Meet Coach Emily

Some of you may already know Emily Epp, one of our student interns. But do you know Emily’s story?

Read on to learn about her story including training for and completing swimming across the English Channel.

HOW IT BEGAN
When I was 10, I told my parents that I wanted to swim the English Channel. To be honest, I do not remember if I was joking at the time, or if I legitimately had the Channel in my sights. Everyone around me thought it I was being a cute kid spewing out unrealistic goals and they found it funny. Around 3 years later Brent Hobbs (who swam the English Channel in 2012) approached me and asked if I still wanted to do the swim. At that point I had developed a love for open water swimming and agreed to try and see if I liked it. That summer I attempted my first lake swim of 4 hours, barely. The water during that swim was 18 degrees C and I was freezing. From looking back at my journal, at about “ half way through the first hour I was so cold my hands and arms were frozen and my goggles were too tight.” I was in a bad mood. We had a long way to go if I planned on swimming the Channel. 

TRAINING
From that point on training became more serious. I was already a very active and competitive swimmer in the pool training nine-two hour practices a week with the Kelowna Aquajets Swim Club. But training to swim in the cold water (under 15 degrees C) for many hours was something that had to be done in the lake. We started with 2 hour swims on the weekends in the lake continuing into the fall until the water was under 10 degrees C. Winter would pass and I would start my weekend lake swims in March gradually building up my cold water endurance to 6 hours (in addition to my KAJ swim practices). With the water being very cold at the start of spring and the end of fall, sometimes I would put on a wetsuit just so that I could swim longer; however, for the Channel a wetsuit would not be allowed. Once I turned 16, Channel training was my primary focus. With this came preparing for any challenges that may occur. The English Channel is a shipping water way located between England and France and at its narrowest point is around 32 km in width (I swam 47 km). The water does not get much above 17 C and can be as cold as 12 C. With that, weather can be unpredictable leading to massive winds and water swells. Training in Okanagan Lake did not do justice to anything I would face while swimming the Channel. 

QUALIFIER
The English Channel Association requires all applicants to complete a legal 6 hr qualifying swim. Without the qualifying swim an applicant would not even be looked at for a potential attempt. To make this swim legal it must be swam in less than 15 C water, you cannot stand on the bottom of the lake or touch/ hold a boat. You can only wear a swimsuit (no wetsuit), and a single cap and goggles. I completed this goal in the fall of 2016 officially qualifying me for the channel.
That winter passed and my channel swim window was scheduled for July 14-21. Every Channel swimmer is scheduled a week of possible dates to do their swim based on the weather. Because I spent all of my training in a lake we wanted to do a swim in the ocean. We decided that I would attempt to circumnavigate Bowen Island in Vancouver (~ 30 km). 

BOWEN ISLAND

Bowen Island was the first swim that came anywhere close to the extremes of the Channel. Although the weather was lovely, I experienced some new challenges. These included currents, ocean waves and swells. There was one point in my swim at the last turn of the island where my smooth swimming came near to a stop. The waves picked up and the current became strong enough to almost prevent me from moving a meter. During this time the biggest and most important struggle started to appear. . . nausea! During Bowen Island we thought I was only malnourished and my body was feeling sick from lack of nutrition and fluids. For the remaining hours I forced myself to drink my liquid nutrition drink no matter how crappy I felt. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I never vomited during Bowen Island. After finishing the circumnavigation we had a good idea of what we needed to prepare for the channel and from there we started “tapering.” 

NIGHT SWIM

For one of my last lake swims before I would fly to England, Brent and Phred (two swimmers who supported and coached me through the entire process) decided to join me for one last 5 hour swim. The catch was that this swim would be done in the dark. We started around 11 pm and finished around 4 am. Ironically, this was probably the most fun of any previous swims. I have always enjoyed swimming in the dark. I think it is peaceful and relaxing. When you can’t see anything there is nothing but you in your own thoughts. During this swim we decided to make it fun by using glow lights and fun coloured diving lights to help “ brighten up” the swim. 

