Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 51

Oxygen supplementation for performance and recovery, how to introduce the phenomenon of overcompensation, and what we age-groupers can learn from the recent Ironman World Championships. All that, and more, today on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk, your podcast source for, triathlon tips, training, news and more. New subscribers since episode 50 primarily came from Pheonix, Arizona. I hope your taper is going well for the local SOMA Half and Quarter Ironman. With just an 800-meter swim and a 28-mile bike, that race has to be the poor-swimmer’s dream triathlon. I also must say hello to Tri Talk’s new listeners all the way from Ethiopia, welcome to the show. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk episode 51.


It’s going to be a real challenge to top episodes 49 and 50. Both episodes have turned out to be 2 of the most popular episodes yet on Tri Talk, covering nutrition strategies and an interview with Joe Friel, respectively. However, I’ll give it my best effort to avoid a letdown here in episode 51 with 3 topics that I expect will in fact help you formulate plans to help you swim bike and run faster. Oxygen, oxygen everywhere, but how much should you breath? Will introducing an increase of pure oxygen increase performance or speed recovery? We’ll take a look at what we know and don’t know about this topic. Also, now that the race season is winding down here in the northern hemisphere, how should you begin to plan your next training year? I’d like to take some time and talk about how to ensure you are creating a training strategy that introduces the overcompensation phenomenon into your schedule. Finally, if you didn’t have time to watch all 17 hours of Ironman coverage, don’t worry because I watched it for you. Instead of just a race recap, let’s focus on the specific observations about the strategies and equipment used by the best of the best, that can help us race faster.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! I reported last episode about a product that just came out on the market for endurance athletes. It is a portable oxygen delivery system, using compressed air. I though the concept was very interesting, and decided to spend some time looking at whether taking in oxygen can help either during endurance performance, or after endurance performance to aid and speed recovery. I went into this research really wanting it to work, I thought the idea was so cool, and the fact that oxygen had been brought down to the age-grouper could impact the way we train and race.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find what I had hoped, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, in the breakthrough book Essentials of Oxygenation by Ahrens and Rutherford, it states:

“In people with normal lung function…breathing oxygen has not been demonstrated to significantly change exercise performance. For example, athletes, such as football players completing long runs, frequently come back to the bench and breathe oxygen. Does this help? Based on the oxygen solubility coefficient and the increase in the cardiac output, perhaps a 1-2% increase in the delivery of oxygen occurs, yet few studies support the contention that this therapy helps the athlete. Why is it done? Perhaps because if an athlete who is paid $1,000,000 a year to perform thinks breathing oxygen improves performance, then the best course may be to supply the oxygen, considering no demonstrable harm comes from short-term oxygen therapy.” Just like conventional altitude training does not improve performance, as long as the athlete thinks it does, and it causes no detrimental performance, why not let them do it? The book cites several studies to support this published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

If oxygen during exercise does not help, what about oxygen for recovery? Will you recover faster? I received a well-written e-mail on this subject from one of our sharp Tri Talk listeners, Michael Phillips, who is a respiratory therapist. He remind me that in terms of muscle soreness and fatigue, it is primarily caused by the buildup of lactic acid and damage to the muscles causing an inflammatory response, often caused by moving up to fast in volume or intensity in training. We’ll focus on the first reason, the buildup of lactic acid, as oxygen would not even theoretically help with muscle damage recovery. Will an increase in oxygen remove lactic acid faster? Lactic acid is the byproduct of CO2 production in the cell. Red blood cells that travel by the cell remove the CO2 and leave behind O2. Less CO2 in the system after exercise therefore means less lactic acid. However, breathing in extra O2 will not remove the CO2 any faster. Thank Michael for sending me that information.

There is really no study to support oxygen and recovery where the athlete did not know what the gas was. In cases where the athlete reported improved recovery from oxygen, that athlete knew what the gas was they were taking in. Again, back to Ahrens and Rutherford’s work, the placebo effect. To sum up oxygen and its use for recovery, there is no supporting work where the athlete did not know if they were taking in oxygen. I think the great sports exercise writer Owen Anderson put it best when he said, “When examined closely, such findings should not be surprising. After all, the post-exercise recovery period is a time frame marked by sub-maximal heart rates and sub-maximal rates of oxygen consumption. In other words, recovery does not require oxygen delivery to be extremely high, as it is during intense exercise. Piling on the oxygen during recovery is like adding another half-cup of water to your goldfish’s tank: the creature already has quite enough water and a little more will not be helpful in any way.”

So, as much I wanted this to work, I just can’t find the data to support it. The irony is that it does appear to work when the athlete thinks it works, and so by listening to this podcast, you have just ruined your chances of using it to your benefit. My apologies.

