The Inner Athlete - What Blood Profiling Can Teach You...

Blood. It accounts for about seven percent of human body weight, but it is critical to every bodily function we perform. It is also an incredible resource to learn about our bodies. The bio-markers contained within our blood cells can provide valuable information on everything from vitamin balance, to hormone levels. For a bike rider, the health of your 'Inner Athlete' is fundamental, and profiling your blood is the most effective and simple way to monitor and understand it.

A few months ago, I was contacted by the UK based blood profiling company InDurance. The InDurance team is composed of world-class athletes, top medics, sports scientists and top-level coaches. Their service is designed to bring to amateur athletes, a science that has long been used by professionals; the ability to measure and track your blood bio-markers, to improve your performance.

Through simple self-administered blood sampling, forwarded to the InDurance team by post, the group of experts is able to provide detailed analysis; followed by advice on training, rest and nutrition. The process should help to safeguard hard-earned performance and fitness gains, as well as minimising your risk of over-training, fatigue and tiredness. I was keen to find out about the health of my 'Inner Athlete'...

Pico Kits

The InDurance service operates through a number of 'Pico Kits', which allow you to measure key bio-markers within your blood. Each kit has different fundamentals that it measures, and different kits are more relevant to different athletes, depending on activity type, age and objectives.

The InDurance team identified three Picos that would be of particular interest to me:
  • The Osteo Energy Kit: "This kit measures your ability to optimise bone health structure and stability, and fight off infectious diseases such as seasonal Flu viruses. It helps you understand your ability to maintain muscle function and contraction as well as reducing post inflammatory states that occur after high intensity training and racing. The kit measures vitamin D levels, which are below optimum in 1 out of 3 athletes, due to inadequate exposure to sunlight and low dietary intake. Low vitamin D levels result in a greater propensity to suffer from colds and flu, and a greater risk of chronic diseases."
  • The Neuro Muscular Kit: "With this Pico kit you receive an analysis of your vitamin B12 status and your magnesium levels. vitamin B12 is essential to the creation of new red blood cells, repairing damaged ones and maintaining nerve integrity. A deficiency would cause damage to the central nervous system. The magnesium biomarker provides a regulatory role for the stability of cell walls, as well as the cardiovascular, immune, neuromuscular and hormone production systems, so it is vital for correct performance optimisation. Even borderline deficiency in magnesium can lead to degradation in physical performance and capacity."
  • The Andro Vitality Kit: "This kit measures your Free T (bioactive testosterone) biomarker, which is highly influential on your ability to perform effectively in endurance sports. It influences neuropsychological functions such as cognition and brainpower, motivation and competition behavioural characteristics, and also situation specific mood modifications. Levels of your sex hormone FreeT decline in males after 40, who are then increasing their risk of imbalances of stress hormones, causing a lack of energy and malaise, as well as increasing risk of chronic disease such as diabetes and dementia."
Taking my Pico Kit measurements was simple, and took just a few minutes one morning. I sent them off to the lab to be processed, and awaited my results...

The Results

My results from the InDurance blood tests revealed something very interesting; something quite concerning, but also something very useful:
  • Osteo Energy Kit: My results came back showing my vitamin D levels were strong and healthy, falling into the "Performance" bracket. Having a full-time office job, I was a bit concerned that I might spend too little time in the sunshine. Thankfully, it seems that weekend rides, commuting, ferry sun decks and sailing, are enough to keep my vit. D levels at optimum for performance. 
  • Neuro Muscular Kit: My vitamin B12 and magnesium results also both came back in the "Performance" bracket. The results suggest I don't need to be concerned about a lack of these essentials in my diet, and my neuromuscular system should be in good shape.
  • Andro Vitality Kit: This is where things got interesting... Both my Free-T and Serum-T Testosterone levels came back as "Very Low". It was a result that might not be uncommon in a 50+ male athlete, but in an under 25 it was concerning. Ultimately, it hinted at some necessary changes that fairly urgently needed to be made to my training, nutrition and my lifestyle.

