Ok so this is going to be a controversial post so I’m going to be upfront and say this right away; I am not advocating for the use of marijuana as it is still considered an illegal drug in Canada. This blog post is to reflect the current uses of Marijuana in sport and to explore its positives and negatives in regards to athletic performance. I mean I might as well, if all things go according to plan in Canada, we’ll be able to smoke a spliff on Canada day, LEGALLY!
Ok now that I’ve done my due diligence and my lawyer is happy, let’s do this! Marijuana and Sports!
I’m going to officially start by saying that there isn’t much research, at least not great research, within this blog post. The reason? Because the Food and Drug Administration and drug laws have made it so incredibly difficult for people to research Marijuana effectively. But we’ll talk here about what has been researched and what people are currently using Marijuana for, in the world of sports of course.
Marijuana is a plant with the active ingredients of Tetrahydrocannibol (THC) and Cannibol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive compound that gives you the high that’s associated with the drug. CBD is the medicinal compound that many boast anti-inflammatory, pain relief, anti-anxiety, anti-psychosis, anti-seizures, anti-spasm, blood sugar control, appetite stimulation and it’s been claimed to even have anti-cancer properties – but there is little quality research to support these claims. CBD is the compound that makes you one with your couch and THC is the compound that gets you high. Furthermore, there are different strains of marijuana that have different amounts of THC and CBD; Sativa and Indica. Sativa plant strains are typically taller plants and have more THC in them vs CBD. Indica strains are typically shorter and darker in leaf/ bud colour and have more CBD than THC. There are also hybrid strains that are mixes of Indica and Sativas in a selective breeding process (think brocoliflower as an example of cross breeding). ANOTHER thing to point out too is the CBD and THC content is also heavily reliant on how the plant was harvested and cured. If the plant was harvested and cured earlier; there is a higher THC content but if the plant was allowed to mature longer in the flowering stage then there is typically more CBD. Since CBD is reported to have more of the medicinal compounds, we’re primarily talking about Sativas in this post (there are also a TON of different types of Sativas and Indicas! Not to mention hybrid strains)
How is this relevant to sport at all? Well for a long time Marijuana has been put on the banned substances list for athletes because of the misunderstanding due to the difficulty in researching the plant. Hell, I remember the Winter Olympic controversy behind the first ever snowboarding gold medal when they found weed in his system, because let’s be honest here; for anyone that’s ever smoked a joint KNOWS that it’s not a performance enhancing drug (unless it was an eating competition). Not to mention that there are a ton of pro athletes that do smoke weed. So why are athletes smoking up and potentially risking their multi-million-dollar careers?
Well aside from the fact that it has significantly less health issues when compared to the VERY legal and often celebrated alcohol, there are many different ways athletes are using weed in their training. Some of these reasons include to recover better from their workouts by supressing inflammation, help them stimulate appetite to meet caloric goals, helping them relax and sleep better before competitions/ races and some have even been using it to reduce anxiety before competition/ races. Many also report weed has pain management properties without as many side effects as prescription drugs. Some studies have even shown cannabis can increased oxygenation of tissues, improve vision and concentration, reduce muscle spasms and helping them forget about past traumatic experiences – however these are not specifically in the athletic population. One runner, writer and weed advocate, Tyler Hurst from Portland (of course it’s Portland) claims that it helps him during long runs similar to the runners high and has helped him recover better and it allows his muscles to relax better for his foam rolling and stretching. So, let’s take a look at them and what needs to be considered (again, I am not promoting Marijuana use!)
Firstly, smoking Marijuana has been shown to impair athletic performance. That only makes sense, you’re still inhaling toxic carcinogenic chemical compounds from combustion into your lungs. That can and will decrease your VO2 max and your lungs abilities to move CO2 out of the lungs and move Oxygen into your blood for the needed metabolic reactions. BUT is there research on what happens when you vaporize weed? Vaporizing weed is different because instead of a chemical combustion that gives off a lot of toxic waste products you’re roasting the weed at a much lower temperature to get the CBD/ THC properties without the chemical combustion. The issue is there isn’t any reliable research on traditional smoking vs vaping in athletes can comparison to vaping tobacco products isn’t fair because Bronchiolitis Obliterans (BO) AKA Popcorn lung is caused by the chemical diacteyl which isn’t found in vaporizing the marijuana plant (I have no idea about any of the vape pens that use Weed or Hash oil though). So bottom line, we don’t know the difference between Vaporizing pure weed or Vape Pen oils but we do know that smoking a joint or a bong will decrease your lung capacity and aerobic fitness – also, I have no idea if the bong water actually filters out anything as it’s commonly believed to do so, again there’s not a lot of research on this yet.
