Sports fans and their heroes in the wired age

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)

***

A quick plug for an essay of mine that appeared in Maisonneuve a few months ago (the full text has just been made freely available online), about the changing relationship between sports fans and athletes in the wired age. It’s a long piece that mixes some personal history with sociology and (inevitably, as a runner!) some discussion of the Letsrun message boards:

A CBC video clip of the 1996 Canadian Olympic Track and Field Trials recently surfaced online. You can watch, in grainy low definition, the twelve finalists in the men’s 1,500 metres step to the line under starter’s orders. A momentary pause, as the runners crouch in anticipation—then the gun fires. Eleven runners explode down the track. The twelfth, inexplicably, stays frozen on the starting line for a brief instant, then snaps out of it and takes off after his competitors. He never quite catches up, and finishes last.

A surprising number of people have stumbled on this clip and emailed it to me, along with some variation of the question, “What the hell happened there?”… [READ ON]

More on Taubes, Lustig and toxic sugar

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)

***

A quick post with a couple of links for those interested in reading more about the Taubes/Lustig “toxic sugar” debate. To hear more from Taubes, check out his answers to numerous reader questions at the NYT site. And to read David Katz’s response to Taubes/Lustig (hat tip to Yoni Freedhoff at Weighty Matters), click here. A peek at Katz’s conclusion:

As dietary guidance, the vilification of one nutrient at a time has proven as flighty as hummingbirds, propelling us from one version of humbug to another. My advice is to grasp firmly your common sense, and stay grounded.

The hummingbird stuff makes more sense if you read the whole post, but it’s generally a Pollan-esque argument rather than a research-y one. Still, it’s about where I come down. Taubes’s response to that point:

This is a common argument over the years, that reductionism in nutrition research misses the point. Michael Pollan makes this argument in “In Defense of Food.” The counter argument is that this is, indeed, a science and one way sciences make progress is by reducing problems down to their basics. This can often be misleading, and Suzanne’s point (as with Michael Pollan’s) that it has been in the past is very true.

I’ve been a strong journalistic opponent of the belief that salt causes hypertension or that dietary fat or saturated fat causes disease and in doing so I’ve attacked the bad science behind some of these reductionist arguments. But just because over the years one single nutrient after another has been singled out as harmful doesn’t mean that one single nutrient isn’t harmful. It only means that the research is poor and some of the beliefs about how research should be done in these fields are also misconceived.

Does vitamin C block gains from training?

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)

***

The traditional theory goes like this: strenuous exercise produces “reactive oxygen species” (ROS), which cause damage to cells and DNA in the body. Taking antioxidant supplements like vitamins C and E helps to neutralize the ROS, allowing the body to recover more quickly from workouts.

The new theory, in contrast, goes like this: strenuous exercise produces ROS, which signal to the body that it needs to adapt to this new training stress by becoming stronger and more efficient. Taking antioxidant supplements neutralizes the ROS, which means the body doesn’t receive the same signals telling it to adapt, so you make smaller gains in strength and endurance from your training.

So which is true? Back in 2009, a German study found that vitamins C and E did indeed block gains in insulin sensitivity — a key adaptation to exercise — in a group of sedentary volunteers. But in January 2010, a study of cyclists found no difference in fitness parameters like maximal oxygen consumption, power output, lactate threshold and so on between a placebo group and a vitamins C/E group. But then last December, a study with rats found that vitamin E did block gains in mitochondria, a key adaptation to endurance training.

Which brings us to the most recent study, published in March in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. A total of 17 recreational runners did a four-week training program consisting of four interval workouts a week (5x3min hard with 3min jog recovery — a bit of an odd program, but it succeed in significantly boosting VO2max, running economy, 10K time trial performance, etc.). Half the subjects took 1 gram of vitamin C every morning, while the other half took a placebo; the trial was double-blinded, so no one knew who was in which group. The results: no significant differences between the groups.

So where does this leave us? I’m not really sure. The paper discusses a couple of possible explanations. One is that antioxidants do block some training gains but that this study was too small to detect them. With nine subjects in one group and eight in the other, that’s certainly possible. For example, the subjects ran two  “YoYo Intermittent Recovery Tests” with slightly different parameters. In the first one, the vitamin C group improved 22% while the placebo group improved only 16%; in the second one, it was the other way around, with the placebo group improving 10% and the vitamin C group improving only 5%. This doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence in the test-retest variability, or the ability to detect subtle differences in adaptation.

