Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why you need to slow down to speed up!

Apologies for using one of the trending cliche's in the world of sport science and exercise prescription as the title for this blog post, but I do think it describes the post below quite well!

This June, I was asked to write a short intro to my club's monthly newsletter and it seemed to go down quite well so I thought I'd add it to my blog (with a bit of editing to reflect the new audience).

Dear Athletes,
With the beginning of Summer 2017 we are now officially in ‘race-season’, I'm sure many of you have raced at high-profile and grass-roots events both abroad, and domestically already.
On race day, we push ourselves hard, often to the limit, and it's likely that your peak performances this year will follow a consistent block of training with an appropriate tapering period before the main event. I thought that as we will likely all be doing at least one race effort this year, now would be a good time to talk about the importance of balancing recovery and training load.
To maximise the physiological adaptations that lead to improved performance you will need to balance training Duration, Intensity and Recovery. Recovery is arguably the most important factor in a training programme. However, recovery does not always involve simply not training, or putting your feet up for the afternoon. Intense training sessions disrupt our body’s systems and processes, and the effects can last from a few hours up to several months if the athlete has severely over-trained. It is important that we are resting after these sessions but also before we go into them. The concept that underlies this training principle is the process of Sympathetic (fight or flight) Activation and Parasympathetic (rest and digest) Withdrawal of the autonomic nervous system during exercise. At rest, parasympathetic tone is high and regulatory body functions such as digestion, heart rate, and skeletal muscle activation are running in the background, unperturbed. When we exercise, the brain withdraws the output of parasympathetic neurons and increases sympathetic outflow – this enables our heart rate to increase to near maximum, dilatation of blood vessels, recruitment of large numbers of muscle fibres, and redistribution of blood to the working muscles while reducing it to lower-priority areas (e.g. the gastric system). This process is regulated by both volitional mechanisms e.g. pedalling harder, and feedback loops that are proliferated by chemical signals from neurotransmitters. The thing is – when you stop exercising, you simply stop. However, while your heart rate can go back down to near-resting levels fairly quickly, it takes time for the other processes described to recover and for our bodies to return to their resting set-point (homeostasis). High levels of neural output mean that the neurons of the sympathetic nervous system can remain excited for prolonged periods following very intense exercise.

On top of prolonged elevated sympathetic activation there can also be a delay in parasympathetic re-activation following exercise-stimulated withdrawal due to high levels of circulating hormones. This double whammy is the reason your heart is still pounding and you can’t get to sleep after a heavy track, swim or turbo session in the evening! What is the impact of this on performance? If the sympathetic system remains activated it will become fatigued: several studies have shown that multiple hard-days result in diminished sympathetic neural output, causing reductions in muscular strength, cardiac output, and motor-pattern coordination – hence, reduced speed/increased perception of effort.
Based on what I’ve written so far it may seem like I’ve strongly advocated against the inclusion of such strenuous training. The point I want to get across is that you can’t go hard all the time and expect to see consistent improvement. The practical information of this article is that both light-intensity (<75% Max heart rate) and heavy-intensity exercise (>85% Max HR) stimulate physiological adaptations that facilitate improved endurance. Lower intensity exercise (LIT) does not cause the disruptions to autonomic balance that persist after exercise, but high-intensity exercise (HIT) does. HIT increases maximal exercise capacity while LIT increases the capability to absorb large training volumes.

Both domains, or zones, have benefits. Yet amateur triathletes frequently train in the middle of these zones. Training at this intensity still yields benefits, especially if the athlete is new to the sport as any training stimulus would produce improvement. For the more experienced athlete who wants to maximise their training hours it is necessary to reduce the time spent in the middle zone. This middle-intensity training (MIT) is often performed between the lactate threshold, which is where your blood lactate increases above resting levels, and typically occurs at >75% HRMax, and the anaerobic threshold, which typically occurs at ~85-90% MHR, and demarks the high-intensity domain. Mid-intensity exercise may feel like you’re working hard but it produces greater levels of neural and muscular fatigue than LIT, additionally it is not intense enough to elicit the adaptations seen after HIT.