So that leaves us with eating the CBD for it’s reported effects. There are SO MANY ways to do this now! CBD and THC are both fat soluble compounds so there’s the old school budder where there is a complicated process to cook the marijuana plant in butter to make budder and then you can either bake it into baked goods like cookies or brownies or spread it on other foods like toast. There’s also marijuana oils, tinctures, pills, chocolates, candies, gummies and lollies (I’m just going to stop with the examples here because the list keeps going). So, the assumption here is that if you eat your weed then your aerobic capacity is preserved, which makes sense but no surprise here – there’s not enough research. BUT the one thing to point out is that eating your marijuana products will have the effects go longer than smoking, approximately 6-10 hours vs 2 hours for smoking/ vaporizing.
Some other effects seen in marijuana studies that can affect physical performance include an elevated heart rate and decreased short-term memory, alertness, lowered reaction time, faster muscle fatigue and it may even lead to cardiovascular disease. There’s also an association with decreased IQ and some people report an increase anxiety and paranoia. So this doesn’t seem like something that would help with sports that are a bit more coordinated and require a bit more thought and coordination like Baseball, Basketball (GO RAPTORS!) and Hockey (GO LEAFS! – see what I did there?).
So what’s the verdict? Could pot assist with some of the recovery aspects of sports? Maybe, but it could definitely impair performance more than it can enhance it; so definitely avoid toking up before sports. Like I said a few times in this post already, I am not advocating for it’s use as it’s still considered illegal in Canada and it’s 100% considered a banned substance by the World Anti Doping Agency, so it could cost you your career as a professional athlete. The truth of the matter is that we don’t have enough research to definitively say what method of taking it would be best for whatever intended benefits. Hopefully with the legalization of Marijuana for recreational use we can see a relaxation of it’s research capabilities not only the sport world but the textile, renewable energy, medicinal world and much more. But for now, the debate continues.
Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
President of Evolved Sport and Nutrition
Complete Lifestyle Management
It’s a term that is familiar to athletes from many sports, and especially in the world of running. Yet the term “carbo-loading” is probably one of the most misunderstood nutrition strategies for marathon runners and other endurance athletes.
With the Boston Marathon coming up in a little over a week, athletes may be beginning to ramp up their intake of carbohydrates to ensure they start the race with a full tank. And rightfully so. Your body can only store enough fuel or glycogen (storage form of carbohydrate) to sustain around 90 minutes of exercise. Beyond this, without taking in any fuel (gels, blocks, sports drinks), energy levels begin to drop and fatigue sets in. Boosting muscle and liver glycogen stores therefore can help to reduce fatigue and boost performance.
Early carbo-loading strategies includes a 3-4 day depletion phase where athletes undergo hard training and keep their carbohydrate intake low, followed by another 3-4 days of easy training and carbohydrate loading. With this strategy, it was found that muscle glycogen bounced back much more than just eating carbohydrate every day, it was “supercompensated”.
Fortunately, a few years later, it was discovered that a more moderate approach to carbo-loading could be adopted. The glycogen depletion phase is no longer necessary and provides no additional benefit to carbohydrate loading. Thank goodness, right? Light activity in the 2-3 days before your race (hello taper!!) along with a higher carbohydrate intake will have the same beneficial effect on performance.
This all sounds great, right? So why the ‘but should you?’ in the title? Well this is where it gets interesting!!
Studies have shown the the rate at which we break down glycogen to use as fuel during exercise is proportional to the amount of glycogen present in the muscle. Simply put, if you have extremely high glycogen stores you will break them down faster than when you have normal or high glycogen stores. So an hour or two into exercise, glycogen stores will be comparable whether you started with extremely high or just high glycogen stores.
So rather than aiming for extremely high glycogen stores before the start of the race, it’s enough to just ensure that they are sufficient.
As mentioned above, this can be accomplished in the 2-3 days before your race by eating carbohydrate rich foods while reducing training. But with decreased training comes decreased energy expenditure. So your higher carbohydrate intake should not be the result of eating more. Instead, it should be achieved by emphasizing carbohydrate sources and reducing fat intake.
