As a gravitational sport, being a light-weight climber confers a performance advantage. However, being alert to low energy availability and the clinical consequences of RED-S on health and performance is important for climbers. With climbing being included the next Olympics, then hopefully this will raise awareness of being alert to athletes at risk of low energy availability and RED-S.
Insights from Dr Nigel Callender, sports scientist turned medical doctor (anaesthetics/critical care trainee) an active researcher, largely into the exercise physiology aspects of climbing and ex-competitor, having represented Ireland at international level and been British bouldering champion before shoulder injuries ended that. Sport climbing is included in the 2020 Tokyo summer games in its three competitive disciplines; bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. Each sub-discipline has a slightly different athlete profile and physiological demands, but all are obviously under the heading of gravity dependent sports. Current participation figures put yearly indoor climbing participation at around the one million mark in the UK and it is said to be one of the fastest growing sports worldwide. The sport is being recognised as a great way to improve overall health and fitness, with recent papers citing it as a useful rehab activity for many physical and mental health conditions and also as a health promotion tool.
Although climbing has been a formal competitive sport in some sense since the late 80’s, it still lacks much in the way of formal training and medical guidelines. Being a gravity dependent sport, strength to weight ratio is important, however Dr Callender and his colleagues are seeing a high incidence of restrictive eating patterns at all levels of the sport and a lack of awareness around the performance impairments and health risks associated with a significant or prolonged negative energy balance in some athletes.
The Outdoor Athlete Podcast is a bit of a winter project that came about to establish a gold-standard resource, driven by credible experts in their relevant fields, as an attempt to provide high-quality and evidence-based information amongst the confusing advice that is now the internet. It’s free and always will be and it was inspired by the BJSM Podcasts though broadly aiming at ‘Outdoor Athletes’ e.g. Climbers, Fell/Trail runners, Mountain bikers and anyone happy to listen.
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is a clinical model that describes the potential adverse health and performance consequences of low energy availability (LEA) in male and female athletes. Identification of athletes at risk of LEA can potentially prevent these adverse clinical outcomes.
Athletes at risk of RED-S are those involved in sports where low body weight confers a performance or aesthetic advantage. In the case of competitive road cycling, being light weight results in favourable power to weight ratio to overcome gravity when cycling uphill. How can male cyclists at risk of LEA be effectively identified in a practical manner?
Energy availability (EA) is defined as the residual energy available from dietary intake, once energy expenditure from exercise training has been subtracted. This available energy is expressed as KCal/Kg fat free mass (FFM). A value of 45 KCal/Kg FFM is roughly equivalent to basal metabolic rate, in other words the energy required to sustain health. In order to quantify EA, accurate measurements of energy intake and expenditure, and FFM assessed from dual X ray absorptiometry (DXA), need to be undertaken. However this is not practical or feasible to undertake all these measurements outside the research setting. Furthermore, methodology for assessing energy intake and expenditure is laborious and fraught with inaccuracies and subjectivity in the case of diet diaries for “free living athletes“. Even if a value is calculated for EA, this is only valid for the time of measurement and does not give any insights into the temporal aspect of EA. Furthermore, an absolute EA threshold has not been established, below which clinical symptoms or performance effects of RED-S occur.
Self reported questionnaires have been shown to be surrogates of low EA in female athletes. However there are no such sport specific questionnaires, or any questionnaires for male athletes. Endocrine and metabolic markers have been proposed as quantitative surrogate measures of EA and shown to be linked to the RED-S clinical outcome of stress fractures in runners. In female athletes the clinical sign of regular menstruation demonstrates a functioning H-P ovarian axis, not suppressed by LEA. What about male athletes? Although hypothalamic suppression of the reproductive axis due to LEA can result in low testosterone, high training loads, in presence of adequate EA, can lead to the same negative effect on testosterone concentration.
Male cyclists present a further level of complexity in assessing EA status. In contrast to runners, stress fracture will not be an early clinical warning sign of impaired bone health resulting from low EA. Furthermore cyclists are already at risk of poor bone health due to the non weight bearing nature of the sport. Nevertheless, traumatic fracture from bike falls is the main type of injury in cycling, with vertebral fracture requiring the longest time off the bike. Chris Boardman, a serial Olympic medal winner in cycling, retired in his early 30s with osteoporosis. In other words, in road cycling, the combined effect of the lack of osteogenic stimulus and LEA can produce clinically significant adverse effects on bone health.
