Activities, Foods, and Hormones

Just recently I posted an article suggesting that it’s good to think of the things we do and eat as all having a direct influence on our hormones and what driving forces are at work in our bodies. This is a large part of what makes you get stronger or weaker, healthier or less so. What follows are some summary items about various things we do that have big consequences, telling our bodies to burn fat or store it, build protein or recycle it, etc. etc.

exercise

  • just keeping a steady routine of easy to moderate exercise most days will do a lot to help keep your body operating smoothly, help a little with insulin sensitivity, lower stress, and help keep you ready for higher intensity exercise
  • intense exercise can be a huge stress on your body and if you’re healthy then you’ll adapt by becoming more capable of dealing with a similar stress in the future (endurance exercise builds endurance, intensity builds high-end fitness, etc.)
  • if you’re short on time, then prioritize intensity, because it’s the best and only way to get the most fitness building stress on your body in a short time
  • a short intense workout drives insulin sensitivity and testosterone production, and the food you eat drives positive fitness changes rather than being stored for future use… basically, working out hard (sprints, VO2 intervals, lifting weights, hard endurance days) makes it hard for your body not to make use of your food to make you fitter for the first several hours after the workout

sleep

  • your body knows what it’s doing, don’t mess it up!
  • sleep enough (7-9h) at regular times every day (e.g. go to bed at 10 or 11 pm every night, weekends included)
  • try to minimize exposure to bright, blue (read computer/phone) lights as you get ready to sleep
  • if you can’t turn off your phone, computer, or TV, then consider getting f.lux to take the blue light out of your computer monitor when it’s nighttime so your body gets a stronger signal that it’s time to get ready to sleep
  • the production of growth hormone happens largely at night (while you’re sleeping and fasting)
  • regular sleep patterns help you sleep better and establish stronger circadian rhythms. irregular sleep patterns tend to disrupt rhythmic hormone production (e.g. melatonin) and make it more challenging to sleep well and get the rest you need

eating

  • eating fruits and vegetables is key to general health on every level, with vegetables not really having a huge direct influence on the major hormones in question, but fruit can drive insulin production (but less so than most grain products)
  • eating plenty of calories with some protein and carbohydrate immediately after hard exercise is the best thing you can do for recovery and basically the safest time to eat a large quantity (it drives insulin and IGF-1 production, while providing the carbohydrate needed to restock glycogen stores and the protein needed to build new enzymes to get fitter)
  • eat carbohydrate in proportion to the volume of high-intensity training that you’re doing so you have fuel for the hard efforts (if you’re not working out hard, then you probably don’t need high-octane fuel)
  • feel free to eat high-glycemic carbohydrate after hard workouts, but otherwise, I think it’s best for general health, steady energy, and insulin sensitivity to stick mostly to low-glycemic carbohydrates (vegetables, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, maybe fruit, but a bit less bread, pasta, rice, etc. unless you’re doing a lot of heavy training or doing a stage race)

not-eating

  • there is increasing interest in the benefit of short-term, long-term, and intermittent fasting for public health and athletic performance
  • fasting for more than a few hours between meals (i.e. for 12-16h or more) increases growth hormone, insulin sensitivity, and changes your body’s protein turnover dynamics (causing more recycling and apoptosis)
  • like exercise, fasting is a stress on your body that facilitates changes in your hormones and fuel metabolism which appear to be all positive (it’s an expansive topic and I’ll leave it at that for now, but if you’re interested just do some online searching for “intermittent fasting” and look around at a few studies and academics looking into it)
  • consider occasionally fasting before low and medium intensity workouts and endurance sessions, the hormonal state created by fasting makes lower intensity training more effective (increased fat-burning, increased endurance, increased aerobic enzyme production)