With a lower energy expenditure, aiming for a carbohydrate intake of 5-7g/kg per day is enough, in most cases, to ensure that glycogen stores are sufficient. The type of carbohydrate consumed has little effect and both solid and liquid carbohydrates have the same effects. If you are an athlete that experiences GI issues, you should choose your carbohydrate sources a little more carefully and may benefit from a lower fibre intake.
Speaking to a registered sports dietitian is a great way to to find the perfect carbo-loading plan for you!
Writer: Stephanie MacNeill (RD)
There are a few sporting events I particularity look forward to each year, and March Madness is one of them! I thoroughly enjoy watching this NCAA tournament as it is incredible and awe-inspiring how young and talented these student athletes are. The tournament is nearing the end, and we will see the battle of the Final Four very soon (I am cheering on Kansas!). Who will be the winner?!
I really enjoy working with student athletes because it is an area where Dietitians can have a huge impact. I also get to partake in their journey through their university career, and it is overall a very valuable and rewarding experience. For most college athletes, it is their first time moving away from home and living on their own. This can create various barriers to consuming a healthy diet. Barriers may include cooking skills, nutrition knowledge, limited time, limited selection if living on campus, and financial strains and these can greatly affect a young person’s nutrition intake.
Lack of time is likely one of the biggest barriers for college athletes, or everyone for that matter. Athletes spend a tremendous amount of time practicing and completing strength and conditioning plans along with traveling for their sport, going to class, studying, all while trying to maintain a social life. This can be very stressful for an athlete and unfortunately they may neglect to thinking about their nutrition plan. Poor nutrition intake can lead to decreased sleep time/quality, reduced ability to recover from their training, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, increase risk of injury or illness and thus ultimately impair their performance. I believe that providing nutrition support is important for a college athlete’s success, and in the spirit of March Madness, below are a few time and cost saving tips to boost nutrition intake of busy athletes!
Time saving tips
Cost saving tips
Writer: Stephanie Boville MSc, RD
Registered Dietitian and sport nutritionist with ESN and Athlete’s Care Yorkville. firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephanie is passionate about helping athletes of all ages reach their athletic goals through nutritional means. She is very interested in nutrition interventions for concussion management and joint health as these two areas are very important in sport.
Injuries are an unfortunate and sometimes unavoidable aspect of participation in sport and exercise. Treatment options for injury often include rest, ice massage, manual therapy, heat, electrical stimulation and acupuncture. An often overlooked intervention is nutrition.
To understand the potential of food to help in the healing process, we first need to understand a little bit about the stages of injury.
Most exercise-related injuries go through three main stages in the recovery process. In the first stage, which lasts anywhere from 1-7 days, pain, swelling, redness and heat draws chemicals to the injured area to start the healing process and increase blood flow to the area. In the second stage which can start as early as day 4 and last about 6 weeks, inflammation begins to settle down and the body starts to repair the damaged tissue by laying down collagen. These new collagen fibres are put down in a in the form of scar tissue, which is weaker and less flexible than normal tissues. In the third stage which starts around 2-3 weeks post injury, healing continues to progress and the collagen fibres improve in quality, organization and strength.
Nutrition plays an important role in each of these stages.
Although inflammation is a critical part of triggering the repair process, too much may cause more damage. During this phase, try to include more anti-inflammatory fats in your diet. These include:
At the same time, try to limit pro-inflammatory foods like:
Stage 2 and 3
In these stages, metabolism may increase anywhere from 15-50% to support new tissue growth. So you'll need more calories than when you are sedentary, but fewer than when you are training and exercising regularly. Over the course of the day:
Unlock Foods Potential to Heal
Next time you find yourself sidelined with an injury, consider adding a registered dietitian to your treatment team to help ensure that you are getting the right nutrients to support your body in healing.
Writer: Stephanie MacNeill (RD)
That's what you may be saying to yourself if you've seen the news recently. Cricket powder has gone mainstream as it hit Canadian shelves this week.
The idea of eating bugs may be new to you, but entomophagy (the consumption of insects) is actually a common practice that has been taking place for tens of thousands of years! It's estimated that insects are part of the traditional diets of around 2 billion people. There are more than 1,900 edible insect species and the most commonly eaten bugs are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers and you guessed it, cricket.