Ironically, it is the time-conscious athlete who must feel like they are maximising every minute of training, who pushes themselves too hard on their easy days. Thus, based on what I see on Strava every day there is very little difference between ‘race-pace’ and their ‘easy-pace’. This delta needs to be increased to truly maximise your training sessions. As with all things in life, it helps to follow the 80:20 rule – have 80% of your training be at <75% of your HRMax, with at least 10 of the remaining 20% being >85% HRmax. The result will be that you are fresher for the harder sessions by not going into them fatigued, able to maximise your sympathetic output during harder sessions, and gaining positive adaptations from the lower-intensity exercise without delaying recovery.

HR Range
Effort Duration
Low Intensity (LIT)
<75% Max
10 mins to >12 hours in some cases!
Usually low (<24hrs) but depends on duration
Increased capillaries and mitochondrial enzymes, joint angle specific efficiency improvements related to motorneuron learning
Mid Intensity (MIT) (Often race-intensity for sportive/half-ironman athletes)
75-85% Max
10 mins to 5 hours
Depends on duration but always longer and more pronounced than an equivalent time at low intensity
Blend of L and H intensity adaptations but increased blood lactate diminishes LIT gains and reduced intensity diminishes HIT gains.
High Intensity (HIT)
>85-90% Max
30 seconds to 120 minutes – large range of intensity within this zone
>24 hours but usually 48 hours before maximal outputs can be reached again
Increased cardiac output, improved oxygen economy, increased lactate elimination.

I hope this information helps everyone more carefully plan their training and racing this year. Comment or tweet me @james_jogs to discuss!
                Yours in triathlon,

                James D

Monday, 31 October 2016

Ironman Mallorca 2016 Race Report

This report was originally posted on 
Ironman Mallorca 2016 Report
Last week, at 7am on Sunday the 23rd of September 2016, I competed in IronMan Mallorca. It was my 5th time toeing the start line of an iron-distance triathlon, which consists of a 2.4mile (3.8km) swim, 112mile (180km) cycle, then a 26.2mile (42.2km) run to finish it off.
I was doing this race to avenge a DNF (did not finish) result at IronMan Copenhagen 4 weeks previously.  The DNF was caused by dehydration and having gone too hard in the early stages of the run leg triggering a heart arrhythmia where my heart rate reached 200 beats per minute, while I was walking! Fortunately, it returned to normal after about 30 minutes of lying on the ground with the paramedics keeping an eye on me but the race referee had arrived by this point and I was withdrawn from the race, just in-case it happened again. The most devastating part of this, aside from not being able to finish my main race of the year, was that I was only 10 kilometres from the finish line! In my previous experience, it’s the last 10km that does the most damage to you, and I woke up the next day not feeling too bad. After about 1 week of light training I realised that I definitely had another Ironman in me, and that I needed to do one before the end of the season as I had been holding back all year for Copenhagen and couldn’t bare to finish the year with no successes to my name.
Left: Me, just after a practice swim the evening before the race. Upper right: my race bike with trusty llama mascot on the handlebars. Lower right: the equipment and nutrition I used for the race, later separated into bags for each discipline and stored in the transition area during the race.

The Swim

So, to the race! The swim took place in Alcudia beach – a lovely calm bay in the Northern part of the Island. The last 2 years have seen a new feature to the race start, the traditional mass-start has been exchanged for the new ‘rolling start’, wherein athletes seed themselves based on their predicted swim times and are sent off in groups of 6 at a time separated by 5 seconds. This makes for a much less violent swim, as you can imagine 3000 people all trying to be in the same place at once i.e. the shortest line around the course doesn’t make for a very civilised swim. I hadn’t swum much between Copenhagen and Mallorca, but I did manage to get a couple of handicap 200-meter swim/run races in with my girlfriend while we were on holiday in France – more than enough training to tackle 3.8 kilometres in the sea! The swim at Mallorca is a special one due to the beautiful surroundings and the inclusion of an ‘Australian exit’ about 2.4km into the swim where athletes run along a short section of the beach before starting the second part of the swim. It turned out that I was very grateful for this short run after swimming in very salty water for about 35 minutes! I finished the swim in 58 minutes 15 seconds, a good result for me considering my lack of swim training this year. There was a short 400m run to the transition area where our bikes were located and I was shortly on my way along the flat main road out of Alcudia towards Can Picafort.

