Antioxidants block gains from endurance training

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Another study on antioxidant supplements, this one from researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

The study was with rats: 14 weeks of supplementation with vitamin E and another antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid, training four times a week. The antioxidants suppressed the growth of new mitochondria (the “power plants” of your cells), which is one of the primary adaptations to endurance training. One of the new wrinkles to this study compared to previous ones is that growth of mitochondria was suppressed even in rats that weren’t training, if they took the supplements.

I’ve written several times before about this area of research. The idea is that “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) are generally bad, and antioxidants fight them. But when you exercise, the ROS you produce are the “signals” that tell your body to adapt, so if you take antioxidants, your body doesn’t realize it’s supposed to adapt and get stronger (or grow more mitochondria or whatever).

The conclusions are far from clear — for instance, this study didn’t find any reduction in the benefits of endurance training from antioxidants. But given how little evidence there is that these types of supplements actually help, the potential costs certainly seem to outweigh the benefits.

Running cuts visceral fat, and you can run through pain

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

Some pretty remarkable data was recently presented at the Radiological Society of North America conference in Chicago. German researchers followed a group of 44 runners during the 4,488-kilometre TransEurope Footrace from southern Italy to northern Norway in 2009, carting along a 45-ton mobile MRI unit and a host of other diagnostic equipment:

Urine and blood samples as well as biometric data were collected daily. The runners were also randomly assigned to other exams, including electrocardiograms, during the course of the study. Twenty-two of the runners in the study underwent a whole-body MRI exam approximately every three or four days during the race, totaling 15 to 17 exams over a period of 64 days. At the close of the race, researchers began to evaluate the data to determine, among other things, stress-induced changes in the legs and feet from running. Whole-body volume, body fat, visceral fat, abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue (SCAT), and fat and skeletal muscle of the lower extremities were measured. Advanced MRI techniques allowed the researchers to quantify muscle tissue, fat and cartilage changes.

So what did they learn from all this (other than, presumably, that anyone who enters a 4,488-kilometre is pretty fit and pretty crazy)? They highlight a few key points:

  • The runners lost a lot of fat — half of their starting amount. And most of that was lost during the first 2,000 km. (Oh, it only takes 2,000 km? How easy!) Even better, the first fat to start disappearing was the visceral fat, which surrounds the internal organs and is the really bad stuff that’s linked to heart disease. The runners lost 70 percent of their visceral fat.
  • It’s possible to run through some soft-tissue injuries without doing long-term damage. Other problems, like joint issues and stress-fractures, require rest. The press release includes this quote: “The rule that ‘if there is pain, you should stop running’ is not always correct,” Dr. Sch├╝tz said. However, they don’t give much guidance on which injuries you can run through. Presumably you need a mobile MRI unit to tell you for sure.
  • The runners also lost 7 percent of the muscle in their legs, which they call “one of the most surprising things,” but doesn’t really seem that shocking. Running that much in two months is well outside the bounds of even extreme marathon training. If I’m understanding correctly, they did about eight weeks of 550 km a week!

Anyway, this was just a conference presentation at this point. It’ll be interesting to see the full data when it’s eventually published… but it’s probably not something you should emulate.

Blogging from 5,500 metres

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

Just a heads-up that I’m heading to Nepal for most of December, leaving in… about 15 minutes. I will still be updating the blog from the road at least a couple of times a week, but sporadic Internet access means that I probably won’t be able to respond to comments and questions while I’m gone. Needless to say, I’ll catch up on any comments, debates and so on as soon as I get back

(And if you find yourself disagreeing with any I write over the next few weeks, just assume that the lack of oxygen has gotten to my brain!)