Using a decision tree approach, the factor most indicative of impaired age matched (Z score) lumbar spine BMD was sport specific clinical assessment of EA. This assessment took the form of a newly developed sports specific energy availability questionnaire and interview (SEAQ-I). Reinforcing the concept that the most important skill in clinical medical practice is taking a detailed history. Questionnaire alone can lead to athletes giving “correct” answers on nutrition and training load. Clinical interview gave details on the temporal aspects of EA in the context of cycle training schedule: whether riders where experiencing acute intermittent LEA, as with multiple weekly fasted rides, or chronic sustained LEA with prolonged periods of suppressed body weight. Additionally the SEAQ-I provided insights on attitudes to training and nutrition practices.
Cyclists identified as having LEA from SEAQ-I, had significantly lower lumbar spine BMD than those riders assessed as having adequate EA. Furthermore, the lowest lumbar spine BMD was found amongst LEA cyclists who had not practised any load bearing sport prior to focusing on cycling. This finding is of particular concern, as if cycling from adolescence is not integrated with weight bearing exercise and adequate nutrition when peak bone mass (PBM) is being accumulated, then this risks impaired bone health moving into adulthood.
Further extension of the decision tree analysis demonstrated that in those cyclists with adequate EA assessed from SEAQ-I, vitamin D concentration was the factor indicative of lumbar spine BMD. Vitamin D is emerging as an important consideration for athletes, for bone health, muscle strength and immune function. Furthermore synergistic interactions with other steroid hormones, such as testosterone could be significant.
What about the effects of EA on cycling performance? For athletes, athletic performance is the top priority. In competitive road cycling the “gold standard” performance measure is functional threshold power (FTP) Watts/Kg, produced over 60 minutes. In the current study, 60 minute FTP Watts/Kg had a significant relationship to training load. However cyclists in chronic LEA were under performing, in other words not able to produce the power anticipated for a given training load. These chronic LEA cyclists also had significantly lower testosterone concentration. Periodised carbohydrate intake for low intensity sessions is a strategy for increasing training stimulus. However if this acute intermittent LEA is superimposed on a background of chronic LEA, then this can be counter productive in producing beneficial training adaptations. Increasing training load improves performance, but this training is only effective if fuelling is tailored accordingly.
Male athletes can be at risk of developing the health and performance consequences of LEA as described in the RED-S clinical model. The recent study of competitive male road cyclists shows that a sport specific questionnaire, combined with clinical interview (SEAQ-I) is an effective and practical method of identifying athletes at risk of LEA. The temporal dimension of LEA was correlated to quantifiable health and performance consequences of RED-S.
The action of the sun on skin is the most effective way of making vitamin D. However, even walking around outside naked for 5 hours every day during UK winter months is not sufficient to make adequate vitamin D. Therefore, much to the relief of the audience at the recent BASEM Spring conference, this was not a strategy recommended by Dr Roger Wolman.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble steroid hormone. The majority of which is synthesised in the skin when exposed to ultraviolet B in sunlight, with a small contribution from dietary sources: this vitamin D3 molecule is then hydroxylated twice in the liver and then kidney to produce the metabolically active form of vitamin D. This activated steroid hormone binds to vitamin D receptors in various tissues to exert its influence on gene expression in these cells. The mono hydroxylated form of vitamin D is measured in the serum, as this has a long half life.
Does it matter having low levels of circulating vitamin D during winter months? What are the solutions if moving to warmer climates during the winter is (unfortunately) not feasible? What are the other hormones interact with vitamin D?
What are the beneficial effects of vitamin D, particularly in the athletic population?
Rickets and osteomalacia are conditions where vitamin D deficiency results in bone deformities and radiographic appearances are characterised by Looser zones, which in some ways are similar in appearance to stress fractures.
In a large prospective study of physically active adolescent girls, stress fracture incidence was found to have an inverse relationship with serum vitamin D concentrations. In adult female Navy recruits monitored during an 8 week training programme, those on vitamin D supplementation had a 20% reduction in stress fracture. However, oestrogen status was a more powerful risk factor at 91% in those recruits reporting amenorrhoea. Vitamin D is, itself, is a steroid hormone with range of systemic effects. As will be discussed below, its interaction with the sex steroid oestrogen has an important effect on bone turnover.