The Bike

The bike is the longest section of the Ironman and it was also the part that I’d been most worried about as there had been heavy thunder and lightning the day before the race. I knew that we were due a massive thunderstorm on the day of the race which would make the roads like glass, but by the time I had started the bike leg it was still dry. The first 110km of the bike are mostly undulating and take you through the small villages of the northern part of the island before climbing the Col de Femenia at 115km, which is a 12.5km mountain climb. I managed a good average speed during the initial flatter section, while being careful to avoid getting caught in the large groups of cyclists I passed, as triathlon is non-drafting during the bike leg. There came a point though where I reached an enormous group of ~100 riders. It took me about 10 minutes of riding above my target effort to get past them, and as soon as I got to the front the rider behind me simply latched onto my wheel, then overtook me 2 minutes later. While I was abiding by the rule of dropping back after being passed and leaving a 12-meter gap, people from the huge group decided to overtake me and fill in that, gap – pushing me back even further. While I sat at the back raging at the situation I realised that I could just sit about 20 meters back from the group and still get a slipstreaming benefit, I wouldn’t be going as fast as I wanted but I remembered that my friend, Tom, had impressed the importance of arriving at the bottom of the climb feeling fresh. Tom had learned this the hard way racing the previous year, as he was caught up in the effects of unleashing 300 similarly-fit triathletes upon a bike course at the same time, and was unable to ride up the climb as well as he could have done. With this in mind, I eased off the gas and decided to ‘make my move’ during the 5 kilometre run in to the bottom of the climb where the gradient slightly increased, enough to stretch out the peloton. Another rider and I made our move up the outside of the group, it wasn’t a huge effort as I didn’t go too far above my target average power output but I did want to hit the climb hard. When we hit the climb the rest of the group were caught and passed within the first 500 metres and I just tapped out a pace that I knew I could sustain to the top of the climb from my (many) sessions on the Wattbike at CCCU SportsLab, I averaged about 290Watts for the climb. Thirty-five minutes of steady effort later I had made it to the top of the mountain and not been over taken once, while passing about 50 riders including a few female professionals. The most memorable moment of the climb for me was after reaching the summit, a young man crossed the road blowing an enormous cloud of smoke/vapour into my path. Not wanting to inhale whatever it was I swerved to the other side of the road to avoid it, his friend saw me move and immediately began to chastise the bloke in aggressive sounding Spanish, as I passed she gave me a thumbs up and ‘Vaya vaya’ while I laughed and gave my thanks. Following the climb was a glorious descent for 10km full of switch-backs down the other side of the mountain. The remainder of the ride was fairly uneventful until about 150 km, where the heavens opened and I found myself in the middle of monsoon season. To be honest, I was very lucky with the timing for this shower as a friend of mine, AJ, who was also doing the race got caught in the rain at the top of the climb, making for a very treacherous descent.

So, after 30km of wet, careful riding I returned to Alcudia for the second time to end the bike course in 5hrs 5 minutes. I had a bit of a kerfuffle in transition as thanks to missing the race briefing the day before, I had no clue were to chuck my run-kit bag once I’d removed the shoes and energy gels from it. Luckily an event volunteer was there to take the bag and tell me to get running; ‘¡Ánimo!’.
The Run