SWIMMING THE ENGLISH CHANNEL
July came very quickly and we found ourselves on a plane to England, along with my coach Brent. We arrived on the 11th and after meeting with Andy (my escort boat driver) and crew, we found out I would swim on the very first day of my window, July 14th at 3 am. This was a surprise because most swimmers wait their entire window before they get a chance. My mom was still at home and had not planned on flying in until the 15th. Telling her over the phone she would miss my swim was hard since I wanted her there just as much as she wanted to be there. However,after pulling some strings she got an earlier flight and would just make it. Sadly, around 12 pm we got a call that the winds had picked up and the swim wouldn’t go. It was frustrating because of all the uncertainty. Big questions such as “ will I get to swim?” and “would I complete it if I do?”. The next morning we got a call that I would start my swim at 3 pm. My Channel swim day started lovely in the way that it was sunny; however it was a little windy turning the water into small swells. Around 2 hours in, the winds picked up more causing 2 m swells. This was also when I began to get nauseous just like I had during the Bowen Island swim. We realized that I was not sick from being malnourished, but sea sick. This time I did throw up and continued to do so every 20 min for 5 hours. The pattern went as follows: 

  1. Chug a half water bottle of liquid food (tastes like hot chocolate)
  2. Throw up 30 seconds later
  3. Swim like a new human for 10 min 
  4. Count the Jellyfish (P.S: there are 421 that I counted)
  5. Start feeling sick 
  6. Chug a half bottle of food

Once the 5 hours of horror past, it got dark and suddenly I began to feel better again and the vomiting stopped (likely due to the inability to see the horizon bobbing up and down).  Normal Channel swims finish with the swimmer standing on the dry rocks of the French shores. They collect a rock and take a photo before their 2 min on shore is over (2 min since technically swimmers never cross the border). My swim ended more abruptly. I finished on a cliff face, or more specifically the Cape Gris Nez Cliffs. I was slammed onto the cliff face ripping my swim suit and leaving several bruises. I happened to be terrified of waves. Something about swimming with them always freaked me out a bit. Because I finished my swim in the dark, I could not actually see the waves that threw me into the rocks, we estimate they were between 4 and 5 ft tall. Andy (my boat driver) clocked my swim at 2:57 am making my swim just under 12 hours long. 

FAILS

Although my swim ended successfully, I had many failures along the way. I stopped short of my goal time in many cold water swims, cranky, and tired. My successful 6 hour qualifier was not the first time I had attempted it. I had tried the previous fall and just made it past 5 hours before I was too cold to continue and in tears from frustration. Most swims were miserable and I spent a good chunk of time on some feeling sorry for myself. I have always found ways to blame myself for my “failures” in any sport. I beat myself up and wonder why I didn’t just push myself a little harder. My team and I also failed together several times. We failed to read my body properly leading to moderate hypothermia. However, as swims went on we got better and learned the signs my body gave us when it needed help. 

MOTIVATION
I had decided early on that I would do my swim as a fundraiser for Canuck Place Children’s Hospice (end of life and care home for children) and was able to raise $120,000. My sister, Elan, has been involved with Canuck Place for years and they truly changed her life. I thought that I could give back by donating through my swim. This was the center of my motivation. It is much harder to disappoint someone else, than it is yourself. I did the swim for them and knowing they were all looking at me and cheering me on. Doing the swim as a fundraiser for such a special group of people made me want to succeed even more than my own desire to complete my dream. At the end of the day it was the people around me that helped me get through it. Obviously I swam the Channel and went through the physical struggles by myself, but I did not go through the process alone.

CHANNEL DEPRESSION
This is the part that people don’t talk about. Channel swimmers and everyone around them always prioritize the swim itself. They talk about how they trained for it, how they swam it, what challenges they faced during the swim, how happy and relieved they are that it is over, but rarely do they talk about what happens months after the swim when all the hype and excitement is over. Once all the excitement fades, there are some identity struggles. This “what do I do now” question kicks off the beginning of the Channel depression phenomenon. I still struggle with this today, almost 4 years later. Because I swam the Channel at 17, I swam the summer between grade 11 and grade 12. I had been a competitive swimmer with the Kelowna Aquajets since I was 9 and speed swimming was very important to me. While training for the Channel I was under the impression that I could train for the Channel (marathon training) and speed swim train to high levels at the same time. Anyone who has done any sort of marathon or competitive sports that race short distances know that this is not possible. I could not sustain my speed in the pool while getting stronger in the lake. Although I struggled with “ getting slower” and the inability to swim best times at competitions, I always had my Channel training to fall back on and cover for me. If someone in my club asked me why I wasn’t swimming my best I could always say “ oh I did a long swim the other day and am a bit tired from that.” It was true. How could I swim my fastest when I was swimming 10 hours or more extra a week. Once my Channel swim ended, I did not have that excuse anymore. I only saw a plateau in my speed swimming. During my grade 12 year I slowly lost the motivation to swim and because I am a stubborn girl who only saw herself as a swimmer, I beat myself up for missing the practices I couldn’t even get myself to go to. Then I would beat myself up more for not having the motivation to go to practice. Over the process of 10 months I slowly dropped swimming altogether. School was also a struggle. Because of the many internal conflicts my grades started dropping and I was joining clubs I never would have tried before to fill my time up. I tried out for basketball. . . and I did not make the team (I was awful so do not blame the coach). I also tried out for a play and surprisingly did get a part as Susan in Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Although most people would think I had no reason to be sad, I was. I felt like the one thing I knew, swimming, was over and I had no other identity. In mt first year of college I joined the Kelowna Paddle Centre to do a sport that was not swimming. It was this sport that became a new passion and gave me new goals. From there I joined Okanagan Peak Performance Inc. to help my paddling performance. I have been at OPP for a year and a half now training in the sport of powerlifting and interning to be a strength and conditioning coach. This has helped me redefine myself and make new goals. Although I do sometimes look back at my swimming days and shed a tear thinking back to all the different emotions that go with it (even while writing this blog), I am happy I experienced it because without that pain I may not have found a new sport I love or have the chance to tell others my story.

