Your Brain on Altitude- How altitude can cause or prevent depression?


Altitude has this great mystique and allure in the world of distance running. The mystique has grown over the years. It started when we saw the impact altitude had on performance at the Mexico City Olympics. But it really took off when the East African onslaught of records occured, where we saw the impact training at altitude had on performance.

For many, altitude is the answer. They swear by it and do everything they can to get the benefits of natural EPO and Red Blood Cell production. Talk to any distance runner who is an advocate and they'll rattle off the number of sub 13 5k runners who lived at altitude and name Bob Kennedy and maybe a handful of others who did it without utilizing altitude.

Every year wanna-be distance stars flock to Flagstaff, Boulder, and Park City, Utah for the benefits of the thin air.

But, there's more to the picture. In my experience coaching elites, I've had athletes who were super responders to altitude, and those who had dreadful responses, all with more than adequate iron/ferritin levels. I've had athletes who were bad responders early in their career but positive responders later in their career.

In the research world, we've called this the responder versus non-responder phenomenon. There's some evidence that it's linked to genetic differences and speculation that even epigenetic changes could play a role. I've also speculated that responder/non-responder also is dependent on dose and frequency of training, as well as an ability to adapt to the stressor that is altitude.

In my own line of work, I've noticed distinct trends with athletes who had high stress responses, as indicated by things like cortisol levels, as more likely to fall into the non-responder category. For instance, I had one athlete with chronically high cortisol levels and anxiety issues who despite having a ferritin level well into the triple digits, did not respond well to altitude.

Altitude and Brain Chemicals
A recent theory throws an interesting wrench into the altitude question.

Apparently, the state of Utah has a suicide and depression problem. It's got some of the highest rates of suicide and depression and the country and for years no one understood why. Recently, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, Perry Renshaw, has posited a theory of why this paradox occurs.

Understanding the Mechanics of Fatigue


When we think of fatigue, we generally think of burning muscles, lactic acid building up, and several other descriptors that have rightly or wrongly entered the lingo of endurance athletes and coaches over the years. In essence though, fatigue is all about slowing down, or preventing that from happening.

From a coaching standpoint we often think of the physiologic items that either cause this slow down or prevent it. Traditional coaches might think of increases in VO2max, HR, or acidic conditions and think of ways to influence these physiologic changes that are going on. However, what we seldom think of or address is how fatigue manifests itself.

            We have all seen athletes start to change their form when the proverbial bear has jumped on someone’s back in the final portion of the race. Or as my college kids like to call, when someone “hits bricks.” You might see the athletes back arching, the turnover slowing, and the arms swing getting increasingly. But even before that point, there are subtle changes going on mechanically.

            These changes occur as the body tries to navigate the ever changing environment. Why do we start to swing our arms more forcefully? Simply because our stride is shortening under fatigue and we are trying to compensate by increasing our arm swing, hoping that it causes us to maintain stride length and/or speed. It’s all compensation for trying to keep things together.

Why every person matters- Motivation Contagion

As a coach, I tend towards obsessing over the workout details and my first love has always been the physiology behind those details. The workout planning and details are what initially drew my to coaching. However, in a team environment, these details matter little unless everyone buys in and stays motivated to pursue the end goal to their fullest extent.

If you are a part of the University of Houston Cross-Country team you have to sit through a couple presentations a year where I ramble on about some scientific concept that intrigues me at the moment. I like to make the athletes part of the process so that they understand why they are doing what they are doing. If you were a part of the team this year, you would have heard about this study...a lot! It wasn't about training, peaking, muscle fiber types, or any other related physiology related topic. Instead it was about the realm of science often left for psychologist, sport or otherwise, called motivation.

It turns out that motivation can function almost like a disease. It is contagious and can work its way through your peer group in the same way that the flu potentially can. To coaches, teachers, or anyone who deals with motivating groups of students this shouldn't sound too surprising. In sports, we refer to this as "team culture."

The surprising thing is how contagious it is.