The run course involved 4 and a half times a lap of 9.5km along the high street, through some of the residential part of Alcudia, and then along the beach front before looping back onto the promenade and around to the high-street. Despite the pouring rain for the entire 3 and a half hours of my run, the support from the locals, friends and family of other athletes, AJ’s partner, Josh, and random British holiday makers was immense and as encouraging as the crowds at the London Marathon. I started off at a steady pace and knew that all I wanted to do was survive the run and get a finish. My old nemesis, stomach troubles, started to give me issues after about 6km but I knew that it wouldn’t stop me from finishing (thankfully, there were toilets at every aid station, about 2km apart on the run!). When I came off the bike onto the run at Copenhagen I had less than 6 hours on the clock and potentially a Kona spot to chase down. I started off suicidally fast, running about 4:00minutes per km for the first 5km when my target was to hold 4:40 min/km. This is my usual tactic and I know that I will eventually settle to a maintainable pace, but combined with the 30-degree heat and necking 2-3 cups of Coke every 10 minutes, this lead to my DNF. My club mates and junior section coach, Bruno, had all given me a lot of advice on how to deal with this and my plan for Mallorca was to cap the first 5km of the run at 5:00min/km. I actually averaged this pace for the entire run so it definitely worked for me and next year my goal is to work on building pace throughout the IronMan marathon. I crossed the line after 9 hours 54 minutes of racing, which was good enough for 16th in my age-group out of ~180 and 175 overall out of 2500, including professionals. In terms of my goals for triathlon, I want to qualify for the world championships at Kona, Hawaii one day. I was about 30 minutes off the pace required to qualify at Mallorca, but considering my goal was just to finish, and having done nearly a full Ironman less than 4 weeks beforehand, I don’t think that it is too much of an unrealistic goal. My swim and bike are definitely up to the required level, as I was 11th in my age-group off the bike in Mallorca, but lost 5 places on the run (probably while in the loos!). Next year I hope to improve my run endurance off the bike and ability to maintain speed, which I can hopefully achieve through more specific training at SportsLab and with the advice from the experienced friends, club members and colleagues I’m lucky enough to know. As a race, Ironman Mallorca is up there with the best; the organisation, support and course make it one to do. Even if you're chasing a fast time you shouldn't let the hillier bike course put you off as the smooth roads more than make up for the added elevation gain. If you're good at descending (unlike myself) I think you'll be within 10 mins of a flatter course's time.

 Thanks for reading! 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Recovering Between Endurance Events

Repeat Performances

When it comes to feats of endurance, most people on the street could probably tell you that the Tour de France, Giro D’Italia and Vuelta a Espana are among the most demanding. Riders cover over three thousand kilometres (3,360.3 in the 2015 TdF) over the course of twenty-one stages, averaging about 40 km/hr, day in day out. Just one stage over mountainous terrain would present an incredible challenge to the fittest of club-level athletes, as riders typically must produce between 3 and 4 W×kg-1 for 4 hours or longer. However, what makes the athletes who compete in these events truly astonishing is their ability to deliver world-class performances day after day for three and a half weeks, with only two days off!
Because of this additional dimension the winners of the Grand Tours are not necessarily the most fit individual outright, rather, they are the athlete who is able to 1) recover between stages, and 2) save their energy for where it matters. The latter half of the equation for success relies on tactical prowess, thinking ahead to the unique demands of future stages and will be informed by the experience of the athlete and their support team. However, the ability to recover can be a multi-faceted and delicate operation. ‘Fitness’ definitely plays a role in recovery from high intensity exercise, a high VO2Max will mean increased ability to replenish muscular glycogen following an event and clear debilitating metabolites during the event1. There is also evidence to show that intense endurance exercise of just one hour can significantly reduce cardiac function, measured as the amount of contraction, filling and emptying the heart performs while at rest and during exercise. When looking at the individual responses to exercise it has been shown that factors such as aerobic fitness and training history are negatively related to the magnitude of cardiac dysfunction (i.e. the fitter you are the less damage you take).
Other ingredients to ensure ample recovery include Nutrition, Hydration, Therapy and most importantly – Sleep. Getting these right is the key to getting the most out of an athlete’s body for three weeks and is how cyclists like Chris Froome are able to produce over 400 Watts of power, at 90% of their maximum aerobic capacity for an hour at the end of Stage 1 and at the end of Stage 21.
On a far less impressive, but much more identifiable level, one weekend in May this year I competed in two triathlons on back-to-back days. Race one was the Nottingham Sprint Triathlon on the Saturday  (750-metre Swim, 20 km bike, and 5 km run), while the second race was in Shropshire, on the Sunday, and was an Olympic distance event: twice as long as the sprint distance (1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run). Saturday’s event took place at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepoint, Nottingham, on a flat course around the 2km long rowing lake. The field was fast across all age groups as this race was the first qualification event for the 2017 European Sprint Distance Championships, which meant it had attracted some of the fastest ‘age-groupers’ from across the country. The first four finishers in each age group who expressed interest in qualification for the Europeans would be selected to represent Great Britain at the event. Fortunately, my race went very well and I managed to grab the 4th qualification spot in a time of 1hr 00min 50sec.
Once I had finished the race I knew that if I wanted to have a chance to qualify in Sunday’s event I had to be methodical about my recovery routine… So the first thing I did? Drank two pints of beer! Now before you all start bringing a 6 pack to your next race I’m not giving you carte blanche to hit the pub after a race. No, this was special beer – Erdinger Alkoholfrei to be precise; an alcohol free isotonic recovery beverage. Essentially it tastes like beer (which I like) and is loaded with water, carbohydrates, and electrolytes and none of the alcohol which means it will rehydrate you more effectively than water. I sipped the drinks while sitting in the shade so as not to flood my recently traumatised and blood-deprived digestive system.

