Triathlon

Rachel Joyce: On Going With The Flow and Giving Back

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We caught up with #SoundAthlete Rachel Joyce to learn what she’s been up to since announcing a hiatus from her professional racing career.

World champion triathlete and Kona podium regular Rachel Joyce will forgo a spot at the 2016 Ironman World Championship to focus on a different adventure: motherhood. With her baby due in the fall, Rachel is staying active through her pregnancy, but also relishing the freedom and spontaneity rarely found amid the rigors of training at the professional level.

“I’ve really enjoyed not really having a schedule,” says Rachel. “There are certain sessions I’ll try and do every week just because I enjoy seeing friends that I train with, but I also listen to how I feel. Some days I’m more tired so I might just do a solo swim. I know that some women maintain a very strict training regime throughout their pregnancy, but for me this is the perfect time to take that pressure off myself and do other things.”

These other things, for Rachel, are many. Just have a look at the laundry list of activities that make up her new day-to-day:

First, there’s her passionate work as an ambassador for two leading women’s triathlon initiatives, Women For Tri and Tri Equal. Rachel has been directly involved with the development of Women For Tri’s new ambassador program and serves as the organization’s point person in her home of Boulder, Colorado. 

“It’s been really fun,” she says. “I want to see the sport grow amongst women. One of the nice things inherent in the sport is the mix between the age groupers and the pros, and it’s inspiring to see how enthusiastic and generous the women we are engaging with are in giving their time to share the sport with others.” 

Among Tri Equal’s initiatives, the organization is best known for the drive to achieve an equal number of men and women pros in Kona. 

“I think that ties in quite nicely with the Women For Tri objectives, because beyond growing the sport at a grassroots level, it’s important to lead by example on the professional side of things,” says Rachel. “We haven’t succeeded at getting equal numbers, but we’re not going to give up.” 

Also on Rachel’s agenda are coaching duties, a title she is earning through Ironman University. 

“I only have a few clients but it’s been really fun working with them. My goals are very different this year, but I have enjoyed taking others through a training program to reach their goal.”

And her mentoring doesn’t end there. Taking a detour from triathlon, Rachel serves as an English teacher volunteer through Intercambio, an organization that provides cultural integration and English language classes to immigrants in Boulder County. 

“I’m an immigrant, although I happen to speak English,” says Rachel. “It sometimes feels very separated in Boulder, and you could miss that there is a large immigrant population. I’d really like to see a more intercultural, integrated community. And while I don’t want to get too political, I want to do what little I can to counter the negative dialogue that’s been created about immigrants and integration. It’s a small thing that I’m doing through volunteering, but it is important to me.”

To further expand her own cultural horizons, Rachel attends an intensive Spanish course three mornings a week. She’s always wanted to master a foreign language and says, “It seemed like a perfect time to throw myself into it.”

As a soon-to-be mother, Rachel is also more invested than ever in her physical well being. She uses Sound Probiotics to safeguard both her own and her baby’s immune health.

“I started using the product about 18 months ago,” says Rachel. “The more I read about gut health, the more I see that it’s central to how you absorb nutrition,  to the health of your immune system and your mental well being. So Sound Probiotics are a staple in my daily routine. Even if I don’t take another supplement – if I miss my Vitamin C, for example – I take my probiotic every day. And now that I’m expecting, I’ve read articles saying that taking a probiotic – during pregnancy and after you give birth, if you decide to breastfeed – can help with your child’s future health and help prevent acid reflux.  I wasn’t unhealthy before I started taking Sound, but professional sport is about finding your optimal health. Now I want to do everything I can to be as healthy as possible and create a healthy environment for my growing baby.”

With all of Rachel’s interests, community activities and outstanding athletic accolades, she’s an obvious inspiration to many. Yet she’s hard pressed to see herself in that light. 

