Tag Archives: cycling

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – The Finish Line

by Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

Having never attempted anything like the Transcontinental Race before, my expectation ahead of the race was to complete it before the cut-off time, which was set at 15 days and 2 hours. In the very early stages of the race, I rode quite conservatively knowing that to finish within this time was critical for my sense of achievement. However, I very quickly realised I was capable of much more. I arrived at the first checkpoint in around 60th position, which surprised me. I then arrived at all the remaining checkpoints in higher positions than the previous one and was placed somewhere in the 30’s for the final checkpoint on the Transfagarasan highway in Romania.

The last hurdle

Approximately 1000 kilometres from the finish line in Meteora, I was in a good position to make a late charge for a top 30 position and I set about the task gamely. I rode through the remaining portion of Romania and a short section through Bulgaria into Serbia. Feeling hardened from the first 75% of the race I felt my performance improving rather than declining and set about three substantial climbs in northern Serbia with a certain amount of gusto and swagger. Temperatures were fierce, up into the 40°Cs, but I felt I had acclimatised to these by now and in my mind I was conquering these hills with no problems, better than any I had attempted previously at the height of the midday sun. Having capacity for only 1750 ml of water and a broken smartphone, I found myself rationing water as I couldn’t know when the next opportunity to resupply would arrive. I made up for it when I had the opportunity and guzzled litres at service stations but as it turns out, the damage had been done. Later that evening, when the sun had disappeared below the horizon and temperatures had dropped to the point it was “cool,” I started to suffer. I felt hot and restricted in my clothes despite the cool evening breeze; I became irritated by my clothes to the extent that I removed my jersey and rode shirtless for a while. After a little while longer, my feet felt hot and irritated too, so I took them out of my cleats and rode on top of those. Then suddenly my legs went completely: I’d hit a wall, pedalling felt like I was sitting on a ledge mixing cement with my feet, and I was overcome with delirium. I stopped at a service station and slept in a secluded area covered in pinecones for the night. I was so out of it I hadn’t noticed the pinecones at first, and stirred from sleep a few hours later to find myself cursing them wildly. At this point, I intended to crack on, but as I stood up I felt a wave of nausea overcome me, so I figured I needed more rest.

TCR_Hotel

In the morning, I ‘soft pedalled’ (rode slowly) for about 100 kilometres, at which point I came face to face with a steep hill at 1pm. Again, the temperature was up in the 40°Cs. With no obvious signs of shade on the sides of the road I looked around, feeling dejected. I had been riding next to a river and noticed locals frolicking in their bathers. I found a small quiet area and immersed myself, fully clothed, in a shallow part of the river and remained there in state of semi-consciousness for almost 4 hours. When the mid-afternoon sun was less fearsome I rode another 40 kilometres to the nearest town and holed-up in hotel for the next 8 hours. At this point, I could not stomach any solid food, and realised I was suffering at the hands of the extreme temperatures and heat exhaustion.

Lessons from the Transcontinental Race

At the time, I felt that I had not ridden at the right times of day in order to avoid the heat, and this point comes through as in my video diary. Now, as I reflect, I know that I couldn’t have ridden at night since I can’t suppress the urge to sleep then (remember response inhibition?) The logistics of trying to reverse my body clock in preparation for a race whilst performing a demanding vocation would be insurmountable. My feeling now is that I should have been better prepared to ride in the heat. Principally, I should have addressed two issues. Firstly acclimation: I should have trained for the heat. I didn’t, because being British I am not often enough exposed to extreme heat to actually appreciate the effects it has on human physiology and performance – and to believe these temperatures actually exist! However, training for heat has been shown to potentially benefit overall performance, not just performance in the heat, so if there is any chance of high environmental temperatures it is worth undertaking heat training regardless. Secondly, I should have allowed a greater carrying capacity for water and fluids. This was perhaps the biggest flaw in my preparation. At times I should definitely have been carrying at least 3 litres, if not more! I paid the price for this and by the time I had recovered I had to re-align my expectations back to finishing before the cut-off. So with the intention of managing my workload carefully, I gingerly clambered aboard my bike and set off for the finish line.

