What's in the Water?

It is no surprise that triathletes and swimmers expose themselves to some nasty waters all in the name of training and competition. Contaminated water is an occupational hazard. But what kind of impact does this have on an athlete? Is there really a risk of increased illness? Unfortunately, whether you are a triathlete, swimmer, or surfer your risk for GI illness is increased by inadvertent ingestion of contaminated water.

This past summer the Associated Press tested the water off the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. What they discovered was that “...the waters where Olympians will compete...are rife with human sewage and present a serious health risk for athletes.” Of course, there isn’t a single Olympian that is going to forgo the biggest event of their athletic career because of dirty water.  

Most triathletes have experienced the possibility of a canceled race due to high levels of water contamination (I’m looking at you, Boulder Reservoir!). It’s naïve to think, however, that when the race isn’t canceled the bacterial load has magically disappeared. It hasn’t. The level of bacteria just dropped below a certain threshold during that moment and at that spot where the water was tested. Ultimately, testing can give us a good range or indication, but it can only be a general guide, and as I stated earlier, despite following EPA testing, swimming in U.S. recreational waters increases your risk for GI illness. 

What does this increased risk for GI illness mean for athletes? We certainly are not going to stop training and competing in open water just to avoid contamination exposure. However, there are steps we can take to avoid getting sick:

  • Check your municipality’s test results: All recreational waters must be tested for contamination, so if you plan on training in open water you can always check your city's most recent testing results
  • Avoid swimming after a recent storm: You may want to avoid swimming in your local lake or reservoir if there has been recent rain. Run-off from a storm can increase bacterial load in the water. 
  • Stop choking down water: How is your swim technique? Full rotation – breathing out through both your nose and mouth – staying relaxed. They are some basic tips, but especially for the novice swimmer poor technique can mean more water down the hatch and that means more of those potential nasty bugs in your system.
  • Get defensive: Although there has not been specific research examining recreational swimmers and the use of probiotics in the prevention of GI illness from contaminated water exposure, some of the same bacteria can cause traveler’s diarrhea (ie, E.coli). Probiotics have been found to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, so it’s possible that they could be helpful in preventing infection from bad water as well.  

Staring at that same black line for 1500m can get awfully boring. Outdoor training in the open water is a great change of pace and a must for any competitive athlete. We’re certainly not talking about contracting the plague from your local lake. But when an infection means missed training days, or your A-race is canceled because of bacteria levels in the water, it becomes a serious matter. And athletes are taking notice – especially those looking to punch a ticket to Brazil. Unfortunately, a new round of testing in December of 2015 revealed that the waters off Rio were worse than they were before. Luckily, they have eight months to literally get their shit together.

Inflammation, Your Gut and Performance


We recently had a great conversation with our friends at Endurance Planet about gut health, probiotics, and the endurance athlete (check out the podcast). The question of how inflammation affects performance came up and I felt like revisiting the issue a bit more extensively in this post.

Inflammation is not necessarily the boogeyman that it is often believed to be. To understand how inflammation might affect athletic performance, let’s first define inflammation and its role in the body.

Inflammation is an extremely complex and dynamic process. It functions appropriately in our bodies as a means of warding off infections and responding to injured tissues. Think of inflammation as a cascade of events with the infection (injury, toxin, or stressor) resulting in the release of particular cells and chemicals that go after the infection or injured tissue to either destroy the offending stimulus or protect/repair the injured tissue. Inflammation is what leads to pus and to the straw-colored fluid in blisters. But most often the reaction goes on unseen inside our bodies.  

It is important to understand that infection is not the same as inflammation. An inflammatory response occurs as a result of an infection, but that is not the only time inflammation occurs in the body. Exercise is a well established cause of inflammation too. Exercise can lead to tissue (ie, muscle) injury, which sets off a cascade of inflammation. However, this is a short-term effect. Exercise has actually been found to have a long-term anti-inflammatory effect

So when is inflammation bad? This is a tough question without a good answer, but I think it would be generally accepted that inflammation, when chronic, is doing more harm than good. When does inflammation become chronic? Well, neither that blister nor that cold will last forever, so for the majority of us it’s not nasty bugs or autoimmune conditions that are driving chronic inflammation. It is our diet and stress!

The link between our diets and chronic, systemic inflammation is thought to be mediated through our guts. A less diverse microbiota, associated with a typical Western diet, has been linked to increased intestinal permeability. This process allows substances that should not cross into the bloodstream do so, triggering an inflammatory response. This process has been linked with increased insulin resistance and in turn obesity and type II diabetes. Current research is also pointing toward chronic inflammation as a culprit in the development of cardiovascular disease and even depression.

