimidating when bombing down trails at high speeds. This freaks people out and makes them angry. They’re not always sure you’re in control and they definitely don’t want to feel threatened or in danger. Slow down when you pass someone, especially when overtaking (coming up behind them).
Announce your presence, especially if you’re overtaking someone. A lot of times, people are in their own little universe when you come up on them. You think they hear you, but they don’t. Having a large, fast moving object suddenly fly by you in your peripheral vision triggers a primal prey/ flight response that freaks people out and them makes them angry. People who think they’re about to be dinner for a saber toothed cat (the primal prey response) also act unpredictably and can jump right in front of you causing all kinds of chaos. Announce your presence at a considerable distance. The faster you’re going, the further away you announce. I usually try to just give a non-confrontational ‘Hello!’ to get their attention. Then I will follow up with something like ‘Can I get by you?’ or “On your left/right.”
Slow down considerably as you pass them. If I’m overtaking someone in a narrow or technical area (especially another cyclist) I will ask them if I can get by when they get a chance. They shouldn’t have to instantly dive off of the trail to let me by.
Judge your ‘subject’ before yielding or overtaking. This is less obvious, but if you’re coming up on someone who looks to be a seasoned cyclist/hiker/trail runner/ or other ‘outdoors-person’ they’re probably going to be aware of what’s going on and know what to do as you pass. They probably won’t be freaked out by you overtaking them and probably won’t do anything unpredictable. If you’re coming up on what looks to be a beginner cyclist who is in way over their head, a school field trip, grandma’s book club, or any other group that doesn’t exactly look like they spend a lot of time on multi-user trails, give them a lot of warning, time, and space. In certain situations (like beginner cyclists) I will waive my right of way if it looks like they will have trouble yielding to me. Just use common sense and put yourself in their shoes.
Acknowledge other trail users as you pass. Nothing is seen as more of a chump move than to just blow past someone without acknowledging them. Say ‘hi’ or ‘thanks’ or smile, or wave or nod your head; anything to acknowledge the other human who is sharing the trail with you. I don’t care how hardcore you think you are or how much of a dork you think they are. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got the right of way or who’s passing whom. Just say ‘hi’.
It’s also considered good form to let another user know whether you’re by yourself or part of a group so they can be prepared for other riders to pass them soon. A simple ‘one more behind me’ or just ‘one more’ is sufficient. If you’re alone, you can say ‘just me’.
For the love of all that’s holy, don’t stop in the middle of the trail. Especially on descents, especially on blind corners on descents. If you have a mechanical, need to answer the phone, have a snack, or talk with a friend you’re come across, get completely off the trail to do it. If you stop in the middle of the trail, you are risking your good health and the good health of the rider who’s going to plow in to you at mach 10 because they can’t see you. Also, other users shouldn’t have to change their line to get around you if you’re stopped. Get off the trail.
Speaking of blind corners. Slow down or announce yourself when traveling through blind areas. A bell is good here but I prefer just a simple “HUP HUP!” as I approach a blind corner. It has saved me from many, many head on collisions. Blue Sky is a perfect example of high speed blind corners, especially the section between the Rimrock/Coyote Ridge linkup and the Blue Sky trailhead. If you really want to rail it through a section like this, do it at off-peak times. Always look WAY up the trail so you can see what’s coming.
Ok. Now for a few Specific rules as they apply to specific trail users.
Hikers: Hikers fall in to different categories. There are the seasoned ones, and the ones who are inexperienced and out for a weekend stroll. You have to yield to hikers. That means stopping and letting them by…especially big groups. Everything mentioned in the preceding paragraphs applies to hikers. However, many hikers will give up their right of way to let you by just because it’s easier and gets you out of their hair faster. This doesn’t mean that you should bear down on them and force them to get out of your way. Announce yourself and slow down and if they step aside, continue on. If they don’t, stop and let them pass. I’ve stopped for (and talked to) countless hikers on the trail and most are surprised when I stop. A lot of the ones I’ve talked to will flat out say that it’s easier for them to step aside and let a cyclist by than it is for the cyclist to stop and they prefer it that way. But…interestingly enough, they get upset when they do give up their right of way and you don’t acknowledge it. If a hiker steps aside for you, thank them! If they don’t look like they want to give up their right of way, you have to yield. Simple. Be careful when overtaking kids or dogs…they can be unpredictable, be ready for it.