If you really think about it, it's not even that big of a stretch. Bugs are arthropods (they don't have an internal skeleton) and are closely related to crustaceans* like shrimp, crab, crawfish and lobster. So crustaceans are really just bugs of the ocean. Also, consider the fact that honey only becomes honey after nectar from the flowers is passed mouth-to-mouth from bee to bee. So if you really think about it, you've been an entomophagist most of your life.
But seriously, what's so great about cricket powder?
Crickets have a myriad of health and performance benefits, while also being eco-friendly. Let's first look at some of the health and performance benefits:
Consuming insects is also more environmentally friendly. The resources required to produce 10 grams of cricket powder are 12 times less than the resources needed to produce 10 grams of beef protein. Crickets also require less land and water and produce fewer green house gas emissions than traditionally farmed animals. Over the span of a year, if a family of four ate one meal a week using cricket (or insect) protein, they would save the earth 650,000 litres of fresh water.
I'm sure what you're really wondering though, is how they taste. Well, I haven't actually summoned up the courage to try cricket powder myself (although it is on my to-do list). I'm told that cricket powder adds a subtle nutty/earthy flavour...so maybe if someone just told me it was a nut I wouldn't even think twice.
So, what do you think? Can you get behind these bugs in the grocery aisle?
* A word of caution, people who are allergic to crustaceans and shellfish may have an allergic reaction to crickets. Additionally, if you have a pre-disposed allergy to insect bites or stings you should proceed with caution.
Writer: Stephanie MacNeill (RD)
It’s close to 2 weeks after the one of the best played super bowls in years. Minimal penalties, great plays and a historical win by the Eagles (of which I predicted back in week 4, seriously! Primarily because I love Carson Wentz). The only thing that could have made it better was a surprise throwback to NSYNC with Justin Timberlake at Halftime. Aside from that, the two teams were relatively evenly matched, except for the quarterbacks and their diets.
Now before I go further into this article I should definitely warn you about my bias against Tom Brady. Many of you will regard him as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) but in my eyes, it's Peyton Manning.
What happened? There was more than 2 minutes left in the fourth and the final possession was with the Pats at roughly the 50 yard line and they needed 8 points. Pats and Brady fans knew the game wasn’t over because he had clutched this kinda thing multiple times before. Furthermore, it was one of Brady’s best statistical Superbowl performances. He threw 505 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions but only 28/48 completed attempts (that’s only 58.3% compared to last year at 69.3%!) So, what happened?
Well the completion thing isn’t really related to nutrition (or is it?) but his performance was. For those of you that know Brady, you’ll know of his commercialized diet, TB12. Which bases it’s primary principles around a combination of Plant-based and Paleo beliefs. TB 12 is primarily drawn up by a “body coach” (what ever the hell that is), Alex Guerrero, that has been under investigation by his own regulatory body for pretending to be a medical doctor, making false and irresponsible health claims to sell his supplement; of which he claims could cure AIDS and cancer (the book obviously doesn’t mention that). His degree in Chinese-Medicine is from the now defunct Samra University of Oriental Medicine in LA.
Here’s the problem, Brady and Peyton (See? I’m being objective!) were never quarterbacks that their nutrition mattered as much as Russel Wilson or Colin Kapernick. The reason why? Brady and Peyton throw the pig skin, they rarely ever run it.
To understand why the diet was to a factor let's look at the energy pathways for these Quaterbacks. For quarterbacks that throw they’re primarily using the Phosphocreatine system; this includes Brady and Peyton. The Phosphocreatine system fuels explosive movements that are typically under 10 seconds and takes about a minute to “reload” the creatine in muscles. The nutrient that feeds this pathway is Creatine which is found in animal protein sources or supplements.
For Quarterbacks that throw and run the ball they use a combination of the Phosphocreatine and Anaerobic energy metabolism systems, depending on how far they run of course. The Anaerobic system fuels intense physical activity for under 2 minutes and has different “reload” time depending on physical fitness, resting heart rate, mitochondira (the power house of the cell) content in muscle, lactic acid thresholds and of course nutritional intake. Not to mention that carbohydrates are the preferred and most optimal fuel source for the brain.
Why is this important?
