Learning From Others’ Mistakes

As some of you know, most weeks I listen several podcasts (Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Strength Coach, Grey Cook and others). This week I am taking a small break to listen to Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. There are lots of details about doping, both the mental and the physical side, as well as, what it’s like living, training and racing in Europe. This is probably a book that is too specific for most of you, but nevertheless, I think it’s still an interesting read. I really liked it because it gave the back story of the racing that went on when I followed cycling. In addition, I met Tyler Hamilton once and he, as the book points out, is a genuinely nice guy and it was always hard for me to understand how we went to the “dark side.” However, there are some interesting passages that I think will be useful to most of us training and competing at the recreational levels.

Caveat: I am not a doctor or trained in anything but strength training, I just like to read and as, Perl creator Larry Wall likes to say, I consider laziness to be a virtue and will “go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure.” That is, why lift more for the same effect as going to sleep early? I don’t think you will find this information that shocking anyway and it’s really intended as the reasoning behind common sense (if there is such a thing), i.e. a invitation to make a better choice next time.

The first time Tyler Hamilton doped was with testosterone, the team doctor gave it to him in pill form. He didn’t race the next day because, he would have tested positive but he raced the day after that and was able to pull away from riders at the end of a long climb after admitting that he was pretty used up on the day he took the testosterone. Ironically, the doctor told him the little red pill was not doping, it was making him “healthier,” which is actually pretty close to the truth. Later on in the book, Hamilton answers the question can a clean rider win a race. He says a one day race, possibly, if the conditions are right, but not longer races, because they take such a toll on the body. He says doping is not a “booster,” it slows the rate of loss of conditioning, that is, it aids in recovery. I am not suggesting that you should take testosterone or any other drugs including supplements when you get tired or to get “healthier,” rather, I use these performance-at-the-edge stories to show how important testosterone, and recovery in general, is to performance and results whether it be winning a race or losing 30 lbs. As Mike Burgener, Senior International Coach for USA Weightlifting says: “There is no overtraining, just under-recovery.”

I am reading another book, called The Testosterone Syndrome. While there are a couple of reasons for hypogonadism (or low production of sex hormones) in men, primary (testicles not working correctly) and secondary (hypothalamus and/or pituitary glands to functioning correctly), what is interesting and most valuable for us is that there is a third way of messing up your testosterone and that is the altering the balance between estrogen and testosterone. We all, both men and women, need both testosterone and estrogen just in different levels. Here are seven ways men (the issue is more complicated in women, Susan and I are learning more about this literally everyday) can increase estrogen and reduce the effectiveness of testosterone:

  • Get older (OK, we can’t help this, next)
  • Alteration of liver function (research more on the P450 system) , through viral infection, autoimmune disease or …)
  • Overuse of alcohol
  • Zinc deficiency
  • Obesity
  • Drug-induced estrogen imbalance (e.g. diuretics)
  • Ingestion of estrogen-enhancing foods or environmental substances

Notice that most of these we can fix through diet and lifestyle. OK, I know you are wondering just what is “overuse?” All I can say is that the people who hardly drink, maybe a few sips of wine a week, get lean pretty quickly, e.g. .5 to 1 lb a week, even when they are not sleeping or eating correctly. When I don’t drink for a week and I get some good rest (even two beers alters my sleep), I notice an increase in performance. Your mileage may vary, but even though some research says that alcohol doesn’t affect testosterone in casual drinkers, I notice a difference whether it is the testosterone or not I don’t know.

Cyclists have a phrase about big efforts in races, burning matches, which illustrates that you have some hot moments but they are numbered (ummm, did I just say “hot moments” and “testosterone” in the same post????). Earlier in the post I made it sound like sleeping is as important as lifting, which is definitely not true. However, what is true is that we get stronger through hormonal adaptations to stressors of which exercise is just one IF the body is allowed to recover. It is not the exercise that we do, whether it is weightlifting or riding our bikes, that is the sole contributor to fitness. Rather it is the combination of stressors and recovery habits over time, e.g. diet, exercise, sleep, relationships, etc. that determine your health and fitness. Especially in the holiday season, next time you get ready to workout and you are tying your shoes or rolling out, ask yourself, “is today the day to burn some matches or stock pile some matches for a different day.” I think you will see that incorporating some active recovery days into your schedule or just backing off on days that stress a system that is not that strong for you (e.g. shoulder or bench press if you have wonky shoulders) will help increase your performance.