eating carbohydrate

  • carbohydrate is probably the most studied performance enhancing substance out there, and quickly digested carbohydrate during exercise is one of the most certain ways to increase aerobic exercise performance for the session in which it is used
  • consuming carbohydrate in quantities of 100-300 kcal/hr or even more will increase speed/power production during training sessions or races, increasing race-day performance or workout intensity
  • consuming carbohydrate before exercise reduces fat burning and increases reliance on carbohydrate during the subsequent exercise session (this is undesirable for endurance training, but may be desirable for high-intensity sessions)
  • consuming carbohydrate immediately following moderate to high-intensity workouts helps regenerate lost glycogen and fuels the next workout. this is the time your body is going to restore lost glycogen the fastest, and lengthens the time your body is sensitive to those calories
  • at all times, carbohydrate is anabolic (“building”) and helps your body store carbohydrate, fat and build protein, so after workouts, that’s good (you want to store glycogen and build proteins/enzymes), the rest of the time, it’s open for debate depending on what else is going on
  • excessive carbohydrate leads to excessive insulin and leads to insulin resistance and increased adiposity, when not preceded by hard workouts or periods of fasting, and some researchers believe greatly increases your risk for certain cancers (because of chronically elevated insulin and IGF-1 levels)

eating fat

  • eating fat has minimal impact on many of your hormones, but does increase satiety hormones and may increase testosterone
  • fat is usually slowly digested (some fats excepted, like coconut oil and other medium-chain fatty acids), so large quantities of fat soon before training is generally undesirable because it directs blood towards your digestive system and away from your working muscles
  • fat is nice because it has very little impact on your hormones and fuel metabolism
  • fat is good because consuming it doesn’t encourage fat storage (as is the case with carbohydrate), and doesn’t shift fuel metabolism away from fat burning towards carbohydrate burning (as with carbohydrate)
  • fat is perhaps not so good because it’s very calorie dense, so it’s easier to overconsume calories with fatty foods (e.g. nuts and nut butters, cream you might put in your coffee, oil  or dressing you may put in your salad, etc.)

eating protein

  • protein is essential for building muscle and other tissues, and usually more importantly, for building new enzymes for anything and everything under the sun (e.g. burning carbohydrate, burning fat, and all of the requisite reactions along the way)
  • protein doesn’t on it’s own make a huge impact on your insulin levels, but when consumed with carbohydrate drives insulin levels and IGF-1 levels higher in a synergesic manner (hence the often cited 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein for recovery)
  • generally speaking, it’s hard in the developed world to be remotely deficient in protein intake, so for the most part, there’s probably no reason to be concerned about getting more protein in your diet unless you’re a strict vegan and don’t seek out beans and legumes for protein
  • it may be worth seeking out easy to digest protein immediately after harder workouts some of the time (e.g. eggs on some toast or protein powder in a fruit smoothie) to make the most of your body’s insulin and IGF-1 production immediately following a hard workout
  • some people find that consuming protein in the morning helps keep their energy and appetite more steady, and may help with maintaining a healthy weight… definitely worth trying for a period if you always skip breakfast or worse yet, just have refined carbohydrates for breakfast (bagels, processed cereals, toast, pastries, etc.)

Hopefully some of this is interesting to you and may prove useful on one or two points. I definitely don’t presume to think that I know all that much about human physiology compared to some people or compared to what I’d like to know, but it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for years and find that I often remember little things that seem relevant to me or to athletes generally and draw on them when I’m trying to make my day to day plans. Often what happens in a given day is more contingent on circumstance than plans, but still trying to tweak things here and there can make big differences.

So, what kind of stuff do I personally try to do from day to day? Well, that has changed over the years as I have learned more, as my body has changed, and as my goals have changed. I’ll go over a few different routines that I’ve used that try to take into account these features of how our bodies work in the next article…

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You’re on Drugs, whether you know it or not

Did you stay up late last night? What did you have for breakfast today? Pancakes and coffee? Bacon and eggs? Do you do lots of long-steady endurance sessions? Do you do a lot of high-intensity intervals? Do you do heavy weight training? Like it or not, realize it or not… Just about everything that you do or don’t do will directly or indirectly influence your health and fitness by influencing the huge array of hormones that make our bodies what they are.

Have a tall stack of pancakes for breakfast? A huge shot of insulin. Go out and do a bunch of sprints or heavy strength training? A small shot of testosterone. Losing sleep on a regular basis? A steady drip of cortisol and increased insulin resistance. A big meal after a hard workout with carbohydrate and protein? A huge shot of insulin and IGF-1, which will help you recover and won’t increase insulin resistance, but only because it was immediately preceded by the hard workout.