How does inflammation affect performance

As I mentioned earlier, exercise actually causes inflammation, but it dissipates within hours to days with adequate recovery. The problem arises, when you don’t allow for adequate recovery or add on other stressors (ie, poor diet, poor sleep, alcohol, etc) that augment the inflammation leading to, you guessed it – chronic inflammation. At this point, you are treading in dangerous territory and run the risk of overreaching and overtraining.  IF we are to assume that these syndromes represent a state of chronic inflammation – or are in fact synonymous, then we can most definitely say that they affect performance!

What to do about it

Proper Nutrition: Despite some good guiding principles with nutrition and hydration, what you consume is a very personal choice, and it takes a lot of self-experimentation to figure out what works. But the bottom line is that you should take as much care with what you put in your body as you do with picking out your gear. Check out Endurance Planet for several great podcasts on nutrition for athletes as well as the website for a leading exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup

Proper sleep: Get it! Read more about gut health and sleep here

Maintain a healthy gut: Personally, this doesn’t have anything to do with adhering to a specific diet or relying heavily on a particular food group, but rather focusing on the least refined, most natural foods I can find. I also eat a wide array of fermented foods/drinks like miso, kombucha, and sauerkraut. The goal is to increase microbial diversity in our gut. Increased microbial diversity is associated with less inflammation.

Proper sleep and reducing stress also have beneficial effects on gut health.

Avoid unnecessary antibiotics. Don't be quick to accept an antibiotic prescription. Ask your doctor if it is really needed and if "waiting it out" might be a better option (as is the case for a cold and most sinus issues). 

Avoid excessive alcohol

Don't take NSAIDs for pain

Get a coach: A coach can keep track of your training intensity and see patterns in your performance that will prevent you from overreaching and aid in proper recovery. A good coach is worth every penny! 




What athletes should know about leaky gut


You have probably heard the term "leaky gut" before, but what does the science actually say  about this phenomenon and how does it relate to endurance athletes?

When we talk about leaky gut, we are really referring to an increase in intestinal permeability. This does not mean that there are holes in the intestines, but rather that the spaces between the cells that make up the intestinal lining have widened. Normally, intestinal cells are closely packed next to each other to form tight junctions that only let small molecules pass from the intestines into the bloodstream. During times of increased permeability, the tight junctions loosen giving larger molecules and toxins the opportunity to leak into the bloodstream.

Increased intestinal permeability is a particularly important issue for endurance athletes because exercise has been shown to draw blood flow away from the gut which increases permeability and may lower the efficacy of the immune system. This can lead to common side effects that many endurance experience such as cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and an increased risk of infection. One study found that permeability increases with running intensity so the harder you train, the higher your risk for these adverse effects. But don’t worry, no one is telling you to lighten up on your training! There is actually a way to help prevent the exercise-induced increase in permeability: probiotics.

Probiotics have been shown to prevent intestinal permeability and even prevent exercise-induced permeability specifically. The idea is that probiotics form a protective barrier around the intestinal cells which reduces permeability and supports the immune system. This may explain why probiotic supplementation is associated with fewer gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses in athletes.

Probiotic supplements are a great tool to help you stay healthy while training hard, but be sure to choose your probiotic wisely. If you read our post on why probiotic strains matter, you will remember that a probiotic should contain the types that have been shown to result in the benefits you are looking for you.

by Katelyn Collins

Katelyn Collins, is a future registered dietitian with a passion for probiotics, a knack for nutrition communications, and a love of athletic pursuits on both land and sea.


Is your frame stronger than your bones?

Image Source:  Cycling Weekly

Image Source: Cycling Weekly

One of the greatest cyclists to ever race in the professional peloton crashed out of the Tour de France yesterday. Fabian Cancellara was wearing the yellow jersey when he was involved in a high speed crash that took out several riders. Unfortunately, Cancellara did not ride away unscathed. He suffered fractures of his lumbar spine, effectively ending his Tour and the rest of his season.

Broken clavicles are a frequent occurrence among competitive cyclists. But broken bones of the spine? That usually happens in little old ladies, right?! Granted, Cancellara was likely racing at over 30mph and landed directly on cement, the accident got me thinking, are cyclists at risk for poor bone health?

I already had a good idea of the answer, but I wanted to dig into the research a bit more. Although, cycling has been shown to confer several health benefits, improving bone health is unfortunately not one of them. News Flash: cycling is a non-weight bearing activity and as a result it is associated with lower bone mass. In fact, two-thirds of the professional and master adult road cyclists could be classified as osteopenic, or having a bone density lower than normal. Many times it is the lumbar spine, or lower back, that is found to be osteopenic. This is the part of the spine that was fractured in Fabian Cancellara’s case.