Strength Training for Running – How and When it Helps

Do you consider yourself healthy?

Or more specifically, do you consider yourself athletic and in-shape?
If so, how do you measure your fitness or athleticism?

The bodybuilder might consider their success by the circumference of their biceps. The powerlifter might base success on what they can deadlift, squat and bench. And the non-athletic person might claim to have had a perfect physical the last time they saw their doctor.

Depending on which group you identify with will determine which metrics you consider important.

There’s no denying that running is a great measuring stick of our health and fitness. 

Running is basically jumping from one leg to the next. Running fitness is associated with longevity. And when we are better at it, i.e. a faster runner, we tend to do better in sports.

So if we can agree on the importance of running we should want to do the things that help us run faster. For a while now we’ve known that resistance training helps our running performance. 

But how effective is it? And when does it pay dividends during a race?
A 2015 Brazilian study looked to answer these questions. 

What did they do?
18 runners (average age 34 years) were divided into 2 groups for 8 weeks. Race times for these runners ranged from 35-45 minutes for a 10 km race. One group of 9 did strength training whereas the other 9 did no strength training. None of the participants had done strength or plyometric training previously.

Below is a table showing the exercises performed over the 8 weeks as well as the sets and reps performed. All of the exercises were for the lower body with an emphasis on the leg extensors i.e. the quads.

ExercisesPhase (weeks)Volume
Half-squat, leg-press, plantar flexion, and knee extension1–23 series 8–10 RM
3–4 3 series 6–8 RM
5–6 3 series 4–6 RM
7–8 2 series 3–5 RM

What did the measure?
Researchers wanted to know the impact of resistance training on:

  • incremental test i.e. VO2max
  • running speed
  • 10 km time trial
  • 30 s Wingate
  • maximum dynamic strength

So what did they find?
1 RM strength (up 23%), drop jump (up 12.7%) and peak speed (up 2.9%) improved considerably for the strength training group compared to the control. 10 km time trial improved 2.5% for the strength group compared to -0.7% for the control. The improvement in 10 km time was attributed to faster speeds during the last quarter of the time trial (specifically the last 2800 m). In absolute values the resistance training group shaved 65 seconds off their 10 km time trial whereas the control group added 18 seconds.
There was no significant difference with anaerobic measures i.e. Wingate, maximal oxygen uptake i.e. VO2max or running economy.

Limitations of this study
Only moderately trained runners participated. Different results might be expected for those new to running and elite runners.

None of the participants had previous resistance or plyometric training experience. The results would not be as significant for those with a background in strength training. 

The exercises selected focussed on the quads. How would the results have differed if the program included hip dominant exercises such as deadlifts or hip thrusts?

The study provides no details on the tempo of the lifts performed. Would the results differ if specific attention was given to all three phases of a muscular contraction? i.e. eccentric, isometric, concentric

All the participants of the study were male and relatively young. Would the same outcome be expected for female and more senior runners?

The take home message
If you are a moderately trained runner that doesn’t already include resistance training in their program than you should start. There would also be benefit to including some posterior chain exercises and gradually introducing some plyometrics.

Doing so won’t change your VO2max or anaerobic metabolism but you will run faster. Especially near the end of the run when those who don’t strength train will be slowing down.

Citation
Damasceno, M. V., Lima-Silva, A. E., Pasqua, L. A., Tricoli, V., Duarte, M., Bishop, D. J., & Bertuzzi, R. (2015). Effects of resistance training on neuromuscular characteristics and pacing during 10-km running time trial. European journal of applied physiology115(7), 1513-1522.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt and Hip Mobility

There’s no denying the importance of the hips in sports performance. The high degree of mobility at this joint allows us to sprint, cut, change direction, raise or lower our center of mass and jump with as much force as we can produce.