“I don’t see myself as inspiring people,” says Rachel. “I would love it if I do inspire people but I am not sure that can be a goal in itself. I love what I do and I’m mostly driven by doing stuff that I enjoy and things that feel right. That’s why I got involved with these various projects. Triathlon has had such a positive impact on my life, and that’s why I think it would be great if we could reach more women and get them into the sport. That comes from my personal experience in the sport and how it makes me feel. It makes me a more positive person, more confident, and that’s something I would love everyone to have the opportunity to feel.”

“Plus,” she adds, “When you’re training all the time, life can be quite mono-dimensional. It’s been quite nice to add other things in that key into other important parts of my personality. I would never have had the time to do the things I’m doing now when I was training to race and focusing on Kona. I do want to return to the sport, but I have ambitions for after the sport as well, so this is a good time to explore how I might shape my career after I’m done racing.”

Starting a family is one thing that Rachel and her long-time partner Brett wanted to do, and the experience thus far is providing a fresh and welcome perspective. 

“Not all of pregnancy has been easy,” says Rachel. “I definitely found it hard in the early days just because I didn’t feel great. But it feels really nice that it’s not me that comes first now. I like that aspect – thinking about another person and making this baby my priority. Sometimes I have struggled in the sport because you need to be selfish at points and so singularly focused. That’s necessary to reach your potential, but I also found it difficult at times. So it’s nice to have shifted focus. It’s a relief in a lot of ways.”

As for when we might see Rachel back on a triathlon start line? 

“I think nothing can really prepare you for having a baby except for when you actually have it,” she says. “I don’t have a concrete image of how life will be after the baby comes and I’m not pressuring myself that I have to be back into training at a certain time. I really feel that I’m going to go with the flow and see what happens.”

Digging Deep with Ben Hoffman

Ironman Champion Ben Hoffman recently returned from the trip of a lifetime to South Africa where, before touring the country for some hard-earned R&R with fiancée Kelsey Deery, he scored a brilliant victory at Ironman South Africa. The performance was quintessential Hoffman – a window into the dogged discipline that drives him to push the limits of his potential, day after day, year after year in training. In the marathon, Hoffman and fellow pro Tim Van Berkel ran stride for stride until the halfway point, picking off a succession of rivals before an unfaltering Hoffman ultimately pulled ahead to clinch the win. We sat down with the newly crowned champ to learn how he manages to dig deep under pressure and maintain focus when it matters most, and to get a sense of his outlook for the season ahead.

In your post-race recap from Ironman South Africa, you mentioned looking at your watch at the half marathon mark, seeing the time of 1:20, and making “a decision in that moment to end the pain as quickly as possible... no groveling home, no struggle street blues, just suck it up and win this damn thing.” That’s a risky place to be, when you’ve gone out a bit harder than you might have intended and you’re on that precipice where you’re either going to have a breakout success or a massive blowup. What tools – whether internal or external, physical or mental – did you use to dig deep and ensure the end result was a good one? 

“I think a lot of that stuff happens before you get into those moments. It’s in the training you do. You practice hurting yourself over and over again while you’re training, and you practice not quitting and not giving up. I go out and train really hard, so I get my body used to dealing with that pain. Part of the game plan also – and it always is with an Ironman – is to stay focused in every moment. I remember specifically in South Africa, Kelsey was on the course and every time I saw her she said, ‘Run in this moment.’ You have to do the best thing you possibly can in each moment, because that’s all you can do. Even when things get painful, you just have to make the best decision to deal with that pain right then. We’ve incorporated some meditation this year, which I think has been really helpful. It’s about being mindful and practicing being aware of what you need in any given moment. If your muscles cramp a little, maybe you need a little more food or a little more electrolyte. It’s about paying attention to those small cues. You have to be peaceful in a way, and focused in the moment, because if you allow yourself to get overwhelmed by how chaotic it is in a race setting, you’ll start to unravel.”

When you finished second in Kona in 2014, was that a similar experience of feeling aware and in control?

