Training Tuesday: Focusing on Rest and Recovery. photo: always shooting

Many athletes still feel guilty when they take a day off but taking rest days are just as important as the other 3 disciplines (Swim, Bike & Run) for performing at your highest level.

The body needs to repair & strengthen itself in between workouts & continuous training with no rest days can weaken the athlete & lead to injury, overtraining, illness & lack of motivation mentally as well.

Building recovery time into training is critical, this is the time the body adapts to the stress of training & the real training effects take place.  Energy stores are replaced & muscles repair, rebuild & strengthen.  Insufficient rest & recovery the body will continue to breakdown.

A coach will incorporate rest & recovery within your training program & these will be in the form of Active Recovery (low intensity exercise the day after a hard workout), Rest Day (a whole day off from exercise), Recovery Week (Reduced volume week after a block of progressive training) These forms of recovery help our bodies adapt & become more efficient, we then add additional stress to continue to make progress – these are the things a coach will make sure your training program covers.

Another very important part of rest & recovery is SLEEP & we need to be getting a minimum of 8 hours sleep a night.  Consistently getting less than 8 hours sleep a night can result in changes to hormone levels, particularly those related to stress, muscle recovery & mood.  So we get an increased level of cortisol which is the stress hormone & a decrease in growth hormone which we need for muscle recovery & a decrease in glycogen synthesis which is needed for energy therefore your aerobic endurance will decrease and perceived exertion rating will be increased making the workout feel harder.  So paying more attention to how much sleep your are getting is very important, try getting yourself off to bed earlier to get the 8 hours your body & mind need & see the difference in your training & daily life.

WHAT IS GOING ON WITH OUR HORMONES?

What are the jobs of our hormones? 

ESTROGEN

  • It promotes muscle growth and strength – estrogen or estradiol to be exact, is an anabolic hormone which means it builds muscle mass.  So this is why your strength declines quicker during the menopause.
  • It supports your Mitochondria function, remember these, the batteries within your muscles that turn all the glycogen into energy.   So without estrogen we need to find another way to produce this same stimulus and that is where exercise comes into play.
  • It regulates inflammation – estradiol is anti-inflammatory, estrone (which is another form of estrogen found in your fat cells) is inflammatory.  Inflammation is good if you get an injury or cut etc but not so good when systemic inflammation (which means within the body, bloodstream).  It’s estradiol that we lose during menopause not estrone and so we end up with more risk of systemic inflammation when our hormones decline, like sore joints, fluid retention, puffiness, gut issues.  This can again be controlled through nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.
  • It manages blood sugar – estradiol promotes insulin sensitivity, insulin is the hormone that opens the door to your cells to allow blood sugar to enter and be stored as energy and estradiol helps with this.  As estradiol fluctuates and flatlines we become more insulin resistant and therefore harder to get the glucose/blood sugar into the cells to be stored as energy and so the blood sugar ends up being drawn into your fat cells to get it out of your blood stream and this is how we get the sudden weight gain without changing anything.  By changing your nutrition, which you have all been doing over the weeks, can help balance your blood sugar and help obtain a better body composition.
  • It regulates appetite – estradiol regulates your hormones that control hunger and satiety (Ghrelin & Leptin) and like leptin helps blunt your appetite.  We have managed to control this by eating more protein in your diets.
  • It controls body temperature – estradiol helps maintain a consistent core temperature so you all know what happens when it starts to fluctuate, yes hot flushes!!  I did a post on Adaptogens and there were some listed on there that can help with hot flushes.  I always sleep with a fan on and that seemed to help with not getting the night sweats, I also have a little hand held chargeable fan I used which worked really well and avoiding hot drinks as they can bring on hot flushes.  I also use a cooling towel, you wet it, rinse out the excess water & drape that round your neck & it works really well, especially during exercise.  They sell them in packs on Amazon.
  • It controls blood pressure – nitric oxide is a compound in your body that helps expand your blood vessels so better blood flow and enables more oxygen to be taken on.  By breathing through your nose you produce nitric oxide (but not if you mouth breathe).  When we lose estradiol our blood vessels don’t widen and constrict as easily and so can cause your blood pressure to increase.  Exercise can also be harder if your arteries can not dilate as well and therefore your heart will have to work harder to push the blood through, and then a higher heart rate than the actual effort perceived.  Maintaining your health through nutrition and exercise is important.
  • It builds bone – estradiol increases absorption of calcium and is involved in maintaining bone density.  So when we start losing estradiol it becomes really important to incorporate weight bearing exercise to stop this decline into osteoporosis (brittle bones)
  • It keeps your vagina healthy – estradiol keeps the vagina moist and helps maintain the thickness of the lining.   As estradiol declines the vagina walls become thin and dry and sex can become very painful.  I have had this, burning and like using sandpaper and not amount of lube works.  Only thing that does is estrogen gel that you insert or HRT (well that is my experience, normal lube might work for you).  But pain can also occur during cycling and running too due to this thinning and dryness so the gel or HRT might help that too.

PROGESTERONE

  • It counterbalances estrogen.  During peri-menopause the number of eggs in your ovaries declines and they stop being released like clockwork every month.  In the month where there is no egg there is no progesterone so there will be high amounts of estrogen and no progesterone to balance it out, during this month you will not have a period.  Then the next month might be normal and could end up with a really heavy period lasting longer due to the lining of the womb not shedding the month before because if the egg is not fertilized, progesterone stimulates the lining to shed as our period.  So when these hormones start fluctuating it can cause irregular and heavier periods.
  • It increases connective tissue stability – so estrogen loosens our tendons and ligaments which creates instability but progesterone counterbalances it by stabilsing them by increasing the tension.  So during menopause, we lose this counterbalance and so stability in our joints become vulnerable.  This is why stability and balance become more important during menopause and onwards.
  • It protects our brain – it produces a calming, anti-anxiety effect in the brain and may enhance memory function.  As progesterone declines, we lose these, and symptoms like mood swings, memory loss, and brain fog can be experienced.  These symptoms are more pronounced during early peri-menopause and early post-menopause and brain fog dissipate over time (I hope so as I am post-menopause and still waiting for it to dissipate!!!!)  Nutrition can help though, omega 3 has really helped my brain fog and there are lots of other foods that help (I still need to read The XX Brain book – female brain, as I know there are some other foods listed in there so I will let you know more when I’ve read it) but being hydrated will also help as water increases blood flow to the brain.
  • It provides pain relief – when progesterone is high we have a greater pain tolerance and this is due to progesterone’s effects on the brain.  So everything can seem to hurt more when this hormone declines.  There are ways to help pain tolerance through breath work, there have been studies done showing a group who suffered from chronic back pain, those who regularly practice breathwork felt less pain than those who didn’t and that the Thalamus (part of the brain that deals with sensations) was larger and more active in the non-breathwork group compared to the breathwork group.
  • It helps build bone – along with estrogen, it builds and maintains bone density.  So again, it is really important to adjust diet, exercise and stress during this time.
  • It affects heart rate variability – I’m not going to go into heart rate variability too much, but for the guys that do triathlons, I will explain it a little bit.  Your heart rate does not beat at a set rhythm, it is more a variable beat and your HRV is the amount of time between heartbeats.  Your HRV is a measure of your autonomic nervous system and can tell you how much you are in your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) so the higher your HRV the more you are in your parasympathetic nervous system and the lower your HRV the more you are in your sympathetic nervous system.  So, for athletes it can be a measure of how recovered you are along with resting heart rate etc. So, during menopause with the decline of progesterone we have less stress resilience and so end up in a more sympathetic nervous system and therefore increased stress and anxiety.  To increase your HRV you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and breathwork, mindfulness and meditation can help with this.
  • It maintains body temperature – it increases your core temperature.  During fluctuating hormones, your hypothalamus (the thermostat of your brain) gets mixed signals from the environment and what your hormones are telling you which can trigger hot flushes, sweating, or chills.
  • It is anti-inflammatory – it inhibits the inflammatory responses so as this declines joint issues, metabolic disorders, and heart disease are more of a risk. 
  • It breaks down muscle tissue – so estrogen builds muscle tissue, progesterone breaks it down.  Its main goal is to make sure an implanted embryo survives so it breaks down carbohydrates to provide energy and breaks down protein to use for building the lining of the womb. 

