I have previously alluded to vomiting problems experienced during long course racing.
The issue has been detrimental to my last two IM campaigns at Cairns (2015, 2016), as well as a few 70.3 races.
It has twice cost me a Kona slot so I knew I had to be more proactive ahead of this year’s Cairns campaign and try harder to understand the cause.
Supported by Sally Garrard, from Apple to Zucchini nutrition, I have been working with a range of other health experts.
Sally suggested I meet with Rebecca Elkington, from Sprouts Dietetics on the Gold Coast, as Rebecca has worked with Melbourne’s Monash University studying this specific problem.
We also approached Mark Barrett and the team from Physiologic at Robina to undergo detailed testing.
Once we had collected my results from basal metabolic and VO2 max tests, I was required to perform a three-hour treadmill run at 60 per cent of my VO2 max.
I had breath analysis readings recorded, blood glucose levels measured, and ingested a mixture of fluid-based carbs for the first two hours followed by water only for the final 60 minutes.
Heart rate, weight loss and hydration were constantly monitored and the results are very interesting.
- At a heart rate of 140, my stomach shuts down and won’t take in any more calories. This explains the cause of my vomiting towards the end of the bike leg and during the run when my heart rate starts to climb. My maximum heart rate is around 200 and I aim to ride the bike in IM at 135-145hr (I averaged 137hr during Cairns, 2016).
- My sweat loss and dehydration levels are off the charts. In the three-hour treadmill run, my dehydration levels were 3 per cent. “Normal” is considered 1 per cent. Despite drinking a lot during the treadmill test, I still lost almost 3kg.
- When my stomach shuts down, the pressure on my heart is enormous and so all available blood will go to the brain and heart as a protection mechanism. When this happens during an IM, I am risking small intestine failure and subsequent emergency surgery.
- We’re not sure if it is dehydration or intensity causing my stomach to shut down at a 140 heart rate. I suspect and hope it is dehydration as this can be improved through training.
- I need 1.5 litres of fluid per hour during the Ironman bike and run while all calories must be in the form of fluids because of stomach sensitivity and a need to restrict concentration levels.
- My fat oxidization is in the elite range and my Vo2 max is 62 which is reasonable for an age group athlete. So the engine is there and the mind is willing but a seriously high sweat rate and a dodgy stomach may yet determine the outcome no matter how fit or determined I am.
Rebecca told me that to get through Ironman Cairns without vomiting I am going to need to keep my heart rate at 140 or under.
Will this allow me to go fast enough to secure a Kona spot? Within this heart rate limit, I know I can swim between 55-60 minutes depending on conditions while last year I cycled 5.11 with an average heart rate of 137.
So my swim and bike will get me within striking distance but is a 140bpm heart rate going to allow me to push in the marathon?
Ideally, I would like to run at 145-155hr which I would think is normal under the strain of fatigue, heat, sweat loss and other racing stresses.
However, we now know that any higher than 140hr and my stomach won’t accept the calories so the vomiting begins.
In 2016, I vomited my way through 42km of running and recorded a time of 3.57 with a heart rate of around 145-160. In 2015 my marathon was 3.36 but the vomiting was not quite as bad however I rode 5.30 that day at exactly the same average HR of 137.
Both Cairns Ironman campaigns have seen me finish around 10 minutes’ shy of a Kona spot and were it not for the vomiting, I know I would have already reached my goal.
It’s not in my nature to give up or die wondering so my challenge is to see how fast I can be at 140bpm heart rate, on the bike and run especially.
How do I do that?
I need to get lean. In 2015, I raced at 76kg and last year I was 74kg.
This year I need to be under 70kg and be as lean as I was over a decade ago when I was an AFL umpire. I was 76kg this morning.
For the first time, I’ll get a meal plan from Sally to shred the excess body fat and be as lean as possible.
This will also help with sweat rate due to a smaller body mass to cool.
I then need to be as efficient as possible in the swim, bike and run.
Basically, I am going to have to do all the one percenters across the board.
Stretching, trigger point, core, specific zone training, strength work and more importantly regular mindfulness exercises to be ready for race day.
During the event, I’ll use Produrance from Pro4mance sports nutrition to absorb all calories via 1.5 litres of fluid per hour. I’ll use a camel back system while running to ensure I also get the adequate fluids and calories.
I am accepting this as a great challenge. How fast and efficient can I become at the maximum level my body allows me to function?
