Triathlon Training Misconceptions

Where does your training plan originate from and what source of knowledge do you rely on for training wisdom? Read on to learn why everything you thought you knew about muscle cramps is wrong.

This week I wanted to uncover the facts behind several training myths that persist and expose some common misconceptions or misperceptions regarding training for endurance events and triathlon.


Myth #1

Chugging down large quantities of water and electrolytes before a long training session or race can prevent muscle cramps.

While hydration is an essential element of training and competition, the data fails to show any benefit of excessive consumption of water or fluids before strenuous endurance events.  There is a finite amount of absorption of fluids from the stomach and GI tract.  Trying to “stock” up on fluids and then go out and compete can create some problems. 

There is no data showing that consuming 1 or more liters of fluids before prolonged exercise prevents muscle cramps.  Another potential problem with drinking too much plain water is dilution of sodium.  Low sodium can actually cause fatigue, weakness, dizziness, cramps and overall poor performance.

Balancing pre-race hydration with periodic fluid consumption of electrolyte solutions or sports drinks with or without plain water is an important concept.  Some of this will be learned from trial and error as an athlete learns his or her own physiology as they gain more experience training and racing.  I’ll talk more about this in future articles and podcasts.


Myth #2

Ibuprofen is the best way to prevent muscle soreness and stiffness.


Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal (NSAID) anti-inflammatory medications such as Aleve have multiple effects on the body.  Many people fail to realize that these medications affect the kidney and GI tract as well.

Recent data from the Center for muscle skeletal research at Indiana University show that athletes consuming anti-inflammatory medications before racing had higher markers of inflammation compared to other competitors who did not take these substances.  This was measured through blood chemistry studies.  The sports medicine literature suggests that anti-inflammatories can hamper the ability for muscles to adapt to exercise and also may have some negative effects on tendon inflammation as well.

Having muscle pain and soreness is part of the natural response to increased training loads. There is really not really any substantial evidence out there showing a method or trick to prevent this, including ice baths.  Studies done in by sports medicine researchers failed to show a reduction in soreness in athletes following a protocol of ice water immersion after hard training sessions.  There may be some psychological effects or placebo effect but the physiologic response of the body to ice baths is very short-lived.


Myth #3

LSD – no not the drug from the 1960-70’s, but Long Slow Distance is the most reliable way to burn calories and decrease total body fat.


There is a plethora of articles out there touting the benefits of exercising at submaximal heart rate to promote fat loss.  The magic time of 20 minutes of exercise at 68-79% of your maximal heart rate being the magical time to turn on the fat burners in a persons’ body has not proven accurate.

Human performance laboratory studies have shown that strenuous high intensity exercise burns more calories per minute than easy exercise.  The main benefit however lies in the period after intense exercise.  Data shows that intense exercise increases your metabolism for up to 14 hours afterwards.  There was no such benefit for low intensity exercise.

In easily to achieve this is to do intervals during some of your workouts.  Marked off a distance down the road for your run training or bike session and crank up the intensity until reaching that point.  Doing hill repeats either running or on the bike is another easy way to accomplish this.  Maintaining your heart rate over 80% of max has been shown to be beneficial in terms of burning calories and fat.  This makes a lot of sense/common sense – harder exercise requires more energy that translated into more calorie use and subsequent weight and fat loss.


Myth #4

Other sugar sources will make you fat and hurt your performance


While this may be true for sedentary persons, consumption for active individuals is a different story.  Training or competing for longer than 60 minutes requires a substantial fuel source of energy.  Athletes training or competing for long periods of time can improve their performance by consuming carbohydrates (sugar-containing) solutions.  Researchers have noted that utilizing fructose for a portion of that carbohydrate source will improve performance.  There is plenty of evidence available from studies done in the Netherlands and Britain involving cyclists who consumed sports beverages containing fructose and glucose. Their data showed an almost 8% faster ride time compared to time trial riders who drank glucose alone.  Maltodextrin is what you’ll find on most product labels.  The belief is that this combined intake of glucose and fructose allows for more rapid uptake of carbohydrates from the intestinal tract and therefore a larger and more readily available source of energy for the athlete.


Scientist and nutritionists reports that the main concern with high fructose corn syrup has more to do with the highly processed foods in which they appear rather than the actual intrinsic properties of fructose itself.  There is some data that suggests the ideal ratio of glucose to fructose is 2-1.  Importantly most corn syrups contained 1-1 glucose 2 fructose ratios.  Be sure to look at labels carefully to find the desired ratio of these two sugars.


