Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Supplements, Part 3: Caffeine

Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote for my athletes last year about caffeine consumption. I received a lot of great feedback and personal anecdotes from athletes as well as a bit of criticism about my encouragement of the use of a performance enhancing drug. I would like to address this first. Specifically, I do not draw much of a distinction between drinking coffee and taking caffeine pills. Personally, I don't buy the argument that taking caffeine pills to increase performance is unethical because it is done solely for performance (as opposed to drinking coffee because you like the taste). My opinion is that if you are to label anything that is done solely to increase performance as unethical, then training itself must be unethical. As a coach, I am in the business of advising athletes how to take a more structured approach to their training as opposed to just training how they feel when they feel like it. If you are just drinking coffee because you like it and it makes you feel good without putting much thought into how it affects performance, you are probably not optimizing your caffeine consumption. Make no mistake about it though; caffeine is a performance enhancing drug, and it should be put in a different category than nutrients found in your regular diet. Like I said in the first blog, you must ask yourself 3 questions with any supplement you are considering taking:

1. Is it safe? In the case of caffeine, the answer is usually yes. Caffeine is safe for most people provided the dosage is low to moderate. Because caffeine is found in so many things we eat and drink, you probably know already if you have an adverse reaction to it. Most of the long term negative side-effects appear with repeated excessive consumption over long periods of time. In the short term, most people will self-restrict consumption because they feel jittery and find it hard to concentrate.
2. Is it effective? So many supplements out there are unproven. This is not necessarily to say that they are not effective; only that there have not been enough scientific studies to show if they really work or not. Caffeine is one of the few exceptions. There have been enough studies on caffeine usage by endurance athletes that it is safe to say that the performance benefit is proven and significant.
3. Is it legal? Prior to 2004, caffeine usage was restricted by the IOC. Currently it is legal in any amount. I asked a representative from the USADA what the rationale for this change was and he said that it was because there is caffeine in so many products and that it is impossible to know how much you are really taking.

The number of coffee drinkers in the U.S. has risen 7% in the last 2 years. My guess is that the amount of caffeine being consumed has risen even more than that but truthfully we don't know. The FDA does not regulate caffeine, so you never know how much you are getting in your coffee, your soda or whatever. A University of Florida Study in 2003 found that amongst the major chains, Dunkin Donuts coffee had the lowest caffeine content (145 mg for a 16-oz cup) and Starbucks was by far the highest (ranging from 259-564 mg for a 16-oz cup). Though most experts agree that less than 250 mg a day will not cause any significant problems, excessive consumption (300 mg or more) is known to be a contributing factor for osteoporosis, miscarriages, reduced fertility and an increase in the plasma level of total cholesterol. Though more research needs to be done, some believe that excessive consumption can also lead to a difficulty in regulating metabolism and blood sugar and may contribute to fibrocystic breast disease and even cancer.

Starbucks in particular has made a very successful business out of getting us hooked on the drug (though ironically enough, the word "caffeine" does not appear anywhere on their website or nutritional literature), and many other coffee shops and restaurants are following suit their own brands of "high octane" coffee. 10 years ago, your average "2-cup a day" coffee drinker was probably only consuming 200-300 mg. Today, if you have 2 cups a day at Starbucks, you may be consuming over 1000!

Now, I don't want to make it sound like the effects of caffeine are all bad. Aside from helping you feel more alert and awake, caffeine can be a powerful performance enhancer. Caffeine has been shown to help increase time to exhaustion, increase sprint power and decrease perceived exertion in endurance athletes. Of all of these, the lowering of perceived exertion is the most proven and perhaps the most important. If you feel better, you can push yourself harder and longer. In racing, the difference between winning and losing may come down to who can push themselves just a little bit harder. In training and recreational exercise, a decrease in perceived exertion may mean that you are capable of getting better quality (and enjoyment!) out of your workouts. Caffeine is not banned or even regulated (any more) by the IOC or the WADA, so you can legally take as much as you want. Prior to 2004, usage was restricted by the IOC, though the amount required to cause a positive test was far above what most athletes would require to have a performance enhancing effect.

The January, 2005 issue of National Geographic had an extensive article on caffeine consumption. I thought that one of the most interesting features showed pictures of brain MRIs for regular caffeine consumers and non-caffeine consumers. The non consumer's brain on caffeine was lit up like a Christmas tree, whereas the regular consumer's brain only looked normal with caffeine, but barely functional without it. And this leads me to my point. Caffeine can be an extremely powerful performance enhancer, but if you have 500 mg of caffeine every morning, all that 500 mg of caffeine will do is make you feel normal. You won't really start to feel the benefit until you have more than 500 mg. As a side note, if you are used to having caffeine every morning and you don't have any on race day or before your big weekend ride you are shooting yourself in the foot. The last thing you want to do is going through withdrawal when you need to be 100%.

