Archive for March, 2009

More caffeine: it kills pain, even in habitual users

March 31st, 2009

A new study from the University of Illinois finds yet another way that caffeine boosts performance. Twenty-five cyclists performed intense half-hour exercise sessions, after consuming either a caffeine pill or a placebo; the caffeine group experienced less pain in their quadriceps. Interesting, but not earth-shattering, since we already knew that caffeine is probably the most versatile and powerful legal performance enhancer out there.

What’s most notable is this:

“What we saw is something we didn’t expect: caffeine-naïve individuals and habitual users have the same amount of reduction in pain during exercise after caffeine (consumption),” [said lead researcher Robert Motl].

This is the phenomenon discussed last week: even if you drink several cups of coffee a day, you’ll still get the same performance boost from a caffeine pill that a complete abstainer will. (And it may even work better for you, since you won’t be knocked off-balance by caffeine’s effects.) Nobody’s really sure why it works this way, but the Illinois study provides more evidence that it’s true.

Exercise decline and aging: chickens and eggs

March 31st, 2009
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I just noticed a new paper in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology by University of Ottawa prof Bradley Young and his collaborators, who have produced a series of interesting studies on masters athletes. In this case, they were looking at the lifetime training of competitive 10-kilometre runners between the ages of 40-59, exploring the following idea:

Researchers have contended that patterns of age-related decline are not necessarily due to age, but rather to disuse, or declining practice.

In other words, everyone knows we get slower (and weaker and feebler and so on) as we get older. But how much of this is directly due to aging, and how much is simply because we’re less active than we were in our salad days? Read more…

Follow-up: “supplements” v. “sports supplements”

March 30th, 2009

After Friday’s column on probiotics, vitamin D and ZMA, I received a very interesting e-mail from Reinhold Vieth, a University of Toronto professor who is one of the world’s leading experts on vitamin D, and who has also conducted research on probiotics. It’s never good news to get an e-mail from a respected researcher who says that, on the topics on which he is an expert, “I came to verdicts opposite to yours today.” Read more…


Supplements, part two

March 27th, 2009
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The second part of the Jockology series on supplements is now up on the Globe and Mail site, taking a look at probiotics, vitamin D and ZMA. I expect to get some disagreement on this one — ZMA, in particular, has a very strong following, and vitamin D is the hottest supplement on the planet these days. In both cases, it seems clear that correcting deficiencies can have an enormous effect, both on performance and on health in general. But the existing research hasn’t convinced me that athletes need more than anyone else.

That being said, these questions are far more complex than the “true” or “false” labels that appear in the newspaper column. So if you think I’ve missed some key information or gotten it wrong, let me know!


Bonus supplement: coenzyme Q10

March 27th, 2009
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The supplement: Coenzyme Q10.

Used for: Endurance, power.

The evidence: Coenzyme Q10 is one of those supplements that has been lingering for decades, with no one quite able to prove or disprove its benefits. It’s a vitamin-like substance that we produce naturally, found in every cell in the body, and it has several key roles including fighting free radicals (i.e. it’s an antioxidant) and producing ATP, the essential cellular fuel. There are studies dating back to the 1980s claiming that CoQ10 improves everything from anaerobic threshold to aerobic power — but there are as many or more studies, using similar dosages and protocols, that didn’t find any benefit at all.

Generally, if it’s that hard to prove an effect, it means the benefits probably aren’t that great. But a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition last year proposed an interesting alternative. Researchers from Baylor University suggested that the problem is that most oral CoQ10 supplements simply aren’t bioavailable enough to be taken up in the muscles. So they tried a new “fast-melt” version of the supplement (whose manufacturer, it should be noted, funded the study), and they monitored CoQ10 levels both in the blood and in the muscle cells of their subjects, during a double-blind trial. Read more…

Supplement redux: caffeine

March 26th, 2009

In the Jockology series on supplements, I’ve left out the one substance that is by far the clearest performance enhancer, as well as being the most widely used and most easily available: caffeine. That’s mainly because I covered that territory in a Jockology column all about caffeine back in September. Still, I’d be remiss not to mention it — especially in light of a solid article about caffeine’s ergogenic effects by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times.

One point worth mentioning: Kolata doesn’t differentiate between pure caffeine and coffee. It’s true that many athletes drink a cup of coffee before every race or competition — but coffee has a long list of active ingredients that make its effects harder to predict, as University of Guelph researcher Terry Graham told me last fall:

Caffeine, however, is not the same thing as coffee. The only rigorous study directly comparing the effects of caffeine (in pill form) and coffee was performed in Dr. Graham’s lab. To their surprise, his team found that only pure caffeine produced a performance boost, even when the level of caffeine in the bloodstream from coffee was identical.