TCR_FinishLine

The finish line

After a calamitous final section in which I suffered a terminal failure of my rear tyre, I walked the final 7 kilometres, in suffocating heat, and arrived at the finish line in Kalabaka, Greece, in a foul and dispirited mood. I was robbed of the glory of rolling across the finish line, triumphant and fulfilled. Nevertheless, I had finished and I had finished 12 hours before the cut-off. On the lack of glory at the finish my final thought as I left Kalabaka to return to the UK was, ‘there’s always next time’.

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – Nutrition

By Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

In cycling very long distances as fast as possible, ultra-endurance cyclists use an extraordinary amount of energy. Replenishing these energy stores is critical for racers to maintain performance and stay competitive. To achieve this, riders do not simply settle for 3 square meals per day, or even 3 big meals a day, which would simply not be enough! Instead, we eat more frequently, and because we do not want to stop too often, this means eating whilst riding: “grazing on the go,” as it is affectionately referred to amongst cyclists. This involves eating an array of convenient snacks ranging from the healthy – bananas, oranges and kiwi fuits – to the energy packed goodness of carbohydrate and fibre rich wholegrain bars, nuts for fat replenishment, all the way through to the downright despicable: chocolate bars, Peperami and lots of jelly sweets. Did I mention ice cream? There was a bit of that too. The overriding consensus amongst riders is that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from, and you take all you can get!

Fatigue 2

Biting more than you can use

Although it is intuitive to think that you need to eat a lot more to compete in these races, there is a limit to how much energy a human can take on board. Take the example of carbohydrates. The limit to how much carbohydrate can enter the bloodstream is dictated by a clever transporter system between our gut and our circulation. The ‘problem’ with this system, from the point of view of an ultra-racer, is that it can only transfer approximately 60 grams of carbs per hour from the gut to the bloodstream, maybe up to 90 at a push. In an ultra event, racers are likely to use much more. On top of this, this transport relies on an adequate blood supply to the gut to deliver energy to the system and facilitate it’s function. However, when cycling most of our blood supply is directed to the muscles because they are using so much energy. This can make this transport system slower and less effective and may lead to “gastrointestinal distress” – tummy ache to you and me! This is a common problem for ultra-cyclists, but it is even more common in ultra-runners, probably because of there is more jumbling up and down in the tummy, which I think is the technical terminology…

Measuring the loss of energy stores

If the human body is in a state where it can’t take on as much energy as it uses, it is likely there will be a net loss of energy stores in the body; this has actually been shown in a couple of studies which examined ultra cyclists. However, the magnitude of this deficit is up for debate. One study showed that it could be as much as 8000 calories per day, whilst another derived that it was a more conservative 1500 calories. This discrepancy is likely due to the fact that these studies chose very different methods of measurement. To add to these studies I attempted to use yet another type of measurement to see if I could determine my ‘energy status’ during the Transcontinental Race. I opted for measuring circulating glucose (sugar) and lipids (fats) by pricking my finger and then using an everyday device that a diabetic might use to monitor their blood sugar. Simple.

Or perhaps not. I found that when I measured glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides, values were usually either the same as or higher than the resting values that I measured before the race, which goes against the hypothesis that I would be suffering from an energy deficit, and the data generated by previous studies. I can think of a number of mitigating circumstances. Firstly, I had devised a plan to take measurements pre- and post-meal. Yet, it quickly became obvious that I would rarely find myself in a pre- or post-meal state, because I ate so often. Timing of measurements was therefore erratic at best. Also, continually lancing my fingertips became a painful burden: my fingers were wounded and bruised for most of the time I was racing. Eventually, I decided it was too much of a hindrance, especially as my chances of finishing the race were already jeopardised by heat-induced illness. Heat also affected my appetite and ability to adequately digest: I was nearly re-acquainted with more than one meal towards the end of the race and spent the last two days eating nothing but ice-lollies.

In case you needed reminding, this was no walk in the park! Come back next week to find out if the ice-lollies got me over the line!