Interestingly, calcium intake and hormonal influences on bone health, were found to be within normal ranges in the cyclists studied, suggesting that it is the lack of impact on the bones that leads to the low density. 

Speaking from experience, when you are really training and racing hard the last thing you want to do is exert more energy off the bike, so what do you do? You put your feet up and lie on the couch all day further reducing the needed stress on your bones to maintain their density.

Although, we don’t know if Fabian Cancellara has osteopenia, I’d be willing to bet that many cyclists in the elite and professional pelotons do. With a high incidence of crashes in road cycling, bone health is not a topic that receives it’s needed attention. And the research is pretty darn clear: those of us who compete in road cycling are more likely to develop osteopenia and osteoporosis.

So do we add in weight training to prevent bone density loss? For many cyclists this is an absolute no-no. If that’s the case for you, other forms of resistance training can be added instead, including pilates and plyometrics. Interestingly, it does appear that mountain biking, with its more impactful riding, is not associated with as much bone density loss.

It’s also important to think about getting screened for osteopenia if you consider yourself a competitive road cyclist. Screening would include a few lab test including hormone levels, calcium, and Vitamin D, as well as a bone density scan, or DXA (fyi: when you tell your doctor that you want to be screened for low bone density he or she will laugh at you, assuming you don’t have the normal risk factors for osteopenia, and rattle off what the USPSTF recommends and try to send you on your merry way. At that time please take out your phone and show him or her the link to this study and then politely ask again for a DXA).

It was a sad day, losing Fabian Cancellara to a crash just as he had donned the leader’s yellow jersey. He will be back, better than ever I’m sure. To make sure you’re able to bounce back from injury too, and perhaps prevent it from occurring in the first place, consider checking on the status of your bone health...or just go get yourself a mountain bike!


Tips for training and racing in the heat


The hot summer days are upon us so it’s a good idea to be ready for training in the heat since not being prepared can seriously affect your training and performance.

Why is training and racing in the heat potentially harmful for athletes?

For a long time we thought that heat stress and heat stroke were simply the imbalance of heat loss from the body during exercise in the setting of high air temperatures – the body can't cool itself well enough in the hot temperatures and hyperthermia sets in. We now know that the stress of heat in athletes is more complex than that.

In conjunction with the imbalance of heat regulation in the body, heat stress and ensuing heat stroke, also involve an inflammatory cascade. This inflammation is felt to be primarily mediated by the gut. Since so much blood is diverted away from gut and to the muscles during exercise the tissue of the gut becomes “leaky.” This allows toxins to cross into the bloodstream resulting in a process called endotoxemia. Exercise-induced endotoxemia is now felt to be one of the primary causes of hyperthermia in athletes.

The release of toxins into the bloodstream and the subsequent increased core body temperatures not only contributes to gastrointestinal symptoms in athletes but results in impaired performance through decreased strength and mental fatigue. And if that weren’t enough, endotoxemia can weaken an athlete’s immune system leaving you more susceptible to overtraining and illnesses (this is why there is a higher rate of respiratory infections among high intensity athletes)!

So what can you do to prevent heat related stress and impaired performance?

Here are a few suggestions for before, during, and after your training session or race:


  1. The obvious: sunscreen, light colored clothing, and being fully hydrated

  2. Pre-cooling: drink ice water or turn a pre-training drink into a slushy

  3. Don’t use ibuprofen or aspirin: these drugs can increase the gut’s “leakiness” causing even more problems.

  4. Probiotics: studies have shown that probiotics can reduce the amount of inflammation and endotoxemia that results from stress of exercise and the heat. Probiotics have also been shown to increase run time to fatigue in the heat.


  1. If you're not in a race, take more frequent stops to refill your water bottles. For really hot days you may need to consume at least double your normal water intake!

  2. Don’t forget about salt! Read my tips on salt intake here.

  3. Cold sponges or ice packs: Cyclist and runners could take this tip from triathletes who stuff cold sponges into their jerseys to keep them cool. While I’m riding I like to put small sponges in my arm pits or near the femoral artery since these areas are closer to blood vessels. Otherwise, pouring water over yourself is always an option.

  4. Be aware of pacing: as the heat rises your muscle activation and subsequent power output may diminish – adjusting accordingly will be important so you don’t blow up too soon.


  1. Dunk yourself in an ice bath or if that’s not available drape cold towels over you.

  2. Keep drinking: Just because your workout is finished doesn't mean you should stop hydrating. On those hot days your best bet is to weigh yourself before and after your workout and drink that amount over the next 24 hours (1kg roughly equals 1L of water).

Just like your races, performing well in the heat comes down to being prepared.