Speaking of dogs: off-leash dogs are not allowed on any local trails. If you hit, injure, or are injured by an off leash dog, it is not your fault and a court won’t hold you responsible for ‘damages’ provided you weren’t breaking any laws at the time. You can hold the dog owner responsible for damages to you. Off leash dogs are a constant issue for local rangers and they have been cracking down and writing tickets for them.
Trail Runners: I like trail runners. They usually seem to have it together and are pretty easy to get along with on the trail. I treat trail runners like cyclists. Unlike hikers, they’re traveling at high speed (some of them are really fast) they’re in the zone, and they don’t want to stop any more than you want to. They’re also concentrating on picking a line through rocky and technical areas so that they don’t break an ankle. If you are passing a trail runner (going opposite directions) stop and yield to them. Sometimes they will wave you through and give up their right of way but don’t count on it.
If you are overtaking a trail runner, announce your presence, slow down, and ask if you can pass. They will probably have to stop and step off the trail for you to pass and you may have to wait for a suitable passing area. Don’t just blow by them, every trail runner I’ve ever talked to hates that; don’t be a jerk. By the way, if a trail runner is faster than you, let them by. I’ve had my butt kicked by countless trail runners on steep and technical climbs. There will probably come a time that a trail runner is faster than you. Deal with it. Get over yourself, and let them by.
Other mountain bikers: Honestly, most of the issues I have with trail etiquette come from other mountain bikers. You have to yield to the uphill rider! Period! If you are traveling downhill, you have no rights. You yield to everyone and everything. Yielding means stopping and giving the uphill rider space and time to get by. The uphill rider should not have to stop or change their line to get around you. Period. Don’t be the jerk who plays chicken with an uphill rider and ‘yields’ at the last second when you see that you haven’t intimidated them into getting out of your way. If you do that to me, I will call you on it and I’m not going to be very polite about it. If you want a clean run down a descent, wait until it’s clear. If it’s too busy, go somewhere else or ride at a different time.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s going uphill and sometimes nobody is going uphill. In these situations, I generally just yield to the other rider(s) because it’s not that big of a deal. If there’s a big group that’s coming my way, I usually figure it’s easier for one of me to get off the trail than it is for all of them to get off the trail and let me by. If you’re overtaking another mountain biker, slow down, announce yourself, and give them time to find a place to let you pass. They may have to stop and get off their bike and they probably don’t want to do that anymore than you would want to do that. Be patient, it will only take a few seconds to get by them.
Equestrians: Equestrians get their own rules and they’re really pretty simple. Horses are herbivores and they think that everything wants to eat them. Because of that, they’re skittish and they don’t like big loud things that move quickly.
Here’s the deal with equestrians: If you see horses up ahead (whether you want to overtake them or pass the going the opposite direction), stop where the rider can see you and announce your presence. Do this at a considerable distance if at all possible.
If you are coming up behind a group equestrians and want to overtake them, here’s what to do after you’ve made initial contact with them: Give the rider time to respond and position their horse. They will probably want to get off the trail a ways and turn the horse so it can see you. Some may want to dismount the horse. Only proceed to pass the equestrian when the rider has given you the ok. Usually, once they get the horse where they want it, they’ll tell you to come through. Ride very slowly past the equestrians and everything should be alright. If a horse spooks when you go by, I’ve always just stopped and waited for the rider to get control again. They should tell you when it’s safe to proceed. Put a little distance between you and the equestrians before you resume full pace. Just for insurance.