TESTOSTERONE

We produce less than men but it works with estrogen and progesterone to support maintaining healthy bones and muscles.  It fires up your sex drive and protects your brain.  Our ovaries and adrenal glands do still keep producing testosterone even when our other hormones are declining but building and maintaining muscle is still difficult during this time.

Muscle tissue starts to be marbled with fat tissue during this time too, which is why you may notice your muscle tone changing without changing your exercise.  This is another reason why your training and nutrition need to change to maintain muscle and power.

Hopefully, now you know what these hormones do, will make more sense why we needed to make a nutrition overhaul and either add exercise or change up your exercise to counteract the effects of losing these hormones on your body.

There are two types of mindset, a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset.

FIXED MINDSET – you believe you are either born with talent or not.  Your either naturally good at something or not.  You believe intelligence is a fixed trait and inborn talent determines success.

GROWTH MINDSET – you believe talent comes through effort.  Anyone can be good at anything.  Your abilities can be developed through dedication, perseverance and the right strategy.

Here is an example of a fixed mindset against a growth mindset:

In a fixed mindset, you are putting in the handwork but you are not seeing instant results, you have a bad weekend and feel like a failure, so you give up because it is just too hard and you think it won’t work for you anyway.  In a growth mindset, you have setbacks but you learn from them and keep following the process without worrying about the results, you don’t even think about the results you trust in the process and enjoy it because you are learning new things.

NEUROPLASTICITY

The brain is not hard-wired, it is actually very plastic.  Neuroplasticity can be defined as the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout your life.  Connections in the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, with every repetition of a thought or emotion you reinforce with specific neural pathways and if frequently repeated these small changes end up changing the way your brain works, this is how new habits are formed.  So there is nothing preventing you from learning something new, tackling a new challenge, or getting out of your comfort zone and this is what having a growth mindset is.

FIXED MINDSET TRIGGERS

A fixed mindset trigger is something that shifts your mindset away from thinking that you can improve.  If you can’t pinpoint your triggers you might have a false growth mindset – everyone has a fixed mindset at one time or another about one thing or another, we do not permanently have either a fixed or growth mindset.  You might have a growth mindset regarding say your career, where you push to improve but a fixed mindset regarding your nutrition, where you give up as soon as you get a setback.

So, what are the triggers:

  1. HAVING TO WORK HARD – if hard work is one of your triggers you may get overwhelmed by tasks that require sustained effort and be more likely to give up.  Another sign is if you tend to compare yourself to others, and you feel discouraged when it seems like it requires less effort for them to achieve the same goals.  It doesn’t mean you are lazy, it just means you have a self-limiting belief.
  2. FACING SETBACKS – things go wrong in life, and we have setbacks.  Here is an example: You decide to go on a diet but on the first day it’s a colleague’s birthday and you feel you have to accept a piece of their birthday cake.  With a growth mindset, this wouldn’t be a big deal, you’d just get back on track the next day.  But if this is a trigger for you, you may stop the diet altogether because you feel like you have failed!
  3. GETTING NEGATIVE FEEDBACK – Feedback can be very useful, it can be a way to learn, look at professional athletes, they get a ton of feedback and it can be harsh feedback too, but they listen, they learn and they apply the feedback.  But if this is your trigger you might feel like if you didn’t do well then you are not good enough and take it personally.
  4. BEING CHALLENGED – being out of your comfort zone is one of the best signs you are learning and growing.  Unless you are getting stretched, you are simply repeating stuff you already know.  If your mindset trigger is being challenged, it means that when you try to work on something and the solution you try doesn’t work, you believe the goal is too hard and you may quit altogether.
  5. SEEING SUCCESS IN OTHERS – comparing yourself to someone who you think is more senior or has more experience and what your brain does not get is that these people have been working at it for longer than you and there is no reason you wouldn’t get similar results if you put the effort in too.  It can be intimidating to hang out with people who are more advanced than you in their journey.

HOW TO DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET

By changing your thinking of effort and failure, you can design a whole new approach to your life.  Developing Self-Awareness, if you don’t give much thought to your role in your success or failure, it is going to be difficult for you to strategize and improve.

  1. NEUROPLASTICITY – your brain structure is not fixed and your mind should not be fixed either.
  2. PROCESS OVER RESULTS – it’s all about the learning process, don’t worry about the results just make sure you learn as much as possible.
  3. ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR WEAKNESSES – ignoring your weaknesses means you will never improve.
  4. PURPOSE – people with a growth mindset have a greater sense of purpose.  Keeping asking “WHY”
  5. STOP SAYING FAILURE, SAY LEARNING – always learn from your mistakes or failures – what can you learn from it to make it better next time?
  6. EFFORT OVER TALENT – if you put the work in you will achieve the talent.
  7. CHALLENGES ARE OPPORTUNITIES – challenges are an opportunity for self-improvement.
  8. GROWTH BEFORE SPEED – it takes time to learn.  Think realistically about the time and effort it will require to acquire a new skill or habit.  Don’t expect to master everything or get results in one session.
  9. DON’T CHASE APPROVAL – when you prioritise approval over learning, you sacrifice your own potential for growth. If you do something well also ask yourself what you can try to do better next time.
  10. CRITICISM –  see it as useful , don’t let it destroy you.
  11. REFLECT – use journaling to reflect on your personal growth, either once a day, week or month.
  12.  PERSEVERANCE – grit and determination will help you overcome challenges and when you do it once remember you can do it again.
  13.  “NOT YET” – use the “not yet” to any fixed mindset statement, remind yourself that you haven’t mastered it YET!

Here are some questions you could use each week to start building a more growth mindset, think about answering them every Sunday, ready for the week ahead:

  • What am I struggling with right now?
  • What do I want to learn/achieve by the end of this week?
  • What can I try that will get me out of my comfort zone?
  • Who can I reach out to for help this week?  (do not do this alone, it’s what I set this group up for)

Now do daily reflections as well, as this will really help you foster a growth mindset and look at failure as learning, answer these questions each evening:

  • What did I do today that made me proud and what else could I do to improve?
  • What new strategies did I try to achieve my goals today?
  • What mistakes did I make that taught me something?

Remember, this is not going to happen overnight, don’t try to change everything at once from the above list, start with one thing and practice that first then once you feel you have mastered that move on to the next one. Enjoy the process……..

   

Do you find you are either struggling to get off to sleep or waking up at 3 am with racing thoughts or hot sweats?  Then just feeling unmotivated and tired for the rest of the day!

Inadequate sleep is stressful for your body.  The levels of the stress hormone cortisol remain elevated into the evening when they should decline.   This not only messes with your moods but also wrecks your recovery by impairing tissue repair and growth.  It also can cause insulin resistance, increased abdominal fat storage, injury, and overtraining.  You are more prone to overeating when you are tired due to higher levels of the appetite stimulator ghrelin and lower levels of the appetite suppressor leptin (these were mentioned in previous posts).  That’s why you find yourself craving more sugary snacks when you have a bad night’s sleep.  Prolonged sleep deprivation blunts your insulin response (remember insulin is the key to your cells to let the glucose in for muscle energy storage).

How do our hormones affect sleep?

Progesterone helps control stress, lets you relax and chill, and has a direct sedative effect.  As levels drop during menopause, it is harder to fall and stay asleep. Estrogen increases REM (dream sleep), assists serotonin metabolism, so you can relax, and helps to shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep. It also decreases the number of times you wake up in the night and increases total sleep time and quality.  It helps regulate your internal thermostat and body temperature.  So the decline in estrogen can lead to hot flushes and disruptive night sweats and make you more susceptible to night-time cortisol spikes.  We also start producing less melatonin which is the key hormone for regulating sleep.

What can we do to help get better sleep?

We want to improve our sleep hygiene!  First of all, let me explain, what is called our sleep architecture.

There are 4 stages to our sleep architecture:

Stage 1: the brain starts to drift out of conscious thought and into sleep.

Stage 2: Light Sleep

Stage 3: Deep, restorative sleep (NREM)

Stage 4: REM Sleep, where your muscle tone goes limp and you enter dream sleep.

We cycle through these stages throughout the night, waking up after the last stage briefly.  We tend to get more deep sleep during the first half of the night going into more REM sleep during the second half of the night. So if you go to bed too late at night or wake up too early, you’ll cut into this REM-rich last sleep cycle. 

What do the sleep cycles do?