“It was. I remember people on course kept telling me, ‘Jan [Frodeno] is right behind you!’ He got within 15 seconds – it was really close – but I thought, I can’t do anything about Jan. I can only do what I can do right now. I remember my coach Elliot saying, ‘Don’t listen to these people. You know what to do. Take care of yourself and get what you need from the aid stations.’ I had been really conscious that entire race about cooling and I remember – even as Jan got within 15 seconds – I got to the next aid station and I slowed down to get all the ice and water I needed. I knew I couldn’t go ripping through to try and get away from him or it was going to blow up in my face. You need to have that laser focus on yourself and what you need, regardless of what’s happening around you, in order to get your best performance. I think that’s evidenced when you finally get across the line and can really let go – the relief and emotion is obvious, because the focus has been so intense.”

How does your experience in Kona 2014 and at Ironman South Africa add to your arsenal heading into Kona 2016?

“I have a better idea every year that I do Kona of what I need to perform well out there. One of the things that’s really important is what’s going on in your life outside of the sport. I’ve found that to be the final critical key. I’m really consistent in my training – I feel like I always come to an Ironman in physically good shape and ready to race – but that extra five to ten percent, or even more, comes from what’s going on in your personal life and where your head is outside of the sport and outside of the training. In Kona 2014 and this year in South Africa, I knew that I was in a really good state mentally. I almost knew I was going to have a good performance just because of that. This year I keep saying to myself in training, ‘This is the year to make it happen.’ I feel that in my heart right now, and I think we have the pieces in place to make it happen, from sponsor support to Kelsey’s support and just where I’m at mentally. Plus, the fact that I punched my ticket to Kona early is really good. I can truly focus the season on that race. It’s a nice feeling that no matter what, between now and October it’s really only about Kona. It’s a good place to be in, and now it’s just about capitalizing on that position and making sure we do everything right.”

How does Sound Probiotics fit into that plan, and why are probiotics important to you?

“My initial interest in gut health and using probiotics for boosting health was the recognition that around 70 percent of your immune health is based in your gut, which to me was eye opening. I don’t know how I didn’t know that before! I’ve struggled over the Ironman distance with GI issues, and I think you really have to come to the race with optimal gut health. To do an Ironman properly and have good nutrition and be able to deal with the struggles that happen in the race, you have to come into it with your gut in the healthiest place possible. It’s also important when you travel to the race – your immune system has to be in optimal condition when you board the plane and travel, for example, to South Africa for 35 hours. I didn’t have any health issues the entire trip, and we had really crazy travel. We were stuck in middle seats with a guy coughing all over the place, and we had a stressful situation on one of our layovers with an airport official wanting to take our passports, plus a bag that didn’t make the connection. That sort of stuff really stresses you out and takes a toll on your well-being! It’s also important to make sure you get probiotics in right after a race when your body is shelled. Everyone walks away from a race in kind of a rough spot in terms of how much it taxes your body, and probiotics protect you from getting sick afterwards so that you can hit the reset button and get going again. For me, they’ve been really helpful.”

One final question: You often talk about the pursuit of “ideal execution”, of seeking that elusive perfect performance. Do you think a perfect performance is actually possible?

“No, I don’t. But I still think there’s a lot of value in talking about it. Because it makes you cognizant of chasing your best, all the time. I don’t believe in perfection as a concept necessarily, but I think there’s something noble about chasing perfection, even when you know it’s not possible. And I think that if you want to continue to be the best when you’re at a high level, that’s what you need to do to make it happen.”

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.

10 Races to Test Your Limits in 2016

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What is epic or extreme is really in the eye of the beholder. Your local 5K could be an epic adventure for the right person or under the right circumstances. But for those competitive athletes who like to push a little further, here is a list of 10 races sure to offer up a challenge and test limits. We tried to stay within the continental US and spread out the options throughout the year. We also looked to some lesser-known races, because we could probably fill up this list with 10 Ironman races alone! Which races did we miss? Be sure to let us know your thoughts on the comments to the blog…. 

