Tips on enhancing your performance (at the gym!)

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It’s a good idea to ensure your basic health is good before embarking on a training regime as well as ensuring it’s looked after throughout –whether that be a new Personal Training regime or training for a particular event e.g. a long distance run. Some may say, “Well, I’m starting PT because I wanna get fit!” – TRUE, but there’s still a few things that would be helpful to address in the early stages which will also enhance your progress rather than hinder it. I was thinking about what I would want a client to do and check prior to training them, if I were their Personal Trainer – so, the following are just a few things worth checking in the bloods as well as factors to address during your training. This is not a comprehensive article relating to sports nutrition  – but just some  helpful tips that certainly helped me during the marathon training  as well as factors commonly  addressed when seeing patients in the clinical setting. All within the realms of a little blog post- some lifestyle/nutrition factors and some recommended blood tests.

Lifestyle/Nutrition factors

  1. CLEAN UP THE JUNK! First and foremost, a clean diet is a huge part of your exercise regime. As they say, “abs are made in the kitchen not the gym!”. Of course, your sweat and tears will help as you aim to sculpt that core, but nutrition is at least two thirds of the story. I won’t repeat the usual stuff you have heard…OK- just very briefly in case you need a reminder! – lots of veggies (ensure anti-oxidant rich berries), some fruit, cut down on gluten/processed foods (gluten especially wheat damages the gut lining in virtually everyone- regardless of whether or not you have gluten intolerance or have coeliac disease), protein at every meal, good fats (absolutely essential for our cell membranes and functioning; caution with “low fat” diets- the other stuff put in there could be relatively crap processed carbs) , adequate hydration and finally – reduce or stop alcohol!
  2. STRESS- High cortisol levels will contribute towards muscle loss and fat gain – hence counteract the effort. Although we can’t escape our daily work lives, ensure adequate stress management techniques- whether that be going for short walks, some stretching, meditation- little things that can be incorporated at work as well as scheduling things after work or weekends.
  3. SLEEP- we need sleep for our rest and restoration. Simple. The critical hours are between 10pm and 2am. Humans spend a third of their lives asleep- it must be important! Various hormones critical here including growth hormone (helps repair after exercise), DHEA and melatonin (anti oxidant and anti aging).
  4. ANTIOXIDANTS – apart from eating from a rainbow- i.e a variety of different fruits and veg, consider taking extra vitamin C or other antioxidant supplements like NAC (N-acetyl cysteine, a precursor for glutathione- one of our most important endogenous antioxidants). This of course also depends on the level of activity and training.
  5. ALKALISE – exercise is a stress to the body, where free radicals(oxidative stress) and lactic acid is produced. So ensuring you get a good intake of fruit/veg esp green ones is important. You could consider a green antioxidant powder.
  6. MAGNESIUM / B Vitamins – Most of us are probably deficient in magnesium- it is necessary for over 300 biochemical reactions. Consider taking when training and especially if doing endurance/long distance training like running. Common symptoms of magnesium deficiency include tiredness, muscle spasms/cramps, anxiety, irregular heart rhythm, eye twitching, headaches and insomnia.
  7. PROTEIN – important for any type of training –not just for building muscles. We all need around 1g/kg of body weight worth of protein – apart from the obvious like muscle growth and repair, we also need protein to make all our hormones including thyroid hormones which are critical in our metabolism. Although best to get from protein rich sources, vegetarians may also need to consider a good quality protein supplement.
  8. WATER – obvious but still easy to overlook! Ensure adequate hydration especially between meals. Although 2 litres is usually given as the standard intake, this can certainly vary amongst individuals- an easy way to see if you are getting enough water is that the colour of the urine should be almost clear.

