Injury-prone? Read this.

Nothing derails an athlete like an injury. We all know that consistency is one of the most important aspects to perform at your best, but getting to the start line in one piece is one of the biggest challenges that athletes face – particularly endurance athletes. For me, I have a long standing battle with my calves, and many people I talk to are similar: an old achillies injury, a hamstring problem, a niggly hip. However, this is hope! I listened to this great podcast where one of the leading researchers (Keith Baar) talked about his research that is helping athletes avoid injury and (when injured) recover more quickly. It is so practical and easy to apply that I had to share it. And whilst this is related specifically to athletes, I can’t think of any reason this couldn’t apply to anyone who may not think of themselves as an ‘athlete’ but struggles with an ongoing muscle or bone ailment.

A bit of background: Collagen, the most abundant protein form in the body, is made up of two amino acids, glycine and proline. It is found in bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments and has an almost scaffolding effect, to provide form and structure. Modern diets don’t contain a lot of glycine – it is found in the cartilage, bones and gelatinous part of animals and most people prefer the leaner cuts of meat (such as a steak, or a chicken breast). Most athletes I talk to would fall into this category; traditional sports nutrition guidelines would encourage them to fill up on carbohydrate, eat a moderate amount of lean protein and choose those leaner cuts of meat to ensure fat intake is kept low. Another easy source of glycine is found in gelatine – the wide, grainy powder found in the baking aisle used as a gelling agent in cooking. It is made predominantly of left over parts of the animal (bone, skin etc) that would otherwise not be used and has become more popular recently for its health promoting properties. Gelatine has also garnered the attention of sport scientists for its potential role in healing from injury and injury prevention.

While mere mortals wouldn’t typically think of tendon stiffness as a good thing, sport scientists have shown that the higher degree of stiffness you have in your muscle tendons, the better efficiency you’re going to have when using them. For a runner this would mean you’d expend less energy overall at a higher given intensity. And who doesn’t want that?

Tendon stiffness is determined largely by the amount of collagen AND the crosslinking of it. the collagen (tissue). Cross linking is determined by enzymatic processes that occur in the body, the expression and the activity of these enzymes increases when we are active. Baar’s research found that when they combined vitamin C (important for collagen synthesis) with glycine (one of the most common amino acids in collagen) there was an increase in strength of ligaments the engineered in the laboratory. They then conducted clinical trials in athletes to determine if this could be translated to a real world situation.

They conducted a randomised clinical trial, whereby they gave the group either a placebo, 5g or 15g of gelatine and measured the amino acids present in the blood stream over the following three hours. They found that the glycine peaked within the blood an hour after consuming the supplement. When they took the blood samples from the athletes and put it into their engineered ligament, they found an increase in the amount of collagen present in the ligament – a slight increase with 5g and a substantial increase with 15g of gelatine. Importantly, they found improved strength and stiffness in the ligaments that had the increase in collagen formation.

They then had the athletes jump-rope for six minutes (the length of time required to get a response from tissue cells in the bones, tendons and cartilage), rest for six hours, take the supplement again, wait an hour (for the peak amino acid expression) and jump-rope again. They did this three times a day for three days. The researchers found a doubling in the athletes’ collagen synthesis for those supplementing with 15g of gelatine, mostly from the bone.

What this shows us is if we want to improve the collagen response to an exercise bout, we can easily do this by adding gelatine as a supplement. Baar felt the initial study can be looked at as a bone recovery protocol. If we have an athlete who breaks a bone –  in the foot, a bone in the leg, bone in the back, what you can do is you can have them take the 15g gelatine alongside 50mg of vitamin C and then do five minutes of exercise an hour later. Now clearly this isn’t weighted activity – if you have access to an AlterG at your local university sports science lab that would be brilliant – something that is going to just direct those nutrients to where they need to go. Repeat this every 6h because it takes that long to get the cells to return to a state that they will then be responsive. The researchers suggest this is going to speed recovery time, something all athletes are interested in.

The above study can also be used as an injury prevention protocol, as the overall goal is to improve the mechanics of the connective tissue, reduce fatigue-related damage and optimise its strength and resilience. The protocol is the same; consume the 15g gelatine and 50mg of vitamin C then perform 5 min of activity that is going to load the area they are most concerned with. Long distance runners, for example, could supplement and then an hour later do 5-6 minutes of jump roping as this is going to load the hips, Achilles tendon, calves, tibia and femur – all areas of concern. For our long distance runners, they do five to six minutes of jump rope because if you have a history of tibial stress fractures or hip stress fractures or Achilles problems or plantar fasciitis, all of those structures are going to be loaded by the jump rope. They’re going to get just enough of a stimulus in that six minutes to have a response. Unlike muscle, bones and connective tissue don’t have a great blood supply – therefore providing nutrients then doing the exercise is like wringing out a sponge – suck the water out and it will suck up what’s left in the environment. The exercise impact is like wringing out the sponge, therefore the tissue will be responsive to up taking the nutrients.