Moving on. After 50 episodes, one would think that I would have covered periodization by now. The challenge with that is the concept is too big to put into just one episode. Instead, after all this time, I’ve decided to introduce periodization into a multi-part series and today will be that first part of the periodization series. I’m excited to talk to you today about a portion of periodization theory that I am passionate about. For listeners in the northern hemisphere, your race season is probably wrapping up, and you are looking to start creating a training plan for 2008. I’d like to address an issue that I see as a major problem among self-coached and competitive athletes as they create their new annual training plan. Let me provide you with a scenario that is common among any athlete who was raced more than one year, and a decision that you may be faced with yourself right now.

Suppose, to make things simple, your highest weekly training volume before starting your competition season was 15 hours. Perhaps 11 weeks before your first race, you had this massive 15-hour training week before cutting back and preparing your taper to race. Now your season is finished, and you are looking to begin training for 2008. One of your questions probably is, “how much volume should I begin with for my new training season?” For many athletes, the thought is “hey, I have shown that I am capable of performing 15 hours a week of training. I’m not going to let that endurance base go. Therefore I will begin my 2008 training season at 15 hours.” This athlete has placed themselves into a situation where only 2 training strategies can possibly improve performance for the following year. They can either start at 15 hours and stay at 15 hours a week for the whole year, gradually increasing intensity within those 15 hours. Or, the second option is to start at 15 hours and increase volume throughout the year to 20 or 25 hours. This dramatic weekly volume is really only necessary for hardcore Kona-qualifying Ironman training or professional athletes. Plus, what does this athlete do at the end of 2008? Do they then start at 25 hours and go to 35 by the end of the year, to follow the next year starting at 35 and going to 45 hours? Impossible. There is a third option. Other than staying at that high volume and increasing intensity, or starting your season at the hours you put in the previous season, only to engage in an impossible and never-ending escalation of weekly hours year over year, the smart athlete will do neither. That athlete will let go of their weekly endurance capabilities, cut back to as little at 6 or 7 hours, and trust in the proven periodization process to improve their performance in the upcoming year. It is a hard thing for many athletes to do. They ended their year at 10 hours, they want to start their year at 10 hours, afraid of the fitness they will lose if they cut back at all.

Let me tell you why this is the time of year, the beginning of your next training season, to cut back in your training hours, by covering two fundamentals of performance improvement. Overcompensation and periodization, and how they relate.

Compensation is what happens to your body after a workout is over. It involves a return to normal for heart rate and blood pressure, removal of excess lactate in the blood, storage of glycogen in muscles, repair of muscle fibers, restoration of normal hormone levels, and so on. Compensation brings your body back to its normal state of functioning after a training session.

Overcompensation is the process that actually makes you a better athlete. I can’t stress this point enough, and it will become more evident as this subject progresses. During over-compensation, your muscles stockpile higher-than normal amounts of glycogen, synthesize greater-than-usual quantities of aerobic enzymes, add new proteins to muscles to make them stronger, etc. In other words, your training stimulates you to ‘rebound’ to a higher physiological state. In short, overcompensation is adapting to stress and becoming stronger because of it.

The general aim of the training process is to apply enough training stress or overload to displace the equilibrium of an athlete’s system. This acute over-reaching provides that stimulus for adaptation. An ensuing recovery period, during which the body works to reestablish equilibrium, is then required. The athlete also supercompensates when adapting to the stress such, so that if the same stress is duplicated, less disturbance in the athlete’s physiology occurs. This means that after adaptation the athlete can do more work for a given disruption to their physiology.

Going back to the scenario of the athlete who ended the year with a high of 15 hours of weekly training. Under a training and planning strategy of maintaining that high volume all year, or at least with very little variation in weekly volume, the body adapts to this volume as the new “norm”. There is no overcompensation and adaptation that takes place in this model, because no new stress is placed on the body. Overcompensation can only occur when the body is introduced to moderate and measured amounts of stress. Even with moderately increased intensity within that static weekly volume you won’t realize your full potential. That model will only give you partial overcompensation as related to the stress introduced from the intensity, but not from the stress introduced by the volume, since there has been no new volume increase to the body to initiate that stress and overcompensation.

I think all of us know this kind of athlete. It is the veteran athlete who trains for 15 hours every week all year long. They can go forever, they eat up marathons and half-Ironman races like potato chips. They finish a 3-hour run and then go rake the lawn. But have you noticed that they don’t really get any faster each year? Their endurance is fantastic, but they never seem to improve?

This is where periodization comes in. The whole premise of periodization is a measured and timed approach to gradually increase intensity and volume in order to continually introduce appropriate amounts of stress and cause the overcompensation process to occur gradually and consistently throughout the year. Joe Friel may have introduced periodization to traithletes, but the father of modern periodization is Teodor Bumpa, who brought periodization from the Eastern block countries who dominated sports for decades using this system. In his groundbreaking book, Theory and Methodology of Training, Bumpa states:

“A continual increase in training volume is probably one of the highest priorities of contemporary training. Athletes cannot physiologically adapt without it. An increasing volume of work is paramount in training for any aerobic sport or event.”