Your NREM sleep (deep sleep) is when your body repairs, so this is when you produce the majority of your body’s greatest performance enhancers like human growth hormone, which helps you burn fat and stimulates tissue growth to build muscle and allow you to recover faster.  During deep sleep is also the time you convert short-term memory to long-term memory.

During REM sleep, your body is completely paralyzed, this is so we do not actually act out our dreams! The primary role of REM sleep is when the brain goes through all the countless things we were exposed to throughout the day and decides what is worth storing in memory, so if you have been reading or learning some really useful stuff, you want to be getting enough of this type of sleep to remember it.  It also figures out where in our web of knowledge to store these things.  REM sleep is also crucial for developing emotional intelligence.

There isn’t enough space in the brain to keep all the information, so sleep is the time to consolidate and organize all the meaningful data.

How can we help improve our chances of a good night’s sleep?

  • CORK THE BOTTLE BEFORE BEDTIME many of us (well I don’t really drink, so maybe not me) use alcohol to wind down at the end of the day, and it works temporarily.  But it reduces sleep quality and increases restlessness toward the early morning hours, especially if you are drinking right before bed.  Drinking within an hour of bedtime lengthens your NREM sleep and shortens your REM sleep during the first half of the night, as a result, you don’t get into deep restorative sleep for very long.  During the second half of the night, your liver starts sopping up the ethanol from your bloodstream which causes your body to go into a bit of a withdrawal causing you to toss and turn.  So the advice is to have your glass with dinner but then switch to tart cherry juice before bedtime. This naturally increases the production of melatonin.
  • AN EARLIER DINNERTIME: making your body work on its digestion can interfere with your ability to go into your parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system during sleep.  Having a large meal close to bedtime can prevent you from falling into the deep restorative sleep stages.  Give at least 2-3 hours from your last meal and bedtime.
  • TURN OFF SCREENS: shut down the electronics 30mins before you want to sleep.  Blue light has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin and this is already dwindling with age.  Your body temperature won’t fall as it should and you won’t get the signal that it’s time for sleep. 
  • KEEP COOL: the best temperature for good sleep is 65 degrees.  This is more important for menopausal women who are prone to hot flushes and night sweats.  Keep your bedroom cool, like you are sleeping in a cave.  Things you can do are a cool shower before bedtime to help bring your temperature down.
  • BLOCK OUT LIGHT AND NOISE: light and noise can keep you from drifting into deep sleep.  Blackout curtains are good and can use a white noise machine (I have a fan on every night as 1. It keeps me cool and 2. It blocks out any outside noise or snoring/breathing).  But sleep masks and earplugs can also help.  Also, dim the lights as the evening draws in so it can help the melatonin to build up.
  • JOURNALLING: if you have a busy mind before you go to bed, try writing a journal and getting all your thoughts out and onto paper, this has been shown to really help get to sleep.  Also, if you wake up with a busy mind, keep the journal close so you can jot down any new thoughts as this will help you get back off to sleep. Then in the morning, you will have a much clearer head to deal with everything you wrote down.
  • FLIP YOUR EXERCISE TIME: exercise in the evening is not an automatic sleep-wrecker, it can be better than dragging yourself out of bed at 5 am after a restless night.  It has been shown that it can improve sleep as long as the session is wrapped up at least an hour before bedtime, top it off with a cool shower to bring your body temperature down.
  • CAFFEINE: try to cut your caffeine intake after 12 pm.  Adenosine hormone builds up throughout the day to make you feel drowsy in the evening.  Caffeine is an adenosine decoy that floats through your bloodstream and binds to the adenosine receptors.  So now, instead of slowing down, your pituitary gland senses something is up and that you need energy and gives you a shot of adrenaline.  That’s fine early in the day but the half-life of caffeine is about 6hrs, so if you have a coffee at 3 pm you still have a shot of expresso effect kicking around at 9 pm and for some, it can be longer.  So, try avoiding caffeine at the latest 2 pm.
  • MEDITATION: this covers mindfulness and breathwork.  This all helps your body go into a parasympathetic nervous system by activating your vagus nerve to move you out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system. One breathwork routine I like which is to help sleep is the 4-7-8 method, you inhale for 4s (a big belly breath, so expand your belly), hold for 7s, then a long slow exhale for 8s – do this for about 4mins before bed. 

Have a go at some of these sleep hygiene ideas and see if it helps improve your sleep quality.

WHAT HAPPENS DURING PERI/POST MENOPAUSE?

THE ROLE OF ESTROGEN FOR EXERCISE:

  • Estrogen is an anabolic hormone, anabolic means muscle building, basically like Testosterone in men but it does not create as much muscle mass.   Without Estrogen, your body isn’t as good at building muscle.
  • Estrogen is very important for your muscles to contract and generate power and force – so think press ups, the force is pushing your body weight up from the floor.  Think of the power involved when doing a burpee, jumping back into the press up position then jumping legs in & jumping up – all of that needs power and estrogen is involved in making that happen.  When Estrogen flatlines the stimulus for those muscle contractions is gone.
  • Estrogen supports Mitochondria Function – So talking about muscles only for this, the mitochondria are like little batteries inside the cells of your muscle and these take the carbohydrate (glycogen) that is stored in your muscle along with oxygen, that gets transported to the muscles in your bloodstream when we start to workout, and by chemical reaction turns the glycogen & oxygen into energy.  When we do cardio type workouts like running, biking etc it boosts the function of these powerhouses, because the more oxygen the mitochondria receives the more, they adapt to perform faster and better to produce the energy.  BUT when we use oxygen to burn fat and produce energy (carbohydrates do not work on their own to produce energy, we need to use fat as well) you get, what we call “free radicals” which is a waste type molecule that can damage your healthy cells.  But luckily your body does produce antioxidants that help get rid of these free radicals so you can recover fitter and stronger. BUT guess what……. Estrogen is instrumental in that process, as it helps the mitochondria sweep out those free radicals.  So, when we lose Estrogen during menopause, we need to add nutritional support to help get rid of these free radicals!  You might of heard of antioxidant rich food like Vitamin A, C and E (Dark Chocolate, Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Kale, Red Cabbage, Beans, Beets, Spinach) – there are more if you google it, but these foods will do what estrogen use to do.

WHY EXERCISE AND THE TYPE OF EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT ONCE YOU ARE IN YOUR MENOPAUSE YEARS AND ONWARDS.

The fact is, everyone, Men and Women, naturally loses muscle and strength with age.  The years around menopause can make this worse, as estrogen is essential for muscle building.  Women lose strength quicker due to menopause because our hormones decline rapidly, whereas men’s decline at a much slower rate. 

BUT it doesn’t have to be this way, we can definitely put muscle back on and retain more of it through properly performed resistance training and the most effective is STRENGTH – HEAVY LIFTING!

The reason we need heavy lifting rather than lighter with lots of reps is because lighter is not enough of a stimulus in the muscle to stimulate what estrogen used to do in building muscle.

Heavy lifting creates:

  • INCREASED METABOLIC RATE: (because you are waking up more muscle fibres). Muscle requires a lot of energy to exist, so when you increase your metabolic rate, you increase the number of calories you’re using at rest, because remember, the body is still burning calories to keep it alive. So, this is good news and a good reason to lift heavy eh!  And it uses more fat as fuel to burn those calories.
  • IMPROVED POSTURE AND STABILITY: joint strength and mobility become an issue with age, and especially with the onset of menopause because these hormones had a role in keeping your joints stable.  By lifting heavy you are stimulating your tendons (these are what connect your muscles to your bones) to increase their tension, which will give you better overall stability in your joints and increase the ability of your muscles to support those joints when doing hard work. The muscles that stabilise and support your spine, degrade with age but all your posture muscles within your trunk are put to work when you lift heavy weights to stabilise otherwise you would just collapse in a heap!

You need to think about both these in everyday life too, carrying shopping, lifting boxes, getting out the bath, getting out of bed, getting out of the car! The list can go on and on if you really think about it.  And all of these will get harder and harder as you age if you don’t do something about it now!