Although sanatoriums, for those suffering with tuberculosis, were based on providing patients with fresh air, any beneficial effect was probably more due to vitamin D levels being boosted by exposure to sunlight. Certainly there are studies demonstrating the inhibitory effect of vitamin D on on slow growing mycobacteria, responsible for TB. What about the influence of vitamin D on other types of infection? In a recent publication, evidence was presented that supplementation with vitamin D prevented acute respiratory tract infections. This effect was marked in those with pre-existing low levels of vitamin D. In a study of athletes a concentration of 95 nmol/L was noted at the cut off point associated with more or less than one episode of illness. In another randomised controlled study of athletes, those supplemented with 5,000IU per day of vitamin D3 during winter displayed higher levels of serum vitamin D and had increased secretion of salivary IgA, which could improve immunity to respiratory infections.
There is evidence that supplementing vitamin D3 at 4,000IU per day has a positive effect on skeletal muscle recovery in terms of repair and remodelling following a bout of eccentric exercise. In the longer term, dancers supplemented with 2,000IU over 4 months reported not only reduction in soft tissue injury, but an increase in quadriceps isometric strength of 18% and an increase of 7% in vertical jump height.
Synergistic actions of steroid hormones
No hormone can be considered in isolation. This is true for the network interaction effects between the steroid hormones vitamin D and oestrogen. In a study of professional dancers, there was found to be significant differences in serum vitamin D concentrations in dancers from winter to summer and associated reciprocal relationship with parathyroid hormone (PTH). In situations of vitamin D deficiency this can invoke secondary hypoparathyroidism. Although low levels of vitamin D were observed in the dancers, this was not a level to produce this condition. However, there was an increase in soft tissue injury during the winter months that could, in part, be linked to low vitamin D levels impacting muscle strength.
The novel finding of this study was that female dancers on the combined oral contraceptive pill (OCP) showed significant differences, relative to their eumenorrhoeic counterparts not on the OCP, in terms of higher levels of vitamin D and associated reductions of bone resorption markers and PTH. The potential mechanism could be the induction by the OCP of liver enzymes to increase binding proteins that alter the proportion of bound/bioactive vitamin D.
This interaction between steroid hormones oestrogen and vitamin D could be particularly significant in those in low oestrogen states such as postmenpoausal women and premenarchal girls. Menarche can be delayed in athletes, so is there a case for vitamin D supplementation in young non-menstruating athletes? What is the situation for men? Do testosterone and vitamin D have similar interactions and therefore implications for male athletes with RED-S, where testosterone can be low?
Vitamin D is not simply a vitamin. It is a steroid hormone with multi-system effects and interactions with other steroid hormones, such as sex steroids, which are of particular relevance to athletes.
Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of Sports and Exercise Medicine are crucial determinants of health and human performance, from reluctant exerciser through to elite athlete and professional dancer. This is what the recent BASEM spring conference set out to demonstrate. The previous blog described functional disruption of Endocrine networks caused by non-integrated periodisation of the three key lifestyle factors of exercise/training, nutrition and recovery/sleep, can lead to adverse effects on health and athletic performance.
Grace, aesthetic line and ethereal quality belie the athletic prowess required in ballet. What are the Endocrine, metabolic and bone health consequences for this unique group of athletes? Dr Roger Wolman (Medical Advisor to National Institute for Dance Medicine and Science) returned to the important topic of insufficient energy availability in sport/dance where being lightweight confers a performance advantage, resulting in dysfunction in multiple endocrine axes. Dr Wolman discussed his recent research studies in dancers revealing an intriguing synergistic action between oestrogen and vitamin D, which is itself a steroid hormone. Evidence was presented to demonstrate how being replete in vitamin D has beneficial effects on bone, immunity and muscle function. Thus it is key in preventing injury and supporting health in athletes, with particular relevance in premenarchal and postmenopausal women, who are in relative oestrogen deficient states. This presentation will certainly change my clinical practice and, I am sure, that of many in the audience, in ensuring that athletes/patients are vitamin D replete. This may have to be achieved in the form of strategic use of sports informed vitamin D supplementation, given that even walking naked for 5 hours a day outside during UK winter, would not stimulate enough vitamin D production. Therefore, to the relief of many in the audience, Dr Wolman did not recommend this strategy.