Make sure you follow the blog and subscribe to our Youtube Channel to keep up with the Ultra Cycle Diaries. Check back every Wednesday for a new blog and video!

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – Fatigue

By Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

Cycling 4000 kilometres as quickly as possible inevitably means that fatigue plays an important role, and those who manage and deal with it well are likely do best in endurance bike racing. Fatigue is the over-arching term to describe the inability of an individual subject to maintain a performance output over time; in the case of the Transcontinental Race, a very long time.

The reduction of the body’s energy stores is a key factor in the development of fatigue. Elite bike racing teams focus heavily on it to avoid what is affectionately known in cycling circles as ‘bonking’: feeling hypoglycaemic, with your legs turned to jelly, and mild dizziness. However, whilst fuelling is undoubtedly crucial, the Transcontinental Race provides the added challenge of being one long stage from start to finish: no daily finish lines, no support team and massage waiting at the end of every day. Therefore, developing a race strategy also includes deciding when and how much to rest and sleep, and route planning – both of which will impact on fatigue. Managing these components to optimise performance in the race is no mean feat especially when there are other factors to consider which are completely out of your control…

Fatigue graph

This plot of my power output over time shows an overall gradual decline in power during the race (red), which could be dure to a multitude of factors including the distance cycled and the increasing temperatures. ©Daniel Brayson

Response inhibition – the power of the mind

Due to the fiercely hot weather, a number of racers made the decision to cycle during the night and sleep during the day to avoid the hottest part of the day. This strategy didn’t work for me: I find it very difficult to inhibit my physiological urge to sleep at times that I would normally do so; this was no surprise, as I would famously fall asleep in nightclubs during my undergraduate years! Those who can resist these kinds of urges have what is known as a strong ‘response inhibition’: they are able to use the fortitude of their minds to ignore the desire of their bodies to sleep, and power through. They are likely to be successful endurance cyclists too, since they may also have a strong response inhibition to fatigue! The reason for this has been discovered recently: to a certain degree, fatigue is determined by the effort perceived by an individual rather than just the energy reserves available in their muscles (Marcora & Staiano, 2010). In fact, studies have shown that when a subject stops exercising because of exhaustion, there is still energy left in their muscles suggesting that it is the brain that is the limiting factor to performance!

Stress and physical performance

Remaining on the topic of the psychological components of fatigue, it is also now known that dealing with stressful situations can increase the effort perceived by an athlete and have a negative impact on endurance performance (Marcora et al., 2009). During the Transcontinental Race I encountered numerous stressful situations. For instance, I lost lots of my gear by just forgetting to re-pack it and leaving it in random places. I lost a pulse oximeter – a device to measure the oxygen saturation of my blood – before I got anywhere near a mountain, missing out on some nice data. My phone, on which I was heavily reliant for navigating and for performing an app-based psychological test called the Stroop test, broke because of the heat. I bought a new one and exchanged my sim card, only to realise 15 minutes down the road that I didn’t have it. I raced back to the shop – it wasn’t there. Retracing my steps, I could no longer determine if I was sweating through physical effort or panic! I finally found my brand new phone, just peeking out amongst the packaging in which it originally came: I had thrown it in the bin!!! Fatigue begets fatigue begets fatigue…


Make sure you follow the blog and subscribe to our Youtube Channel to keep up with the Ultra Cycle Diaries. Check back every Wednesday for a new blog and video!

References

Marcora SM & Staiano W. (2010). The limit to exercise tolerance in humans: mind over muscle? Eur J Appl Physiol 109, 763-770.

Marcora SM, Staiano W & Manning V. (2009). Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985) 106, 857-864.

The Ultra Cycle Diaries – Setting off on the Transcontinental Race

By Daniel Brayson, King’s College London, @DrDanBrayson

At 21:59 pm on the 28 July 2017, I was sat on the saddle of my bike in the market square in Geerardsbergen, Belgium. One minute later I was racing my bike up a famous steep cobbled path called the Muur of Geraardsbergen hoping to complete challenge of a lifetime!