On the one hand, if you think about it this should be pretty clear. Your body is always trying to maintain a state of homeostasis and adapt to its environment. So, what and when you eat and drink, how and when you exercise, sleep, and do basically everything else will influence your hormones. This has huge implications for your health and fitness over time. Clearly the title of this article is intended to be attention grabbing, but the principle it represents is important and I find it to be a useful way of thinking. This idea represents a key feature of understanding your body and is especially useful when thinking in regards to health, athletic training, and performance… The basic idea: Everything you do or don’t do, when and how you do it, acts like a drug to your body because it affects the cascade of hormones constantly changing in your internal environment.

Keep in mind, your body is very smart and is generally very good at keeping itself running smoothly and efficiently. To optimize its operation, the right stresses at the right times can make it better, whereas the wrong stresses will throw things out of alignment, and a lack of stress altogether will leave your body weak and sick in the long run. And, of course, I’m operating always on the assumption that the best way to do things is to work with your body using its own natural systems (i.e. nothing I’m writing has any interest in or relevance to anything synthetic or supplemental, except perhaps melatonin in the right circumstances).

In any case, let’s look at a handful of key hormones (testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, cortisol, IGF-1, melatonin) briefly and see how they react or can be manipulated for our benefit…

testosterone

  • directly drives muscle growth, positive athletic adaptations
  • indirectly increases fat-burning
  • increases with high-intensity exercise, high-fat diet
  • decreases with high stress levels, low-fat diet

growth hormone

  • directly drives fat-burning, indirectly drives positive athletic adaptations
  • increases with exercise, fasting
  • decreases with high-carbohydrate diet

insulin

  • shuttles carbohydrate from the blood to muscles, liver
  • increases fat storage, protein synthesis
  • decreases fat burning, protein breakdown
  • increases with consumption of carbohydrates, especially high-glycemic load carbohydrates
  • decreases with exercise, fasting
  • pathology: too much insulin leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, increased hunger, increased adiposity

cortisol

  • increases fat burning, appetite, protein breakdown
  • increases with exercise, lost sleep, fasting, mental/emotional stress
  • decreases with sleep, feeding, moderate exercise (e.g. walking), and basically anything relaxing
  • pathology: high-stress, low-exercise, l0w-sleep lifestyle results in chronically elevated cortisol and increased risk for most “lifestyle” diseases

IGF-1

  • increases protein synthesis
  • produced with feeding, i.e. carbohydrate and protein
  • increased production after a post-workout meal
  • pathology: increasingly of interest for possible/probable links to cancer when found in excess

melatonin

  • helps you sleep, helps establish circadian rhythms
  • daily cycles of melatonin, circadian rhythms are sensitive to light, disruption and irregularity of sleeping patterns
  • synthetic melatonin is generally considered safe as a means of encouraging sleep and re-establishment of normal circadian rhythms

Coming up next: things we do to affect our hormones.

 

Triathlon Body Mass and Pacing

Thoughts on Triathlon continued from the last article…

Body Composition: As a cyclist, I know that I perform well when I weigh about 163-165 lbs/74-75kg. I’m 6’2″, and that puts me at about a BMI of about 21. That’s great for cycling, but for triathlon, I’m not sure yet what’s ideal. So the question is: what do I want to weigh? Swimming may benefit from having more power, having thicker arms, and extra body mass won’t really hurt. Cycling generally would also benefit from having extra muscle mass and the power that would come with it. Most events are flat enough that extra watts would yield faster times even if accompanied by extra body mass. But, the big problem is that running is much more efficient at a lower body weight and is also going to reduce the stress on your body in training and racing. As long as you’re healthy, weighing less will usually make you a better, more injury free runner.

So, what’s the sweet-spot that’s going to allow you to swim effectively, bike quickly, and run efficiently? Well, that’s a tough one. I’m tend to think that the optimal triathlete body mass for me will end up being less than it has been for cycling, but I’ll have to feel it out and see how my training and racing goes as I experiment with trying to lose a few pounds. Without going into too much detail right now, I suspect that 155-160 lbs/70-72kg (or a BMI of about 20) will be my personal ideal body mass for triathlon. Hopefully I can preserve most of my cycling power but improve my running speed and reduce my chances of injury enough that it makes the total finish times lower.