Well for Brady’s Superbowl performance, it starts to explain the final 2 minutes of his game. You see the final 2 minutes is so fast paced to get the final snap before the clock hits 0. Now take what I wrote above and start to think about this. TB12 is primarily plant based and may not be enough Creatine to fuel the Phosphocreatine stores. Does TB12 have carbs? Yup! But the swearing off of quickly absorbed carbohydrates during game time means that we can’t refuel Brady properly between quarters or even between offensive and defensive possessions, which means his fuel tank is empty by the 3rd or 4th.
Now let me explain one thing very clearly, I am not saying you need animal protein or fast digesting sugars in your diet but there is one very important distinction here; the difference between optimal sports nutrition and healthy eating. Because I can agree with a lot of what Brady says about the philosophy of nutrition in his TB12 method. There’s obviously some crazy stuff in there like why he doesn’t eat strawberries or nightshade vegetables without providing an actual allergy or intolerance. But messages like eat less sugar, less processed foods, more plant based and quality foods; I can definitely get behind that. The issue I have with TB12 is that it confuses general healthy eating advice with optimal peak performance advice, because those are two very different things.
You see, we can think of it this way using a car analogy. Let’s say Tom Brady is a peak performance car (eg Ferarri, Maclaren or Porsche) that’s fueling up with diesel instead of high octane fuel, the car will still run but not optimally. When Tom is playing he needs foods that break down faster so they can get to fuel his performance and his brain to make fast decisions. Re-watch the final 2 minutes of the super bowl, he wasn’t thinking fast enough and his final throw to Gronk was predictable, of which the Eagles defense knew to pull a blitz defense on Gronk. Had Brady been properly fueled to think, he may have chosen a different receiver, like Cooks, that open and may have made the run into the end zone with a 2 point conversion to win or a 1 point kick to push it into overtime. But nope! Brady wasn’t thinking or playing optimally.
So yes, Tom Brady’s nutritional choices may have caused him to not function optimally and his diet is a factor because the Pats played really well. Now I’m definitely factoring in the number of sacks he takes and the multiple concussions he gets every season – I’m not even going to get into how PROPER nutrition can help prevent concussions or assist with concussion recovery (Brady had 35 sacks in the 2017 season and Peyton had 16 sacks in his final 2015 season). So Tom, just a piece of advice; get rid of your snake oil peddler just like Belichick did earlier this season by banning his access to games, locker rooms and being available on the sidelines. Get some credible nutrition advice from a Sports Dietitian and learn more about physiology from a physiotherapist or manual therapist.
P.S. Ben’s pick is New Orleans Saints for 2018 Superbowl Champs! Unless Brady gets some proper Sports Nutrition and Manual Therapy
Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
President of Evolved Sport and Nutrition
The Greatest Wealth is Health
The word macronutrients or macros for short is a fancy term for nutrients that we as humans need to consume to survive. There are 3 essential macronutrients; carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Each individual food contains different proportions of all three macronutrients. Counting macros has gained popularity recently, replacing traditional calorie counting. Let’s breakdown what each of these essential macronutrients are and where to find them.
Carbohydrates A.K.A. “carbs”
Carbs are your bodies main energy source. They provide 4 calories per gram. We need carbohydrates for brain function, muscle recovery and growth, digestion, basically all of the functions to keep us alive. Carbohydrates are found in many plant based foods and processed foods. When you think of carbs, these are foods that are traditionally thought of as sugary or starchy, be it natural or processed.
Examples of carbohydrates are: fruit, vegetables (especially potatoes, corn, squash), legumes, grains-based food (rice, pasta, breads, quinoa), dairy (milk, yogurt), and processed items like crackers, granola bars, juices, and candy.
Understanding the role of carbohydrates in your diet is essential when it comes to performance and body composition.
Fat is another main energy source. It is the most concentrated energy source, providing 9 calories per gram. Fats are needed in many important bodily functions such as energy use and storage, satiety, insulation, and fat-soluble vitamin absorption (Vitamins A, D, E, and K).
Fat sources include oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, butter and margarines, and marbling in meats (found in red meats).
The type of fat and timing of intake can influence your hunger levels, workouts, and overall health.
Protein has many important roles in the body. It provides 4 calories per gram. Protein breaks down into amino acids in the body and are used for many functions such as maintaining lean muscle mass, skeletal mass, the structural component of all cells in the body, and energy use.
Food sources of protein include red meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, soy (tofu, tempeh), legumes, and protein powders.