My name is Daniel Brayson, and most of the time I perform lab experiments at King’s College London, investigating the causes of a heart muscle disease called cardiomyopathy. By nature I am a restless individual and being confined to the lab environment, while a worthy cause, can lead me to become, well… restless! I like the notion of travel and adventure and have always considered myself an active individual. It was these traits which led me to take on the Transcontinental Race.

A self-supported race across Europe

The Transcontinental Race is the most notable of many emerging self-supported ultra-endurance cycle races. It traverses Europe from west to east, eating up 3500 – 4000 km depending on the route, which is never the same from one year to the next. It begins in Geraardsbergen in Flemish Belgium, finishing in previous years in Canakkale, Turkey and more recently at the UNESCO site of the ancient monasteries of Meteora, Greece.
The race is a series of checkpoints between which the route taken is the decision of the rider. As well as endurance fitness, this race tests mapping and planning skills: it is a survival race rather than a mere bike race, orienteering on two wheels if you will, which for many is part of the appeal.

Unlike stage racing with a daily start and finish time (i.e. the Tour de France), when the clock starts in the Transcontinental Race, it does not stop until you cross the finish line. It is at the discretion of the rider to decide when and where to stop, eat and sleep and is completely self-supported. One can use commercial outlets to buy supplies and even stay in hotels, as they are available to all other riders. However, the use of support teams, stopping at international friends’ houses en-route, or posting supplies to various points along your route, is strictly forbidden. All of these factors increase the logistical complexity of the race and it means that anything one may lack in physical fitness could well be compensated for with experience and know-how. Again, for many, this is part of the appeal.

A physical and psychological challenge

Fatigue600px

Riders are subjected to a unique set of demands and conditions during such races. Physically, increasing levels of fatigue may seem like an obvious hurdle to success, but experiencing this on the backdrop of having to think about your nutritional, rest and sleep requirements is also psychologically demanding. Environmental challenges such as extreme temperatures – hot days and cold nights – add to the demands, as does topography: climbing mountain roads is a challenge, but even more so above 2000 metres where oxygen starts to become sparse! Needless to say, that as a scientist I viewed these challenging demands as an exciting opportunity to try to observe and quantify the effect these have on the body in the field. So I did…

A physiological case study

Inspired by famous historical proponents of field and self-experimentation such as Griffith Pugh, who conducted field work into altitude physiology, discovering the secrets that put the first man on the summit of Everest, and Barry Marshall, who fed himself bacteria to prove the origins of stomach ulcers (and won a Nobel prize), I armed myself with a few lightweight gadgets before heading to the starting line of the 2017 Transcontinental Race.

The gadgets I had stowed away included a small device to measure sugar and fat from blood samples taken from pricking my finger, and a pulse oximeter, a device that clips onto the end of one’s finger to measure the percentage saturation of oxygen in the blood. On my smartphone, I had downloaded a cognitive test called the Stroop Test, to assess mental fatigue. I also had a bike computer that recorded metrics like heart rate, distance, elevation climbed and environmental temperature.

To find out if I was able to finish the race, tune in to the next episodes where I’ll take a more detailed look at the impact of ultra-endurance racing on my physiology!


Make sure you follow the blog and subscribe to our Youtube Channel to keep up with the Ultra Cycle Diaries. Check back every Wednesday for a new blog and video!

Spinning Out of Control? Public Engagement at SPIN Cycle Festival

By Daniel Brayson, @drdanbrayson

SPIN cycling festival, a celebration of all things cycling, took place on the weekend of 12 May 2017 at the Olympia in Kensington, London. Here at The Physiological Society, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the wonders of physiology, using funding from The Society’s Public Engagement Grants.

Banner pe grants 2017_extended deadline June

The premise of our activity was to find some anecdotal dogma, which is prevalent in sports like cycling, and disprove it. Put simply, we went on a myth-busting mission.

A popular assumption among amateur cycling enthusiasts is that it is good to cycle at a high cadence. Discarding the jargon, this essentially means pedalling really fast. Many people think this because successful professional athletes such as Chris Froome, and previously Lance Armstrong, cycled at very high cadences when they were racing in huge competitions such as the Tour de France, the most famous cycling race in the world.