But before we get started on increasing the mobility or sttrength of our hips we should make sure the hips and pelvis are optimally positioned for our posture.

Sometimes the analogy of a bowl of water is used to convey the concept of the positioning of the pelvis.

When we have anterior pelvic tilt we can imagine water spilling out of the front of the bowl. The opposite is true of posterior pelvic tilt.

I’m not suggesting we should all have a neutral pelvis but instead we should be aware of our posture and how this can impact our movement.

A 2014 study (reference below) looked at how our hip mobiliy is influenced by anterior, neutral or posterior pelvic tilt.

The researchers examined the hips of 48 subjects that had surgery due to femoral acetabular impingement (FAI). The various positions of anterior pelvic tilt (10 degrees), native (no tilt) and posterior pelvic tilt (10 degrees) were analyzed in terms of hip flexion, hip internal rotation, hip adduction and the position of osseus (bony) contact (impingement).

What they found was that anterior pelvic tilt was associated with lower hip flexion (6 degrees), lower internal rotation (15 degrees), lower hip adduction (8.5 degrees) and increased contact at positions of impingement. When the subjects were positioned in posterior pelvic tilt these three ranges at the hip increased and there was decreased inpingement.

So for the following athletes this would be a concern for :

  • The sprinter because speed = stride rate x stride length. Less hip flexion may result in a shorter stride.
  • The hockey goalie getting into the butterfly position. A loss of 15 degrees of internal rotation will make this more difficult.
  • The breaststroker in swiming. Finishing the frog kick to propel the body forward requires squeezing the legs together with adduction at the hip.

Even if your goal is not related to sports performance it doesn’t hurt to be aware of your posture and alignment. Most of us will have some level of anterior pelvic tilt and that can be OK and works well with our natural lumbar arch. The goal is to be aware of it and recognize when our posture deviates too much and what to do about it.

Ross, J. R., Nepple, J. J., Philippon, M. J., Kelly, B. T., Larson, C. M., & Bedi, A. (2014). Effect of changes in pelvic tilt on range of motion to impingement and radiographic parameters of acetabular morphologic characteristics. The American journal of sports medicine42(10), 2402-2409.

Built for Show – And for Go

There seems to be a school of thought when it comes to resistance training that you’re either training for performance or for aesthetics. It’s either bodybuilding or strength and conditiong. Built for show or for go.

It was as though the two goals were mutually exclusive and could not overlap.

Meatheads would mock those who couldn’t build 20 inch arms. And athletes would point out all the gym rats that trip over their own feet during a game of football.

But is that the case?

If you train for hypertrophy i.e. size, does that mean you’ll be useless on the playing field?

New research says that’s not the case.

The study look at muscle volume and strength and compared this among three groups 1) elite sprinters n= 5, 2) sub-elite sprinters n= 26, and untrained controls n=11. All study subjects were male. Elite sprinters were defined as though that could run a 10.10 second 100 meter and sub-elite as though that could run the 100 m in 10.80 seconds.

To put in perspective how fast a 10.10 second 100 metre is, only four Canadians have ever run a sub 10 second 100 m including Olympic champion Donovan Bailey and Olympic bronze medallist Andre De Grasse.

The study subjects underwent MRIs to determine muscle volume of 23 lower limb muscles and 5 functional muscles. These were then correlated to 100 m times and isometric strength.

What they found was that the muscularity of elite sprinters was greater in elite sprinters than sub-elite and both were greater than the controls. In particular the hip extensors showed the biggest difference among the groups and this accounted for 31-48% of the variability in 100 m times.

Of the hip extensors it turns out the gluteus maximus alone accounted for 34-44 % of variance in 100 m sprint time.

There is substantial difference in the size and volume of the gluteus maximus in elite sprinters compared to sub-elite sprinters and even moreso with untrained controls.

In terms of isometric strength, plantar flexors, or the muscles we use to point our toes, showed no difference. Both sprint groups were stronger, isometrically, but this was not related to sprint times.

The take home message is that you can train to be like J-Lo and Usain Bolt at the same time. Building a bigger backside helps fill out your favourite pair of denim and sprint faster.

Miller, R., Balshaw, T. G., Massey, G. J., Maeo, S., Lanza, M. B., Johnston, M., & Folland, J. P. (2020). The Muscle Morphology of Elite Sprint Running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Caffeine and Fat Burning

Do you drink coffee? More importantly, do you use coffee to help with your training or performance?

