Chris Boardman is an Olympic gold medal winner and world record breaking cyclist. However, he explains in his biography that he retired in his early thirties with weak bones and low testosterone. At the time he was treated with medication aimed at improving his bone strength, but this severely impacted his performance on the bike.
What was the cause of this superlative male athlete’s unhealthy condition that ultimately lead to his retirement? Is this still an issue for male cyclists today? Is it limited to elite professional riders?
In 2014 the IOC published a description of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S), where nutrition intake is insufficient to cover training demands and the basic “housekeeping” activities of the body. This induces an energy-saving mode that impacts health and therefore athletic performance. The female athlete triad had been previously described as the combination of disordered eating, menstrual disruption and impaired bone health. RED-S goes beyond the female athlete triad to include a broader range of impacts on systems other than just the bones and female hormone production. Significantly RED-S includes male athletes. Today, Chris Boardman would be diagnosed with RED-S.
Has this new information improved the identification and support of male athletes at risk of RED-S? In a recent pilot study, 5 out of 10 competitive amateur riders (Category 2 and above) were in the lowest age-matched percentile of body fat and 9 out 10 where in the lowest 6% relative to the population of similar age. Significantly, 7 out of 10 riders had below-average for age bone mineral density (BMD) in the lumbar spine, with two males having bone densities that would be low for an 85 year old.
Why is poor bone health a particular risk for competitive male cyclists? Depending on the type of exercise, beneficial adaptations include mechanical strengthening of specific parts of the skeletal system. For example, assuming good nutrition, runners tend to have strong hips, whereas rowers have more robust spines in terms of BMD and bone microarchitecture. Conversely the non-weight-bearing nature of cycling and the generally lower level of upper-body musculature reduce the mechanical loading forces though the spine: low osteogenic (bone building) stimuli. Although similar to swimming, in the sense that body weight is supported in the water, the major difference between these two forms of exercise is that in cycling, particularly for climbing, low body mass confers a performance advantage. This brings in the additional factor for bone health of potential inadequacies in nutrition and therefore consequences on hormone production.
An optimal balance of training, nutrition and recovery drives beneficial adaptations to exercise throughout the body. The body’s Endocrine system releases hormones that stimulate positive changes, such as the process of improving the efficiency of delivering and utilising oxygen and nutrients to exercising tissues, including the skeletal system. Any imbalances in periodisation between the three inputs of training, nutrition and recovery will compromise health and athletic performance.
Cyclists are at particular risk of insufficient fuelling. This may be an intentional attempt to maintain low body weight, which can lead to healthy eating becoming an unhealthy orthorexic pattern, where vital food groups for endurance sport, such as carbohydrates are excluded. There is also a practical element to fuelling adequately during long rides and refuelling afterwards. Consistency of nutrition throughout the day has been highlighted in a recent study of male endurance athletes where although an average 24 hour intake may be sufficient, if there are any significant deficits during this time, then this is reflected in increased adverse impact on catabolic Endocrine makers. In another study of male athletes if refuelling with carbohydrate and protein after training did not occur promptly, this lead to an increase in bone resorption over formation markers.
Recovery is an essential part of a training schedule, because the adaptations to exercise occur during rest. Sleep, in particular, is a major stimulus for growth hormone release, which drives positive adaptive changes in terms of body composition and bone turnover. Conversely, insufficient recovery time due to a packed schedule of training and work, places extra stresses on the Endocrine system. Getting to bed half an hour earlier than usual every day quickly adds up to an extra night’s sleep.
Does it matter if some areas of the skeleton are weaker than others? Yes, because this increases your risk of fracture, not just if you come off your bike, but also with relatively low force impacts. In the case of runners and triathletes, bone stress injuries are more likely to occur as an early warning sign of impaired bone health due to RED-S. Since low impact forces are absent in cycling, it may take a crash to reveal the strength of a rider’s bones. Studying the list of injuries in elite cyclists there are many fractures, with longer recovery time for vertebral fractures. So potentially cyclists can develop more severe bone health issues than other athletes, before becoming aware of the situation.
If you are a male cyclist, what can you do to prevent issues of bone health and risk of developing RED-S and suboptimal performance on the bike? Watch this space! A study is planned to investigate practical and effective strategies to optimise health and performance on the bike. In meantime there will be more discussion on “Health, Hormones and Human Performance” at the BASEM conference 22 March. All welcome, including athletes and coaches, alongside healthcare professional working with athletes.
Within-day Energy Deficiency and Metabolic Perturbation in Male Endurance Athletes International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 2018
The Effect of Postexercise Carbohydrate and Protein Ingestion on Bone Metabolism Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine 2017
Sleep for health and sports performance BJSM 2017