If you are passing equestrians head on (going opposite directions) once you’ve stopped and made initial contact, you may just be able to stand by the side of the trail and let them pass. The rider may take the horse off trail and wide around you or they may come right up the trail next to you if there’s no room to go wide. Give them as much space as you can and keep cool as they go by. Horses scare me so I’m pretty careful around them. I don’t make any sudden moves or dig through my backpack, or anything like that. I don’t really expect herbivores to be predictable so I’m always prepared for the worst. Once the equestrian(s) get by you, Give them a little distance before you ride away. Horses don’t like weird things going on behind them, If you try to take off the instant a horse clears you and it hears your shoe snap in to the pedal or just the crunch of gravel from your tires, it can spook. Let them get 50-100 feet down the trail before you resume.
Things not to do when approaching equestrians: Don’t bear down on them and stop at the last second; that’s a great way to spook and injure a horse, a rider, or yourself. Don’t ride behind a horse; that’s a great way to spook the horse and get kicked. Never try to pass an equestrian unannounced! That will not be a happy ending.
A few exceptions and final thoughts: There are some exceptions to all of this (except with equestrians) and that is that any trail user can waive their right of way at any time, including you. If someone lets you by, great. If not, let them by. Communicate with others on the trail and let them know what your intentions are; a little communication goes a long, long way toward understanding and living with other trail users and ensuring that mountain bikers don’t lose access to trails.
Some exceptions (at least in my book) are that if you are breaking the law, you lose all rights and privileges on the trail. For example: off leash dogs are illegal, they’re also dangerous, unpredictable, and damage the ecosystem of natural areas. Don’t expect me to be real courteous about your off leash dog. Smoking mother nature on the trail? Same deal. Modifying trails to suit your current ability? Don’t get me started. If you see illegal activity, report it to a ranger. Get a description of the person and the activity and call it in. I’ve done this a few times and the rangers are always right on top of it. Another exception is that if you’re wearing headphones and don’t hear me coming, even when I’m behind you and yelling at the top of my lungs to get your attention, I’m probably going to just have to get by you at some point and you’re going to be freaked out and pissed off at me and it’s not my fault. Don’t wear headphones! Listen to your bike, listen to the wind, listen to the outdoors, and be aware of your surroundings so that you aren’t oblivious when someone wants to pass. It’s safer for you and everyone else on the trail. Editors note: I made this bold because I made this bold. Also, please don't wear headphones on the trail, or at least not in both ears.
Fast food for recovery?
I would like to discuss a recent research article because I think it makes a good point. I am not sure if popular press has picked up this research article yet, but I am sure it will eventually and I do not think the message will be what it should be. Researchers from the University of Montana did a study on post-exercise feeding and glycogen recovery. Even though this hardly sounds novel, this study had a twist – the researchers pitted fast food against a sports supplement. What did the researchers find? I’ll explain that in further detail.
The study used a nice design in which subjects completed a glycogen depleting exercise bout on a bike followed by a 4-hour recovery. The subjects received food (sports supplement or fast food) immediately after the bout of exercise and again 2 hrs into the recovery. After the four hours of recovery, the subjects performed a 20 km TT as fast as possible. By this design the authors were able to assess the rate of muscle glycogen recovery (with multiple muscle biopsies) and subsequent exercise performance. The findings indicated that eating fast food replenished glycogen just as quickly as a sports supplement and there was no difference in performance between the two groups. In other words, the fast food “supplement” worked just as well as the sports supplement.
I know the laboratory where this research was done and I am friends with two of the researchers. When I saw this article, I imagined the conversation that lead to the designing of the study. The researchers are very good athletes themselves, and I imagine that one of them was trying to make a point to the other. Of course this is just speculation on my part and I am yet to ask them if that is the case. Because they are good researchers, the study was well designed with a critical design element – the fast food and sports supplement were matched for both macronutrient content and total calories. The conclusion of the study stated that, “short-term food options to initiate glycogen resynthesis can include dietary options not typically marketed as sports nutrition products such as fast food menu items.” I have always believed this to be true and often recommend real food during recovery. However, to broadly apply this strategy to include fast food might be unwise. An important message that I must stress here is that there is a big difference between eating for sports performance and eating for health.