The Advice

Low Testosterone levels are not that uncommon in endurance athletes, but they are something to be avoided. They can suggest a number of concerning traits and underlying problems, including Over-Training Syndrome (OTS), poor recovery, dietary issues and bodily stress.

Dr Will Mangar, of the InDurance Team, set out in an easy three-part programme the things that I needed to correct, in order to get my T-levels back on track:

1) LifeStyle   
In all honesty, the Low-T result wasn't that surprising to me. It seems that I cram a lot onto my plate, and in the last few months it has caught up with me a bit: I have been feeling a bit run down.

Normally, I do a decent job of balancing a full-time career, a blog, around 17 hours of bike riding a week, socialising, bike maintenance, chores, research and travel. However, it seems that in July and August this year, things got a bit out of kilter: The Island Games, L'Étape, Giro Delle Dolomiti, a Norway Photoshoot and EuroBike, all crammed into two months, was enough for my body to go into shut down mode. Dr Mangar recognised this, and reiterated the importance of rest and recovery to me:
  • Sleep: Sleep is fundamental to recovery. Yet, travel, training and racing can all have a negative impact on sleep duration and quality. The InDurance team advised that I MUST have 8 hours sleep a night. It's also very important that the sleep should be regimented: with the same bed time and wake-up time each day, even at the weekends. I've started using relaxation techniques to help wind down, before I go to bed; I've also started using a FitBit, to track my sleep patterns and quality.
  • Rest: Another key component, is general 'rest'. Sometimes it's not training or racing that takes it out of you, it's the other stuff; it's the travel, stress, routine changes and new environments. I've been told to consider these within my training programme, and consider reining back my riding, if other 'stress factors' have been elevated.

2) Training
As I mentioned, Low-T results aren't that uncommon in endurance athletes. Because your body is reaching an exhaustive state on a regular basis, it can react by shutting down functions. The InDurance team recommended a number of changes to my training, to help boost T-Levels.
  • 20-80 Balance: The first thing to consider is your balance of on and off the bike training. Because I do a lot of my riding as my commuting, most of my 'training' is on the bike. It's important to consider exercising other muscle groups and supporting your on-the-bike training with cross-training. This could by gym work, core workouts, running, rowing, or similar. It's called for a change in my training regime, and I've now built in a number of these exercises.
  • Resistance Training: Of the "20" percent off-the-bike training, it is also strongly recommended for endurance athletes with Low-T levels, to build in weight training sessions. Research has shown a significant boost in Testosterone levels from doing weight training, particularly large compound lifts such as Dead Lifts, Squats and Olympic Lifts. I've now built two weights sessions a week into my training rota.

3) Diet
The final area to consider, when you have Low-T levels, is diet. In particular, the quantity of fat vs. carbohydrate in your diet. 
  • Fuel On Fat: Endurance athletes often have very healthy diets, and I would certainly consider mine to be that; I consume large quantities of protein, vitamins and minerals, fibre and good carbohydrates. However, because endurance athletes are often constantly hunting for 'fuel', their diets can be quite carbohydrate heavy, and low in fat. This can cause problems, and recent research has shown that diets low in fat can result in low testosterone levels. Therefore, changing your 'fuelling patterns' to use more fat is beneficial, and switching that cereal bar for a handful of nuts, is probably a good option! Interestingly, it has actually been found that diets higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate (whilst also containing good amounts of quality protein), can also lead to 'lean muscle mass' gains, and a reduction in overall body fat. It might seem counter-intuitive, but consuming more fat, could mean you lose body fat!

Changes and Results

Keen to get things back on track, I've built these recommendations into my lifestyle, training and diet. I'm already beginning to feel improvements two weeks down the line, but there is a fair way to go yet. I have another blood test in a week or so, and we'll see if things have improved. Stay tuned for an update. 

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