Saturday, March 29, 2014

Quick Read: Muscle Damage and Running Economy

Interesting research concerning running economy and muscle damage from researchers (and runners) at Georgia State:

Last year, a colleague and I tried to collect some pilot data assessing ankle jerk/patellar reflexes and running economy following a brutal eccentric workout (drop jumps and leg press). The reflex results were unclear and a broken treadmill threw a wrench into our running economy analysis...

What implication(s) could this have for athletes?
It would be wise to avoid muscle damage (downhill running, eccentric resistance training) in the 2-3 days before major competitions. Could cross training that elicits less muscle damage than running (cycling, elliptical, swimming) in the days immediately prior to a race increase running economy?

Of course, if you have a race coming up that has a substantial amount of downhill, you may be able to attenuate some of the muscle damage that would be attained during the race by consistently training on downhills. The repeated bout effect would make you more resistant to muscle damage.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Snake Oil

I was at Rite Aid yesterday picking up a few items and I happened to walk down the "Sports Nutrition" aisle. One product in particular caught my eye, in part, due to its outrageous price tag.

Alphatest from Muscletech is supposedly a "Super-Concentrated Performance and Testosterone Stimulant." The bottle makes the claims, "Anabolic, Anti-Catabolic, Performance." Well first off, if something is anabolic, by nature, it has to be "anti-catabolic." These supplements always make me wonder... Who comes up with this stuff? It's like they have a list of 10 key words that they have to choose from to put on the bottle.

For demonstration purposes only, I took photos of the product (shown below). I certainly do not endorse MuscleTech, and I cannot acknowledge any conflicts of interest.

Looking past the ridiculous name, claims, and price tag; what do we actually have in Alphatest? Here again, we have to look beyond the bombastic rhetoric like, "Testosterone Stimulant Complex" and "Testosterone to Cortisol Ratio Performance Matrix," to unearth proprietary blends of herbs and minerals. So the question then is; Do these ingredients increase testosterone levels in healthy individuals? If the supplement meets this criteria, there should also be several follow up questions like; Is it safe? Is it legal? Is it ethical? Is it worth the price? Will the product increase free testosterone? Will an increase in free testosterone lead to improved performance?

So, let's take a closer look at these ingredients and decipher whether or not this could be an effective supplement.

Zinc gluconate
Saw Palmetto
Astaxanthin - via haematococcus pluvialis (algae)
Ginko Biloba
Boron citrate

When considering a supplement, the first place I go is the Australian Institute of Sport's website. Here they have a list of supplements, classifying them as effective, undecided, ineffective or dangerous/illegal.

Not surprisingly, none of the ingredients make the Group A or Group B classification. Ginseng and Rhodiola are included in Group C. Supplements in this group, "have not been proven to provide a worthwhile enhancement of sports performance. Although we can't categorically state that they don't 'work', current scientific evidence shows that either the likelihood of benefits is very small or that any benefits that occur are too small to be useful." Because the supplement claims to be a testosterone booster, it is classified as a Group D supplement. Group D supplements, are "banned or are at high risk of being contaminated with substances that could lead to a positive drug test."

In summary, we have a mix of ingredients that have not been definitively proven to improve sports performance and the supplement as a whole may be at a high risk of being contaminated.

Turning to the Research
Mytosterone is the blend of saw palmetto and astaxanthin. A quick Google search will turn up a study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Angwafor & Anderson, 2008). And at first glance, it appears that the proprietary blend of Mytosterone could decrease conversion of testosterone to estradiol by inhibiting aromatase, subsequently increasing serum testosterone. But look who funded the research - Triarco Industries (Mytosterone manufacturer). Further, where did the research take place? It was completed at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon. A PubMed search for the first author will turn up one other article, but it is unrelated to endocrinology or sports performance.

My quick thoughts: Triarco needed some data to support their new product, Mytosterone. They outsourced the research to whoever they could manipulate in Cameroon. And what do you know, it works! We could also look at the subject pool (37-70 year olds, average of 59 years) and the reality that there was no control group, but then we would have to assume that the data is legitimate...

An excerpt from Kreider (1999):
"The rationale for this [boron supplementation] was primarily based on an initial report that boron supplementation (3 mg/day) significantly increased b-estradiol and testosterone levels in postmenopausal women consuming a diet low in boron. However, subsequent studies that have investigated the effects of 7 weeks of boron supplementation (2.5 mg/day) during resistance training on testosterone levels, body composition and strength have reported no ergogenic value."
Prasad et al. (1996) found weak correlations between cellular zinc concentrations and serum testosterone levels. And zinc supplementation only augmented testosterone following a zinc-restricted diet in young adult males. Koehler et al. (2009) found that zinc supplementation, in the form of the supplement ZMA, did not significantly effect serum testosterone levels in subjects who consume a zinc-sufficient diet.

