On Monday, I’m travelling to London to take part in a Masters Athletes heart study. The project is aiming to find out whether there is a correlation between “extreme” exercise and heart problems in older athletes. There are lots of examples of elite triathletes who are suffering from heart issues, but there may also be lots who have no problem. Are the issues directly related to years of over exercising, or are there other non exercise factors which have a strong influence?
This does give rise to a broader question – Are you fit but unhealthy?
I confess that for many years I believed that an average weekly training volume of 10 hours, coupled with an excellent-for-age body fat reading and the ability to complete extreme endurance events on a regular basis, marked me out as extremely fit and extremely healthy. In fact, once I started tackling Ironman events I actually believed that I was indestructible!
You may think like I did.
On top of this, I believed for a long time that my training habits gave me free rein to eat pretty much what I liked.
Maybe you eat like I did.
My training was never very easy – how would that get me fit enough to race a triathlon?
Neither was it very, very hard – on this I believed that Vo2 max intensity wasn’t really necessary for long distance triathlon.
So I trained in that middle zone, finishing sessions feeling like I had completed a good honest workout. Sweaty, out of breath, and needing carbohydrates. I often woke the next day sore but satisfied.
“Surely training like this will make me fitter”, I thought.
I did pick up lots of injuries along the way, most of them lower limb injuries.
In recent years I have learned that perhaps I followed the wrong path.
Of course, the path I followed was the one promoted by just about every triathlon – or actually every endurance – publication around. Whatever endurance sport you trained for, the method was “no pain, no gain”, and you probably fuelled with huge quantities of processed carbohydrates.
I now realise that my choice of training methods and my nutrition habits were leading to my injuries, and perhaps I wasn’t as healthy as I thought I was.
Recently, I read an article written by two guys with far greater knowledge than me, Prof. Paul Laursen and Dr. Phil Maffetone, where they examine this exact subject, fit but unhealthy athletes.
You may be surprised by their conclusions, although if you have been listening to and reading some of my posts in the recent months, perhaps you won’t be.
You can read the article by clicking HERE.
If you don’t have time, let me summarise:
Training too hard and in too great a quantity can lead to inappropriate levels of stress, and more likely lead to illness and injury than to higher levels of fitness.
This can be exacerbated by poor nutrition choices (high levels of refined carbohydrate consumption), resulting in excess levels of insulin in the blood and chronic inflammation, both of which are associated with poor health.
I’m not pointing the finger at you. This was me! But I have changed.
My training is now polarised, meaning mostly very easy (below 75% intensity) and occasionally very, very, hard (1 session/week/sport at Vo2 max level).
My nutrition has changed. With the exception of Pizza Friday we rarely eat bread or processed carbohydrates, and 90% of our meals are prepared from scratch using fresh products. Oh, and I no longer have the attitude that just because I have ridden for 2 hours I deserve that cake!
Overall I feel healthier, and I get injured far less than before.
But it’s more than that. I wake each morning without that pervading stiffness and lethargy that I had under my previous regime. And I still train the same volume each week.
Why am I sharing this?
I’m worried. Worried that too many endurance athletes are headed down a path that will lead to injury and ill health rather than the fitness they dream of.
You may still get injured or have ill health, but I believe that there is a different path.
That path is NOT the one pushed by the “no pain, no gain” mob which I liken to a “get rich quick” scheme. In the short term you will see some sweet returns but in the long term my goal is education. To show you that there is a different way. One that does allow you to be fit AND healthy.
Of course it does require some courage to go against the flow, but then if you are training for triathlon I think you already have plenty of courage.
This is the path I’m now following. Feel free to join me and if you need some moral support, I’ll be here for you.