I know there are some people that can’t touch the stuff before training or it results in a trip to the bathroom mid-workout. Personally, I love to sip on a cup of coffee for an early morning workout for a bit of a boost.

But does it help? Specifically with respect to fat burning, does caffeine help? And does it make a difference what time of day you have a cup of coffee in relation to your training?

A recent study looked to answer this question. They wanted to know if caffeine would boost fat burning.

What they did was have the experiment subjects have a drink 30 minutes before an aerobic exercise workout. The subjects included 15 males averaging 32 years old. The subjects did 4 sessions 7 days apart. This allowed them to experience all 4 test conditions of coffee, placebo, 8 AM training or 5 PM training.

The researchers controlled for fasting, exercise and other stimulants consumed. They wanted to make sure the subjects weren’t doing workouts before coming to the lab or slamming back a Red Bull either.

The researchers used indirect calorimetry to measure maximal fat oxidation (MFO).

So what did they find?

MFO and VO2max were greater in the PM than in the AM.

When the groups consumed caffeine there was 10.7% greater MFO in the morning (i.e. 8 AM) compared to the group that consumed a placebo. And with the 5 PM group MFO was 29% greater when caffeine was consumed instead of a placebo.

So the two big takeaways are that:

  1. Caffeine works and helps increase MFO
  2. Results were better with the afternoon versus the morning group

A few things to keep in mind include:

  • Would we see the same results for different ages rather than everyone of approximately 32 years?
  • Would we see the same results for women?
  • Would we see the same results for sedentary individuals? All the participants in this study were already active.
  • Would the results have differed if more caffeine was consumed? The subjects consumed 3 mg/kg bodyweight. So an 80 kg individual would ingest 240 milligrams of caffeine. (a cup of coffee has about 100 mg)

Lastly, don’t lose sight of the fact that the best time to exercise is when you can make time for it. Different chronotypes do better at different times of day. And although afternoon caffeine resulted in more MFO compared to the morning don’t forget of the fat burning powers of sleep. If an afternoon cup of coffee disrupts sleep it may not be worth it.

Ramírez-Maldonado, M., Jurado-Fasoli, L., Del Coso, J., Ruiz, J. R., & Amaro-Gahete, F. J. (2021). Caffeine increases maximal fat oxidation during a graded exercise test: is there a diurnal variation?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition18(1), 1-9.

Obesity to Become Main Cancer Risk

Growing up we always associated smoking with cancer. We’d have the school assemblies to prevent us from lighting up. The packages of cigarettes had images of disgusting gum and tooth disease caused by smoking. And we all knew a relative or loved one that was a smoker and passed away from cancer.

That could all change.

Obesity could overtake smoking as the main cancer risk by 2040 in women and soon after in men.

And with the pandemic this isn’t getting any better. Since this time last year most people have put on a few pounds, are less active and eating more junk food. And when the food delivery services show up in our neighbourhood it’s usually bringing fast food. Combine this with more people quitting smoking and it’s easy to see how obesity will overtake smoking as a greater risk for cancer.

So what’s the big deal with obesity?

Well fat isn’t inert tissue that gets added to the body and has no effects. It doesn’t just sit there quietly but is active. It sends signals to other tissues and organs that affect growth, metabolism and reproductive processes.

When we are obese we are vulnerable to tissue damage and developing tumours. And there are least 12 types of cancer linked to carrying excess weight. Regular exercise is important for cancer prevention specifically breast and colon cancer.

A recent study in the UK involved exercising mice three times per week for 30 minutes. These mice showed lower levels of inflammation, which can lead to the development of tumours. As well, the mice that exercised improved their metabolism, had less fat in their livers and moved more quickly.

In the UK there are 135,000 new cancers per year (about 4 in 10) deemed to be preventable. Exercise can be a great way to reduced the chance of obesity and thus lessen the chance of developing cancer.

Bianchi, A., Marchetti, L., Hall, Z., Lemos, H., Vacca, M., Paish, H., & Wilson, C. L. (2021). Moderate Exercise Inhibits Age-Related Inflammation, Liver Steatosis, Senescence, and Tumorigenesis. The Journal of Immunology206(4), 904-916.

Answers to all of your questions about creatine

After high school I remember training with my brother. And the goal wasn’t to improve performance in a sport. And it wasn’t to sprint faster. Or to rehab an injury.

It was purely for bodybuilding. We trained to get as big and strong as possible with more emphasis on the former.

And while we didn’t invest a dime into programming or coaching we always found it in the budget to have a tub of protein, some bars and creatine.