I don’t know how I can say it better than that. Without an increase in training volume, overcompensation cannot take place. And in Bumpa’s words, it is “one of the highest priorities of contemporary training”. That increase in volume can only take place if the athlete chooses to either cut back and drastically reduce weekly volume when starting a new training year, or to gradually increase the volume dramatically from the previous year, which can only be maintained for 1-2 years before the athlete is forced to cut back to a reasonable level and reset.

Consider this: How is it that Michellie Jones went from Olympic-distance medallist to Ironman champion in just 2 years? How about Samantha McGlone going from Half-Ironman champion in 2006 to 2nd place champion at the full Ironman Championships last week, in which she ran her first marathon? What about Desiree Flicker going from half-ironman racing to 2nd place at Ironman Hawaii herself in 2006? Or this years champion Chrissie Wellington who just turned pro this year and winning the championship in just her second Ironman? While at the same time we see pro athlete who spent year after year at the Ironman distance, racing 3 or more races each year training constantly at 30 or more hours a week? These 4 women are examples of athletes who went from relatively low volumes year after year, to sudden and dramatic increases in volume to prepare for the Ironman, and did it with amazing success. Certainly there are examples of athletes who train with high volumes all year long, but there examples of champions who went from low to high training volumes and did extremely well. Could these be examples of a supercompensation process taking place in the athlete going from Olympic to Ironman racing in a short period of time, stressing the body with new increased volumes? Possibly. But it certainly supports the theory that you can back off considerably in your volume and show remarkable progress by gradually getting it back up to high volumes.

But now the real question is, how much should you back off? That is an excellent question. What about reduction in frequency, and intensity at the same time? Unfortunately, I can’t cover that in this episode, there just isn’t enough time. But we’ll cover periodization part 2 in episode 52. But, what I want you to walk away with from this topic, is an understanding that it is OK to let go of your previously weekly volumes. Not only is it OK, it is a fundamental necessity for you to become faster in 2008.

Moving on. I’m a huge college football fan, I’m a huge regular football fan soaking in the World Cup every 4 years, already anticipating World Cup 2010. But nothing gets me as excited as the Ironman World Championships. Even if you are strictly a sprint-distance triathlete, there is much to learn from watching the pros at these levels. Don’t forget that champion triathletes at the Olympic distance level have made the move to Ironman with fantastic results. The 2007 Ironman Championship was no disappointment in terms of excitement and education. Equipment, cadence, strategy, surprises and some good advice. Let me walk you through the event with a look at the unique nature of this race, and how we mortals can apply these observations to our racing.

One of the first things that first struck me was Paul Huddle interviewing 6-time Ironman Champion Marc Allen who had been observing Chris that morning. He noted that crowd favorite Chris McCormack was smiling, shaking hands, looking like he is having a good time. That, said Mark Allen, is bad. He was using too much of his positive energy too early. Allen noted that at this level, an athlete should have a game face on.

Far be it from me to disagree with Mark Allen, but I expect that this kind of advise is meant for the pros only. What a miserable place T1 would be before the race started if every age-grouper took this advice. Plus, anyone who has seen muti-Ironman Champion Natascha Badmann before a race and her charming upbeat personality might also disagree. In fact, I am a firm believer in smiling from the moment you arrive at the race venue until the moment you cross the finish line. It accomplishes two things. First, it scares the hell out of your competition. A lot of athletes grimace or look tough, making sure that everyone knows how much pain they are in, which means they are strong. But there is something even more intimidating about seeing your competition grin from ear to ear before the race even starts, and it is devastating being passed by a smiling athlete. Second, psychologically, I think it fools your mind and body into thinking that you are having a good time and that everything is perfectly normal, giving you that extra push to the finish line.

The biggest news that occurred before the race even started was the fact that Faris Al-Sultan would not be racing due to stomach problems. The 2005 Ironman Champion and 3rd place in 2006 was one of the favorites going into 2007, out before the race even started due to stomach problems, in somewhat of a preview of what was to come.

One the race started, I was absolutely delighted to see 3 women in the top 10 of the pro swim pack 25 minutes into the swim. At 35 minutes into the swim, Linda Gallo was leading the entire pack, coming in second overall by just 1 second in a sprint finish to T1. The swim truly is the great equalizer across genders, and as you’ll recall from episode 23, the swim seems to be indiscriminate to gender or weight.

This was also the first time the event used stand-up board paddlers. These are surfboards, but the surfer actually stands up and uses a long paddle to maneuver. These stand-up surfers led the lead swim pack, and made for an incredibly convenient way for them to spot. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had these for all Ironman events?