We based our experiment on a paper in one of The Society’s journals, Physiological Reports, from 2015 by Formenti and colleagues titled Pedalling rate is an important determinant of human oxygen uptake during exercise on the cycle ergometer. What the paper essentially showed is that the faster you pedal for a given work rate, the more energy you use.

Bike like the wind

With this in mind, we set out to perform some live experiments on festival-goers. We set up a bike on a smart turbo trainer with a computer that we could use to read measurements. We recruited many willing volunteers over the course of the weekend, fitting them with a device to measure heart rate, and setting them up on the bike.

Using the smart turbo trainer, we set the amount of work that the volunteers would do to 150 watts of power and placed headphones on them. They then sat for 1 minute before beginning to cycle in time with a metronome, or a clicking sound, that was playing through the headphones. We changed the speed of the click at set intervals which meant that the volunteer would change their cadence accordingly. At each cadence, we recorded the heart rate of the volunteer twice, 30 seconds apart.

Pedalling faster, beating faster

We found that as pedalling rate increased, so did heart rate. This can be seen on the left-hand graph below by the line which goes up in diagonal from bottom left to top right. This suggests that faster pedalling did indeed require more energy, even though the power output remained constant.

spinfest3

Our graph, on the left, comes to a similar conclusion as Formenti and his colleagues on the right. As pedalling rate goes up, so does work rate and energy expenditure. Where Formenti measured oxygen uptake, which requires unwieldy equipment unsuitable for our event, we used heart rate as an easily obtainable proxy measurement, and it agrees nicely with Formenti’s findings.

What does it mean, really?

The real world meaning here is that cycling along the road in lower gears than necessary with high pedalling rate uses more energy than cycling in slightly higher gears but pedalling at a slower rate.

So what’s the deal with Chris Froome?

Chris Froome, and other pro cyclists are not your average human beings from a physiological perspective, so it’s probably a bad idea for us to copy them! The science does show that pedalling quickly at sustained power outputs up to 400 watts, achievable mostly by elite athletes, is far less wasteful. This is because most of the energy gets transferred to the bike in this scenario.

spinfest2

It was especially dynamic and rewarding to engage with a diverse mix of people and preach the gospel of physiology. I would like to thank all the visitors who staked their reputations by joining our experiment! I would also like to thank The Physiological Society for financial support and especially Anisha Tailor for all of her sage advice. A big thanks to Louis Passfield for his generous support and loan of equipment. Finally, I would especially like to thank all of my wonderful volunteer scientists without whom the whole event would surely have been a disaster Elizabeth Halton, Chris Fullerton, Ozama Ismail, Fulye Argunhan, Elena Wilde, Svetlana Mastitskaya, Xiao Xiao Han, and Nick Beazley-Long.

 

 

Anti-doping: evolution or revolution?

debate-handout (002)_Page_1_crop

What is the best approach to tackle doping in sport? Should we improve our current detection and deterrence methods, or would a complete different approach be the best solution?

The event, held by Cycling Weekly and co-hosted with the University of Brighton, was inspired by two recent comment pieces published in CW; the first by sports ethics specialist Dr Paul Dimeo, who called for a revolution in anti-doping policy — a complete re-evaluation of what we mean by ‘cheating’.

In response, genetics expert Professor Yannis Pitsiladis countered that current anti-doping measures can succeed provided they evolve via improved testing and more severely punitive deterrents. Thus the debate was born — anti-doping: evolution or revolution?

You can catch up with the debate here.

We were delighted to have our Member Yannis Pitsiladis join our panel at Edinburgh Science Festival where he debated with sports psychologist Edward Coughlan about the relative importance of genetics and training in our event ‘Olympians: Born or built?’. The event, chaired by three time Paralympian Dan Gordon, was a huge success with the audience, continuing the debate online, and in the bar. The event was one of many stops in the Professor of Sport and Exercise Science public engagement appearance.