Ultimately, any big changes in body composition will be due largely to dietary changes. I think it’s clear from research and personal experience for millions of people that “going on a diet” isn’t a long term or enjoyable strategy to change body mass. Rather, I think it’ll be key to always focus on getting good nutritious food with plenty of plant matter, healthy fats, maybe some meats, and mostly slowly digested/high-nutrient carbohydrate for more intense training, except perhaps for some hard training sessions and for recovery immediately following training sessions. I want to focus on changing eating habits in such a way that I’m still getting plenty of nutrition, but hopefully work with my body to have a less anabolic (muscle building and fat storing) hormonal state, largely through limiting insulin. This would be done primarily through limiting or eliminating sugars and refined carbohydrates in favor of slowly digested carbohydrates a times, like sweet potatoes, legumes, some fruit, maybe oats. And at other times, that will mean increased fat consumption and a reduction in carbohydrate intake generally, which should reduce insulin production and also encourage your body to rely more on fat for fuel because of a lower availability of carbohydrate for exercise. Basically, I’ve come to think that cycling macronutrients in the diet has promise as a training technique to allow for intense workouts with higher carbohydrate intake and increased adaptation to fat burning with a higher fat diet, done in alternating blocks of training.

Pacing:

paces, power, and energy

Calculating energy expenditure swimming is not easily done with any accuracy, so for all intents and purposes I’m going to leave that out of the equation. But, figuring out an optimal pacing strategy for the cycling and running legs of a triathlon is an interesting and potentially very useful academic exercise. In order to finish with the fastest time, you might assume that you want to have even pacing. Or, in other words, you might assume that you should aim for the highest average and most consistent energy expenditure per unit of time throughout the duration of the event. So, that’s going to mean that per hour you’d be burning the same number of calories in the water, on the bike, and on the run. Again, swimming it’s hard to measure energy expenditure, but cycling and running is a little bit more so. If you have a power meter, then you can know exactly what your energy expenditure is and there is zero guesswork about it. For running, you can estimate within a small margin of error what your energy expenditure is at different paces given certain assumptions like body mass. So, then it’s all set, you just figure out what wattage you want to push on the bike and what pace you want to run that’s going to be the highest average you can sustain for those two legs, right? Well, maybe not.

Triathlon isn’t a calorie measuring contest, it’s a race. So, time matters and not power or pacing, per se. So, with this in mind, it’s good to remember that as you increase your speed on the bike (and running, but to a much lesser extent) your power/calorie expenditure goes up exponentially. So, if you want to increase your speed by 10%, then you need to increase your power output by about 20%. Likewise, if you reduce your speed by 10%, then you save about 20% of the energy (per hour) that you’re using to cover that ground. Running, however, is much more linear, and if you increase your speed by 10% then your energy expenditure may go up, say, 11%. So, it seems like saving a little energy on the bike may lose some time but make up for it in saved energy that you can use to run faster. But, the bike leg is the longest, and is generally about 40-45% longer than the run leg. So, what do we end up thinking is the best pacing strategy? Again, I’m sure I will learn more from personal experience what is best for me, but it seems you may want a 95% effort on the bike in order to save just a little extra for the run. That might mean that I sacrifice 2m on the bike in order to try to gain 3-4m on the run. We’ll see how that plays out.

Above is a chart that I made up using a few pace/calorie calculators for running that I found online and some estimates based on personal experience for cycling speed at different powers. We won’t assume all of the numbers are right on, but they’re close enough to be considered very reasonable and more importantly show important trends… Basically, if you want to run faster, then you can have better aerobic fitness or you can weigh less or both. If you want to ride faster bike legs, then 90% of that will be determined wholly by your power output, with minimal impact coming from body mass. The problem is that more power on the bike may be easier with more body mass (and therefore more muscle), but running will be hindered by that extra mass. I think at the end of the day, I’ll be aiming to keep a power level in the low-to-mid 300w range (say 320-350) and a pacing that will put me in the low 1:20s for the run (~4min/km pace). I’m really looking forward to learning how to best approach the body mass and pacing questions. As important as these issues may be, it’s important to always remember that health and fitness comes first. No matter how much you weigh and how well or poorly you pace the event, fitness is key no matter what.