Inspired by the performances we witnessed at the 2019 IRONMAN World Championships last month, we caught up with Brand Wilkins, Ph.D., VP Science and Innovation at Amp Human, to dive into the unique physiological demands of the sport, challenges to overcome and where PR Lotion fits in.
Performance Physiology of Triathlon
The multidisciplinary nature of the sport of triathlon commands unique physical and physiological challenges on the athlete. In contrast to the individual sports that comprise the triathlon, the sequential disciplines of swimming, cycling, and running in a single sporting event combine to demand significant stress and strain on the athlete. Physiologically, three primary factors describe and predict performance in endurance events. These are maximal aerobic capacity or maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), the ability to sustain a high exercise intensity (defined by speed at Lactate Turn Point or Critical Intensity), and economy or the energy required to swim, bike, or run at a given speed / power output. Depending on the triathlon distance (Sprint ~1hr to Ironman ~8 hrs. for elites), the importance of each physiological factor varies. Where performance in shorter sprint events are likely more limited by maximal capacity and the long Ironman or ultra-triathlon events are more limited by economy and sustained intensity.
An important consideration for the triathlon, is that VO2 max, sustainable intensity, and economy values are specific to the discipline. That is, a cycling VO2 max is different than a running or swimming VO2 max or the energy required to run is very different than the energy required to swim or bike. As an example, swimmers who take up triathlon are significantly more economical during swimming compared to runners who take up triathlon; whereas runners who take up triathlon are more economical while running than their swimmer counterparts. As time and training progress, any athlete will adapt to that training with a higher sport specific VO2 max, a higher sport specific sustainable intensity, and improved sport specific economy. However, the athlete will likely have the highest capacity, the highest sustained intensity, and best economy for the discipline in which they have spent the most time training.
These physiological variables can be measured in the laboratory and are important for understanding an athlete’s evolving fitness and potential performance success. However, an often-overlooked aspect to endurance events is that all three factors are constantly changing as a training session or competitive race progresses. Over the duration of a race (or long training session) maximal capacity decreases, the sustainable intensity decreases, and the energy requirements at a given work rate can increase substantially. This is especially true for the triathlon, where the cumulative physiological impact of the swim, bike, and run can have considerable influence on the physiological factors that dictate performance.
Challenges for Triathletes
One of the biggest challenges for triathletes is the application and maintenance of required training loads to achieve optimal adaption across the three different sport disciplines. That is, triathletes require multiple daily training sessions to accommodate the required loads across three sport disciplines. It can be problematic to ensure high quality efforts at enough intensity or at adequate training volumes. A hard morning training session will impact the quality of effort for the afternoon and/or evening sessions. The problem is maintaining quality effort and applying adequate training loads during every workout.
Appropriate recovery and the “readiness” to train can be a crucial element in promoting adaptations between training sessions. Neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic (to name a few) adaptations to the stress of a training session occur during rest and recovery periods, thereby requiring an optimized ratio between work and recovery. Decreased muscle function, muscle soreness, and/or tissue inflammation are sometimes a consequence of adequate training loads and, unfortunately, occur alongside necessary positive adaptations to the training stress. That is, the positive adaptations enable the athlete’s system to be more capable of handling a subsequent stress. The challenge here is adequate recovery, such that reduced muscle function and soreness do not impact the next high-quality training effort.
The challenge during competition is preserving the highest sustainable velocity or power output, across all three disciplines, while delaying the inevitable accumulation of fatigue. As the triathlete fatigues, muscle recruitment patterns change, muscle “damage” may impact muscle function, and/or technique becomes compromised. As a consequence, the amount of energy required to perform at the desired work rate will increase and the triathlete may no longer be able to sustain the desired velocity or may risk rabidly progressing toward exhaustion.
PR Lotion supports optimal training and race day performance
Decades of research demonstrate the benefits of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on performance outcomes, however gastrointestinal distress limits its use. PR Lotion is a topical product that delivers sodium bicarbonate directly through the skin. The lotion works by creating a safe and effective “pathway”, while at the same time encapsulates the sodium bicarbonate for effective delivery through the skin. The bicarbonate acts as a buffer to neutralize acid production during high intensity exercise, helps maintain overall pH balance, and aids in reducing the inflammation and tissue swelling that leads to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Increased buffering potential in the muscle, with PR Lotion, may allow the triathlete to maintain high training loads or complete more high-quality training efforts. PR Lotion application prior to competition can also allow the triathlete to maintain higher velocities or power outputs during a race. During training sessions and competitions when triathletes are near or at “threshold” intensities or near maximal efforts, increased buffering potential in the muscle may reduce the rate of fatigue development or progression. Further, increased buffering can also positively impact the quality of the multiple training efforts that are mandatory for triathletes each day. Reducing fatigue progression, either during training or competition, will diminish the impact of fatigue on technique degradation and the corresponding effect on energy requirements to maintain a desired velocity or power output. In triathlon competition, less energy required as the race progresses means more energy available for the run.
PR Lotion can improve recovery between training sessions in two ways. First, the alkaline environment provided by bicarbonate in the muscle can reduce post-exercise inflammation. This is true even when bicarbonate is applied before a heavy exercise session. Second, sodium bicarbonate can decrease edema or tissue swelling that occurs following heavy or long training sessions. Combined, this leads to reduced delayed onset muscle soreness between training sessions. In fact, research exploring PR Lotion’s impact on recovery demonstrated about 50% less delayed onset muscle soreness following high intensity exercise. Improved muscle recovery and function following a hard training effort can only enhance the quality of the subsequent training session.
Performance in the triathlon is multifaceted, where the factors that determine performance are in constant flux and the impact of fatigue is cumulative across the three sport disciplines. Maximal aerobic capacity, sustainable work rate, and energy requirements to maintain desired speeds all worsen as training sessions or competitions progress. Anything that can delay the degradation of these important physiological determinants will restrain the progression toward fatigue and improve overall performance. As a component of any triathlete’s overall approach to performance optimization, PR Lotion can maximize training efforts, aid in recovery between training sessions, and enable the triathlete to maintain desired work rates during competition.
About the Author: Brad Wilkins, Ph.D.
Brad Wilkins. Ph.D. is VP of Science and Innovation at Amp Human and Chairman of Amp Human's Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Wilkins has over 25 years of research experience with over 40 published scientific articles and patents. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon and trained as a post-doctoral fellow at the Mayo Clinic. As an accomplished scientist at Nike, he founded the Nike+ Sport Performance Laboratory, and led the scientific team in Nike’s quest to break the two-hour marathon barrier (Breaking2). You can learn more about him and the rest of our Scientific Advisory Board members here.
Lucy Charles-Barclay Photo Credit: James Mitchell Photography