A healthy immune system starts in the gut

(picture source here)

As athletes, proper gut health is imperative for digestion and a healthy immune system keeps the body well. So what do the two have in common?

As athletes, we know that in order to boost performance we need to train hard. We aim for a balanced training plan that places a significant amount of training stress on the body to elicit performance gains but adequate rest to keep the body in good health.

When an athlete trains too much (intensity or volume), the immune system is suppressed. Often, the athlete will feel he/she needs a few extra days of rest to recover from a dampened immune system but  most of the time, it's not that easy to just rest, get more sleep and feel "normal" again. 
Many athletes train too much relative to their ability to fuel properly support that added training stress, like getting enough sleep, warming up and cooling down properly, getting stronger with strength training, using sport nutrition properly and eating a healthy diet. Plus, if the athlete is also experiences stress from family, work, unhealthy lifestyle habits, poor sleep, etc.  the immune system is completely compromised.

So for athletes who have been in this situation where the raining load is too much for the body or individual lifestyle, you may be surprised to know that these athletes often experience a host of GI issues in training, racing and throughout the day. These athletes often seek extreme modifications in the diet, often to the point of elimination sport nutrition before, during and after workouts or avoiding healthy foods. But in reality, it's not always the diet that is causing the unhappy gut feelings - remember, the immune system is a critical component of gut health!

The GI tract contains around 70% of the immune system. 
A healthy gut affects how we digest and process/metabolize nutrients so you can imagine the importance of keeping your gut in good health. I'm sure you have had a day when your tummy felt off and it's not a comfortable feeling. If it happens when you are training or racing, it can be extremely challenge to train/race to your full potential. The microbes in the gut certainly affect how you feel and if you suffer from a disease like IBS, allergies or autoimmune diseases, you may find it difficult to defend against foreign invaders and find yourself more run-down, sick or exhausted than those who have a healthy (or perhaps healthier) gut. 

Researchers continue to study the complexity of the gut but what we do know is that there are foods that protect the gut and immune system. Because the gut communicates with the immune system and brain, by eating a diet rich in gut-happy foods, you can enhance the immune system health and train/race with a happy digestive system.
 Additional, with gut healthy foods, you have a greater chance of boosting performance as the body will be in optimal health when you place intentional training stress on it in training/racing. 

Most athletes associate yogurt with probiotics, which are live bacteria that can improve your gut health. Sure you can take a supplement if you don't like yogurt or eat dairy but I highly recommend choosing real food as the body identifies best with food from Mother Earth. 

Here are a few probiotic-rich foods for a happy tummy: 

Dark chocolate (yep!) 
Microalgea - spirulina, chorella, and blue-green algae
Kombucha tea
Fermented cheese - gouda, cheddar, swiss


6-month training check-in

Right now at this moment, how would you describe how you feel about your body in relation to your training/workout regime?

Do you use the words exhausted, fatigued, overwhelmed, mentally checked-out, drained, injured, frustrated, unhealthy, unhappy or weak?

Or do you use the words strong, healthy, clean, energized, fit or happy?

Now think back 2,3 or 6 months ago? Do you feel that you are now in a better place nutritionally, physically, mentally and emotionally with your active lifestyle compared to the past?

Between 2013-2014, my body completed 4 Ironman distance triathlons in 15 months. I am extremely grateful to my body for being so healthy and strong to allow me to live such an extreme active lifestyle. And in 6 months, I am so excited to be racing in my 4th Ironman World Championship and 10th Ironman with Karel in Kona, Hawaii.
After taking 6 weeks completely off training during my off-season from Sept - November, I knew that in order to keep my body healthy and make performance gains in endurance triathlon racing, I needed to make some changes. I am always excited to try new approaches to training, fueling and recovery and after a successful past two years of training and racing, I was ready for something better to happen.

When I think about my training, health and body on a daily basis, I find myself using the words healthy, strong, happy, over and over again. Sure, I have the occasional off day but it's rare for my body to feel "off" for more than 48 hours, for more than 5 times a year.
Now this is not worth bragging about because my body is not super human. I take extremely good care of my body and I focus on balance as an athlete, coach, wife, small business owner and doggy mommy.  My number one goal as an elite endurance athlete is to get the most training adaptations possible with the least amount of training stress, all while keeping my body in the best health possible.  Because I can't say that I have always felt this way about my body, here are a few factors/changes that I feel have helped me stay healthy, strong, injury-free (for almost 2 years) energized and happy over the past 6 months. 