Protein plays a very important role with the development and maintenance of lean muscle mass, and can be maximized with guidance around timing and frequency of intake.
Why this approach might work for you
For some, taking the focus away from “calories” and instead focusing on getting the right amounts of macronutrients can take away that feeling of restricting. It can encourage a more balanced diet by including a variety of foods that provide all three essential macronutrients. It discourages individuals from thinking a 1500 calorie diet is sustainable on only salads, egg whites and avocados. You may be feeling sluggish (I mean, where are the carbs?!) which impacts the quality of your workouts. For some it takes away the negative thought process of “I can only have” and instead allows for more positive thoughts like “wow I can eat THAT much protein?!” For those that like to plan ahead and meal prep, macro counting makes sense. Many athletes who macro count feel a sense of control over what they are having and feel more knowledgeable and in charge of their nutrition.
Why this approach might not work for you
As with calorie-restricted diets, it is another form of counting. Trying to stick to your allotted macronutrients can seem like a daunting task, think of Tetris on expert level. It can be very time consuming. Some of the food diary apps are not monitored for accuracy, so certain foods are incorrectly entered. What you think you are consuming might not be true. For example, if you type in “chocolate chip cookie”, you might get a dozen chocolate chip cookie options, all of varying carb, fat, and protein amounts. How do you know which one is most accurate? Measuring and weighing your food is needed to know exactly what you are consuming. This can be quite overwhelming for those who don’t have a lot of time for meal prep, those who don’t make their meals, or those who have little nutrition knowledge. Like calorie restricted diets, macro counting can allow for poor quality food choices, given they fit into one’s macros. It’s easier to count macros off of a nutrition label than it is weighing and measuring your fresh vegetables and lean proteins.
To learn more about macro counting and if it would benefit you in your particular sport, speak with Sports Dietitians.
Writer: Emilie Trottier (Specialties: Crossfit Nutrition Specialist, Weight Lifting, Mental Health, Chronic Disease Management, Weight Loss, Body Composition Change)
Given the recent Mayweather/McGregor fight, a fight with a clear size difference between fighters, I thought I’d explain the art and science of weight-cutting, and how this phenomenon relates to nutrition, health, and performance.
If you didn’t see the fight or weigh-in, a few key facts include:
The fact that McGregor was TKO’d in the 10th round is actually of remarkably little importance here. I’m not usually one to say that winning and losing is not important; it is clearly a performance indicator. But in this case, I really don’t think you can measure his performance on a binary scale given all the other variables (i.e. their existing skill sets and experience in boxing). What I would like to focus on more is that McGregor had what appeared to be a slight size advantage at weigh-ins, become quite a large size advantage on the night of the fight. So how did McGregor put on what looked like 10-20 lbs. of lean mass in 24 hours?
Now, I’m speculating here that McGregor followed this standard weight-cutting process I’m about to describe. He was the larger athlete and had a what looked like a drastic increase in size from Weigh-Ins to Fight, but keep in mind that I don’t actually work with him, and don’t actually know what he weighed leading into weigh-ins or on the night of the fight. However, I know this process intimately. I’ve work with athletes on weight management, but more importantly I have personally cut-weight more times than I can count. Near the end of my wrestling career, my weight would bounce from 65kg (143lbs) at weigh-ins, to about 73kg (161lbs) in competition the next morning.
It is important to remember that I am not condoning “cutting-weight”, but merely explaining the phenomenon in hopes that a more knowledgeable athlete can make smarter choices. “Cutting-weight” can be very dangerous, and should be done so in a supervised manor, if done at all. Involve coaches in the decision, and speak with a dietitian about it. Think about the potential advantages, and how they weigh against the possible disadvantages and safety concerns of this practice before making any decisions.
Writer: Kevin Iwasa-Madge, Sports Dietitian, CSCS
DNF: an abbreviation for the three words that can shatter an athlete’s world; Did Not Finish. For the first time in my life I received a DNF for MY event of the year, the Muskoka Half Ironman. For many of you, you may be thinking that a DNF is a sigh of relief to make it so that you don’t have to swim 1.9km, bike 90km and run 21.1 km all back to back, but it’s soul crushing for a triathlete.