  • STRONGER BONES: lifting heavy is very good for remodelling your bones and improving bone density. Because the harder the muscle’s tendons pull on your bones the bigger the stimulation for your bones to remodel stronger.  Your body is always adapting to the stress you put it under.  Think Osteoporosis, this is the biggest cause of hip fractures in older age and due to the lack of balance and stability which initially causes the fall.
  • BETTER BLOOD PRESSURE CONTROL: lifting heavy improves cardiovascular health.  It increases the ability for your veins/arteries to dilate & restrict more readily, giving you better blood flow to and from your muscles and your skin.  (Think this dilate/restrict is like muscle contractions that push the blood through the veins/arteries.)
  • MAINTENANCE OF HEALTHY BODY COMPOSITION: lifting heavy helps with maintaining/improving lean muscle and reduces fat gain.  Remember, as estrogen declines, so does our anabolic (muscle-building) stimulus and we start storing fat more easily, especially in our abdominal area.  By lifting heavy, you send your muscles an anabolic signal (muscle building signal), telling them that they need to be strong to overcome this stress, which stimulates your body to build more muscle and decrease fat storage.  Heavy lifting is much more effective for changing body composition than endurance base lifting (10+ reps) or cardiovascular exercise (running, biking, etc) especially during menopause and after.

WHAT IF I’M TAKING HRT?

Now some of you might be thinking, well I’m ok, because I’m on HRT.  Well, I’m sorry to tell you, HRT is not good for body composition, strength, stability, balance etc, it is fantastic for menopause symptoms like hot flushes, anxiety, joint pain, etc and preventing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease and brain health but not for body composition, and here is why:

All of your cells and tissues have receptors which are proteins attached to the cells and tissues (now think of these as little ears or antennae’s), and your hormones are the messengers for the cells and tissues to be able to respond (basically if you want them to produce energy, the hormone gets produced to tell the muscle cell’s mitochondria to do it’s stuff to create energy).  These receptors dimmish with age and the Estrogen Receptor Alpha which controls metabolism of sugar, insulin intolerance, muscle function, mitochondria power and fat tissue is one of the first to decline.  So, it doesn’t matter how much estrogen (HRT) you throw at it, to get the receptor to listen so the muscle cell can work because the receptor is not there in the same strength or concentration as it was, it can’t hear the message and therefore can not let that message into the cell or tissue.  But all this extra hormone upsets the rest of the body and so a side effects occur, which is weight gain. 

The reason HRT works for symptoms is because there are some estrogen receptors still there (as we have 12 types altogether) so that’s why it works well for treating some symptoms and preventing bone loss.  But turning our physiology back to PRE menopause it doesn’t do, unfortunately, we can not turn the clocks back to our 30 year old selves body.  The symptoms it helps with will also depend on your genetics too.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

You will need to build you up slowly if you are new to exercise, and especially new to resistance/weight training.  So firstly, start with stability, mobility, and core, because these are the building blocks that need to be in place before any type of load or jumping can be added.  When you have good stability, you can move quickly and powerfully, with greater ease and less risk of injury.  Having good mobility enables you to move the way you want without being restricted by too much stiffness or by imbalances.  It makes your more stable because you can adjust and catch yourself when knocked off balance.  Also, Yoga because it not only helps with all the above, but it also helps control breathing, improve your breathing, and bring you into a more parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).

The next stage would be adding in a little bit of cardiovascular low impact work like stair climbing as we still need to be cardiovascular fit. If you have been doing triathlons or running etc this will not be new for you and this area will not need to be developed from scratch.

The next staGe would be brinGing in a small amount of plyometric work (jumping) as this helps with insulin sensitivity (Insulin is a hormone and what it does is act like a key to open up the cell to let glucose in, so if you are insulin sensitive the cell will not be able to take on the glucose and so the fat cells will take it on instead). It will also improve bone density (while running helps build bones, it is far less effective than jumping, because running is one-directional stress and too similar to the stress your bones get when walking/daily tasks and your body adapts to the stress you generally put on it. So, if you want your bones to adapt to be stronger, they need more multidirectional stimulus).

The strength can progress by adding bands, weights (which can be items around the house, or filled up water bottles if you don’t have any), and kettlebells or dumbbells etc.

HIIT/Sprint training provides the stimulus to trigger body composition changes that our hormones helped us achieve on our premenopausal years.  So, the biggest benefit from HIIT training will be improvement in body composition (reduction in fat storage), as it increases muscle and reduces fat in a relatively short period of time.  It coaxes your body into burning more fat for energy when you’re NOT exercising. The type of work involved is hard exercise followed by relatively short recovery periods, for example you might do intervals like 20s max effort, 10s rest, or other ratios like 30:30, 40:40 but the ratios are usually all under 1min.  BUT before this happens, if you are new to exercise, you should build up through the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion) starting at level 6 which means fairly uncomfortable, RPE 7 becoming uncomfortable, RPE 8 Hard, RPE 9 very hard, RPE 10 extremely hard!  Building through this scale so your fitness builds gradually so by the time you are scheduled to work at RPE 10, you are fit enough to handle that type of intensity.

This journey should not just about losing weight but about going into older age stronger and fitter and ABLE.  Not puffing and panting when you have to walk up a small flight of stairs or struggling to get out of the car or bath or up off the floor.  To be stable and have balance to not be at such a big risk of falling and breaking a hip.  To have good posture and not end up with rounded shoulders, head forwards and hips bent.  To have the energy to play with grandchildren and be their Super Gran 😂👵

We are all from the era of Low Fat, fats were demonised for causing obesity, increased cholesterol and health problems and I’m sure all those years have left a lasting effect on your mind about eating fats. Many of you thought and probably still think a low-fat diet is the answer for managing weight loss!  The fact is, over or under eating is a cause of weight gain, not exercising, and eating a diet heavy in processed food (manmade).  So, be careful when you see low fat as this usually means all the good natural vitamins have been taken out (because they are in the fat) and sugar has been put in to flavour!

The purpose of fat in the body is for growth development, vitamin absorption, protection of organs, maintaining cell membranes, healthy brain function to name a few.

So, what are the benefits of fats?

  • Improves body composition – yes! I bet you didn’t expect to hear that!!  By reducing cravings, speeding up metabolism and their hormone interaction, they can help your composition and appearance.
  • They balance the hormonal system and responsible for hormone production.
  • By eating the healthy fats, they lower the ratio of good and bad cholesterol, so LDL (bad) will be decreased and HDL (good) will be increased leading to a healthier cardiovascular system.
  • Vitamin digestion and absorption.  Fat-soluble vitamins like A,D,E,K can only be absorbed with the help of fat.
  • They are an important source of energy during workouts.  Women’s bodies are primed to using fat as fuel more so than men, but we still need carbohydrates to kickstart fat burning!
  • Fats also contain active molecules that control inflammation and enable a better response of insulin (insulin opens up the cell to allow nutrients in) and is affected by inflammation as well as our hormonal decline, making us more insulin resistance, so we need all the help we can get for a better insulin response.
  • The brain is very rich in fat (60%), you might of heard of DHA, this is the major brain fatty acid.
  • They maintain the membrane integrity of every cell in your body! The structures of your cells are made up of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, and so are the foods we eat every single day.

This is not a coincidence. The foods you eat have a major influence on your cellular function because they ultimately become your cells.  Trans Fats & Saturated Fats cause membranes to be much more rigid than is optimal, potentially limiting the functionality of the cells.  Whereas Unsaturated fats are necessary for strong cell membranes and keeps them semi-permeable. Nutritionists recommend eating all types of fats so that one type doesn’t predominate in the diet and end up altering the optimal functioning of those cells. In general, diets high in unsaturated fats will promote healthy cell membranes.

WHAT TYPE OF FAT SHOULD YOU BE EATING?

UNSATURATED FATS

Are known as “good fats” they lower blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation and stabilise heart rhythms. 

There are 2 types of Unsaturated Fats (Omega 6 and Omega 3):

MONOUNSATURATED FAT: These are the Omega 6 fatty acids and are in foods like walnuts, almonds, and various types of vegetable oils, including corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower seed, and peanut oil. These are all types of oils that are in the majority of any processed, boxed, pre-packaged foods that you probably have in your kitchen pantry. Olive Oil & Olives contains both Omega 3 & 6.

POLYUNSATURATED FAT: these are Omega 3 fatty acids which provide heart health benefits as well as brain health and muscle repair.  Food sources are fatty fish like salmon, trout, catfish and mackerel but also flaxseeds and walnuts.  It is better to get your Omega 3 from food sources but if you don’t eat fish then a supplement is then important.  If you do eat fish, aim for at least two servings of fatty fish each week.

Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health!  But they play very different roles. Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body; whereas, the omega-6s have a pro-inflammatory effect. This may sound bad but some inflammation is actually necessary. Inflammation can help protect the body from infection and from injury. For example, if you roll your ankle, inflammation sets in to immobilize your ankle so you can begin to heal. If you get a cut, the inflammation is an immune response to help fight off any infections getting in. But, too much inflammation can lead to other things like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and many types of cancer. Omega-3s are known to lower the risk of these diseases by decreasing the amount of inflammation within the body.

SATURATED FATS

SATURATED FATS: these can bring particular benefits such as increased liver health and improved bone structure strength.  But high cholesterol levels will be generated by numerous LDL’s being produced.  So more sparingly with these types of fats (they don’t need to be totally avoided just consumed in moderation).   Food sources are: Dairy sources (milk, cheese, butter), red meats, poultry skin.

TRANS FATS: this type of saturated fat is made by heating liquid vegetable oils in a process called HYDROGENATOIN!  You might see hydrogenated fats on food labels. This process extends the shelf life of food products. Hydrogenation turns a liquid into a solid food like margarine.  Trans fats are used widely for frying, baked goods, pastries, processed snack food and margarine

The risk of consuming excess trans fats include lowering good cholesterol and increasing bad cholesterol and promoting a higher chance of cardiovascular diseases.  I’m not saying you can’t eat them but acknowledge the risks of excess amounts and consume in moderation.

The easiest way to get all of the nutrients you need into your diet is to consume foods like lean meats, eggs, dairy, colourful vegetables, whole grains, and fruits.

SNACKING ON FATS

Whilst you should snack on fat sources in moderation due to the caloric density they contain, they are the preferred snack in comparison to carbohydrates which are best timed pre/intra/post workouts for energy stores and preventing glycogen depletion.  By selecting fats or proteins over carbohydrates as a snack will reduce exercise inflammation and insulin sensitivity.  So, snack sources: nuts, nut butter (peanut, almond).  Just remember DON’T OVERDO IT!  As I mentioned in the carbohydrate post, combine them with fruit, then you get the vitamins, mineral, and fibre benefit of the front with the glucose response blunted from the fat/protein.

Hopefully this post has increased your understanding of the importance of fats and taken away some of those old demons.  Everything in moderation is key!

Carbohydrates have started to be demonised like fats use to be, but they are really important for our bodies to work properly, your brain uses carbohydrates for energy and so do your red blood cells and many more functions in the human body.  It is also the bodies preferred source of energy and fats can not be converted into energy without carbohydrates!  They should not be demonised as they are very important!

WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?

Did you know that fruit and vegetables are carbohydrates, I think a lot of people do not realise this, well they are.  Other sources are starchy carbs like bread, pasta, rice, oats, crisps etc, Sugary carbs like sweets, chocolate, cakes, honey, fruit, sugary drinks, etc.  And all these things can have a place in your diet if eaten at the right time, here is an example, a coke is great during a long bike ride when your energy reserves are low because sugar absorbs quickly for energy, even a chocolate bar or cake works the same too.  Starchy carbs are ok as well as long as you don’t get any GI stress from them (bloating etc) as that is causing inflammation and we don’t want more of that going on in our bodies, so foods that cause any adverse effect should be avoided.  The key to all of this is portion size and moderation.  Not having too big portions and eating too much of the same all the time, a BALANCED diet is key and making sure your plate has protein, carbs & good fats (as discussed last week) on it.  Think a wide range of coloured vegetables to be your go to sources but there is nothing wrong with the other sources listed above in moderation.  If you start trying to ban foods, you will just crave them more!!  Don’t ban them and if you are eating enough protein, you probably won’t crave them.

CARBOHYDRATES AND EXERCISE

Everyone focuses on the actual training part of training, which is great, however you are not getting fitter, stronger and faster during those sessions, that’s the damage phase, when you are breaking your body down and the harder and longer you work, the more you’re breaking your body down.  You get fitter, faster and stronger after those sessions during the adaptation phase.  That’s when you body is saying I need to strengthen the muscles, so I am ready when she wants to do that again!!  Now how you eat around these sessions directly impacts how you recover and how you adapt.  As a woman and especially menopausal woman you do not want to go into your workouts under-fuelled.  Doing that creates more stress and undermines your exercise progress.  You want the nutrients onboard, so you are not increasing your stress or eating into your muscle stores.  Pre workout snacks don’t have to be a lot, you just want something that contains protein and carbohydrate (banana & peanut butter or wholegrain toast & nut butter etc).  Then what you eat afterwards is especially important because of our 30min recovery window, which is the time your body is most receptive to restoring your glycogen stores and repairing the muscle damage done so stronger.  Remember, I talked about this last week, how we finish workouts with high levels of cortisol hormone.  So, we need to get out of that state asap.  If you skip this part your body ends up in a highly stressed state, with high blood sugar and is more prone to storing body fat and slow down metabolism.  Proper recovery nutrition prevents you from getting into a low energy availability and supports gut microbiome health because the gut takes a beating during hard exercise so providing good nutrition when you’re done so blood is moving from your muscles back into your gut (to digest the food) can help your gut heal and maintain good bacterial diversity.

So, please do not be scared of carbohydrates, they are not bad for you, they give us energy!  Just think portion size, food combinations, variation and balance!

As we go through the menopause, food timing becomes very important because we become insulin sensitive (or carb sensitive).  What this means is it’s harder for your body to use starches and blood sugar effectively as it used to and get that glucose into your cells (for energy).  The result is fat storage as your body pulls that blood sugar into fat cells to get it out of circulation.  And this applies whether you are on HRT or not.  But I will go into what HRT actually does and doesn’t do in another post (as I don’t want to give you brain overload).

So why is food timing and food combination important?  Because we don’t want to raise that blood sugar at the wrong times and create more fat storage.

Let’s talk about food combination first.  Because we become carb sensitive, struggling to use them effectively, there is one way we can stop them raising our blood sugar and that is to eat protein before eating carbs as protein blunts the glucose response (blood sugar) so it turns those starchy/sugary carbs to be more slow absorbing and therefore not raising that blood sugar.  It does also work by combing a meal with protein in it as well.  Just make sure that every meal has protein in it (protein is meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts, seeds, and there are small amounts in certain vegetables.) Because, ladies, you need to be upping your protein intake anyway to keep hold of your muscle & bone strength.

Also, you need to be reducing, to eventually get rid of, processed food, because all this does is cause inflammation and inflammation causes belly fat storage amongst other things because it is a stress on the body.

So, think of getting your carbohydrates from lots and lots of different types of fruit and vegetables, grains, wholemeal varieties, and fibre rich foods.

FOOD TIMINGS

Now let’s look at food timings as this becomes important!

  1. You MUST eat breakfast before you do any forms of exercise, because cortisol hormone is high in the morning and for women it puts our bodies into a sympathetic position (Sympathetic Nervous System is your fight or flight response to stress) then exercise causes cortisol to rise even higher. As you keep increasing that stress, it keeps your sympathetic drive high (fight or flight response) and reduces your ability to relax. Your thyroid activity is depressed, which messes with your menstrual cycle (if you are still having them). Your body also starts storing more belly fat.

So now you’re looking at disrupted menstrual cycles, higher anxiety and stress, impaired performance and often weight gain, pretty much the opposite of what you’re looking for!  By eating a breakfast, and it doesn’t need to be anything big, of protein and carbohydrate (e.g. banana with peanut butter on it) you can lower that cortisol level and put yourself into a more Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest).  Don’t ever do workouts fasted, it does not work for women!!!

  • Make sure you fuel your workouts, remember your 3 meals a day are to keep your body alive and working and general movement, it’s not also for your workouts, so you must fuel your workouts on top and again, it can be just something small & simple of protein and carbohydrate to top up. If workouts go over 90mins then you need to fuel during them too.
  • You must ALSO refuel after your hard workouts (HIIT, hard strength or endurance exercise over 1hr) and this includes 35-40g of protein (a protein shake can work well for after exercise as quick and easy to get down) and some carbohydrate (think fruit is a good carb for afterwards) and within 30mins because females finish hard workouts with high levels of, again, that stress hormone cortisol and it is catabolic (which means eating into our own muscle stores & breaking down our tissues) So we need to get out of that state as quickly as possible to start the repair process: pulling carbohydrate back into the liver and muscles and synthesizing that protein into STRONG, LEAN MUSCLE TISSUE, that helps improve your blood sugar control and body composition.  These are the benefits of this hard training – STRONG, LEAN MUSCLE, STRONG BONES and REDUCED BODY COMPOSITION!