So, that was the first ingredient ticked – Hydration. Next on my list I needed to ensure that my muscle glycogen stores would be restored, and immediately following exercise is the best time to do this as many exercise-regulated glucose transporter enzymes would still be active along the membrane lining of my muscles – the sarcolemma. This meant that any glucose that found its way into my blood during this period of about 30 minutes was far more likely to be taken up by those muscles and converted to the long term storage molecule, glycogen – which I would need plenty of for Sunday’s race! When it comes to how much to eat after a triathlon I like to break down the energy demands of each leg and adjust from there based on how much I’ve eaten the preceding days and whether I’ve had any breakfast that day. Note: for shorter events I do not take on any carbohydrate during the race and rely on my body stores of sugar and fat for energy. However, while I believed it would likely negatively affect my race if I deviated from my usual routine e.g. by taking an energy gel mid-race, it may have meant that I could have potentially started Sunday’s race with higher glycogen stores. I would also point out that for longer events you can massively aid your recovery by consuming carbohydrate, as it will mean that you finish the race with higher muscle glycogen stores and get a head start on recovery. I worked out that I had used approximately 250 kcal during the swim, 450 kcal during the bike, and 350 kcal during the run. I started my nutrition replacement strategy with a high carbohydrate energy bar (Clif bar, blueberry crunch) and followed shortly with a high protein and carbohydrate energy bar (Bounce ball, coconut). This gave me about 600 calories, mostly of high glycaemic index carbohydrate (which would soon find its way into my quads, hamstrings and calves!) with about 10 grams of extra protein from the Bounce ball to stimulate muscle repair and reduce my hunger levels2. Additionally, the antioxidants in the blueberries and Bounce ball may have helped repair oxidative stress, caused by the high intensity exercise.

Following the race I had essentially replaced all the calories I expended and needed to focus on the second 2 ingredients – Therapy and Sleep. Fortunately, at the event were Birmingham University College’s Sports Therapy undergraduate students, who provided free massages to competitors. I managed to get a good, if slightly agonising, sports massage which was focused on my quadriceps and calves, as these tend to be the most painful for me following a race. I also had brought along my foam roller and various massage tools which I used that evening to loosen off the stiffness that settled in during the drive from Nottingham to Ellesmere that afternoon. I travelled over to Ellesmere with my girlfriend, Claire, who had also competed that day in Nottingham, although her race hadn’t started until 1:00 pm. Clearly this 4 hour wait in the sun was not ideal in terms of recovering for Sunday, but I managed to mitigate any potentially damaging effects by preparing my nutrition and hydration in advance, bringing sufficiently cool clothing to wear post-event, preparing my own sports therapy equipment and techniques, finding out if there would be post-race massage (preferably free!), and ensuring my equipment was still in working order for the next day’s event. This meant that for the time between our events my main goals were to:
1)    Move as little as possible to conserve energy,
2)    Stay out of the sun to avoid overheating, slowing recovery,
3)    Stay hydrated and well fed moving on to lower glycemic load foods in the hours after my race. And finally…
4)    Cheer Claire on as she was also trying to qualify! (She did!)