1) COACHING Every coach needs a coach and Karel has been helping me develop my triathlon fitness over the past 5 years. Between my knowledge as an exercise physiologist and Karel's cycling background and ability to see the sport of triathlons with a global view, I have been incredibly grateful to have Karel and his support and belief in me. He really keeps me focused in the present moment and because I have so much trust in him, I never question his workouts or plan for me. We certainly work together on my periodized plan but I do appreciate how he can challenge me with workouts that I would not want to give myself. Additionally, with so many muscular injuries relating to my hips, I feel so lucky to have the best bike mechanic and RETUL bike fitter as my hubby. Although the root of my hip/glute/back issues was never resolved through almost a dozen doctor visits, MRI's, Xrays and many PT visits (and I have had some awesome PTs!), I am convinced that Karel helped me heal myself thanks to understanding how I was riding my bike. I was not sitting properly on my bike nor was I rotating my hips correctly when I was aero vs sitting up. I was not engaging the right muscle groups when I rode so regardless of how much hip/glute work I did in the weight room or at home, I was not able to activate key muscles to get them stronger and to keep them from fatiguing. And with training, I was not doing the right drills/workouts to help my pedaling and efficiency while riding. Karel recently refit me and although it is a new position for me to adapt to, it has been amazing to see how my cycling fitness has improved alongside how much stronger and consistently I can run with a strong and healthy body. 

2) PURPLE PATCHKarel and I have followed Matt Dixon with Purple Patch Fitness for several years and this year we have had the great opportunity to have Coach Matt as a mentor. We value his approach to training and also his passion and knowledge for developing age groupers and professional triathletes. If you have not read his book The Well-Built Triathlete, I highly recommend ordering it ASAP to learn more about recovery, nutrition, functional strength and a progressive triathlon program. Matt values keeping his athletes in good health and really focusing on good recovery. He does not give easy workouts but with he knows how to bring out the best in any athlete. He is a wealth of information and so experienced as a coach and athlete. We are so lucky to have Matt as a resource. 

3) CHRIS JOHNSON PTSpeaking of calling in the experts...I am so incredibly grateful to my PT from the West Coast, Chris Johnson.  From the moment I watched Chris's You Tube videos (which I came across while getting inspiration for our Transition Plan), I knew Chris needed to be part of my 2015 training journey. I actually contacted Chris when he was in Kona about to race the Ironman in October and sent him a super long email about my history and I wanted him to help me even though he lives on another coast. Chris took the time to email me and since then, he has been so valuable for my athletic development and a great resource for me as a coach to help my athletes stay injury free.
Although Karel and I have already qualified for the 2015 IM World Championship, I see every season as an opportunity to develop, grow and make myself the best athlete I can be. Many times, this means doing things that I have never done before and taking a different approach to training. So whereas in the past I would get faster before going longer, now I have focused many months of my base training (and off season) to getting stronger before trying to get faster. Although I have always placed an emphasis on strength training in my cardio focused training, I have learned SO much from Chris (after doing a series of tests via video to send him) and he gives me the confidence that I need with my run training. I continue to do strength training several times per week, all periodized with my training. Whereas Dr. G is my go-to girl when it comes to needed a dose of mental strength, Chris has the answer to everything and he makes understanding the injured body so simple. I trust him and most of all, he believes in me which I really appreciate. His strength training routines have been specific to me and my past and I can't thank him enough for working with me.