Dr Kate Ackerman (member of RED-S IOC working group) explained why we should all tap into our inner endocrinologist. Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM) goes far beyond diagnosing and treating injury. Is there any underlying endocrine cause for suboptimal health, performance or injury? Be this an endocrine diagnosis that should not be missed, or a functional endocrine dysfunction due to relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S). Dr Ackerman explained the importance of the multidisciplinary team in both identifying and supporting an athlete experiencing the consequences of RED-S. New research from Dr Ackerman’s group was presented indicating the effects of RED-S on both health and athletic performance.
Females now have combative roles alongside their male counterparts. What are the implications of this type of intensive exercise training? Dr Julie Greaves (Research Director of the ministerial women in ground close combat research programme) presented insightful research revealing that differences in the geometry of bone in men and women can predispose towards bone stress injury and account for increased incidence in this type of injury in female recruits.
Lunchtime discussion and debate was focused on the determinants of athletic gender, lead by Dr Joanna Harper and Professor Yannis Pitsiladis (International Federation of Sports Medicine). Rather than relying on genetic sex, testosterone concentration was proposed as the criteria for determining whether an athlete competes in male or female events. That testosterone concentration is linked to performance was demonstrated in a study published last year in the BMJ where female athletes in the upper tertile of testosterone were shown to have a performance advantage in certain strength based track and field disciplines. This could potentially be an objective, functional metric used to determine sporting categories for transgender and intersex athletes. The only current uncertainty is how previously high levels of testosterone seen in male, or intersex athletes would have already had an impact on physiology, if this athlete then wished to compete as female and therefore lower testosterone levels with medication.
Nutrition is a key component in optimising health and performance through the Endocrine system. Dr Sophie Killer (English Institute of Sport) explained practical implications for athletes. In a study stimulating a training camp, there were distinct differences between athletes on different regimes of carbohydrate intake in terms of endocrine markers and psychological effects. Those athletes on restricted carbohydrate intake fared worse.
Insulin insensitivity is the underlying pathological process in developing type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and metabolic syndrome. What is the crucial lifestyle intervention to combat this? Dr Richard Bracken (Swansea University) presented the science behind why and how exercise improves blood glucose control and therefore ultimately risk of developing the macro and microvascular complications of diabetes. T2DM is an increasing health issue in the population, which has to be addressed beyond reaching for the prescription pad for medication. Dr Bracken outlined some effective strategies to encourage the reluctant exerciser to become more active. Having worked myself in NHS diabetic clinics over many years, this was a key presentation at the conference to demonstrate that SEM goes far beyond a relatively small group of elite athletes. Highlighting the crucial role of physical activity in supporting health and performance through optimisation of endocrine networks: uniting the elite athlete and the reluctant exerciser.
Motivate2Move initiative aims to shift the emphasis from treating disease, to preventing disease. Dr Brian Johnson presented the excellent resource for healthcare professionals to encourage, motivate and educate patients in order to consider exercise as an effective and enjoyable way to improve health.
Hormones play a key role in health and human performance, applicable to all levels of exerciser from reluctant exerciser to elite athlete.
Is your training in tune with your hormones and nutrition to optimise your athletic performance?
Hormones are internal chemical messengers regulating all aspects of your health and athletic performance. Discussed at recent BASEM conference “Health Hormones and Human Performance”
How? To enable your hormones to do the best job they can for your health and sport performance, you need to find a balance between what, how much and when you train, eat and sleep. In the diagram below, this represents staying on the healthy green plateau. Too much, or too little of any of these choices can lead to imbalances and tipping off the green plateau into the red, less healthy peripheries.
What? Imbalances between training load, nutrition and recovery can cause problems in the Endocrine system: the whole network of hormone interactions throughout your body. The bottom line is that if insufficient energy is provided through nutrition to cover both your training demands and the “housekeeping” activities within the body to keep you alive, then your body goes into energy saving mode. This situation is called relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S) and has the potential to adversely impact one or more of the important systems in your body vital for optimal health and performance.