I must point out that the transition between the two races is where Claire really saved my bacon as she did all the driving from Nottingham to Ellesmere (about 2 hours down twisty country lanes), carried my bags to our hotel room, drove us to dinner and back home! For dinner I had a high carbohydrate meal of seafood risotto and consumed plenty of fluids. Hydration is such an important aspect of recovery as during an event, especially a hot one, you will inevitably sweat a lot and a large amount of this fluid comes from your blood plasma. This means that your total blood volume is reduced. As a result, you have less fluid available in your blood vessels to send to the skin to cool your core temperature, and less blood to fill the ventricles during the filling phase of heart beats. Ultimately, this results in blood flow to the major muscle groups being reduced, insufficient oxygen delivery and usage, and diminished exercise performance. I did NOT want this on Sunday, so I drank my water and electrolyte drinks to make sure I maintained adequate hydration. One practical way of checking this was, disgustingly as it may sound, to monitor urine colour – too clear would mean that my body was excreting mostly excess water and I was over (hyper) hydrating, too dark would mean that I was severely dehydrated. The recommended colour is pale straw so that’s what I aimed for.

 Now, I previously mentioned that sleep was the most important aspect of recovery, you may have heard the adage that it’s not the sleep the night before the race that’s important – it’s the night before the night before. This claim certainly has some scientific merit as several studies have shown that exercise performance is not diminished following one night’s sleep deprivation, although perceived exertion may be higher3. However, while I was well aware of this I was also keenly aware that little research had been done on sleep quality during consecutive events and wasn’t taking any chances. Unfortunately, our room for the night was in a pub, above a bar, and it was karaoke night. It was a very nice room, and the bed was very comfortably, but it offered little protection from the onslaught of merry singers. Luckily, Claire came to the rescue again with a pair of ear plugs for me – she had prepared a lot better than I had! I ended up sleeping very soundly and at any rate was knackered after being up and about since 5am. Sunday’s race started at a leisurely 10:30am, that gave me plenty of time to get 8 hours sleep and walk 10 minutes down to transition in the morning.
The second race went very well and I knew that I had recovered well after exiting the swim and seeing I had swum just over 20 minutes, slightly faster than the day before. I also managed a slightly higher average power output on the bike, despite the distance being twice as long and actually put in one of the quickest bike splits of the day. The run however, did not go so well! The course was very hilly and most people found it difficult to get into a rhythm, especially if like me you have no natural rhythm. This made the eventual winner’s run split of 35min 00sec even more impressive, he was a solid 8 minutes ahead of the second athlete by 3km into the run and extended his lead to 10 minutes by the end! Meanwhile, I had started the first 5km averaging close to 3:45 min/km but soon after the halfway point of the 10km run leg something inside me died and I could only jog to the finish at a speed of ~4:15min/km. Fortunately, the work I had put in on the swim and bike meant that I finished 3rd in my age group, 9th overall and bagged the first qualification spot in my age group. So I had done it – achieved what was a bit of an overly ambitious goal of meeting both qualification criteria on consecutive days, I will now represent Great Britain in both the Sprint and Standard Distance European championship events next year. I’m convinced that my strict recovery routine is what let me get to this point as following the second race I threw that routine out the window, had a Snickers bar, several pints of non-alcohol-free beer and fish and chips for dinner to celebrate. Surprise surprise - I felt incredibly rough, battered and bruised the next day. Thankfully it was a Bank Holiday Monday and I didn’t need to do anything other than put my feet up and stuff my face with delicious cakes made by Claire’s mum.
Thank you for reading this blog post! If you have any questions please drop me a comment or email (