Many of you have seen ‘Ben the Sports Dietitian’’ write before but this is the first time you’ll see ‘Ben the Triathlete’ write and that’s because this post so personal. It was an extremely personal experience; it brought me to tears on the bike course. I was cussing my voice dry and desperately trying to figure out how I could finish the race. But when the downward force put down on my pedal going up a steep hill snaps your chain and the bracket for the derailleur at the 13km mark, there’s just no way to recover. I was so desperate to recover that I even started running with my bike in my clip on bike shoes for at least 1.5km, causing a mild injury.
Why was I so upset? Why did I just fold up and start crying up on the side of the road? Well aside from the fact that I love this sport, I had invested 6 full months of 5am runs and swims followed by nighttime runs and bike rides and sacrificed countless social events to maintain a full 6-month training schedule. All those kilometers I racked up in training suddenly didn’t mean anything at all if I couldn’t finish. I was hopeless and helpless as I watched all the other athletes pass me asking “everything ok?” with the best intentions to see if I needed an extra inner tubing or a small wrench to fine tune something. All I saw was my only Triathlon pass me by. The race officials finally got to me an hour after I just decided to sit next to my broken bike crying. There was nothing the race officials or I could do. My triathlon season had ended.
Why did I end up crying? Why did I have this crazy f*cking emotional reaction? Well aside from everything that I wrote in the above paragraph, this was the first time in my life that I couldn’t find the silver lining.
You see, I have the same philosophy as one of my favourite musicians, Maynard James Kennan; “I never lose, I either win or I learn.” But there was nothing to learn here. It’s not like I could have gone “Ok, your running pace started to slow down after the 8km marker so we need to look at carbohydrate timing” Or “I need to focus more on Hill training.” My f*cking derailleur snapped off my bike! There’s no lesson in that. It’s just a shitty thing that happened. And now I’m ashamed that those three letters, DNF, will forever taint my race record.
Why am I feeling this shame? After all, objectively this is not my fault that a part of my bike decided to fail on me. At one point I laughed because I could take it as a compliment that my quads are strong enough to put enough force to break a solid metal bracket. And then I realized that I’m feeling this shame because I expect perfection from myself. I expect myself to be the best version of myself. Each day I need to know that I’m growing and getting better at literally anything in order to sleep at night. Then I felt more shame because this is one of those things that I counsel, unrealistic expectations. You see, many athletes and people walk into my office daily and expect perfection, which is unrealistic. This unrealistic expectation only leads to disappointment and excess stress (which kind of explains why I burned out 3 times this year before the end of March!) As soon as I realized this, I almost had a follow up assessment with myself on the side of the road (If I had a mirror or my phone I actually would have counseled myself and tried to read my own body language!).
This was my turning point. I was happy again because I could spin this now; I could find the silver lining. I’m not going to lose. I’m not letting myself lose. Another one of my heroes, Bruce Lee, had always said “Defeat is a state of mind; No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality.” For that brief 45 minutes crying on the side of the road with a broken bike I had temporarily forgotten the words of my heroes and accepted the defeat. But the moment I had that revelation, I was no longer defeated. I quickly shot up and said “F*ck you, I’m not losing. I’m going to learn and find that silver lining” and started cheering on my fellow triathletes to send all my good vibes onto them. After all they had at least 77km left in one of the most difficult bike courses in the Triathlon world followed by a half marathon run, they needed all the love and support they could get. I had learned and at that point I began to smile again and the tears started to go away.
Now knowing that I expect this level of perfection of myself I can head into next season stronger than ever. Being a bit easier on myself for the things that I cannot control is the lesson here. We all want control in our lives but sometimes it just isn’t up to us. Sometimes pure stupid luck happens no matter how we try to gain control. And we still can have control, but that control is over how we react to these unfortunate events rather than the event itself.
Triathlons are less about the physical endurance but more about mental endurance. Only the toughest and strongest willpower out there can survive a Triathlon. And the beauty of this DNF is that it’s lit a fire under my ass to motivate me for the 2018 season. This fire burns, always. As long as the silver lining is found, I’ll never lose, I’ll always win or learn. So watch out next season because I’m coming back with a vengeance!
Well if you’re reading this then you’ve done the impossible; you survived 2016. Despite George RR Martin pulling the strings behind the scenes of 2016 like the Wizard of Oz, the beginning months of January means Triathlon training starts! There are many things that we should take a look at the beginning of this season to make sure you have a good season and today we’re talking about Testosterone. Now Testosterone’s role in athletics is primarily thought of as being associated primarily with weight lifting and muscle gain but this is far from the truth. Testosterone is heavily involved with endurance sports too, especially with male triathletes!