I have gone back and forth about how to best use caffeine to enhance performance, and here is what I think:

1. Stop the addiction! You probably know already if you are addicted or not so I don't need to tell you (clue: if you have headaches when you don't drink your morning coffee, you are addicted). If this is the case, try to cut out all caffeine from your diet for one week, or at least restrict your consumption to under 100 mg per day. Though the withdrawal symptoms are severe, they will usually go away in 3 days or so. If coffee is part of your morning ritual, try replacing it with green tea (30 mg/8 oz.), white tea (15 mg/8 oz.), herbal tea (0 mg/ 8 oz.) or decaf coffee (5 mg/ 8 oz.). For reference, an 8 oz cup of black tea has about 50 mg and a Coke has about 35 mg.
2. Use caffeine effectively. Once you have broken the habit or at least minimized your consumption, you can use caffeine more effectively as a performance enhancer. For training, take 50-200 mg before your workout. If you aren’t much of a coffee drinker, you can try caffeine pills (usually 200 mg/pill). Caffeine pills have the added benefit that you can take them easily during an event. You may also find that you have an easier time staying hydrated this way because you aren't drinking a hot beverage.

Timing is critical. Depending on your metabolism, the effects of caffeine will be felt the most within 1-2 hours of consumption. Think about when you most need to be "on" and time your caffeine intake accordingly. I have seen a lot of athletes drink their morning coffee at 7 AM and then 3 hours later they are coming off their morning buzz right at the start line of the race. Not good planning! This is especially important to remember if you are racing in the afternoon or evening. My suggestion would be to have your caffeine 1 hour before your event if you need to be ready to go at the start. If you are doing a 4 hour road race that shouldn't get hard until the last 2 hours, you may be able to hold off until after the first hour and then supplement again after the second hour. Again, caffeine pills that can easily be carried in your jersey pocket are extremely useful here.

Pay attention to any side effects, which may include nausea, headache, or jitters. If you have little or no tolerance, you may be affected by even a small amount of caffeine so start on the conservative side. Like anything, experiment in training so that you know what to expect on race day. Since greater caffeine consumption will cause greater tolerance and addiction, try to only use it when you think it will help your performance. In other words, not for a recovery ride. Likewise, you may want to use a little more for races. Try to keep your intake under 250 mg/day average to avoid excessive consumption, potential long term health problems and addiction.
3. Detox. Every so often (1-3 months), cut caffeine out completely from your diet to limit addiction and reduce tolerance.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Triathlon Swim Racing

Triathlon Swim Racing
By Holden Comeau

Far beyond the capacity for physical exertion, nothing will have a greater influence on performance in a triathlon-specific swim race than an athlete’s psychological posture in the water. It is absolutely essential that an athlete maintain a sense of calm and confidence at all times. The moment this mindset is lost, a swimmer’s efficiency will be similarly diminished.

With this in mind, a swimmer’s priority is to learn – through coaching and experience – exactly which parts of the swim present the greatest psychological hurdles. These are always uniquely personal, and so too are the methods for training them.

But there are specific things to keep in mind when preparing for a Triathlon Swim…

1. Open Water – Whether you’re racing in the Hudson, the Schuylkill, Lake Placid, or Kailua-Kona Bay, a large body of open water presents an infinitely variable racing condition to which a swimmer is forced to react. Understanding the degree to which your body is affected by water temperature, current, surface tension, depth, and clarity is something that is learned through experience. The more training time you can get out of the pool and into open water the better, but you can practice in your pool with a group of friends and no lane lines. Try an endurance swim in a wide oval during which you never touch the wall or the bottom of the pool. Once things are moving along well, plan a few attacks off the front of the group, and notice how different the increase in effort feels in this less stable environment of “open water.”

2. The Competition – Any obstacle that disrupts a swimmer’s balance in the water will affect momentum. Fifty splashing arms and legs are hugely disruptive. Find some clean water to race in. You don’t need to be separate from the group, but you don’t want to swim into people either. You’re more likely to find a smooth, drafting, swim group towards the outside or towards the front of the pack.

3. Learn to Kick – Your legs are the foundation upon which your entire stroke is built. Your kick controls your body position in the water, which then dictates how your arms will pull. Learning to incorporate your kick takes some good instruction and lots of patience, but it will ultimately prove to be the ‘secret’ to your swimming success.

4. Wetsuit Training – Used correctly, a wetsuit is incredibly fast in the water. The suit changes a swimmer’s body position, and thus the balancing point upon which the swimmer can leverage power. This means that the ability to apply force is entirely altered. But by practicing in the suit, a trained athlete can easily compensate for this position change, and make slight stroke modifications to maximize the wetsuit’s full potential for speed. Also, wearing a new wetsuit for the first time can be very claustrophobic. Getting comfortable with the fit of the suit in the water should not be saved for race day!