Research Review- ACSM 2014

Every year I try to make it a point to go through all of the ACSM abstracts to see if anything stands out. If you can't actually get to the conference, it's a great way to at least get a glimpse of the latest research people are doing well before it ever comes out in a journal article.

As a coach, as Vern Gambetta like to say, it's our job to stay ahead of the published research. We should be out there experimenting and trying to figure things out, and letting researchers explain why what we do is successful. 

So without further ado, I went through all of the Abstracts from ACSM 2014 and separated them out into what intrigued me. My goal is to go through some of these concepts in the future.

Coaching Conversations- Interview with coach Adam Didyk

I'm starting a new segment on the blog that I'm really excited about. I'll be having conversations with some of the top young coaches, exercise scientist, and generally smart people in our sport. One of the things I've loved about expanding my coaching/science network is the talks I've had with some smart people. Whether it's at a meet, a conference, through email group exchanges, or over Skype, I've learned more from informal conversations than I could have imagined.

The goal is to take some of the conversations that we have at meets or on the phone and translate them into something that others can learn from. So instead of just me and Adam talking and not having that information go anywhere, I wanted to present that knowledge to a wider array of people.

So without further ado, here's attempt #1 with my good friend Adam Didyk. Adam and I met for the first time at the 2013 World Championships when I was over there with the Australian team. Adam and I spent several weeks hanging out, coaching, and having some great conversations on coaching at the elite level. He's a young coach who has already made a big impact on the sport in Australia. This year he had Jess Trengrove get 3rd at the Commonwealth Games marathon, and Madeline Heiner run a 9:34 steeplechase in her return to running after an almost 8 year layoff.

In this conversation we talk about specialization, junior athlete development, coaching at the Olympic level, the difference between the US and Australia and much more. I really enjoyed hearing Adam's opinions on some of the more difficult to answer questions surrounding our sport now.

I hope you enjoy and would appreciate any feedback, as this is attempt #1 of hopefully more to come!

Evolution of Athlete conference:
Lastly, I'd like to let you guys know that you can watch me present at the Evolution of the Athlete conference in about a month. It's an absolutely fantastic lineup of speakers if I say so myself. In particular, experts like Trent Stellingwerf, Shona Halson, and Mladen Jovanovic are worth the price. In fact, Trent is one such person who I frequently consult and he, Adam, and I had some nice conversations at the world championships. I'll be talking about the latest in neuroscience, cognitive psych., fatigue, and how that effects endurance performance. Basically, some cutting edge ideas on where training might go. The price increases after September 26th, so I'd suggest signing up soon if you want to check things out.

Conversation with Adam Didyk

Information gathering-BS Detection and Big Words Syndrome


When I first got interested in learning more about coaching and the science behind it, one of my mentors, Tom Tellez, told me about the process of learning. When you are new to a particular topic, everything seems intriguing and complex. You don't have a built in filter, as you don't know what is right, wrong, or controversial. It's a very intimidating time in the learning curve.

In essence, you haven't built the model in your head of how a particular aspect works. So there's no model to compare the information your reading to. The goal therefore is to build that model. Coach Tellez explained it, in his own usually precise way "that you need to just keep reading. It won't make much sense at first. But as you read more, eventually it will clear up and all of the sudden you can tell within the first paragraph whether you should read the article or throw it away."

His point was that you have to have a foundation upon which to decide whether something is worthwhile or not. Once you have that foundation, it's all about filtering the information.

New Gadget- RunScribe allows for inexpensive biomechanics tracking on the go


As a self-proclaimed science nerd, I enjoy the data junkie side of our sport. We can track and measure more parameters now then we ever have been able to. While this satisfies the science nerd and research junkie side of me, I'm always left with asking the question of so what? What actionable change do these measurements lead us to.

In the world of quantified self and tracking devices galore, most of them lead to cool data that really doesn't transfer into practical action. So when I came across the RunScribe I reached out to the guys behind it to see if I could check it out.

After testing the device for several months, they are finally up on kickstarter, and I would highly recommend checking it out:

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