Another possibility relates to the initial fitness of the subjects. The 2009 German study used sedentary, unfit subjects, who thus would be expected to produce very high levels of ROS in response to the unfamiliar stress of exercise. In these subjects, one might expect antioxidant supplements to make a bigger difference to training adaptations. The new study, on the other hand, used subjects with higher initial aerobic fitness (“recreationally active,” not trained athletes). As the saying goes, “exercise is the most powerful antioxidant we have.” So it’s possible that fit subjects already have reasonably effective natural antioxidant defenses in place, so taking additional antioxidant supplements doesn’t make as much (or any) difference.

All of this leaves us with no firm answer — as usual, more studies are needed. My guess (thinking back to my last post about the pros and cons of training on empty) is that we’ll eventually conclude that the answer is “it depends.” Perhaps antioxidant supplements will be helpful during extremely heavy training blocks, but should be avoided as you approach competition. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: let the ROS run wild during heavy training blocks, but take antioxidants to ensure full repair as competition approaches. The latter approach fits with a Portugese study that found that antioxidants may delay muscle repair after heavy workouts, but could allow muscles to actually work harder in the heat of competition. It’s too soon to know for sure.

Training without breakfast?

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)

***

Training on “empty” — i.e. with low carbohydrate stores — is one of the hot topics in sports nutrition these days. (I’ve posted on it a few times, for example here and here.) Louise Burke of the Australian Institute of Sport has a good summary of the current thinking in the ACSM’s Sports Medicine Bulletin.

Traditionally, athletes have approached their daily workouts to train as hard as possible, using strategies that promote good performance, just as they would in a race or match. In many sports, these strategies involve fueling up with carbohydrates before, during and between workouts to sustain the capacity to produce power. Recently, however, scientists have proposed an alternative approach…

I won’t bother trying to summarize the whole thing, because Burke is already compressing a lot of information into a small space — if you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth a read. A couple of minor points to highlight, though:

While some publicity surrounding this study suggests otherwise, the outcomes from [training low] weren’t achieved by following a low carbohydrate diet.

This is about having low carb stores for a short period of time, for instance by depleting carbs with a prior workout, not being in a chronically low-carb state. And a very interesting point:

It makes sense that sessions completed at lower intensity or at the beginning of a training cycle are best suited for, or perhaps least disadvantaged by, [train low] strategies. Conversely, quality sessions done at higher intensities or in the transition to peaking for competition might best be undertaken with better fuel support.

In other words, nutrition should be periodized. What you eat — and how you think about the relationship between your food and your performance — should be different in base phase than it is come competition time.

Cardio or Weights book tour: first stop Vancouver

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)

***

BMO Vancouver marathon posterJust over a month until the release of Cardio or Weights, and plans are starting to come together for some talks and appearances. First order of business: Vancouver people, please spread the word! I’ll be giving a free Science of Running talk on Saturday, April 30 at 12 p.m. at the BMO Vancouver Marathon’s Brita Sports Expo (at Concord Place). The talk will be about 30 minutes, focusing on practical tips for runners based on recent research, followed by plenty of time for Q&As.

While I’m in Vancouver, I’ll also be speaking at the Forerunners clinic on Wednesday evening, and I’ll be hanging around the Canadian Running magazine booth at the marathon expo on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Please drop by to say hello when you pick up your number, and feel free to hit me up with any sports science questions (or tell me why I’m wrong or crazy or both!). If all goes well, I’ll also have some advance copies of Cardio or Weights with me (they should be back from the printers any day now).

One other note: I’ve set up a Sweat Science Facebook page (there’s also a link at the top right of this page). For simplicity, I’m going to keep the updated list of upcoming events on that page, under the Events tab. That’s also where I’ll post news about upcoming interviews and other book-related stuff, to avoid cluttering this blog up too much. For instance, I’ve posted a short video Q&A I just did with my publisher. Please check out the Facebook page (and perhaps even click “Like!”) if you have a chance — thanks!