I noted the wide variety in swim cadences in the lead pack. We talk about cadence in run and bike where there is a fair bit of conformity, perhaps 90% ride between 80 and 100, with a clear majority within 5 beats of 90 rps. However, the swim was all over the place. The delta between the fastest and slowest swim cadences was huge in that pro pack.

Only one swimmer of the 1800 swimmers did not make the cutoff, which is an incredible example of the quality of athletes at the event, and remember that none of these athletes were wearing a wetsuit, and it was in the ocean.

On the bike, I saw all kinds of wheels on the top 10 male and female athletes. Zipp 808s in the rear, 3 spokes, 4 spoke, and even 5 spokes on both wheels, 404s and other deep rim multi spokes. A bit risky putting those 3,4, and 5-spoke wheels on the front with the known winds in Hawaii, but it paid off for the event as the winds were incredibly low. It reminds me that there are lots and lots of options regarding aero wheels that still will get you to T2 quickly.

I finally stopped counting who was using the profile aero drink, and started counting who was not. Clearly the dominant hydration system was the Profile Aero drink, but never by itself. It was used in conjunction with bottles mounted in the rear or on the seat and down tubes. One of the only pros I saw without the profile drink was Joanna Zeiger, who used a camelback and did not use an aero helmet, and finished out of the top 10. Also, it should be noted that although almost the entire field used the aero drink, Torbjorn Sindballe did not, and came in first into T2.

Torbjorn is a very big athlete, and big athletes have to content with heat more than smaller athletes, especially in Hawaii. Torbjorn used a simple strategy to keep cool. First, he wore white, and doused himself with water at most aid stations. Also, he wore arm coolers. You’ll recall my interview with Emilio De Soto in episode 37 discussing his introduction of arm coolers into his line many years ago. Those white arm coolers not only kept the sun off, but added another location for him to soak with water and keep cool.

Tobjorn also really slowed down just before T2, he did not hammer his way to the end. For short distance racing, I would still imagine that going hard into T2 is good, but for Ironman racing, I found his strategy appealing. Torbjorn took a lot of time in T2 to change completely his upper body into a white full sleeve top and knee-high compression socks. The compression socks were big in Hawaii, I saw them on several athletes. Hey, if aero helmets can overcome the fashion stigma to become the norm, why not knee-high compression socks. For someone who suffered 3 soleus tears last year, they look awfully temping to me. The concept is that like compression tops and bottoms, which keep your muscles from vibrating and moving unnecessarily, and reducing muscle fatigue, these knee-high compression socks did the same thing for his lower legs.

One of the biggest stories of the day was how many top athletes eventually dropped out of the race. 2004 and 2006 Ironman champion Normann Staddler also complained of stomach problems and dropped out, as did Cameron Brown. 2006 Champion Michellie Jones had a perforated eardrum coming into the event and also dropped out. Luke Bell dropped with a leg injury, and the most heartbreaking event may have been Natascha Badmann crashing into a cone and ruing her bike, trying bravely to fight on riding a borrowed Cervelo, only to have her husband beg her to stop, which she eventually did Rutger Beke got kicked so hard in the face during the swim that he also dropped out, effectively eliminating the entire German field of favorites. In fact, it was the first time that no Germans got to the podium in either the men or women’s field sine 1999.

Watching Australian Chris McCormack finally win at Hawaii was a real treat. Almost a decade after he boasted that he would win the championship, and after winning just about everything else he ever tried, it was good to see him finally make it. Also, Torbjorn Sindballe in third was a bit of a surprise, but also fun for me to watch. Just 3 weeks ago I interviewed Torbjorn for Triathlete magazine at Interbike, where you can listen to him predict his outcome in the Interbike day 2 podcast at Torbjorn is an excellent example to all of us of a cyclist who worked hard on his run, and it paid off.

By the way, I have obviously focused on the tactical and strategic aspects of the race. This report totally ignores the numerous inspirational stories which for many of us, is the real draw to Ironman racing. Double amputees, blind athletes, first-time Ironman athletes, all just a small sample of the tremendous effort it takes for all 1800 athletes to get to Kona. My interest lies in the objective analysis of the event, and so that is where my focus of the report lies. I hope you’ll forgive me, but recognize with me that this event is more than just about the pros. My congratulations to the many Tri Talk listeners who participated in the event, and congratulations for making it there!

For those of you who voted in the USAT elections, thanks for your vote. The vote tally for the Rocky Mountain Region seat I was running for was 50.5% to 49.5%, in my favor by 1%. On the surface it looked like a tight race. However, it turns out there were 2 seats up for election, and just 2 people running. A bit anti-climatic, but thanks for giving me the slim but tangible mandate to represent you in USAT.