Currently they’ve just tested the 5g and the 15g of gelatine – and while anecdotally the 5g has received favourable responses, the 15g amount was significantly more effective. The researchers don’t know for now if this is better scaled to body weight, but studies are underway to determine this. The study that is discussed here is in review and is about to be published.

In summary:

Bone healing / injury prevention protocol

  1. 15g gelatine + 50 mg vitamin C* (either added to smoothies, glass of water etc)
  2. Wait an hour for peak amino acid presentation in the bloodstream
  3. Undertake 5-6 minutes of activity that loads the area of interest (can be non-weighted) to direct nutrients to that area. For an ankle injury, this can be simply (carefully) tracing the alphabet with your ankle
  4. Do this every 6h
  5. (for injury prevention) – can do this anytime – or take the gelatine + vitamin C an hour before training if the training is including drills/warm up that targets area of interest.

*a little bit less than the amount of vitamin C found in a kiwifruit, most vitamin C tablets are over 250 mg, but you could easily have this instead.

Gelatine: I use the Great Lakes Gelatin, this is definitely pricier than what you’d find in the supermarket. This (and the I Quit Sugar brand or Vital Proteins brand) are marketed as being derived from either pig or beef that have been sustainably farmed and pasture raised. They are also free from additives and preservatives. You can purchase either the gelatine that will gel, or the collagen peptides which is the collagen broken down into smaller amino acid peptides. I haven’t seen any New Zealand gelatine – our cattle industry is one of the best. The brand in the supermarket I’ve seen (Mckenzie’s) includes a preservative which wouldn’t make it ideal for anyone wanting to use it for gut healing purposes (it’s 220, sulphite dioxide – many people are sensitive to this) and they don’t make the same animal and environmentally friendly claims. Further, if you do have an injury then the levels of inflammation in your tissues will likely be higher, and while the inflammation may not stem from your gut, it can affect your sensitivity to constituents in food such as preservatives and additives you would otherwise be fine with. In terms of the injury prevention effect though, I’ve seen nothing to suggest they wouldn’t be on par – so choose the one you can afford.

Spice it up

One of the benefits of eating real food is that it minimises the amount of processed refined foods that drive the inflammation pathways in the body which, as you know, is the underlying cause of modern chronic disease. From a general health perspective, this is awesome. From an athlete perspective it is even more so – given that the training derived oxidative stress causes cell damage and breakdown, increasing recovery time from sessions. Anything that impedes recovery is not going to allow you to make the fitness gains you are looking for. Of course, it’s more than just diet you have to consider.  I’m three weeks post-marathon and am up to running around 50 minutes every 2-3 days, with calf and foot niggles making me more cautious that what I’ve needed to be in the past. It’s frustrating for me to tell you the truth; yes I enjoy gym work and swimming, but there is nothing I love more than running and when the weather is blossoming into summer and the choice is between a Smith squat machine or Auckland Domain, I’d know where I’d rather be. Worse is that I really only have myself to blame. I’ve pretty much got my diet dialled in (as to be expected – though, no, it’s not perfect as I am human 😉 ) and I honestly have been taking the return to running seriously and listening to both Coach and osteo advice to ease into it. But it’s slower than what I would have imagined. Where I fall down is the recovery out of training – you know, the wind down time, getting enough sleep – that kind of thing. Hence I’ve been making a real effort this week to get to bed early, to practice diaphragmatic breathing whilst driving and to invert my legs up onto the wall at the end of the day and just ‘be’. So it got me thinking about additional ways to support the body outside of the diet, exercise and lifestyle. What other dietary factors can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body outside of a reduction of processed food and the free-radical scavenging properties of fruits, vegetables, animal protein and eggs?