Notice that the authors state “short-term food options” in their conclusion. I think this is on purpose. I am not sure anyone would recommend this post-exercise fueling as a long-term strategy. There are several other factors one should consider. First, the feeding in this study was controlled to a specific calorie content. Because fast food is typically calorie dense, it is reasonable to assume that what is provided as a “meal” from a fast food establishment can often well exceed ones needed caloric intake. Over time, excess caloric intake leads to energy storage. Second, there is a whole host of negative consequences of the high fat and high saturated fat content typical of fast food. For example, oxidative stress and inflammatory responses are expected over time for this eating pattern. These additional stresses lead to poor adaptive responses (e.g. to exercise) and poor health outcomes. Third, it is important to consider the micronutrients that are missing because of a repeated pattern of eating fast food. Although fast food is known to be energy dense, it is not necessarily known to be nutrient dense. There are many more examples beyond these three.
To make the point again, what is good for sports performance should not necessarily be equated to what is healthy. There are many instances where what is helpful for sports performance is not good for long-term health outcomes. In a sense, exercise helps buffer some of these negatives. In addition, just because someone is a high performing athlete, it does not mean they are exceptionally healthy. We know that the extreme conditions a high performance athlete puts him/herself under is sometimes decidedly unhealthy. All of this is to say that one needs to be careful when extrapolating outcomes related to exercise performance to general health.
Last, I do not want the take-home message from this article to be that I believe that sports supplements are superior for performance or health outcomes. I do not believe that at all. I fall firmly on the side that real food is an effective strategy and I have said so in this column before. Although sports supplements and fast food CAN help one recover their glycogen and perform well in a subsequent exercise bout, it does not mean that they SHOULD be used – at least not as a regular strategy.
Full abstract of original article:
Cramer MJ, Dumke CL, Hailes WS, Cuddy JS, Ruby BC. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2015 Mar 26. Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery and Exercise Performance is Not Significantly Different Between Fast Food and Sport Supplements.
A variety of dietary choices are marketed to enhance glycogen recovery after physical activity. Past research informs recommendations regarding the timing, dose, and nutrient compositions to facilitate glycogen recovery. This study examined the effects of isoenergetic sport supplements (SS) vs. fast food (FF) on glycogen recovery and exercise performance. Eleven males completed two experimental trials in a randomized, counterbalanced order. Each trial included a 90-minute glycogen depletion ride followed by a 4-hour recovery period. Absolute amounts of macronutrients (1.54 ± 0.27 g·kg-1 carbohydrate, 0.24 ± 0.04 g·kg fat-1, and 0.18 ± 0.03g·kg protein-1) as either SS or FF were provided at 0 and 2 hours. Muscle biopsies were collected from the vastus lateralis at 0 and 4 hours post exercise. Blood samples were analyzed at 0, 30, 60, 120, 150, 180, and 240 minutes post exercise for insulin and glucose, with blood lipids analyzed at 0 and 240 minutes. A 20k time-trial (TT) was completed following the final muscle biopsy. There were no differences in the blood glucose and insulin responses. Similarly, rates of glycogen recovery were not different across the diets (6.9 ± 1.7 and 7.9 ± 2.4 mmol·kg wet weight- 1·hr-1 for SS and FF, respectively). There was also no difference across the diets for TT performance (34.1 ± 1.8 and 34.3 ± 1.7 minutes for SS and FF, respectively. These data indicate that short-term food options to initiate glycogen resynthesis can include dietary options not typically marketed as sports nutrition products such as fast food menu items.