If you're looking to make it yourself combine the following ingredients: 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoons salt, 1/4 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons lemon juice.  In a quart pitcher dissolve the sugar and salt in ½ cups of hot water. Then add the orange juice and 3-1/2 cups of cold water.  This should be a bit of perfection for balancing two different sugar sources for optimal absorption.


Myth #5

Stretching is the best way to prevent injuries, improve performance and prevent muscle cramps.


Most exercise physiologists believe that when you stretch a muscle fiber it causes a neuromuscular inhibitory response.  Triggering of this protective mechanism causes the muscle to tense itself and prevent it from over stretching.  The performance issue is that you have now rendered the stretched muscle less powerful.  Studies have shown that static stretching, you know the same thing you did in gym class in grade school, temporarily decreases strength in the stretched muscle group but is much as 30%.  This effect can last up to 30 minutes.


The science behind stretching and the prevention of injuries shows no clear correlation.  Several large-scale studies of athletes and also military recruits showed that static stretching did not reduce the number of injuries such as common overuse injuries of Achilles’ tendinosis and knee pain.


The best current evidence supports a pre-work out warm up consisting of dynamic stretching.  This process involves incorporating a large range of body movements rather than isolating a single muscle for stretching.  It doesn't stress tissues beyond the point that activates the nervous system is protective mechanisms.

The cramping issue in endurance athletes continues to remains unsolved.  For years we thought that dehydration and the loss of electrolytes such as sodium & potassium were the primary culprits for the severe muscle cramps often experienced by long distance athletes.  I think back of the days of college hockey and being told to eat bananas and oranges along with a lot of water to prevent third period cramps during longer shifts on the ice.  Thinking back on this….it never did seem to work.  The best mechanism to deal with a cramp when it occurs is to stretch it out.


New data from a study done in 2011 by African researchers studied hundreds of triathletes in the Ironman group for signs of dehydration and also took blood samples before the event and again at the finish line. Their results show that those who suffered from muscle cramps were no more dehydrated than those who didn't and they'll actually check electrolyte levels measured in the serum (blood) and both groups (cramp vs. no cramps) were essentially the same.


Researchers in a 2010 study at North Dakota State University (home to Bison Football champs) study reported an interesting study where they took young athletes and used little electrical shocks to cause muscle cramps and the repeat of the same test on these volunteers after riding stationary trainers in a hot workout room.  These athletes lost an average of 3% of body weight to sweating.

They found it took the same number of shocks to cause muscle cramps and spasms in both groups.  The conclusion of the study was that there is really no difference between dehydrated versus non-deviated athletes in terms of the frequency of experiencing muscle cramps.  The summary of the research points to muscle cramps being caused by a combination of a variety of factors including exertion, fatigue and underlying biochemical processes that have yet to be explained and determined.


Once cramps and then stretching is most likely to be beneficial.  Evidence out there shows some potential hope this pickle juice.  I have run across this anecdotal evidence in variety of sources.  Studies among cyclist who drank 2 ounces of pickle juice recovered twice as fast compared to those who drank nothing or just pain water.  It is believed that the acidity of the pickle juice breaks the cramp cycle in the exhausted muscle; others speculate the high sodium content of pickle juice may be the explanation.


Myth #6

Vit D is key for your heart health and longevity.


New data has failed to show a clear-cut benefit in Vit D supplementation and improved cardiovascular health.  It was once thought that Vit D played a role in improving longevity from cardiovascular related illness.  In either event, Vit D remains important for a variety of other physiologic processes.  New guidelines were just released by the Institute Of Medicine.

These new guidelines recommend dietary Vitamin D at 600 IU per day for everyone age 1 through 70. A bit higher at 800 IU for adults age 71 and older.

Adolescents age 9 through 18 need the most calcium per the new guidelines: 1300 mg per day. Concern that adolescent girls, in particular, might not be getting enough. For men and women age 19 through 50, the recommended dietary allowance of calcium is 1000 mg.

Women should increase intake to 1200 mg starting at age 51.  Men should increase calcium intake to 1200 mg starting at age 71. The IOM panel also warned that postmenopausal women may be taking too much which could increase the risk for kidney stones.

Meanwhile, the benefits of vitamin D supplementation continue to unfold as new studies explore its possible benefit in illness and other diseases.