A lot of athletes are heading into heavier schedules with the Christmas holidays allowing for some block training to occur. This is (for some) combined with the increased indulgences of additional alcohol at end-of year drinks and caffeine to get through the day. In combination with late nights and early starts, it’s no wonder that we hang out for December 23 as this time of year can wreak havoc on the body. It’s too easy to think you can pop a Voltaren or Neurofen tablet before going out and training (or at the end of a hard session) to mitigate the niggles and strains you feel that come from a lack of recovery. This might not seem like a big deal at the time but it really does more damage than what you think. I know – I used to be blasé about these things too – I had a ‘stomach of steel’ that was Impenetrable to even the most harshest of substances (there’s few things harder on the stomach than a mixing bowls worth of green gooseberries that I’ve successfully put this away with no ill effect in my younger years). But the older I’ve become, the more digestive issues I’ve struggled with around training, the more aware I’ve become of the impact that anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals can have on the gut and subsequent health. Training in itself has been found to increase gut permeability. The decreased blood flow to the gut through even moderate steady-state exercise has resulted in intestinal injury and elevated liver enzyme parameters – and that’s an acute effect of just 60 minutes training. You can imagine what your normal high intensity effort or Sunday bunch ride does in relation to tearing up your insides?*  This increased gut permeability is a big deal. The once tight junctures that should not allow foreign matter to travel through are now not-so-tight. When we have foreign bodies allowed into our system this sparks an auto-immune response. Inflammation is one of the body’s first line of defence against injury, and over time this acute inflammatory response can become chronic which leads to deleterious health effects moreso than just impaired recovery. So the training in itself loosens the guts main defence against foreign proteins, which can increase inflammation – and when you throw ibuprofen on top of that, the effects on the gut and inflammation over time are even worse. It’s an easy thing to do, certainly, and a lot of people do it – however over time this can cause sensitivities to foods that you once had no problem digesting. Think grains, milk, certain types of carbohydrates in the FODMAP spectrum. Our gut has just one cell thickness protecting it from the outside environment. It doesn’t take a lot to upset the balance.

Of course, I’m speaking mechanistically here and everyone is different – some people will go through their athletic career and not have an issue at all despite a regular habit of popping vitamin V; others though, will notice that their tolerance to certain foods is now lower, the time taken to recover from training sessions is greater, and they are not able to get as fit as fast as they used to be able to. Is it an age thing? Sure. You’re not as bulletproof as you were in your 20s. But it could be more than that.

So I thought I’d mention some spices that can help support the anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. This isn’t going to dive into the ins and outs of that information – this post is already verging on being too long.

Tumeric (active ingredient curcumin): (particularly in the presence of fat to help absorption) – my friend Chris loves eggs with a heaped teaspoon or two of turmeric, and avocado and butter in the morning.

Ginger (I love ginger tea, just grating it fresh into hot water) and in green smoothies with lemon.

Cinammon: known for helping blood sugar control and also for its anti-inflammatory properties – I always like to include this in my breakfast meals, as a sweetener for baked rhubarb (no sugar required), in a slow cooked meat recipe or mince.

Garlic a member of the sulfur family, a well known anti-inflammatory compound.(okay, not a spice, but worth a mention)

Cayenne and chilli (active compound capsaicin) – chilli flakes and cayenne pepper are great on eggs, in salad and have you tried chilli chocolate? it is Christmas after all.

The beauty of these spices is that they are cheap, readily available and complement perfectly your real food lifestyle. This post is not prescribing anything more than the liberal inclusion of them in your everyday food. Every real food pantry should regularly utilise these in cooking, baking and barbequing. They are not a panacea to burning the candle at both ends – but it is worth your while to spice things up a little bit in the kitchen if you’re not already doing so.

Not tonight, honey. I’m exhausted.

Have you heard the term ‘ironman widow’? Where someone’s husband (or wife) is basically invisible for the better part of 12 weeks as they prepare for an upcoming race. This not only relates to being physically present (which is diminished when the training time is upwards of 15-20h a week) but also ‘present’ when at home. Often exhaustion sets in, particularly nearer the end of the week or after a heavy training day, where the mere thought of moving from the couch is akin to another 6h ride. Sex? Don’t even go there. It’s a fairly common (yet usually unspoken) phenomenon that rolling around in the sack is off the agenda in the lead up to the event. And I’m not talking about the day before an event; it’s more like as a general rule because they are too damn tired. Does this sound familiar? Yes, being tired is a natural (and expected) part of the training cycle – however, much as we talk about adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance in women – this is not an uncommon occurrence in men. It’s just not often talked about.

When we talk hormones, I know that I’m guilty of just addressing women. You know – the stress hormones, thyroid hormones and sex hormones. However men are not exempt from the debilitating effects of overdoing it. Just as a ‘rushed’ lifestyle can affect the thyroid and sex hormones in women (including testosterone), men who undertake endurance sport are at risk of poor testosterone status.