If it is fast enough to gain a Kona spot then great but if not, the improved knowledge and experience will significantly assist my work as a coach.
The Battle Continues
AS I write this latest edition of Mark’s musings I’m sitting in an airport in Maui, Hawaii.
We are waiting for a flight out to Kona where we’ll spend a week. So far, we have had five nights at Sunset Beach, North Shore followed by five nights in Maui.
Other than a bout of influenza which has laid me flat for almost three weeks, it has been a great holiday.
And even though I am not competing at Kona, I am very excited to go and watch the race and experience everything it has to offer, albeit from the sidelines.
I have no doubt the experience will continue to drive me in my attempt to qualify for Kona 2017.
I have always been a lifestyle-driven type of person.
I’m not afraid of hard work but I love getting away and relaxing, especially at places near the beach.
It is times like this that my natural reflective nature kicks in and I examine where I am and what I want out of life.
The answer always revolves around the question – when I come to the end of my time, will I have made a positive difference to the world around me?
I hope that when I pass, people will say I made their life better and I was a good and decent person.
This is one of the main reasons I coach. I love the fact I can make a difference in a person’s life and help them achieve something special.
Internally though my battle never stops.
Sometimes I don’t think I am a good person.
I find myself thinking selfish thoughts and doing what makes me happy over what makes my loved ones happy.
The desire to do the right thing by others and be a good person is something that I need to remind myself of on a daily basis.
I have no doubt that when I am watching the race at Kona I will be jealous of those competing and saying to myself, that should have been me.
But I should be rejoicing in the fact that I am healthy, have a wife that loves me for my faults and a newborn son that is just completely adorable.
I have a roof over my head, food on my table and get up and do a job that I love.
Being selfish and jealous are negative emotions that I am convinced stop us from realising our potential on the race course.
Instead of focusing on our race and the area around us, sometimes we’re too worried about what others are doing, how fast they look and how crap we might feel.
We start to think about excuses and how the fact our time is there for everyone to see and what we’re going to say on social media when it’s not as fast as we want.
Sometimes social media can be such a negative channel as people always want to paint the best picture of themselves.
People start to compare their life against others and rather than being happy with what they have, they want more.
We don’t anyone to know we have these negative thoughts and insecurities so we hide them.
Well, we’re human so we all have them and anyone that says they don’t is lying.
We shouldn’t be so presumptuous to think that others would be thinking about us anyway as we’re all wrapped up in our own problems, struggles and life.
Triathlon, for everything great that it can offer us, is also a double edged sword.
Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all have these professional and age group athletes positing pictures and comments about their training, how amazing they feel and the best new bike they have.
That’s great but is it a true reflection of what happens every day?
The bad training sessions, the doubts, the insecurities, the setbacks and the struggle to sometimes just make it through the day without throwing the toys out of the cot.
Let’s not forget we’re all human, we make mistakes and we’re all flawed in some way.
Rejoice in the little victories.
Take pleasure in the fact we can swim, ride and run for fun and accept that we all have faults and that no one is perfect or has their ‘shit’ together despite what you see on social media.
Where Did We Lose It?
Having had our little boy Finn recently, I can’t help but be reminded of how simple life is for babies and small children. Eat, sleep, have someone to love you and there’s your recipe for happiness. Everything is simple, we’re not scarred by life’s challenges and we have a go at everything.
When we learn to walk we fall down a lot but get back up and keep trying. In fact everything we learn to do as children we keep going until we have mastered the skill. But as adults we have these barriers, we give up when it get’s hard and we also berate ourselves mentally when things don’t go to plan.
As adults, at times, I feel as though we have lost our way in what being happy and satisfied is about. We get lost in wanting more, worrying about what others think and perhaps at times are too focused on a result rather than the journey that goes towards to outcome.
In my professional life, I have been fortunate enough to coach/teach children and adults. There are pros and cons to working with both however the main difference is children are less concerned with the result, have more fun with the process and are far more open-minded to trying new skills.
Kids don’t worry about what others think as they’re more concerned with trying to develop the new skill and are definitely less inclined to give up when it gets too hard. Adults sometimes focus on why it won’t work, what will happen if they fail and what others will think.
And adults will sometimes say the worst things to themselves, like I’m not good enough, that person is better than me and there is no way I can do that. Kids however haven’t learned these bad habits and just have a go.
Would you say some of the things we say to ourselves to your friends or children? Of course not so why then do we say them to ourselves? Why are we stubborn and resistant to change?