Blood tests

1.FULL BLOOD COUNT(FBC) AND IRON –  The FBC shows if you have anaemia (low haemoglobin) which can contribute towards symptoms like tiredness, breathlessness, dizziness, poor immunity  and poor recovery from training. However, this may be  normal but the iron levels could still be suboptimal. Iron is not only needed in relation to carrying oxygen around in the blood (part of haemoglobin), it is also in the myoglobin of muscles, is needed to convert glucose to energy and important in liver detoxification and thyroid health as well as the production of neurotranmitters and hormones.  Iron can be low due to poor dietary intake, especially if vegetarian/vegan but can also be lost through the gut if there is “leaky gut” – hence the importance of gut health, diet..blah blah blah!  Replacement can be via oral liquid/tablets but injections and creams are also available. Note that vitamin C is required for iron absorption.

2.THYROID TESTS – This could be a whole chapter! – will keep it brief here. Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)  is much more common than overactive. Common symptoms include tiredness, weight gain, difficulty losing weight, cold extremities, cold intolerance, palpitations, dry skin, dry hair and hair loss, low mood, heavy periods and chronic constipation. Standard testing only allows for a test called TSH (which least corresponds to thyroid functioning) – even if it is in “normal” limits, there could still be a thyroid issue and further tests are needed- this includes both medicare and non- medicare functional tests . So if you have been told your “tests are normal” , this may well  need to be looked into further.  Other clues that the thyroid may be underactive is high cholesterol. Underactive thyroid is also associated with adrenal fatigue (stress related), oestrogen excess and insulin resistance. Unfortunately, so many people are underdiagnosed and continue to suffer symptoms because their tests are  “normal”. Or they may be treated for depression (anti – depressants), high cholesterol ( statin), heavy periods (painkillers or the contraceptive pill) – and various other drugs to treat the other symptoms-  a complete misdiagnosis and failing on the part of the medical profession! It doesn’t necessarily have to be like this! Please ensure you get tested properly if you have concerns.

3.VITAMIN D  – there are vitamin D receptors in every cell of the body; the role of vitamin D is crucial. It has roles in not just calcium metabolism, but also thyroid function, cardiovascular function, weight management, diabetes, gut health and cancer protection.  Despite the ozzie sun, people can still be low in it- inadequate exposure or just not getting converted properly to its active forms via the kidney and liver. Once again, normal levels are not necessarily optimal. Aim for 100-150 in the blood tests (as per Vitamin D council recommendations.)

4. B VITAMINS –B12, FOLATE – these are the two B vitamins that commonly get measured. Low B12 can cause various symptoms including tiredness, weakness, dizziness, sore tongue, tingling/numbness of extremities, confusion –  and can also be associated with other disorders like pernicious anaemia and gut disorders where the vitamin cannot be absorbed. Again, it can also be low in vegetarians/vegans.  Folic acid (vitamin B9) is absolutely critical for every cell. It is used to convert carbs/proteins/fats into energy/ATP (Krebs cycle), make red blood cells, protect DNA,  neurotransmitter  and hormone production (serotonin, dopamine, melatonin) and it has a role  in the recycling of homocysteine- a known independent risk factor for conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, migraines, recurrent miscarriages, infertility and Alzheimers disease.

Abnormal B12/Folate results can also imply problems with a process called methylation, an important biochemical process in the body. Both vitamins need to be converted to their active forms by our genes/enzymes- if there are genetic defects, we cannot do this and hence we have a functional vitamin deficiency- in such a scenario, it would be necessary to have active B vitamins to bypass this roadblock –normal B vitamins may not suffice.

5. GLUCOSE / INSULIN LEVELS – In non -diabetics, a borderline glucose  can  indicate insulin resistance. In those with early insulin resistance, the insulin level could be raised before the glucose has become abnormal -this is relevant as action can be taken so this doesn’t develop further into diabetes. Apart from diet,  certainly the nature of the training program  will be important- and will be a good parameter to monitor. When there is insulin resistance there is rationale for resistance/weights training , as opposed to just cardio. For women, it may also be associated with polcystic ovaries, oestrogen excess as well as thyroid and adrenal issues- they all affect each other and it is important to address all of these appropriately.

The basic blood  tests can be ordered by any health care practitioner.  Further testing (e.g thyroid, adrenal hormones, nutrients )  may need to be ordered  via an appropriate health practitioner.

So… just a few things to think about as you embark on training for an event or if you are already training in the gym – optimise your fitness and health and enjoy the challenge!