WHAT I CAN DO AS YOUR COACH TO HELP YOU BE CONSISTENT

One of the first things I would advise you all to do is maybe re-evaluate how much time you have available to train and to do this, first workout and how much time you need for the following non-negotiables:

  • Work and this includes travel to and from work.
  • Family commitments.
  • Social life
  • Preparing food, eating food, clearing up afterward.
  • Chilling and winding down.
  • Sleeping.
  • Dog Walking
  • Anything else I’ve missed 😂

After you have accounted for all these areas you can see how much time a day/week you realistically have left to train, then we can work together to plan your training within the available time you have. 

As you must know by now consistency is key to getting performance adaptations and improvements as well as to changing any habit, technique, skill, or mindset.  If you are not consistent every week you will not achieve the performance improvements, you are aiming for.

Depending on what coaching plan you are on you will either have the option of weekly phone calls or monthly phone calls with me, where we can discuss any changes, we might need to make due to life to keep you able to stay consistent.  A lot of you are not taking advantage of this part of your coaching package!  Schedule a call with me, whether it’s weekly, if on the premium plan, or monthly if not, but there is a call option there for you.  I want to see you achieve your goals as much as you want to achieve them, and I totally understand that life can go crazy and make it really difficult to stick to the plan but there are options and adjustments I can make to keep the training consistent because something is better than nothing. 

If you have premium training peaks then you can move training sessions around to different days, you don’t have to do them on the days I’ve put in as it might not fit in with what is happening in your life that week, rather than skip the session because you didn’t have time that day, swap it with a shorter session or move a rest day.  I have started to label sessions (Key) and (Supporting) and I have done this specifically because I know all of you are a bit time starved due to work and other life commitments, you are not pro athletes that have all day to train.  The (Key) workouts are the ones that will hold onto your fitness, so generally the hard interval type workouts or could be a long endurance workout that is specific to your race distance.  The (Supporting) ones are still important but if your week becomes busy then one or two of these sessions are the ones you would skip rather than skip the (key) ones.  But before we get into skipping, any of these (Key) or (supporting) sessions can be reduced in time to help you fit them in.

OTHER REASONS FOR SKIPPING SESSIONS

  • Motivation dwindling
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Feeling overwhelmed with the sessions
  • Constantly injured or ill disrupting training
  • Many others

During the season motivation can dwindle and it is good to revisit your WHY. And where your motivation is coming from, what I mean by this, is it Intrinsic or Extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation is your internal desire to want to race, or train to improve.  You are doing it because you enjoy either the activity or working out, it brings your pleasure.

Extrinsic Motivation is when you are doing the activity because there is a reward, i.e. you are doing it because you want the medal, t-shirt, get the admiration from family & friends, or like how your body looks from the exercise.  If you only have extrinsic motivations, you will burn out quicker, intrinsic motivations are more committed to long-term goals.

So go back to your WHY. Why do you want to do a triathlon or train to improve?  Having a purpose will help keep you on a more consistent path.

To be successful you need the following:

  • COMPETENCE: To feel you can be successful with any skill or task.  Do you feel you can complete the workouts I have put in or are you feeling overwhelmed? 
  • CONNECTEDNESS: Do you feel you can talk to me or contact me to help or are you trying to just follow the plan where you can?
  • CONTROL: Do you feel you have ownership over your adjustments to training and your goals?

If you are feeling any of these you need to please reach out to me so we can talk about it and come to a solution TOGETHER, COLLABORATIVELY because there are so many options, we can come to together to make your training more achievable which will then create more motivation and consistency. 

If you are feeling like you are constantly ill or injured again a conversation with me can come up with some lifestyle changes that might be able to help with sickness, or strength and mobility that can help with injuries.  I am about to start a Biomechanics Diploma in September which will give me more skills to check you out biomechanically and address any imbalances that could be the reason for the injuries – now while I am doing the course I will be after volunteers as case studies as part of my course, so this could be a great time for you to be a volunteer and get your imbalances sorted out for free before I am fully qualified.  I also do 1:1 run coaching to look at your technique as well as bike coaching too, but these are at an extra cost to your coaching package.  And with Merlin Triathlon Coaching, I do a swim technique session on a Tuesday at Bradfield which is £20 a session.

This 1:1 style of coaching is exactly that, specific to your individual time and needs, and unless you take advantage of your coaching calls or the comments you can put in training peaks for each session, I will not know how I need to change it to work best for you and what is going on in your life. 

Another good habit to try to get into is looking ahead at your week on a Sunday so you can see what might need to be moved about, then for those who are not on premium training peaks, you can drop me a message to ask me to move them to different days.

And finally, to help with your ownership of your training, those who are not on the premium coaching plan don’t get unlimited changes to their plans as part of their package, they are more monthly adjustments, but this can also apply to premium athletes too, is if you are time-starved a way to shorten a workout yourself is:

  • If it is a hard interval session and you can’t fit the whole session in – if there are some Z2 sections before or after the intervals, cut them first (make sure you get a decent warm-up though of at least 10mins), if there isn’t then reduce the number of intervals (not the length of interval or the recovery).
  • If it is an endurance-type session Z2, then reduce the time.
  • If it is a strength session then cut the number of sets, depending on how much time you have, do 1 or 2 sets instead of 3.  Or break up the rounds over 2 days – do rounds 1 & 2 one day and rounds 3&4 another day. 
  • If swimming, if it is not a specific technique session then cut the technique or reduce the number of sets of technique. Try to keep the main set as full as you can.

I hope all this has given you some more insight into what I can do for you as your coach, but there is also much more I can help advise and educate you with if you take advantage of your coaching phone calls.

Many of you start workouts in a dehydrated or under-fuelled state which can reduce your performance.  Ask yourselves, do you put the same kind of effort and attention into the food and meals you eat each day as you do your workouts? This might seem like a strange concept, but if you think about it, our encounters with food are far more frequent throughout the day than the time we spend exercising. If we didn’t have a plan for our workouts each day and had to come up with them on the spot, we likely wouldn’t accomplish as much as we otherwise could if it were all planned out. Similarly, with nutrition, our food choices are likely to be poorer when we wait until the last minute to decide what to eat rather than plan ahead.

The intensity at which you are exercising is going to dictate whether you are utilizing mostly fat or carbs as your primary fuel. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred and most efficient fuel source, so at higher intensities, particularly when we are anaerobic (think Z3 and above), carbs are a necessity. Fat, on the other hand, requires more oxygen and multiple steps to be converted to usable energy, making it the primary fuel for lower-intensity exercise (Z2, Z1). With this understanding, it makes sense why carbohydrates are essential for performance.

FUELLING BEFORE A WORKOUT

If you wish to perform at a high intensity in your training or race, it is important to supply your body with sufficient carbohydrates beforehand. Your muscles and liver can store a finite amount of carbohydrates before they’re completely depleted. Since these stores are rarely at full capacity, it’s important to fuel with carbohydrates beforehand. The timing of your food intake prior to exercise will determine the quantity of carbohydrates, as well as, the quality or type of carbohydrate (complex vs simple/Low GI vs High GI). ‘Complex/Low GI’ carbs provide more sustained energy but take longer to digest and process, while ‘simple/High GI’ carbs provide more immediate energy, digesting and absorbing rapidly into the bloodstream.

Most pre-workout meal options should include a variety of both simple/low GI and complex/high GI sources, while smaller snack options closer to workouts should consist of mostly simple/high GI sources. When it comes to amount, this is where it can be important to trial and error for yourself to determine what your body can comfortably tolerate prior to exercise. The larger the meal or snack, the more time needed for digestion. Keeping fat and fibre content low will aid in faster digestion.

*High GI foods may be easier on the stomach and more beneficial for those of you who have gastrointestinal issues.

When glycogen stores become depleted, fatigue and reduced performance start to happen.  Unless the central nervous system, particularly the brain, has enough carbs available it will also cause fatigue which can result in impaired pacing, skill concentration, and increased perception of effort. Simply put, fuelling with carbohydrates during longer bouts of exercise is essential for optimal performance. A common mistake is fuelling too late. Whether it be a race or long training session, intra-workout fuelling recommendations start in the very first hour. To space out carbohydrate doses and minimize GI upset, a good rule of thumb is to consume 15-30 grams of carbohydrate every 15-30min.

