There are two key factors that limit an athlete’s ability to achieve consistency, and therefore race results:
- Illness: Athletes’ immunity and number of times they get sick in a season or miss workouts, will directly impact results.
- Recovery: Poor recovery may be due to lack of or poor nutrition, hydration or inadequate rest. It may also be due to chronic inflammation, overreaching or a genetic predisposition.
Further to this, come race day, especially in long-distance races, two critical factors that can lead to either success or disappointment, are:
- Race Nutrition Plan: Establishing a plan that is personalised to an athlete’s metabolism and has been practised in training is essential.
- Race Hydration Plan: There is often such a strong focus on nutrition plans, that a hydration plan is overlooked. Fluid and electrolyte balance is just as important as getting enough calories. An athletes hydration plan should be based on their individuality and the conditions on the given race day.
So, how can you ensure wellness and recovery, and develop and monitor a personalised race nutrition and hydration plan? I would like to introduce you a couple of tools that can do just that.
Tool: PEE Sticks
This handy tool is just as it sounds – a stick that you pee on. More specifically, pee sticks are referred to as urinalysis strips and are available to purchase online or from your local pharmacy. I recommend Siemens Multistix 10 SG Reagent Strips.
Pee sticks are great to utilise throughout a training build, especially if the training involves a heavy load or you’re training in a hot or humid environment. These strips measure 10 markers that screen metabolic, liver and kidney functions. I’m going to hone in on five of these markers that are specifically valuable to track for endurance athletes.
What to do with this information?
Initially, I suggest athletes utilise pee sticks over about five days to establish a baseline. Note any changes over those five days and differences based on training load, nutrition and fluid intake. Thereafter, I suggest using them immediately after key sessions, such as a long brick, long ride or run. For an analysis of recovery, I also suggest utilising the pee stick for first urination the day after a key session. Keep a spreadsheet to track results, alternatively note down your results in TrainingPeaks or a training diary.
Let’s get practical
Let’s say you completed a three-hour ride, with a 40 minute run off the bike. During this time you followed your race nutrition and hydration plan. The temperature during training ranged from 21 – 25 degrees Celsius. When you returned from training your pee stick told you the following information:
LEU: No issues with immunity
PRO: This trace result is simply indicating a higher need for protein in your post training meal and following days nutrition. If you consistently show trace elements,
I would suggest consulting with a sports nutritionist/dietitian to develop a personalised plan that ensures adequate protein intake and synthesis.
SG: If you followed your prescribed hydration plan, this result indicates you need to tweak your plan to include more fluids and electrolytes, especially if you train or race in temperatures above 25 degrees. If you are consistently returning from training dehydrated, your recovery will be impeded, along with your general wellness – especially cognition, say hello to brain fog.
If finding the right balance for hydration is proving difficult, I would suggest completing a sweat test analysis in a laboratory setting. I recommend ‘Sweat, Think, Go Faster’ or ‘The Sweat Lab’.
Then continue to utilise pee sticks to monitor the effectiveness of your new strategy in training.
KET: A moderate amount of ketones in your urine post training is not a negative thing. However, in this scenario, it does indicate that your nutrition plan might be too low in carbohydrates or you were sitting at a higher intensity that is suitable for your given intake.
In another scenario, where you have completed a fasted workout, at low power or heart rate and your intention is to provide a metabolic stimulus to work towards fat adaptation, then this result
If you continue to struggle to find the optimal caloric or carbohydrate intake
for your race duration and intensity,
I recommend completing a MET (Metabolic Efficiency Test). This test will ascertain the number of calories and carbohydrates you burn at various intensities or power outputs.
BLO: This workout was not too intense or damaging to your biochemistry. If you did see the presence of blood it would be an indicator that you have cellular and muscle damage and you have overdone that session.
(Heart rate variability)
To ensure consistency, I see huge value in tracking wellness and performance metrics. It enables correlations and conclusions to be drawn as to what has worked to achieve optimal performance, or what has lead to a decrease in performance or wellness. This is where I like to suggest utilising Heart Rate Variability (HRV) testing and tracking. You may be familiar with testing your resting heart rate (HR) to gauge rest and recovery. The difference between these two methods is this –
HR measures the number of beats, or contractions, per minute, while HRV measures the time gap between each heartbeat, measuring the variability of each beat, as influenced by our breath. HRV can be measured quite simply utilising a Bluetooth heart rate monitor and phone app. See resources listed at the end of this article.
By effectively measuring HRV we establish a ‘normal’ baseline score. This baseline is very individual and is not a score to compare or compete with your fellow endurance junkies. Once we have established a baseline we can then compare our HRV scores from workout to workout, day to day and week to week. This then assists us in establishing how you have recovered from a session, how much training stress a particular session produced or even if you are on the edge of burnout or illness.
When the body and mind are in a recovered and relaxed state we will see more variability between heartbeats, therefore, an increase in your HRV is a good thing, generally speaking. Think of higher HRV scores as your body’s ability to cope and deal with stressors.
At times we will see HRV scores well above an athlete’s baseline, this signals that they are potentially over activated by training load or stress, but are currently managing it okay.
Proceed with caution and balance hard training with recovery protocols to ensure adaptation. On the flip side, an HRV score may be lower, indicating low activation and high fatigue/exhaustion. A recovery session or day off will be essential in this scenario. It may also indicate the start of immunity issues, which is a great prompt to increase recovery protocols and self-care.
HRV Apps also prompt you to track wellness metrics such as sleep quantity, sleep quality, stress, nutrition quality, fatigue, soreness and mood. These data points can then be correlated to results, and HRV scores for a complete picture and working towards the ultimate goal
Get started with HRV
There is a vast array of HRV measurement tools and Apps on the market. Here is what you will need:
- Bluetooth heart rate monitor or ECG receiver for your phone if your heart rate monitor does not have Bluetooth capabilities. See myithlete.com for more information. There is also an option to purchase a finger sensor which is much easier to put on in the morning when compared to a chest strap.
- HRV app for your phone. I recommend ‘ithlete’ or ‘HRV4Training.