So while creatine has been available commercially to the average gym goer for over 30 years there are still a number of myths regarding this supplement. Some of the top supplement researchers and editors of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine collaborated to put out a review of the more common questions that exist about creatine. The following is a brief summary of this review with the citation to follow.

Does creatine lead to water retention?

Researchers will distinguish between total body water (TBW), intracellular water (ICW) and extracellular water (ECW). Most studies do not show an increase in TBW. When loading creatine this is usually done at higher doses than during the maintenance phase and early research showed some water retention but didn’t distinguish between ICW and ECW.

The general understanding is that there is some evidence of water retention, primarily ICW, over the short term. Several studies show creatine doesn’t alter TBW (ICW or ECW) relative to muscle mass.

Does creatine damage the liver or kidneys?

After more than 20 years of research there are no adverse effects from taking the recommended dosage of creatine. Creatine and phosphocreatine are degraded to creatinine. The amount of creatinine in the blood is proportional to body mass and creatine intake.

There was a case study from the late 1990s when an individual did experience elevated levels of creatinine and usage was discontinued for this reason. Apparently this individual had previous renal/hepatic issues and was loading at 15 g per day. The case study makes no mention of the diet of the individual which can contribute to elevated levels of creatinine.

For healthy individuals, ingesting normal dosages, there are no known adverse effects for the kidneys or liver.

Does creatine cause dehydration or cramping?

During the loading phase of 20 g/ day for 5-7 days there may be an increase in body mass of 1-3 kg, which is mostly body water retention. The studies that do show dehydration/cramping don’t control for other supplements and beverages.

As well, a study looked at how many creatine users use the recommended daily dose and found 91% exceeded these amounts.

Another study had subjects put into two groups. 38 of them took creatine and another 34 took a placebo. Those that took creatine had less cramping, heat illness, dehydration, tightness, muscle strains and injuries.

And a study involving haemodialysis patients (n=10) that reported frequent cramping were given 12 grams of creatine before haemodialysis and saw a decreased frequency of cramping by 60%.

The take home message is the creatine does not appear in the research or anecdotally to result in cramping or dehydration.

Does creatine increase fat mass?

Whenever a substance is known to increase body mass, as creatine does, there may be concern for an increase in fat mass. This concern may be justified in that rarely do we add 100% muscle mass and zero fat mass when we increase our mass.

The literature is pretty clear and consistent on this however. There are numerous studies showing an increase in body mass, an increase in fat free mass yet no increase in fat mass. One study with swimmers showed no change in body composition.

A common criticism of the studies showing no increase in fat mass is that they are less than 8 weeks in duration and thus not long enough in duration to demonstrate a physiological change. There are more than enough studies greater than 8 weeks which show no significant change in fat mass.

Of interest was a study involving children with lymphoblastic leukemia. For 16 weeks some of the children received creatine and the others a placebo. Those taking creatine saw their fat mass decrease while those that didn’t take it saw an increase in their fat mass.

Supplementing with creatine may increase body mass without increasing fat mass.

Is a loading phase required?

If you’re familiar with using creatine as a supplement you’ll know there’s something called a ‘loading’ and a ‘maintenance’ phase. The loading phase involves taking creatine at 20-25 grams per day for 5 to 7 days to saturate the muscle. Once the loading phase is complete then the maintenance phase follows at doses of 3-5 grams per day.

A study compared loading versus simply going to the maintenance phase and determined that both resulted in an increase of muscle creatine concentrations by 20%. Loading speeds up the process but doesn’t add any additional benefits. Going straight to a loading phase delays but doesn’t limit the benefits of using creatine when used for at least four weeks.

When an athlete is looking to benefit from creatine in a short period of time i.e. less than 3 weeks, than a loading protocol would be preferred. If creatine will be used for a longer duration i.e. at least four weeks, than it would be fine to go straight to a maintenance phase, especially if avoiding or minimizing the increase in body mass is desirable.

Is creatine just for power or resistance athletes?

We know that creatine is a phosphagen and helps supply and replenish cellular energy for short burst, high intensity activities. So typically it has been sought out by athletes that need to display high levels of force in a short period of time. This would include sprinting, jumping, throwing and kicking among other actions.

But does creatine help other athletes and functions?

There is growing evidnce to suggest that it is. For example, when creatine is taken with carbohydrate or carbohydrate with protein there is greater glycogen storage compared to carbohydrate alone. Glycogen is the form of carbohydrate that we store in the muscle and liver and is important for training and recovery.

Those that supplement with creatine show less muscle damage and in a four week study with runners training up to 30 km those taking creatine experienced less muscular damage, inflammation and soreness.