One study (Zhang et al., 2009) examined the effect of a Rhodiola and Ginko supplement on serum testosterone and cortisol. This study found that 7-weeks of supplementation significantly decreased serum cortisol concentrations. Sounds great, but upon further examination - the study was funded by Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd., which has a patent on the supplement in question. A review from Walker and Robergs (2006) concludes, "Studies conducted in Western Europe and in North America have indicated that Rhodiola rosea may possess substantial antioxidant properties but have produced mixed results when attempting to demonstrate an ergogenic effect during exercise in humans." Note that the product in question contains Rhodiola crenulata, not rosea and  there is even less research on the crenulata species.

See above. Further, Markowitz et al. (2005) found that two weeks of Ginko biloba supplementation had no effect on serum cortisol or testosterone concentrations.

In Summary:
First off, a preliminary screening of the supplement via the AIS database should deter you from purchasing any sort of "testosterone booster." If that doesn't do it, I hope a further investigation of the research on the supplement's ingredients does. Don't believe everything that you read.


Angwafor, F., 3rd, & Anderson, M. L. (2008). An open label, dose response study to determine the effect of a dietary supplement on dihydrotestosterone, testosterone and estradiol levels in healthy males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 5, 12.
Koehler, K., Parr, M. K., Geyer, H., Mester, J., & Schanzer, W. (2009). Serum testosterone and urinary excretion of steroid hormone metabolites after administration of a high-dose zinc supplement. Eur J Clin Nutr, 63(1), 65-70.
Kreider, R. B. (1999). Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance exercise. / Complements nutritionnels et augmentation de la masse musculaire grace a la musculation. Sports Medicine, 27(2), 97-110.
Markowitz, J. S., DeVane, C. L., Lewis, J. G., Chavin, K. D., Wang, J. S., & Donovan, J. L. (2005). Effect of Ginkgo biloba extract on plasma steroid concentrations in healthy volunteers: a pilot study. Pharmacotherapy, 25(10), 1337-1340.
Prasad, A. S., Mantzoros, C. S., Beck, F. W., Hess, J. W., & Brewer, G. J. (1996). Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition, 12(5), 344-348.
Walker, T. B., & Robergs, R. A. (2006). Does Rhodiola Rosea Possess Ergogenic Properties? International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 16(3), 305-315.
Zhang, Z. J., Tong, Y., Zou, J., Chen, P. J., & Yu, D. H. (2009). Dietary supplement with a combination of Rhodiola crenulata and Ginkgo biloba enhances the endurance performance in healthy volunteers. Chin J Integr Med, 15(3), 177-183. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Run Training for the Multisport Athlete or Injury Prone Runner: Theory and Application

We've seen crossover fitness gains from cycling transfer to improved or maintained running performance in the past (White et al., 2003; Millet et al., 2003; Ruby et al., 1996; Etxebarria et al., 2013). So, I want to propose a method of training to maximize running performance for runners or multisport athletes who, for whatever reason, cannot handle high volumes of running.

Most physiologists will agree that running performance is determined by the following three or four physiological factors: VO2max, lactate threshold, anaerobic capacity, and running economy (RE) (Midgley et al., 2007). Of course, psychology, motivation, and a central/peripheral governor may also play a role, but I want to focus solely on the trainable physiological factors.

The Scenario: 
An athlete is returning from a tibial stress fracture sustained during a high-mileage "base phase" in the month of December. This is the athlete's third tibial stress fracture in four years that can be attributed to running. Upon diagnosis, the athlete completed two weeks of aqua jogging, then progressed back on to the bike with moderate volumes and low-moderate intensities for the next 3-4 weeks. His competitive season will begin in May.

First Impressions:
For no apparent reason, this athlete is prone to tibial stress fractures. High-mileage programs may not be appropriate for the athlete.

Program Considerations, moving forward:
Could/should the athlete replace some of his running volume or workouts with cycling? What might the athlete gain? What will the athlete miss out on?

Fitness gains from cycling:
As noted in the first paragraph, athletes can improve cardiovascular function as VO2max. There is mixed information as to whether training lactate threshold and anaerobic capacity on the bike transfers to running. It is likely that cycling will not attribute to additional stress on the tibia (no impact forces, little eccentric muscle action).