Having worked with many triathletes (and being one myself) this often gets overlooked in male endurance athletes. There’s a good reason for this; the symptoms are very vague. The most common symptoms for low testosterone are fatigue and a lowered libido, often attributed to the high physical demands and training schedules with triathlons. Putting 20+ hours a week into a training program with early morning swims, bike rides and runs is often seen as the root cause of fatigue, especially when someone is working or going to school full time and if there are children involved. This also applies to the decreased libido, I mean it’s hard to feel sexy or get in the mood when you’ve spent a 6-hour chunk of the day doing a brick workout but this can be a good indicator of low testosterone!
What does low testosterone do? Well aside from the simplest answer of fatigue and a low sex drive, maintaining muscle mass and bone density becomes a major issue! Which is why many triathletes start to get a lot of injuries close to the race day because they’re more prone to shin splints and stress fractures!
One of the contributing causes of low testosterone could be that triathletes tend to be a bit older, which sees a gradual decline in testosterone levels with age. Some medications that are commonly used as men get older have side effects that can decrease testosterone. These drugs could be statins for high blood cholesterol, antihistamines for allergies and some painkillers. Sound familiar? An older male athlete with elevated blood cholesterol and some allergies during the spring outdoor riding months that feels some pain after an intense training session? Bingo, we have an at risk group.
Another overlooked cause of low testosterone is intense training without adequate nutritional interventions for refueling, rehydrating and rebuilding. The list just keeps going on because not getting enough sleep could reduce your testosterone levels as well as weight/ body fat. From a competitive advantage, yes we can get you to move faster through all 70.3 or 140.3 miles of the race if you’re lighter but if your body fat is too low your hormone balance is thrown off, especially testosterone. You might also notice that if the body fat drops too low those symptoms of depression and mental health start to kick in as well as irritability! This might be sounding familiar to some of you; yes this is synonymous with Relative energy deficiency in sport or RED-S for men and the female athlete triad for women, which has been discussed in previous blog posts here at ESN.
Prevention and Treatment
One of the best things to do at the beginning of the training season is to go see your doctor and get a baseline level of testosterone measured. This should be considered especially if you’re an older athlete, already feeling fatigue and decreased energy levels, previous stress fractures or bone density issues or if you’re very lean. There are many options that your doctor can talk to you about to address the low testosterone but if they recommend supplementation or medication then make sure you get a medical note as taking those meds could disqualify you from a race! Also remember that low testosterone levels can take months to develop and months to correct!
If you are dealing with this then there are a few things that you can do at home. The first is to look at reducing your training load until the levels normalize. This means training at a lower intensity for shorter periods of time and getting more quality sleep. There are also a ton of nutritional things that need to be done; an increase in calories, proper hydration and looking at a few supplements may be a good place to start but my best advice here is go see a Sports Dietitian that specializes in Endurance sports. I could sit here and write the rest of this post on which vitamins and minerals you’ll likely need but if you’re not fully evaluated then it can make matters worse, which is why I recommend seeing a Sports Dietitian so they can give you a completely holistic assessment to help you with your issues and get you training again. But once you’re testosterone levels come back to normal then it’s a good idea to keep working with that Sports Dietitian to make sure you are meeting your nutritional requirements to fuel you to ensure you have the best race season ever! I can’t stress how important this is because many triathletes will have no issue dropping over $5000 on a new bike that shaves off 1-2lbs and is a bit more aerodynamic but not even consider how their current nutrition is impacting the weight on the bike as well as how aerodynamic your own body is. Seriously, the cost of some carbon fibre disk wheels is over 2 times what you could spend on a good Sports Dietitian in one season. You’re also in luck because ESN has a January New Years special with our pricing! Check out our store to find out more!
So do yourself a favour this triathlon season and go get your testosterone levels checked and consider working with a sports dietitian to not only make sure you have the best race season of your life but also for your long term health and wellness!
For my fellow triathletes, I’ll be seeing you in the Muskoka Half Ironman this year! So if you see me make sure you say hi and maybe get a little bit of last minute advice on nutrition before the race!
Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
President of Evolved Sport and Nutrition
Complete Lifestyle Management