Tag Archives: Triathlon

Iron and Endurance Performance

Iron is perhaps one of the most important nutrients when it comes to performance. This is due to it’s role in transporting oxygen through the blood. Iron has several forms within the biological system but in this case Haemoglobin is an Iron containing protein which Oxygen binds to. Iron is absorbed in the gut and transported to cells. Once it has been taken up in the formation of Heamoglobin it is ready to go to work.

The main determinant of endurance performance is oxygen supply to the working muscle. A muscle cell is capable of producing much more energy in the presence of adequate oxygen than without. Once oxygen demand exceeds oxygen supply, the level of intensity becomes finite. This is a major process when we consider fatigue. A huge proportion of our training aims at increasing oxygen supply and making our metabolic and circulatory system as efficient as possible. Endurance performance is determined by our movement and metabolic efficiency and our capacity to support them. In other words we try and reduce the oxygen cost and increase the oxygen supply. If we can achieve this we will perform, and enhance our performance ability.

Given the importance of oxygen and oxygen supply, Iron now takes quite an important role in the system. Without adequate Iron levels we will have reduced oxygen supply capacity within the blood. This was displayed in recent years with athletes who were involved in blood doping. Individuals who utilized substances which increased the production of red blood cells noticed some complications. Without a reflective increase in Iron any oxygen supply increase would be limited. Heamoglobin is a major constituent of a red blood cell. As a result Iron supplementation became common in unison with the use of these drugs.

One other such instance is in Female athletes going through menstruation. Blood loss and subsequent loss of red blood cells will impact endurance performance. It has been well documented that female athletes need to be vigilant with their dietary Iron intake. Those who fail to do so can easily become anaemic. Anemia is a disaster for any endurance type sport. Ability to perform is dramatically decreased and can be improved very rapidly when iron intake is increased.

What many athletes are not aware of is the fact that red blood cells can be easily damaged during exercise. This degradation is known as Haemolysis. Haemolysis can reduce our levels of haemoglobin and our overall capacity to supply oxygen. How this Haemolysis occurs is debated somewhat. Some feel the main mechanism is a breakdown of the redblood cell’s lipid layers which encase the contents of the cell. This occurs in the presence of free radical ions in the blood produced through oxidative metabolism, A process which is significantly increased during exercise.

During high impact exercise we can also damage the cells causing their contents to burst out into the surrounding blood plasma. This can occur in impact sports but usually not on a large enough scale to cause problems. Highly repetitive exercise such as running where the feet are hitting the pavement thousands of times can get to a point where significant hemolysis has occurred. At extremely high intensity there can be increased pressure on the renal system. Breakdown of tissue leaves proteins, sodium and other ions in the blood. The kidneys filter the blood but can become clogged up with these molecules. Iron can be forced into the surrounding tissue. This can result in renal failure. Dehydration can also contribute to all of these processes.

Extreme duration events have been associated with quite significant Haemolysis.

During heavy or prolonged exercise all of these processes may occur to some degree. Studies examining long duration races such as Ironman and Ultramarathons have all been used to examine the changes in Iron levels. 95% of individuals showed a significant reduction in Iron post event. Even shorter distances showed a high prevalence of altered pre/post event Iron levels.

The lesson in all of this is that during exercise we do deplete our levels of Iron. This is in isolation of any preexisting health issue or consideration. Given the importance of iron in our ability to perform it becomes clear that it is a nutrient that must be a constant consideration for any athlete. Many athletes have disregarded their Iron intake and pay a massive price knowlingly and unknowingly. It is a nutrient that gets some attention but rarely to the full extent it deserves.

All athletes who wish to perform at their best need to ensure that they support their efforts nutritionally. Macronutrients often shadow the role of micronutrients in the diet. Iron is one which simply cannot be overlooked. If in doubt consult professional nutrition support. It can easily bring you the progress you’ve been looking for.

Weight training and endurance athletes!

Traditionally endurance athletes tend to avoid doing a lot of weight training. The reason being that they don’t want big blocky muscles which they will have to carry around during a race. This perception is starting to dissipate with modern endurance athletes, as they realize the benefits of weight training. I will discuss a number of these benefits and how they can improve endurance performance.

  1. Increased Strength

The first and most obvious benefit to weight training is improved strength. This strength comes from a number of physiological adaptations. Muscle fibres develop so they can produce a stronger and faster contraction. In addition the recruitment of muscle fibres is improved. Neural patterns become better trained allowing for more efficient contractions during movements. Ligaments also become strengthened which also increases the amount of force we are capable of applying.

This strength increase means that relative workloads become easier for an athlete. It requires less relative effort to maintain a certain pace or power output. They will find it easier to sustain a certain workload and will be capable of working more than they could previously. They also have the higher maximal power output which may be useful during sprint type scenarios.

  1. Injury prevention

Weight training strengthens ligaments and tendons. This means the ligaments and tendons can tolerate greater amounts of force. This will significantly reduce the risk of injury as they are much more resilient to damage, which may occur during intense exercise. High loads through the joints are common for all athletes during athletic movements. Making the ligaments stronger would be a good way to prevent any damage occurring.

When we spend large amount of time training a particular skill or movement the muscle involved becomes more developed. Often their opposing muscle group lacks this development leading to imbalances. This not only affects movement patterns but can also heighten the risk of injury. Weight training can be an ideal time to correct these imbalances.

  1. Core Strength

I refer to core strength on its own purely because I want to emphasize its importance. Having a strong trunk and core allows us to transmit force through our body much more efficiently. A tired runner or cyclist tends to wobble back and forth in their upper body. This is an indicator that their core has fatigued as they cannot maintain efficient posture. This is a waste of energy and a waste of effort. A strong core allows for more efficient and direct movement. This can help an athlete conserve energy without sacrificing pace. Weight training is a superb way to strengthen the core and help coordinate the body.

  1. Hormonal support

Weight training promotes certain hormones which can be beneficial to all athletes. It can help promote lean body mass and reduce fat mass. This means that you carry less “dead weight” in favor of muscle which can contribute to your performance. As an athlete you will become more energy efficient.

The most important thing for any athlete to remember is to favour movements over muscles when weight training. Their goal is performance orientated and their program should be different to that of a bodybuilder. If they train compound multi-joint movements with an emphasis on form and the goal of getting stronger, they will see a benefit.

Most endurance athletes fear weight training for fear of getting too big. In reality this is quite unlikely. Our capacity for hypertrophy is largely determined by genetics. We tend to identify our body type shortly after puberty. Heavy, more muscular individuals are unlikely to ever succeed in a sport that favors slender, lean bodies like endurance running or cycling. While we can influence our size, it is usually quite apparent we are naturally suited to some sports more than others. We enjoy sports that we can compete at. If we are the wrong shape or size we tend to avoid that sport because we don’t do so well at it. A high level endurance athlete is unlikely to gain the amount of muscle mass that would hinder his performance. They can still however, see significant strength improvement without muscle gain. They should not fear weight training as it is likely not to become a problem unless they are struggling with an unfavourable body type to begin with.

In summary, athletes of all types will benefit significantly from weight/strength training. They should always approach it from a movement perspective and not try to isolate muscles unless prescribed for prehab or rehab purposes. Endurance athletes are now realizing that an appropriate strength program should not be feared. It can and should be implemented to their program as they are likely to see quite noticeable improvements in the areas discussed.