Areas not addressed by cycling:
Perhaps the biggest hole in using cycling training for improving running performance is that the kinematics of cycling are so dissimilar to running. Running relies heavily on stored elastic energy and the use of the stretch shorten cycle (SSC). Being able to utilize the SSC effectively reduces the energy cost of movement, increasing economy. Remember, economy is one of those variables that dictates running performance. Unfortunately for our athlete, cycling will not utilize the SSC to the same extent of running. Further, recruitment patterns and posture are also different. I would speculate that if you had elite level cyclists run on a treadmill, while their VO2max values would be impressive, their RE may very well be similar to untrained individuals.

Plugging the Hole:
So, how can we improve RE with a minimal amount of running? If you've read any other posts on this blog, you probably know that I am very interested in hill sprints. Sprint and distance running coaches like Lydiard, Daniels, and Canova have been using hill sprints for decades, claiming they improve power and economy. While these claims are still up for debate, we have seen some research emerging on the topic (Barnes et al., 2013). Further, we can reason our way through using hill sprints for improved power and economy (Figure 1). We've also seen that plyometric and strength training can improve RE, likely through the same mechanisms, leading to improved stored elastic energy (Saunders et al., 2006; Ronnestad & Mujika, 2013).

Figure 1. Rationale for hill sprints improving running economy.
Training Implementation: 
Operating on the information we have -  the runner can maintain aerobic capacity through cycling. The primary component of fitness to address will be RE, and potentially lactate threshold.

Training Running Economy:
Given the particular scenario, consider the following training methods to create a program that will enhance RE with a minimal amount of running volume:
  1. Hill sprints, fast uphill strides, high intensity or sprint intervals (Barnes et al., 2013; Midgley et al. 2007)
  2. Plyometrics - drop jumps, skips for height, broad jumps, uphill bounding/jumping (Saunders et al., 2006)
  3. Strength training - see previous post here
  4. Explosive strength/power training - jump squats, cleans, I also consider hill sprints to be power training (Paavolainen et al., 1999)   
  5. Altitude training, heat acclimation (Saunders et al., 2004)
  6. Beetroot supplementation? Possibly, though research is generally not as effective for highly trained athletes
Practical application:
Outside of the weightroom, the athlete can incorporate fast running and plyometrics into his/her training routine. In this way, cycling can help maintain aerobic capacity and lactate threshold while the run training is focused on improving RE. Below are a few suggested workouts.
  • 20:00 easy-moderate run with 10 x 10-12s maximal effort hill sprints + 60-90:00 moderate cycling
  • plyometrics with uphill jumps and bounding + 60-90:00 cycling with 20x30(30) intervals
  • 6-8 x 400m run @ >3000m pace + 30-60:00 easy-moderate cycling
Any one of these workouts could be completed as one bout, divided into two sessions in one day, or separated by days (run on one day, ride the next). That will likely depend on the individual athlete's goals, abilities, preferences, and injury concerns.


Barnes, K. R., Hopkins, W. G., McGuigan, M. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2013). Effects of Different Uphill Interval-Training Programs on Running Economy and Performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform.
Etxebarria, N., Anson, J. M., Pyne, D. B., & Ferguson, R. A. (2013). High-intensity cycle interval training improves cycling and running performance in triathletes. Eur J Sport Sci.
Gregor, R. J., Komi, P. V., & Järvinen, M. (1987). Achilles Tendon Forces During Cycling. Int J Sports Med, 08(S 1), S9-S14.
Midgley, A. W., McNaughton, L. R., & Jones, A. M. (2007). Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance: can valid recommendations be given to runners and coaches based on current scientific knowledge? Sports Med, 37(10), 857-880.
Millet, G. P., Candau, R. B., Barbier, B., Busso, T., Rouillon, J. D., & Chatard, J. C. (2002). Modelling the transfers of training effects on performance in elite triathletes. Int J Sports Med, 23(1), 55-63.
Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol (1985), 86(5), 1527-1533.
Ronnestad, B. R., & Mujika, I. (2013). Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scand J Med Sci Sports.
Ruby, B., Robergs, R., Leadbetter, G., Mermier, C., Chick, T., & Stark, D. (1996). Cross-training between cycling and running in untrained females. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 36(4), 246-254.
Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J. A. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Med, 34(7), 465-485.
Saunders, P. U., Telford, R. D., Pyne, D. B., Peltola, E. M., Cunningham, R. B., Gore, C. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2006). Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners. J Strength Cond Res, 20(4), 947-954.
White, L. J., Dressendorfer, R. H., Muller, S. M., & Ferguson, M. A. (2003). Effectiveness of cycle cross-training between competitive seasons in female distance runners. J Strength Cond Res, 17(2), 319-323.