You also need to consider the duration of your workout:

Duration of CompetitionExercise IntensityFuelling RecommendationsOther notes
<45-60min<75% VO2 MaxWater is often adequateConsider additional fueling if extremely intense or important session
45-75minHigh Intensity; >75% VO2 MaxBegin to take in some carbohydrates to maximise performance.Consider rapidly absorbable carbohydrate sources
1-2hrAny intensity, but especially if >75% VO2 Max30g of carbohydrate/hrSport Drinks, gels, energy chews/blocks. Can break this up to 15g/30mins
2-3hrAnyAim for up to 60g of carbohydrate/hrPractice fueling in training to test gut tolerance & palatability.  Again break that amount up into smaller amounts every 15-30mins.
>3hrAnyExperiment with taking 60-90g up to 120g of carbohydrate/hrInclude multiple carb sources (glucose/fructose + maltodextrin) for absorption of >60g/hr (this is dependent on how well your gut responds to fructose & maltodextrin). Higher carb intake is associated with improved performance, better recovery & lower RPE during prolonged sessions & races.  Add protein up to 0.25g/kg/hr.

*These suggestions are nutrition for endurance performance, not just “getting through” a workout, but actually performing better during it.

In general, you want low fat and fibre content, and low-moderate protein content pre-workout as these can all potentially cause gastrointestinal difficulties and promote gastric emptying! 

WHAT TO EAT BEFORE A RACE

Choose low-fat, low-fibre, moderate protein carbs that you have eaten in practice and know settle well for you when you are nervous.

Low GI Foods v High GI Foods – consuming either of these before exercise yields similar performance results but some can have issues with consuming too many low GI or high fibre foods too close to training/racing and struggle with abdominal cramping, gas or diarrhoea and subsequently decreased performance.  So, maybe leaning to more high GI or lower fibre, easier-to-digest foods before key workouts or races might be the better option. 

Adding protein to your pre-exercise carbohydrate intake increases the body’s natural glycaemic response (meaning slows down the carbohydrate absorption), compared to carbohydrates taken alone.  The amino acids arginine, leucine, and phenylalanine have been shown to stimulate the pancreas, help increase glycogen synthesis and promote glycogen sparing during exercise.  Try adding 8-10g of protein with your pretraining meal (1 egg, 4oz of Greek Yoghurt, 1-2 oz of chicken, 3 oz tofu are all options with this amount of protein) with your carbohydrates.

CARBOHYDRATE NEEDS DURING RACING

Between 1990’s & 2004 it was recommended that athletes should aim to ingest 30-to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour during exercise, and this is still quoted now.  Newer science shows we can and should train our guts to take in more.  The more we can take in and absorb the longer and faster we can go.  Since fructose is absorbed by different transporters than glucose, ingestion of both carbohydrate energy sources leads to an absorption rate of 1.5g of carbs per minute during exercise (up to 90g/hr).  Once we train our guts to accept this higher carb intake, we can reap the benefits including a lower rating of perceived effort (RPE), better maintenance of cycling cadence, and reduced fatigue.

Additional research has shown that as you become dehydrated, reliance on carbohydrate stores for energy only increases, more reason to stay on top of meeting your carbohydrate needs, especially if in the heat.

Fuelling during events should not be based solely on body weight, as maximum absorption rates are gut-dependent rather than body weight-dependent.

When fuelling for long-distance triathlons (70.3, Ironman) or ultras, fuelling becomes the 4th discipline, you simply cannot swim, bike, and run for anything from 8-17 hours without carbs, fluid, and sodium to keep your body moving forward and your brain functioning enough to push you to the finish.

All of this should be tested in training, trying out different types of foods (eg. PB&J sandwiches, energy bars, gels, chews, dried fruit, rice balls, waffles, salted boiled potatoes, pretzels etc etc etc) to determine which type of carbs, flavours sit well and taste good for each of you.

*Be careful not to over fuel during races, and be aware of the symptoms, if you are burping a lot, feel bloated, or getting a stomach ache, these are the signs that your nutrition is not getting absorbed from your gut, try easing off the nutrition and drink some plane water or electrolytes to help dilute your gut so absorption can take place.  It is best to get your less sugary calories in early on and save your sugary ones for later as these will be quicker to absorb when your gut is under stress due to fatigue and dehydration.

*Symptoms of under-feeding can be feeling tired, and reduced performance, try to re-fuel with small amounts regularly and with some water to make it easier for absorption to take place in your gut.

MOUTH RINSING: this is taking some sports drink or gel into your mouth, rinse and spit it back out. This may be useful if you have a very sensitive stomach or you are experiencing GI issues.  What this does is activate receptors on the tongue and in the central nervous system that lead to increased performance but a downside that research has noted from some athletes’ studies, is higher reported RPE.  So I would stick to the use only if you are experiencing stomach issues with your normal fuelling.

Sweat rates vary a lot and they can range from 0.3 to 2.4 litres per hour depending on things like the weather, the individual, and the work intensity.  Losing 2% of body weight to sweat is ok, but losing more than that can negatively affect performance and cause functional impairment in concentration, especially in hot weather.  The common average range of sweat loss is 0.4-0.8 litres/hour.  As well as fluid itself, you lose sodium and other critical electrolytes in your sweat, and the concentration of loss again varies from person to person.  Losing too many electrolytes can lead to reduced performance and be a contributor to muscle cramps.  Hydration was discussed at length in my post last week.

POST EXERCISE/RACE FUELLING – RECOVERY

After exercise, you have a window where your body will metabolize energy quickly, and you need to give it plenty of energy to rebuild and recover. You have depleted your muscle glycogen stores to some capacity, depending on the intensity and duration of your workout. In order to minimize muscle soreness and maximize recovery, replenishing these stores through carbohydrate ingestion is key.

Adequate carbohydrate intake after exercise is imperative for you to repair your body and maintain a high level of performance. Your carbohydrate portion should be 2-3 times more than your protein portion (20-40g age dependent) for your post-training and post-race meal.  As glycogen levels decrease your ability to work also declines as does the ability to exercise at the desired intensity.  Rates of tissue breakdown have also been shown to be higher without adequate intake of both carbohydrates and total energy. Restocking muscle glycogen is considered a primary goal for all athletes following training and racing.  Then also protein intake after exercise is also important when muscle-damaging exercise has occurred or when gains in muscle size and strength are desired.  It can take up to 72 hours after prolonged or exhaustive exercise for your body to restock its much-needed supply of muscle glycogen in your muscles.  Recovery nutrition studies have shown 50% faster glycogen depletion when cyclists consumed recovery carbohydrates within 30 minutes after exercise versus delaying that recovery nutrition by two hours.

All recommendations stress the fact that restoring muscle glycogen is a primary goal and triggering muscle repair and muscle protein synthesis. 

It is best to use moderate to high GI carbohydrate as it is absorbed more quickly by our bodies immediately after exercise (eg. white rice, pancakes, bagels, potatoes, yoghurt, smoothies, pasta, ripe banana). AVOID ANY TYPE OF ANTI-OXIDANT FOOD (VITAMINS A, C & E) AFTER EXERCISE AS THESE BLUNT THE ADAPTATIONS FROM THE EXERCISE (eg. berries, and other citrus fruits and some vegetables).

PROTEIN – depending on your age depends on how much you need in post recovery, 20 grams might be adequate in younger athletes to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but as we age we will require more like 35 to 40g of total protein after exercise. Females need to start upping theirs as they start going through peri to post menopause hitting the 40g mark and for men 40g, over the age of 50.  This is due to the inability to synthesize muscle protein after exercise as we age.  But taking in carbs and protein within 30 minutes after exercise helps optimize recovery and adaptations needed before the next training session.  This after-exercise recovery is even more important for women as our bodies go catabolic after exercise (which means we start eating our own muscle) and we need to get out of this stressed state as soon as possible so we can get the adaptations and muscle strength from the exercise we have just done.

The best source of protein optimal for recovery is rapidly absorbing leucine which is found predominantly in dairy or whey protein.

If your workout isn’t intense and is less than 60 minutes, you may not need a post-workout snack, however, because this is when nutrients are least likely to be converted and stored as fat you might want to have the post-workout snack anyway, plus it gets you into good habits.

These are the recommended guidelines for post-workout carbohydrates:

1.2g of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight as soon as possible and then every two hours for four to six hours or 0.8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight plus 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for maximum glycogen repletion and muscle protein synthesis.