So where did we go wrong? When did it become so much about what others think and worrying about the consequences of what some might perceive as failure? It’s almost like some adults have a fear of success and are too addicted to their comfort zone. Can we be more like kids and just have fun?
By nature, I am serious person and have been told that sometimes I come across as scary when coaching. I know I enjoy my coaching more when I have a laugh and aren’t worried so much about whether people are enjoying the session or if they are getting what they need from it. I am certainly guilty of such thoughts at times, in fact I think most people would be.
I find by being more relaxed I am more inclined to develop a connection with the athletes. It goes without saying that the better connection a coach has with their athlete the more the athlete will respond.
It further affirms to me that our mindset controls so much on race day. At the elite level especially there is often very little physical difference between the athlete. What then seperates them is a mind set. Their self belief, confidence, mental preparation. I think this tweet emphasizes what it should be about, we fall down but we get back and keep moving forward and believe in ourselves to do what it required, whether that is walking or running.
Why do we not adopt the same practices at age group level? I am convinced that if we trained our mind as much as our body we would be more satisfied, happier and less stressed.
Reflections on Cairns 2016
As I sit to write my reflections on IM Cairns 2016, 12 months after writing something similar for IM Cairns 2015, it is with a mixture of emotions.
IM Cairns 2015 was my first relatively incident-free IM. I had a good race, despite some stomach issues, and was only ten minutes from a Kona spot even though I had a very relaxed build-up to the race.
My preparation for this year’s event could not have been better.
I trained harder than I have in years and was in great shape both mentally and physically. After reviewing my weaknesses from last year’s race I had improved my swim and bike endurance significantly and was 2.5kg lighter this year.
On race morning I was relaxed and confident of achieving my goal of qualifying for Kona. However, between the cramping at the end of the swim and the exercise-induced vomiting, I now know I have a couple of issues to resolve with my body first. Let me take you through the race.
I positioned myself toward the front end of zone one and was looking to swim under the hour quite comfortably. I had swum 56 min for 4km (Garmin measure) at the Noosa swim a couple of weeks ago so I started with confidence. It was certainly one of the roughest swims I have done with some testing conditions for everyone. However, once I was out there, I focused on staying as relaxed as possible and getting through without incident. I could feel it was quite warm in the water but I was feeling good and stood up on the beach in 59 min.
Considering the conditions I was happy with the time but as soon as I stood both of my hamstrings went into a terrible and painful cramp. I fell back in the water and couldn’t stand up. As the waves crashed over me I put my hands up for assistance as I was in so much pain I wasn’t able to move my legs. I used to suffer terrible cramps like this on a more frequent basis a few years ago in similar conditions but I thought it was a thing of the past. What is even more surprising is that I was in great shape so it wasn’t a fitness issue and, while it was hot, I don’t think I sweated enough to cause such terrible cramp in both hamstrings.
The lifesavers carried me onto the beach and for the next few minutes I could not move as the cramping was incredibly intense. Any time I attempted to move both hamstrings continued to cramp with great force. After a good few minutes of withering in pain on the beach the cramp subsided and I was able to walk or very slow jog through to transition.
On a side note: I have come across some reading in the last 48 hours on cramping and the causes. Harvard neurobiologist Bruce Bean and Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Rod MacKinnon believe cramps are caused by the nerve, not the muscle, and even the most nutritionally fit athletes can suffer from them.
They go on to say muscles cramp when neurons in the spinal cord start firing off spontaneously and repetitively. This makes sense to me as I was swim fit, well hydrated and I did not over extend myself in the swim.
Traditionally it’s thought dehydration, sweat loss or a lack of fitness causes cramping and, while I think there may be some truth in that, my experience in coaching and racing tells me there has to be more to what causes my issues. Maybe a combination of rough conditions, my back being in an extended position for longer than normal and previous surgery caused the cramp from my back into the hamstrings. Also, in a wetsuit swim which lasts for more than an hour, my hamstrings aren’t being used often so it doesn’t make sense that both would cramp so badly.
Anyway I digress and so once I was able to move freely I tried not to let what happened affect my resolve or plan. In my bike bag in T1 I had some Cramp Stop spray and I used it like I was dying of thirst in the early part of the bike. I have to say it worked as, until the very late stages of the run, I didn’t suffer from cramp again.