Lastly, creatine appears to offer protective benefits to the brain and spinal cord and may be a good idea for those in collision sports and at risk for concussion.

Creatine offers many benefits and need not be limited to only those in power or resistance sports.

Below is a summary of each of the sections of the review. For more details and to read the sections not covered above see the citation below. The section below in italics is copied directly from the review.

Based on our evidence-based scientific evaluation of the literature, we conclude that:

  1. Creatine supplementation does not always lead to water retention.
  2. Creatine is not an anabolic steroid.
  3. Creatine supplementation, when ingested at recommended dosages, does not result in kidney damage and/or renal dysfunction in healthy individuals.
  4. The majority of available evidence does not support a link between creatine supplementation and hair loss / baldness.
  5. Creatine supplementation does not cause dehydration or muscle cramping.
  6. Creatine supplementation appears to be generally safe and potentially beneficial for children and adolescents.
  7. Creatine supplementation does not increase fat mass.
  8. Smaller, daily dosages of creatine supplementation (3-5 g or 0.1 g/kg of body mass) are effective. Therefore, a creatine ‘loading’ phase is not required.
  9. Creatine supplementation and resistance training produces the vast majority of musculoskeletal and performance benefits in older adults. Creatine supplementation alone can provide some muscle and performance benefits for older adults.
  10. Creatine supplementation can be beneficial for a variety of athletic and sporting activities.
  11. Creatine supplementation provides a variety of benefits for females across their lifespan.
  12. Other forms of creatine are not superior to creatine monohydrate.

Antonio J., Candow D.G., Forbes S.C., Gualano B., Ragim A.R., Kreider R.N., Rawson E.S., Smith-Ryan A.E., VanDusseldorp T.A., Willoughby D.S. & Ziegenfuss T.N. (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(13).

MOTS-c – The Fountain of Youth Protein

When I think of longevity a couple of movies come to mind. Cocoon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button cover this theme in different ways.

Or a quick history lesson takes us back to Ponce de Leon and the search for the fountain of youth.

Researchers at USC may have found the protein that confers anti-aging benefits.

The protein is MOTS-c and is a mitochondrial protein. Mitochonria can thought of as the powerhouse of the cell and are responsible much of our cellular energy. MOTS-c acts by heping promote metabolism amd maintaining homeostasis.

Previous research into MOTS-c has shown that it helps increase insulin
sensitivty and reverse obesity in mice.

In human when we exercise we see the level of MOTS-c is elevated almost 12x and remains elevated for up to four hours post-exercise.

What the research team at USC did was inject MOTS-c into mice of various ages and then measure their speed and agility, among other things. For mice, young is considered 2 months old, 12 months is middle age and old is 22 months.

The researchers injected the mice three times per week and had them perform a running test. The mice would warm-up for 5 minutes at 13 metres per minute. After five minutes the speed was increased one metre per minute for five minutes to reach 18 metres per minute. The mice then ran for up to 30 minutes at a top speed of 23 metres per minute.

What they found is the older mice i.e. 22 months old, were able to keep up and outrun the young and middle aged mice. As well, the older mice were more sure-footed compared to the younger mice.

This is encouraging and it appears MOTS-c may play a role in healthy aging. It helped with the metabolic fitness and physical capacity of the mice in this study. And MOTS-c was also able to reverse diet induced obesity and insulin resistance in mice as well.

While we shouldn’t expect the same results in humans as in mice this is more support regarding the importance of maintaining fitness and training as we age. This will not only allow us to have more years but a better quality of life with the years we add.

Reynolds, J. C., Lai, R. W., Woodhead, J. S., Joly, J. H., Mitchell, C. J., Cameron-Smith, D., & Lee, C. (2021). MOTS-c is an exercise-induced mitochondrial-encoded regulator of age-dependent physical decline and muscle homeostasis. Nature Communications12(1), 1-11.

Muscle Cells Attenuate Effects of Inflammation

Have you ever had one of those situations in life where somebody asks you a question of why something is and you can’t put into words the explanation.

For example, imagine a young toddler asking why is the sky blue?

What would you say? How would you explain it?

It’s something we know to be true but hard to put into words.

The same could be said for the benefits of exercise. We have known for a while that exercise helps with inflammation. But we didn’t know which cell type(s) were involved? And could this help maintain strength?

A research team at Duke University has been looking to answer this question. Specifically they wanted to see how effectively muscle cells would be at warding of chronic inflammation. This is different from acute inflammation that results from a specific episode such as a sprained ankle. When we roll an ankle playing pick up basketball there is an immune response to clear away cellular debris and helps the tissue heal.