Lastly, I can't stress the importance of a smart training plan alongside proper daily nutrition and an appropriate sport nutrition regime. I consider myself an extremely metabolically efficient athlete as I know how to time my nutrition with training and my daily diet does not affect my training or ability to fuel before/during/after workouts. I have had my menstrual cycle for over 6 years, never missing a month. For the past 6 years, my weight has stayed between 108-117 lbs (5 feet tall) and I rarely weigh myself (like maybe three times a year). I am a 23 year vegetarian and I have not been sick with a cold or flu since 2007. I have never had a broken bone or stress fracture.
So why do I mention all of this?
As you know, I am a believer and proponent of prioritizing liquid calories to provide electrolytes, carbs/sugar and fluids while training (everything in a bottle - but not concentrated bottles) and as a sport RD, I am always interested in ways to fuel my body better around/during workouts. Restricting sport nutrition, carbs or any food group is just not how I choose to fuel my active lifestyle as a competitive athlete nor is this how I work with my athletes that consult me for nutrition help.
In order to keep my body in good health, my body needs to stay/maintain a healthy weight (not too much weight but not too lean), my diet should be balanced and nutrient dense, there should be extreme focus on sport nutrition and how I fuel before, during and after workouts (and not avoiding carbohydrates by any means!) to support metabolism and hormonal health, I always emphasize good sleep and I value a smart training plan.
My diet is entirely plant-based with adequate protein, iron-rich fortified and plant based foods, calcium (I drink milk and eat yogurt daily) and rich in real-food carbohydrates. I use sport nutrition products for all workouts and I eat before every workout. I do not take any special pills, herbs, medications or supplements. I don't have any rules with my diet and nothing is off limit. I know what works for me and I have a great relationship with food.
I know that with the intentional stress that I put on my body, it would be extremely irresponsible of me to not make an extra effort to focus heavily on how I eat throughout the day as well as around/during my workouts. As a sport RD, my career and life is focused on fueling a body in motion and I spend so much time researching, reading and understanding sport nutrition.

The human body is very complicated at rest but even more so during physical activity and this is why I find it so important that every athlete (specifically endurance athletes) takes an extra measure to make sure the daily diet AND fueling regime supports your training load. Additionally, athletes must focus on the many areas that can help boost performance, not just thinking that the only way to get faster is to train harder and longer.

Train smart and don't be afraid to involve a professional/expert to help you take away the guessing or to help you make a change that you can not make for yourself. 


Speedy interval run - feeling strong

This morning we had a great workout at the Caine Halter YMCA. I felt strong, healthy and super fast as I was running with Karel....well more like running with Karel's strong and fast body in my view on the treadmill in front of me.
It's total motivation to watch my hubby train!

Our workout included around 25-30 minutes of dynamic warm-ups, followed by strength training followed by plyometrics and then our interval treadmill run workout. We can easily spend 20-40 minutes before a workout to warm-up and do proper strength training for neuromuscular firing. 

3 x 5 min desc 1-3 to strong w/ 4 min EZ in between (jog/rest)
3 x 3.5 min desc 1-3 (starting from last strong effort from previous set) w/ 3 min EZ in between (jog/rest)
4 x 2 min best effort (starting from best effort of previous set and holding same effort) w/ 2 min rest in between (straddle treadmill)

Total for me:
10.1 miles, 77 minutes

After our workout, we headed to our favorite French Bakery  to get a loaf of fresh bread (we only buy/eat local fresh bread). I stayed in the car as Karel headed inside and I should have guessed that Karel would buy more than just a loaf of bread.
Sometimes Karel gets a serious case of croissantitis. It is so serious that if he does not get a croissant after his workout, he tells me he will suffer all day. :)
It's not breaking news but Karel loves his carbs!

I'm incredibly grateful to see where my body is at right now in the season. I am approaching two years of being 100% injury free. Karel has not been seriously injured since he started training for triathlons back in 2012. However, Karel did develop a little navicular tendonitis and bone spur on the top of his foot after training a few months in Newton run shoes so he will not wear those ever again. Now he wears Brooks. 

Many times, we don't know why injuries happen and they just come out of the blue. But for most athletes, there is a red flag somewhere in life/training to identify and that weakness can be focused on so that the same mistake does not happen twice. Typical red flags: The athlete may be increasing intensity too quickly, trying to develop too quickly (or skipping necessary steps), putting too much volume on the body than the body can handle (the body is not strong enough to adapt to training stress), not eating enough to support training, not getting good sleep, poor form/biomechanics, the daily diet does not properly nourish the body, the sport nutrition regime does not support the periodized training load/intensity and volume.

With almost 6 consecutive years of experiencing very painful hip/glute/lower back muscular-related issues which kept me from running for 1-3 months at a time (every single year!), I contribute my recent and current good health and strong body (over the past 2 years) to a few very important factors. Although I have been able to accomplish a lot in the past 9 years of endurance racing, there are a few things that I'd like to highlight, which I will discuss in my next blog post.