5. Course Layout and Sighting – Swimming in open water inherently means that a swimmer will not be swimming in a straight line. Limiting the potential to swim too far begins with understanding the course layout, and sticking to it as closely as possible. Recon the course prior to the start. Know the turns and the direction of the swim. It is a huge mistake to count on others to get through to the end. Secondly, practice and apply good sighting techniques as often as possible. Make your course corrections when you’re head is back under water, and always swim bouy-to-bouy.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Supplements, Part 2: Protein

One of the most common misconceptions endurance athletes have is that they need mass quantities of protein in their diet. The image that comes to mind for me is Rocky cracking a dozen raw eggs in the blender before heading out on his run. In reality, getting enough carbohydrates, and more specifically, good carbohydrates is much more of a challenge for most of us cyclists and triathletes.

Protein is required for muscle growth, repair and maintenance as well as the formation of hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and other components of the immune system. it is also required to produce hemoglobin in the blood. Most endurance athletes should aim for 15-20 percent of their Caloric intake from protein. In the U.S., most of us get far more, especially if we eat out a lot. Protein is found in high concentration in meats, fish, tofu and many beans and in lower concentrations in dairy products and nuts. While it is certainly possible to consume enough protein though plant based protein sources, animal based proteins are also good sources or iron and zinc, so vegetarian athletes should look for alternate sources of these minerals.

Since we burn protein as a fuel source in longer and more intense training sessions, some protein may be useful in the recovery process. However, it is not certain whether protein is really necessary in your post workout recovery drinks. The most important thing is to aim for 0.5-0.7 grams of carbohydrate (CHO) within 30 minutes of completion of the workout. This comes out to 65-90 grams for a 130 lb woman or 80-112 grams for a 160 lb man. Whether or not it the protein is necessary, it will not hurt if protein comprises up to 25% of the Calories in your recovery drink. Most marketed recovery drinks such as Hammer Perpetuem and Endurox have a 3-4:1 CHO:Protein ratio. These mixes are great if you are at away from home at a race, a Cadence class, or anywhere where you don't have access to your blender. My recommendation, though, is to eat real food whenever possible. So if you are at home or if you are close to a smoothie stand, have that instead. Not to mention, it tastes a lot better

If you are concerned about having enough protein in your recovery drink, be aware of the different types of protein contained in the supplements. Both Endurox and Hammer Recoverite contain whey protein, which is derived from milk. If you are lactose intolerant or you don't digest dairy products well after exercise, you may want to try a soy, egg or rice protein powder instead. Some people may find that casein protein absorbs well, though casein is also derived from milk.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pro Triathlete, Derek Oskutis, Reports from Los Angeles Triathlon

Hello from sunny San Diego! Well, it’s my final night here in California and it has been an amazing trip. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous with temperatures between 65 and 80. Yeah… it’s a rough life. Just as a refresher, I was out here in San Diego to work with the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions used for various reasons that are strictly classified.

Along with training the mammals, I was able to get in quite a bit of triathlon training to prepare for my first race of the summer – the Los Angeles Triathlon in San Dimas, CA. Coming off of my last race where I failed to finish the run, I was mainly worried about my stomach acting up again. The entire week before I was guzzling the proper fluids and doing extra stretching. Well, to start off the race was a very nice local tri. Even though it was very low key, great athletes such as Ironman World Champion Heather Fuhr stood on the starting line with me. With that said, I knew I had some business to take of.

The start got off smoothly. I was able to draft off of the eventual swim winner for roughly 400 yards but I fell off to come out in second place with a very strong time for the long distance. The bike course was tons of fun. It was a very challenging three loop course. What made it even harder was that I was riding my road bike instead of my race bike: Training wheels, big round tubes, no aero helmet, no aerobars, etc. So from going from 2nd to 5th definitely made me think of how many minutes I would have saved with all my normal gear. So after killing myself on the bike to minimize the amount of time I was losing, I opened up the run focused on not repeating what happened before.

The first mile went by at a moderate race pace to make sure everything was ok. After getting past the single-track off-road portion, I started opening up the speed. Not only did I pick up the speed, but I was flying. For a very hilly run course, I was feeling great. By the end of the run, I brought back 4 minutes from a runner ahead of me going from 5th to 4th overall. After seeing the results, I ended up running a 34:40 10k split which is a HUGE PR especially after DNFing Columbia! I am extremely happy with these results and even more excited to see how I’ll be improving over the summer. Race results -

The day after the race then I headed out with 5th place finisher overall for a long ride in the hills of LA. This huge ride took us to close to 6,300 feet and a total of 8,000 feet of climbing. Attached also are a few pictures from the ride. Well, with that I head back to Hershey, PA. It’s been a great time out here in California. Thank you all for your support and help and I’ll see you soon!

Derek Oskutis