Other times inflammation can extend over long periods of time causing damage and weakening tissues i.e. rheumatoid arthritis and sarcopenia. This type of chronic inflammation induces muscle atrophy. Exercise can counter these negative side effects.

The researchers were able to engineer muscle cells in-vitro i.e. in a petri dish. These cells were then exposed to interferon gamma for seven days. We normally see this chemical messenger elevated in muscle cells of those with chronic inflammation.

After the seven day period of exposure to interferon gamma, to induce a situation of chronic inflammation, the researchers then stimulated the muscle cells electrically to make them contract.

What they found was that the muscle cells that exercised i.e. that were electrically stimulated, did not show the effects of chronic inflammation. With long term inflammation, i.e. chronic inflammation, there is atrophy, or loss, of muscle tissue. This did not happen with the muscle cells that were electrically simulated.

What’s even more interesting is that the experiment only involved muscle cells. Typically we might associate health benefits with immune, stem or other type of cell. This is a new discovery of linking the protection from inflammation directly to muscle cells.

And as the images below show, exercise helps prevent the atrophy of muscle that typically is associated with chronic inflammation. If you stay active, particularly with resistance exercise, your muscles won’t get smaller and weaker.

The top L box shows muscle cells (red) in the control condition. In the top R we can see how inflammation changes the structure of the muscle cells. However in the bottom L adding exercise to the mix protects the muscle cells from the damage of inflammation.

We can train for a variety of reasons and this adds another very important reason to make sure we lift weights. This is especially true for those that suffer from inflammatory diseases such as asthma, celiac, diabetes, rheumatoid arthtitis, obesity and more.

Chen, Z., Li, B., Zhan, R. Z., Rao, L., & Bursac, N. (2021). Exercise mimetics and JAK inhibition attenuate IFN-γ–induced wasting in engineered human skeletal muscle. Science Advances7(4), eabd9502.

Go Hard or Go Frequently?

The other night at dinner we asked our five year old the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

She thought about it briefly and then answered confidently saying the egg.

To which we then asked her where the egg came from?

You can imagine the puzzled look on her face and could see the wheels turning in her head. She realized she it was going to be a hard question to answer.

This can be similar to exercise with respect to whether you should do long, slow steady-state exercise or short, high intensity intervals. The last few years have seen a surge in HIIT i.e. high intensity interval training, Tabata and other intense training protocols.

However during COVID we have also seen a number of endurance feats including Everesting, round the world cycling challenges and other long distance endurance challenges.

So which one is it? Should we go hard and short or long and slow?

Well a recent Canadian study looked to answer this question. Here’s what they did.

Twenty three adult, sedentary men were divided into two groups. One group did 30 second sprint intervals on the bike with two minutes rest. They repeated this four to six times and completed this workout three times per week. Over the course of the six study they completed almost one hour of cycling.

The other group rode the bike five times per week for 30-40 minutes at around 60% of their peak power. By the completion of the study this group had logged 15 hours on the bike.

Researchers wanted to know the impact these would have on fitness, body composition and blood pressure.

What they found is that those performing the endurance workouts i.e. 30-40 minutes of cycling saw greater improvements in:

  • diastolic blood pressure
  • abdominal fat
  • postprandial lipid tolerance

Both groups showed improvements in fitness whereas with the sprint group improved endothelial function. With both groups glycemic control was better on exercise versus sedentary days.

So what does this all mean?

Don’t get sucked in to the fad that exercise has to all-out, all the time. There were a number of benefits to performing longer duration cardiovascular exercise. Exercise is great for helping us metabolize carbohydrates and avoid the potential spikes and drops

A few other thoughts that come to mind:

  • This study was all men. Would women show the same results?
  • Endurance training demonstrated many benefits in this study. But they also did 15 times the work. Would the same benefits be seen at 10 times the work? 5 times?
  • All participants were sedentary at the start. How hard were they able to push on the sprints? How would the results differ if active subjects were used? If athletes were used?
  • Time is a huge constraint for many to achieve a fitness and health goal. We shouldn’t discount or over-look the attractiveness of being able to complete training in 1/15th of the time.
  • Ultimately the best training plan may be a combination of high-intensity short duration intervals and lower-intensity longer training sessions.

Citation

Petrick, H. L., King, T. J., Pignanelli, C., Vanderlinde, T. E., Cohen, J. N., Holloway, G. P., & Burr, J. F. (2020). Endurance and Sprint Training Improve Glycemia and VO2peak, but only Frequent Endurance Benefits Blood Pressure and Lipidemia. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.