In addition to the physical benefits, studies have shown that exercise can improve mental acuity. Research shows that individuals score higher on tests of cognitive function, such as memory, concentration, and reasoning, after thirty minutes on a bike or other aerobic activity. Indeed, cycling may have contributed to the Theory of Relativity, as Albert Einstein was quoted as saying “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.” This increase in mental acuity is at least partially attributable to the complex thinking abilities that are utilized when cycling. A cyclist must concentrate on their surroundings, utilize visual cues, and maintain balance, for example. However, as all cyclists know, the rewards from cycling and exercise do not come without risk. Cycling accounts for a large proportion of Emergency Room visits in the US and produces more concussions in youth than football. As a Neuropsychologist at the Orthopaedic & Spine Center of the Rockies Regional Concussion Center, I frequently see cycling-related concussions. I often get asked why there are so many head injuries, despite the fact that helmet technology and awareness are in the forefront of most cyclist’s minds. The answer: there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet. Helmets are terrific at doing what they were originally designed to do, preventing skull fractures and serious brain injury. While they may mitigate the force from impact when a rider crashes or falls, they cannot prevent the brain from rotating or accelerating and decelerating in the skull, resulting in concussion.
A concussion is an injury that disrupts how the brain normally works. You do not have to lose consciousness to have a concussion and the majority of concussions do not result in a bleed or swelling of the brain. In concussion, the force and trauma of the injury causes cell dysregulation. This dysregulation is often experienced as physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, light and sound sensitivity, fatigue, confusion, memory problems, concentration difficulty, irritability, and sadness. Although most individuals see symptom resolution within a week or two, others can suffer from dizziness, balance difficulty, headaches, and cognitive changes for weeks or even months.
The first step of concussion management is prevention. Young riders (ages 5-24 years) have the highest rate of non-fatal cycling injuries, accounting for a large percentage of all bicycle-related injuries seen in the Emergency Room. Although helmets cannot completely prevent concussion, a properly fitted helmet is crucial to cycling safety because it can diffuse the force if impact occurs and prevent more severe brain injuries. Additionally, active lighting, reflective clothing, awareness of terrain and surrounding dangers, and following the rules of the road can all reduce chances of injury.
If, despite these safeguards, a concussion is sustained, it may be difficult for you to ride home safely. If you experience loss of consciousness for any amount of time, have significant head or neck trauma, develop seizures, persistent vomiting, severe or worsening headache, significant disorientation or inability to speak or swallow, a bystander or fellow rider should call 911 or you should go to the ER immediately. In instances where you feel headache and fatigue, but without any other symptoms, you may choose to be evaluated by your primary care physician or a healthcare provider with experience in treating concussion. Examination by a healthcare provider soon after your injury is recommended to help guide recovery and ensure that you have not sustained other serious neurologic or physical injuries.
Early intervention, proper evaluation and treatment recommendations are essential for concussion management and can help prevent lingering symptoms. An appropriate balance of rest and activity is important during recovery and a gradual return to physical and cognitive activity is recommended. A focus group of experts on medicine in cycling developed a step wise return to sport protocol with specific recommendations for competitive cyclists. For example, start with low impact stationary biking and gradually increase intensity and duration. If this is accomplished without symptoms, introduce intervals, hill workouts or higher intensity. Next steps include group rides, sprints, climbs or pacelines. Each step increases the amount of physical and cognitive exertion, and should be achieved without symptoms before progressing (see usacycling.org/concussions.htm for more information). Physicians, Certified Athletic Trainers and Physical Therapists can assist with or supervise exertional protocols. The Orthopaedic & Spine Center of the Rockies, Regional Concussion Center has services for evaluation, management and rehabilitation of concussion to help you safely return to cycling.
A concussion is a treatable injury with proper management. Take steps to protect your head and brain. Hit the road to enhance your mental acuity. You may find your Einstein moment while out on the road!
Alissa Wicklund, PhD, ABPP is a Board Certified Neuropsychologist who specializes in evaluation, treatment and management of concussion. She is also a (very) amateur cyclist, who enjoys road and mountain biking with her family. More information on the OCR Regional Concussion Center can be found at www.orthohealth.com/our-specialties/sports-concussions-neuropsychology, or by calling 970-419-7227. Dr. Wicklund is also available for consultation and education on concussion for Cycling groups in Northern Colorado.