Carbohydrate Source15g carb serving size30g carb serving size45g carb serving size
Cereal½ cup1 cup1 ½ cup
Pasta½ cup1 cup1 ½ cup
Rice1/3 cup2/3 cup1 cup
Beans/lentils1/3 cup2/3 cup1 cup
Pancakes123
Sweet Potato½ cup1 cup1 ½ cup
Bagel1/41/23/4
English Muffin1/211 ½
Banana (large)½11 ½

FUELLING POST-EXERCISE – HYDRATION

You will likely have lost around 2% body weight, and your sweat and urine loss will continue at a greater rate than normal after workouts so you need to consume a greater amount of fluid to make up for this deficit.  Keep rehydration at a modest rate and think about the maple syrup and salt recipe I put in the hydration post as this will aid absorption and minimize the volume response which creates more bathroom visits and dehydration.

Post-workout hydration also helps to restore your blood plasma volume quickly.  

Avoid excess intake of alcohol in your post-workout hydration window because it will impair the rehydration process with its diuretic effects.

SUMMARY:

Eat a meal before and after workouts and during if over 60 minutes or intense. 

A final note: you don’t want to add that much fat to your post-workout meal because that can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates. Try to limit fat intake in the first hour after exercise.

I hope this was informative for you to help improve your performance during your training and racing.

KEY ACTIONS OF HYDRATION:

  1. It helps transport calories across the stomach to the lower intestine, so it acts as a transporter & aids absorption.
  2. Maintains blood volume.

THREE MAIN ROLES DURING EXERCISE

  1. Blood delivers oxygen to the muscles to create energy and offload waste (eg. Carbon Dioxide).
  2. Shunting blood to the skin to dissipate the heat we have generated through exercise (sweating).
  3. Blood goes to the gut to help with absorption.

During exercise as you get dehydrated the biproduct is we lose blood volume and this is where the body goes into competition for that blood because your muscles are calling out for oxygen, your skin is calling out for blood to dissipate the heat, and your gut it calling out for blood to help absorb the calories you are consuming.

Who Wins……….

The skin is the winner because we must get rid of the heat or there is a direct impact on your brain and organ function.  The higher the intensity of the workout, the more heat it will generate!  The muscles are second due to our motivation to keep exercising and finally the gut, so it becomes harder to absorb calories during exercise. So, when we get dehydrated and blood is going to the skin it increases our perceived effort for the same amount of work, we get a drop in economy, a drop in the absorption rate of the gut, and therefore a drop in performance.

Performance starts to decline after about 3-4% dehydration so this will be when you start to see a negative impact on your performance.

WHAT ELSE IMPACTS YOUR NEED FOR MORE HYDRATION?

  • Heat & Humidity
  • Altitude
  • Individuality (Genetics, Fitness Level).

It’s important to note that you will be dehydrated by the end of a training session, we are not looking to retain hydration as it can be a risk of hyponatremia, but the mission is to not be too dehydrated.

So, if you are racing an Ironman, when you finish the bike you don’t want to be too dehydrated about 1% or so, so that when you start the run you are not too dehydrated so that you have more hydration to lose during the run rather than too dehydrated and lose performance.

WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?

The consequences of dehydration are plasma/blood volume dropping and becoming viscous (thick) and the heart then must pump harder, and this will cause you to experience performance decline, muscle weakness, and fatigue. 

Some signs and symptoms of dehydration are headache, confusion, and performance starting to drop off.  Then when hydration is more severe the signs can be dark urine and you stop sweating.

DURING WHAT EXERCISE SESSIONS DO YOU NEED TO START HYDRATION?

  • If less than 60mins then you can drink to thirst and plain water is fine.  **But women who are in their high hormone phase (the 2 weeks before your period) and post-menopause women, your thirst signal becomes dampened so you will need to set an alarm to remind you to sip fluid every 10-15mins and your hydration needs will change to a hydration product.**
  • Over 60mins it now becomes useful to aid your performance to use a hydration product (this is a solution that contains a small amount of sugar and salt, as sugar is the co-transporter for the sodium fluid to cross the intestinal barrier to keep that blood volume up), the amount you need is 10-12ml/kg of body weight/hour.

** For fluid to make its way into your bloodstream swiftly and efficiently it needs to be a lower osmolality than our blood.  If your blood is more concentrated than the fluid you drink, your small intestinal cells will let the fluid through the intestinal walls to add water to the bloodstream and lower the concentration levels, BUT if you take in fluid that is too concentrated, your intestinal cells will reverse course and pull water from the vascular spaces of your body to dilute the higher osmolality in your gut.  (Basically, water leaves the spaces where you want it and goes into your digestive system to dilute the fluid sitting in your gut.)  Which in the end leads to dehydrating yourself and triggering GI Stress. **

  • Over 75mins Hard Interval Sessions use a hydration product 10-12ml/kg of body weight/hour and sip frequently every 10-15mins.
  • Long endurance sessions use a hydration product starting early with the higher ratio of 12ml/kg of body weight/hour then taper down to the lower end of 10ml/kg of body weight/hour.

It is quite common to start your long endurance session not hydrating and get to an hour plus in and realise you have hardly drunk anything; this can lead to slipping over the 3% hydration and affect your performance.

  • For the sessions over an hour then calories will need to be consumed as well and these should be separate from your hydration.  The reason it is not a good idea to mix your calories with your hydration (like sports drinks) is that it makes the fluid highly concentrated, and it cannot be absorbed through the intestinal wall, yet.  So, your body has to redirect the fluid from the working muscle tissue to the small intestine and push the water across the intestine barrier to dilute this concentrated product so it can be diluted enough to get absorbed but meanwhile, you have pulled oxygen from the blood back towards your intestine and so will be problematic on your performance.

If you are going to use sports drinks for your nutrition, then remember this is separate from your hydration not a part of your hydration needs.

FOR RACING:

Sprint/Olympic again it’s 10-12ml/kg of body weight/hour sip regularly every 10-15mins.   Go towards the higher end if the weather is hot or course is particularly hilly or at altitude or if a female is in a high hormone phase.

Ironman/70.3 again same hydration amount but it becomes more of a focus to minimise loss so not going into the run less than 3%.  We will be absorbing less fluid on the run due to stress on the body like fatigue, it can be good to alternate between water down coke and water during the run as the sugars in coke are quick digesting, literally, as it hits your tongue, so if you have been suffering with GI Stress this could be a solution for you to get in some fuel.

DAILY LIFE HYDRATION

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HYDRATE DURING YOUR DAILY LIFE?

Water supports your immune system and is critical for cellular health.  We need water to stay alive and maximise the performance of our bodies.  It contributes to recovery and helps the absorption of your daily calories.

It is important to restore your hydration daily as you are dehydrated when you finish your training sessions and rehydrating will facilitate recovery and get you ready for your performance in your next workout.

Signs that you are dehydrated in daily life are feeling tired in the afternoon, this can also show up as hunger and is when you can then reach for the sugary snack when actually you are dehydrated.  Alertness declines when dehydrated.   It is best to hydrate with sips throughout the day rather than guzzling a big glass of water in one go as this can cause a volume response – signalling your body to pee out more than you’ve taken in or GI stress.

Plain water does not have any transporters (sugar & sodium) and so unless you are drinking it with food can struggle for it to be absorbed and end up with the volume response mentioned earlier which can be the reason why you end up peeing a lot when just drinking plain water.  What you can do is add some maple syrup & salt (sea salt) to your water to give it those transporters.  The recipe is 1 teaspoon of maple syrup, a pinch of salt to 200ml of water (you shouldn’t be able to taste the salt or the maple syrup, it just tastes smooth), you can also add ginger to this if you like as well.

Other drinks that can help your daily hydration are tea, green tea, and coffee (be careful with caffeine as adenosine hormone builds up throughout the day to make you feel drowsy in the evening.  Caffeine is an adenosine decoy that floats through your bloodstream and binds to the adenosine receptors.  So now, instead of slowing down, your pituitary gland senses something is up and that you need energy and gives you a shot of adrenaline.  That’s fine early in the day but the half-life of caffeine is about 6hrs, so if you have a coffee at 3 pm you still have a shot of expresso effect kicking around at 9 pm and for some, it can be longer.  So, try avoiding caffeine from around 12/1 pm depending on what time you go to bed). 

So, there you have it, I hope you all now can see why being hydrated is important and start to implement it more in your daily lives as well as during your exercise and races.