Arrowhead 135 – January – International Falls

Less that 50% of participants finish the Arrowhead 135. Whether by ski, foot or bike, racers face a punishing 135 mile trail at probably the coldest point in the lower-48 states. Temps can fall to 30 or 40 degrees below 0 pretty easily. The mandatory gear list alone is enough to scare most away from entry. Check out this short film on the race. www.arrowheadultra.com

Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon – June – San Francisco

Perhaps not the longest or most “extreme” on the list or even in the world of triathlon, but watching first-hand as swimmers battle the cold and choppy bay waters is enough to give you pause. Add in some brutal climbs on the bike, and the run up the iconic steps of Baker Beach, and this triathlon is a very punishing yet accessible short-course adventure.  http://www.escapefromalcatraztriathlon.com

Race Across America/RAAM - June – all over America

Teams and individual riders climb 170,000 ft in elevation along the way from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD.  The winners average about 22 hours a day on their bikes and there is a cut-off after 12-days. But don’t expect to just show-up, the shortest qualifying race for the RAAM is 375 miles long, not too mention the support crew set-up that is needed for this epic adventure. www.raceacrossamerica.org

RAGBRAI – July – all over Iowa

Created by a couple of journalists for the local Iowa newspaper, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is the oldest and largest week-long bicycle tour in the World. Averaging 500 miles across 7 days, the event draws cyclists of all abilities and ages. It’s a race or it’s a party depending on what type of adventure you are looking for. www.ragbrai.com

American Birkebeiner – February - Hayward

To ski or to bike? Located in northern Wisconsin, the Birkebeiner offers a few options for an intense winter workout. The 55k ski race takes place in late February and is North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon. And then a couple weeks later, the Fat Bike Birkie gives cyclists the chance to race along the same trail at either a 47k or 22k distance. Prefer a dry race? There is even an Ultra run on the same course in October. www.birkie.com 

The Dipsea – June – Mill Valley

It’s only 7.4 miles, but most would argue that they are the most grueling 7.4 miles you could ever run. There are steep steps and treacherous climbs. And folks love it. Billed as the oldest trail race in American, the race limits itself to 1500 entrants because of its popularity. The race entry process takes this into account, so plan ahead. Check out some amazing photos at www.dipsea.org 

Badwater 135 – July – Furnace Creek

It starts in a place called Death Valley and proceeds through Furnace Creek. Badwater is known as one of the hardest races, let alone foot races, in the world. And if the names of the locations don’t scare you off, the course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600 ft of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100 ft of cumulative descent. If a 135 ulta run isn’t your thing this year, Badwater hosts several other races of varying distances around the country.   http://www.badwater.com/event/badwater-135/

Big Sky Ridge Run – August – Bozeman

In 2013, Outside Online named the Ridge Run one of its Top 10 Bucket List trail runs in the world. The Ridge Run is 19.65 miles of brutal climbing and descending, complete with unstable footing and unpredictable weather. Unfortunately there are only 250 racers allowed in each year, but the lucky few get to tackle over 6800 ft in elevation gain. http://winddrinkers.org/ridge-run/

Everest Challenge – September – Bishop

The race is billed as the hardest two-day U.S.C.F. race and ride in the US. With 27,000 feet of climbing over just 200 miles, it just might be. Take in the beautiful scenery in the eastern Sierras while you’re catching your breath. https://www.t.bike/2006/09/everest-challenge.html

Moab Trail Marathon & Half Marathon – November – Moab

Thought of as a mountain bike destination, the Moab Trail Marathon actually hosts the 2016 Trail Marathon Championships. The terrain includes single track, rugged jeep trails and even old mining trails. The top runners will run all but the fixed rope section and are expected to finish in less than 4 hours. Average runners will do a combo of running with a bit of walking and are expected to finish in the 5 to 6 hr range. Did we mention it’s in Moab? http://www.moabtrailmarathon.com

What are some of your favorite epic races? Share your thoughts with us below!

Inflammation, Your Gut and Performance

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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!