Other studies have found a performance-enhancing effect from coffee, so Dr. Graham is cautious about overstating his results. What is clear is that the effects of coffee, with its complex mix of bioactive ingredients, are far harder to nail down than the unambiguous effects of pure caffeine.

Bonus supplements: beta-alanine

March 23rd, 2009

As promised, we’ll look at a few athletic supplements that didn’t fit into the two-part Jockology series, starting with beta-alanine:

The supplement: Beta-alanine.

Used for: Short-duration maximal exercise.

The claim: The mechanisms responsible for muscle fatigue are still highly controversial, but one factor is thought to be increasing levels of acidity in the muscles. This is particularly relevant for short (one to two minutes) bursts of intense effort. Beta-alanine is taken orally to increase levels of a substance called carnosine in your muscles. Carnosine’s primary function is to buffer the acidity in muscle cells, delaying fatigue and enhancing power. (Another way of buffering the acid is to take baking soda, which has also proven to be effective but can cause diarrhea.)

The evidence: It’s clear from many studies that beta-alanine does help buffer muscle acidity. What’s less clear is how this translates to performance benefits. The short, high-intensity bursts of effort are most relevant to elite athletes in events like the 800-metre run, which lasts just under two minutes, and are less relevant to most recreational athletes. However, an interesting study in the upcoming April issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that beta-alanine can also help sprint performance at the end of a long endurance race. The double-blind study had cyclists take part in a 110-minute simulated race, then do a 10-minute time trial and a 30-second sprint. Those who had received eight weeks of beta-alanine improved their final sprint by 11.4 percent.

The verdict: This supplement fills a specialized niche: only fairly serious competitive athletes are likely to have interest in it. But there’s no denying the appeal of having a little extra gas in the tank for a finishing kick — or the significant mental edge that is gained by believing you have some extra gas left in the tank. Clearly, there’s still more research to be done on things like dosage (the cycling study, for the record, started at 2 grams per day and gradually ramped up to 4 grams per day), but there appears to be a real effect here.


Why an exercise pill will never work

March 23rd, 2009
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On Friday, the second part of my series on athletic supplements will run in the Globe (see the first part here). Over the next few days, I’m going to post some information on other supplements that I couldn’t fit into the newspaper pieces — and believe me, there are plenty more!

Before I do that, though, I wanted to highlight a very interesting paper on “exercise mimetics” that appears in this month’s issue of Nutrition Reviews, by John Hawley (an Australian researcher who is one of the titans of research into nutrition and athletic performance) and John Holloszy. It’s a review of the adaptations within skeletal muscles and organs caused by exercise, trying to determine whether comparable benefits could ever be produced by an “exercise pill.” Martin Gibala, a top-notch research at McMaster University, pointed the paper out to me after reading this passage from my last column:

Last summer, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California made a splash by announcing an exercise pill that allowed mice to gain the benefits of vigorous exercise – all without setting a paw on their exercise wheels…

Hawley and Holloszy beg to differ. Read more…

The Ironman (R) mattress: new frontiers in recovery tech

March 19th, 2009
The official Ironman (R) Mattress

The official Ironman (R) Mattress

We all know that sleep is a crucial part of recovery, and recovery is a crucial part of training. The solution: a mattress designed especially for runners and Ironman triathletes, as unveiled in this press release from the Ironman people. What can such a mattress do that normal mattress can’t, you ask? An even funnier press release, quoted by RunnersWorld, gives the sordid details. In addition to boasting a “soy-based, all foam eco-core,” the mattress

…is clinically proven to relieve pain, promote quicker healing, boost the immune system, improve sleep quality, heighten athletic performance and increase oxygen levels in the body by 29%.

Sounds good, but if it’s not going to boost my IQ and cure cancer, I’m not buying.

How fast do I have to walk to get fit?

March 17th, 2009

To count as exercise, walking is supposed to reach a “moderate” level of intensity, where you use about three times as much energy as you would lying on the sofa popping Cheetos. So how fast is that? According to a study by researchers at San Diego State University, it’s between 92 and 102 steps per minute for men, and between 91 and 115 steps per minute for women.

That’s assuming, of course, that you live in a home with a picket fence, a dog, and 1.4 children. Still, even if you’re not perfectly average, the researchers are comfortable drawing general conclusions:

We believe that these data support a general recommendation of walking at more than 100 steps per minute on level terrain to meet the minimum of the moderate-intensity guideline. Because health benefits can be achieved with bouts of exercise lasting at least 10 minutes, a useful starting point is to try and accumulate 1000 steps in 10 minutes, before building up to 3000 steps in 30 minutes.

So if you’ve got a pedometer (and I have the impression that pedometers are the “random branded freebie” most in vogue these days), now you know what to do with it!