Sports physiology in the Tour de France

This week marks the start of the 2019 Tour de France. This year the race covers 2100 miles in 21 days of racing, comprised of team and individual time trials as well as stages through the cities, countryside, and mountains of France, after beginning in Belgium. The Tour de France is interesting to me because it provides an excellent opportunity for a short lesson in sports physiology. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Tour de France


All the riders in the Tour are exceptionally fit since their bodies have adapted to years of dedicated, intense training. Endurance sports like cycling are dependent on the delivery of oxygenated blood to the muscle to produce ATP, the energy needed to sustain exercise. The riders have large, strong hearts, resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing the athlete to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time.

But training isn’t the only reason these athletes can sustain such intense exercise for so long. Proper nutrition, especially what the athletes eat and drink before, during, and after each stage, also plays an important role. Intense endurance exercise like cycling relies on carbohydrates, in particular, muscle glycogen, as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise that lasts several hours, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted.

Eating carbohydrates before exercise can boost muscle glycogen levels, so cyclists eat carbohydrate-rich foods for breakfast before each stage. They also consume carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks (think Gatorade) and energy bars prior to starting. In fact, they start replenishing their muscle glycogen immediately after finishing the previous day’s ride. This usually begins with a recovery beverage, which may contain some protein for more rapid muscle glycogen synthesis, and extends through carbohydrate-rich meals and snacksthat afternoon and evening.

During exercise it is crucial to maintain adequate blood glucose levels, which tend to drop since the muscle is using so much as a fuel. Failure to replenish blood glucose results in what cyclists call “hitting the wall” or “bonking,” which is like your car running out of gas. To prevent this, glucose must be replenished, typically with sports drinks, energy bars, or a sugary mixture called goo.

Prolonged, intense exercise, especially in the heat, results in a high sweat rate which can lead to dehydration. Sweat loss of several liters per hour is not uncommon during cycling, so fluid intake is essential. This means that cyclists spend a lot of time drinking water while they ride. Sports drinks are also commonly used since they contain carbohydrates and electrolytes in addition to water.

Endurance events like cycling, especially multi-stage events like the Tour de France, highlight important concepts of sports physiology. Even though you may never compete at that level, understanding how training can improve your endurance is relevant if you cycle—or run, walk, or swim—for exercise. Knowing how proper nutrition before, during, and after exercise can improve performance can help you make better decision about what to eat. Hopefully, it also gives you a greater appreciation for the science that goes into a performance like the Tour de France.


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Let’s Agree to Agree About Food

Eating a healthy diet is a goal for many people to help them treat or prevent disease, improve exercise performance, or maintain a healthy body weight. If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what constitutes a healthy diet. It’s easy to find lists of foods to avoid and things to eat every day. Unfortunately, lists from different sources may not be the same or, worse, a food that is on one “never eat” list is on another “always eat” list.

There is a different approach you could take to plan the foundation for a truly health way to eat. Instead of focusing on what is different, think about what recommendations are shared among most “healthy” diets. Here is some diet advice that almost everyone agrees on. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Exercise and sleep: Why getting fit requires getting your ZZZs.

If you are serious about exercise, you take steps to maximize your workouts in order to meet your fitness goals. Obviously, what you do for exercise matters. You probably also appreciate that nutrition is important, so you pay attention to what you eat. But there is another important step to achieving your fitness goals you may not be aware of—sleep. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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I took two weeks off from exercise, and today I’m really feeling it!

I have been traveling more than usual lately so I am out of my typical routine, including exercise. In fact, the last serious workout I did was two weeks ago!

I’m back at it this week, starting with an intense boot camp-style workout on Monday. And today, I’m really feeling it!

The soreness I am feeling today is called DOMS—Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness— and, despite how it feels, is actually a good thing.

Curious about what causes it and why it is important in muscle adaptations to exercise? Read more here: https://drparrsays.com/2018/01/08/no-pain-no-gain-pain-no-but-a-little-muscle-soreness-is-okay-even-good/


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FITT-SPF: Fitness and fun in the sun.

People who exercise are probably familiar with FITT—frequency, intensity, time, and type—the basic principle behind almost all fitness programs. The FITT principle applies to everything from running to weightlifting to yoga. For people who exercise outdoors there are three more letters that are important to know, especially in the summer: SPF. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

woman running on beach

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Go for a walk while you fly!

If you travel for work or have vacation plans this summer that may mean spending time on planes and in airports. It usually also means a lot of sitting. But it doesn’t have to. In fact, you can easily find ways to include physical activity in your air travel plans. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Exercise: It’s about the people you do it with as much as it is about the workout.

Most people who exercise have a reason why they do it. For some, it’s all about improving fitness or trying to lose weight. For others, exercise is a way to prevent disease or recover from an injury. But many people exercise for social reasons, too. For them, exercise is about the people as much as it is the activity.

Exercising with others is a great way to increase your motivation and enjoyment. This makes it more likely you will stick with your exercise program, leading to better fitness and health. This can be as simple as having a partner to walk with, going to an exercise class at the gym, or joining a running group in the community. But there are additional benefits to exercising with others that may help you get started and continue your fitness program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Boot camp workout


Exercising with others provides a level of motivation and accountability that is important, especially for people who aren’t self-motivated. Knowing that you are meeting a friend for a walk or meeting a training partner at the gym makes it less likely that you will find an excuse to skip a workout. While guilt isn’t the best reason to exercise, for many people it is the one thing that will get them moving.

Exercising with others can also help you get a better workout? It’s true. When you are exercising with another person or a group you can get feedback on your technique. Doing exercises properly can reduce the risk of injury and improve your gains strength, endurance, and flexibility.

You can also get ideas for new exercises and training techniques that can make exercise more enjoyable and less monotonous. Many people find that having a friend to walk or run with makes the time seem to go by faster. The friendly “competition” that can come from a partner or group can push you to train harder, making the exercise more beneficial.

A group dynamic is an important component of many popular exercise classes and programs. At the gym, participants in classes from aerobics to Zumba and spin to yoga benefit from the support and motivation of exercising with others. And programs like boot camps, CrossFit, and F3 are popular largely because of the camaraderie of the other group members.

Exercise can also be for other people. Many community running or walking events help raise money for local or national charities. Sometimes people will train for and complete in an event with a specific person in mind. These “I’m running for” events can help provide inspiration for the runner and awareness for others.

Some workouts are done as memorials for others. In CrossFit, there are a collection of workouts inspired by and named for American soldiers who have died in combat. Often done in groups, these “Hero WODS” tend to be intense tests of fitness and motivation. One such workout is called Murph. Many people around the world will complete the Murph challenge on Memorial Day to raise awareness and money for the Lt. Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation.

In case you are curious, Murph consists of a mile run, then 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, followed by another mile run, all while wearing a weighted vest. For many people who participate, Murph is as much about the people—the heroes you are exercising for as well as the group you are doing it with—as it is about the exercise.

So, if you are struggling to find motivation to exercise, consider doing it with or for other people. You will find inspiration and accountability, helping you meet your fitness goals and enjoying yourself along the way.


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