Once on the bike I struggled to get my heart rate under control. My plan was to race at 70-75 per cent of my max heart rate (approx. 200) and have a good even race by starting easy and finishing strongly knowing the wind would be up on the way home. For the first hour my heart rate didn’t drop under 155 to 160 very often which had a lot to do with the hills early on and I was still struggling from the effects of the cramping. My legs were not feeling like I had hoped they would but I remained positive and just said to myself, “Stick to the plan, you will come good”.
After about an hour, the heart rate came down and I started to feel OK. I got into a good rhythm and focused on getting in the calories while remembering it is a long day. Pacing, nutrition and being in a good head space was all I thought about.
I thought the conditions on the bike were very similar to last year, windy with rain, and in 2015 I rode 2.44 and 2.46 (90km splits) for a total time of 5.30 with an average heart rate of 74% of max. This year, with the exact same average heart rate, I cycled 2.32 and 2.39 (90km splits) for a 5.11 time. So, despite my cramping at the end of the swim, I had put together a good ride with the extra work on the bike in training paying off.
Even though the vomiting started at around 150km through to the finish of the bike I started running and believed today was my day. I got off the bike in ninth place in my age group, after starting the bike in 26th and no doubt losing quite a few places due to the cramping at the end of the swim.
For the first 5km on the run my heart rate was where I wanted it to be, around 75 per cent of the max, my legs were OK and I was running at around 4.30 per km. The plan I had worked on with dietician Sally Garrard was to not eat for the first 20 mins of the bike or run. This was to give my stomach a chance to settle and reduce the risk of the vomiting occurring which is technically known as “exercise induced vomiting”. Here is an article of interest that I found which describes what happens to me in a race – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027831/
Even with the vomiting happening on the bike I thought it wasn’t as bad as other races and the same thing happened last year which didn’t stop me getting to the finish. However at 5km, when I started to take in calories, it came straight back up. It was then I knew I had a challenge ahead of me but like last year I thought I would get home on coke and water. This year it didn’t work as well. For the next 37km it became a battle for survival as anytime I put coke in or any type of drink, gel or food in it came straight back up. My worst fears were being realised in that I couldn’t get the calories in and was running on empty. When I wasn’t vomiting I felt nauseas, weak and lethargic.
Despite this, I wasn’t about to give up and during the run had so many ups and downs. Periods where I could run, all be it a slow pace, and periods where a walk was all I could manage. I took my watch off at 10km and just decided with what was happening that it was best to run old school and ignore heart rate, time and pace and just dig in to the finish.
So many times I wanted to stop. I never thought about giving up but just stopping and resting. Yet knowing how hard I had trained and the support I had received from so many, especially my wife Suzanne, I knew I had to dig in and suffer to the finish.
I thought of my goal and resolved not to give up but take aid station by aid station. I had no idea where I was placed but every time I ran past the Tri Nation support team and other Tri Nation athletes it kept me going.
Last year I ran a 3.36 marathon and this year I was lighter, stronger and had done some really good long runs in training so I felt I was capable of running around a low 3.20 all going well.
In the end my marathon time was 3.57 for an overall time of 10.19 and 16th place in my age group. It was 15 minutes from a Kona spot and last year I was 10 minutes off a Kona spot with a 10.10 overall time and 8th place in my age group.
I did not enjoy the marathon this year. It was horrible; a mixture of vomiting, nausea, pure fatigue and the pain of pushing yourself to a place that makes me afraid to go back there. I swore I would never do another one after collapsing at the finish line and ending up in the medical tent again. Now after a couple of days to reflect, I am determined to find an answer to my nutritional issues associated with long course racing. I know that without the nutritional issues I would have qualified for Kona quite easily and run some 30-40 minutes quicker than I did on Sunday.
Last year my average training volume 23 weeks leading into Cairns was 11.5hrs and this year it was closer to 14hrs. For the last 12 weeks leading into Cairns this year my average was around 18hrs which for me is a lot, more than I have ever done. I was fit, strong and ready to race well.
On the day I did everything I could to maximise my performance. I could not have gone any quicker, I overcame any obstacle I was confronted with and despite all the challenges I did not give up. From that perspective I am satisfied but at the same time quite disappointed I still haven’t found the answer to these issues my body battles with.
I had set myself a goal to qualify for both the 70.3 World Champs and Kona and this reflux vomiting is making it very difficult to reach my potential. As I alluded to in one of my earlier blogs, I have had quite a few setbacks in my long course career and with each one the voice of doubt grows louder but I know after the weekend I am close, I have the ability and I just need to keep searching for an answer.