Testosterone: a sex hormone (also present in women too) is a chemical messenger. It declines as we age, and some studies have found a that testosterone levels for a male in their late 30s are down by as much as 50 % on the levels that were present in their 20s. Just as oestrogen is controlled by the hypothalamus, it is the same for testosterone; when the hypothalamus detects a deficiency of testosterone in the blood, it secretes a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GRH). This is detected by the pituitary gland that in response starts producing follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These travel to the testes where testosterone is produced from cholesterol by the leydig cells with just a small amount produced by the adrenal glands. It’s then sent back into the blood stream and either attaches to sex hormone binding protein (SHBG) and becomes biologically inert, or remains free in the bloodstream.  Normal levels are between 300 ng/dl – 1200 ng/dl (10.41)-41.64 ng/dL. The three types of testosterone you might see reported are:

  • Total testosterone- As the name implies, it’s how much testosterone available and is the sum of free and bound testosterone.
  • Free testosterone is the most biologically active form of testosterone. Free but low biologically active test and therefore still have signs/symptoms of overall low testosterone.
  • Bound testosterone-This is the testosterone bound to the protein Sex Hormone Binding Protein (or Globulin) (SHBP/SHBG). A high amount of SHBG will usually indicate a low free testosterone.

Testosterone is not just important for reproduction and sex drive – it has a number of other roles including supporting bone mass, regulating fat distribution, muscle size and strength and red blood cell production. If you are a typical endurance athlete who tends to push themselves and have had stress fractures that can’t be put down to a lack of calcium, it could well be that low testosterone is a contributing factor. As we know, testosterone increases during training and contributes to overall energy levels; a low production of testosterone contributes to the fatigue that can be felt under a heavy training load, making someone feel worse than they should. It’s difficult though, to know what is a normal byproduct of a heavy training load (because, let’s face it, endurance sport requires longer and harder training than, say, golf). Below are some common signs and symptoms of low testosterone.

  • Decreased/absent early morning erection
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Loss of facial or pubic hair
  • Testicular atrophy
  • Low bone mineral density/fractures
  • Night sweats

Phew! That’s not you? Well, you may not be out of the woods just yet. Less specific (or earlier signs) include:

  • Decreased energy or motivation
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Moody
  • Reduce muscle/increased fat mass
  • Reduced performance

You can see that the early signs of a reduced testosterone level could be summed up by being a bit ‘tired’ and are fairly non-specific. The best way to know what is going on with your testosterone is to get it tested through your doctor (noting that the free testosterone is the important measure).

Thankfully there is plenty you can do with your diet to ensure you’re optimising your ability to produce testosterone without getting a prescription for the pharmaceutical type. Unsurprisingly, these come down to pretty much what I write about on a weekly basis:

  • Ensure adequate vitamin D – this is involved in the production of the corticosteroid hormones and it’s important we have enough available to support the production of our thyroid, stress and sex hormones. Food sources are full fat dairy products, a small amount in butter, liver, animal protein and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Taking a supplement (that also contains vitamin K2) is warranted for a large part of the year in New Zealand, but particularly as we come out of winter and into spring, where the UVB rays are diminished and we’ve been spending the vast majority of time inside on the windtrainer to dodge the weather.
  • Ensure adequate zinc intake (through oysters and animal protein, and brazil nuts too) – a note here is that iron can reduce our overall ability to absorb zinc, and this may need to be looked at if you’re taking an iron supplement.
  • Ensure adequate selenium intake (seafood, Brazil nuts) and vitamin A (full fat dairy products, liver, eggs, animal protein)
  • Saturated and monounsaturated fat: Again, most of the foods mentioned above are good sources of saturated fat in the diet, and monounsaturated fat is found predominantly in olive oil, eggs, avocado and raw nuts. The reality is, all fats contain the range of fatty acids we need, and are labelled ‘saturated’ or ‘monounsaturated’ fats due largely to the amount they contain. Coconut oil (which has had some bad press of late, despite a lack of evidence of a relationship to heart disease) is particularly rich in saturated fat.
  • Cholesterol: another important co-factor in the creation of the sex hormones, and forms the backbone of these. Foods of animal origin help supply dietary cholesterol for this role. If you’re someone who has followed a low fat diet or vegetarian diet and has a low cholesterol level, then potentially your testosterone could be lower than ideal.
  • Ensure adequate B vitamins and magnesium also (present in the foods mentioned above and in abundance in vegetables).

Finally – on the life side of things: sleep more, ensure adequate recovery from training and have more sex. That will increase your testosterone.