RED-S has evolved from the female athlete triad described in 1980s by Barbara Drinkwater in NEJM, where although female runners were consuming same dietary intake, those with higher training load were more likely to have menstrual dysfunction and low bone mineral density. Since this original description it has become obvious that the reproductive axis is just one of several hormone networks to be impacted by low energy availability and that RED-S also impacts the other half of the population: men.
Why? Suboptimal levels of energy availability to support health and performance can arise unintentionally, for example with increased training loads and/or times of growth and development in young athletes. Intentionally restrictive eating patterns can also be the cause of RED-S, particularly in sports/dance where low body weight confers a performance or aesthetic advantage. It is an indisputable fact that in order cycle up a mountain you need to overcome gravity and produce high watts/kg. Equally it is pretty impossible to do pointe work, let alone 32 fouttées en tournant en pointe unless you are a lightweight dancer. However if this at the expense of disrupting your hormones, then the advantage of being low body weight will be lost.
How to know? How to know if you, a teammate or a fellow athlete is at risk of RED-S? If you are a female athlete then your hormones are in balance if you are having regular periods (this does not include withdrawal bleeds as result of being on the oral contraceptive pill). Any woman of reproductive age from 16 years to the menopause should have regular periods (unless pregnant). Regular menstruation acts as the barometer of healthy hormones in women. If this is not the case, whether you are an athlete or not, you need to get this checked out medically to exclude underlying medical conditions. Having excluded these, then you need to review the integrated periodisation of training, nutrition and recovery. In male athletes there is not such an obvious sign that your hormones are at healthy levels. However recurrent injury/illness/fatigue can be warning signs. The diagram below shows all the potential adverse effects of RED-S on performance. Be aware that you do not have to have all, or indeed be aware of any of these effects if you develop RED-S.
So What? If you are an athlete/dancer, you may be thinking that none of this applies to you. You are feeling and performing fine. Maybe you have not yet experienced any of the detrimental effects of RED-S. However, you will never know how good an athlete you could be and whether you truly are performing to your full potential unless you put yourself in the best position in terms of your hormones to achieve this goal.
• Insufficient nutrition intake (quantity and quality), whether intentional or not, results in RED-S and multiple hormonal disruptions
• RED-S has detrimental health and athletic performance consequences in both the short and the long term
• Some consequences of RED-S are irreversible for example poor bone health, unless intervention is swift
• Are you suffering with frequent injuries/fatigue/illness over last 3 months or more?
• Female athletes: if 16 years or older have your periods not started? Have you missed more than 3 consecutive periods?
If yes to any of above, seek medical advice from someone with experience Sports Endocrinology. Now! The longer you leave the situation the harder it will be to rectify. Initially underlying Endocrine conditions per se have to be ruled out. RED-S is a functional dysfunction of the Endocrine system, so a diagnosis of exclusion. Having established RED-S as the diagnosis, monitoring Endocrine markers can be very helpful as these are examples of objective metrics in monitoring energy availability and therefore response to optimising integrated periodisation of nutrition, training and recovery.
What to do? Don’t ignore! Although you may think you are fine, if your hormones are not working for you, then you will never reach your full potential as an athlete/dancer. For female athletes having regular periods means your hormones are in healthy ranges and this is normal. Not starting and/or missing periods is not healthy, for any woman.
For both male and female athletes, if you are experiencing recurrent injury, fatigue or illness, you need to get this checked out. There may be a simple explanation such as viral infection, low vitamin D or iron. However it may be that the underlying reason is due to hormone issues.
If you are an athlete, coach, teacher or parent and concerned that you/an athlete in your care has not got the balance right to optimise health and athletic performance, then a 3 way discussion will help and support the decision to seek medical advice as appropriate.
How hormones determine health and athletic performance
Endocrine and Metabolic aspects of Sports and Exercise Medicine are crucial determinants of health and human performance, from reluctant exerciser through to elite athlete and professional dancer. This is what I set out to demonstrate as the chair of the recent British Association of Sport and Medicine conference, with insightful presentations from my colleagues whom I had invited to share their research and practical applications of their work. The audience comprised of doctors with interest in sport and exercise medicine, representatives from the dance world, research scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists, coaches and trainers. In short, all were members of multi-disciplinary teams supporting aspiring athletes. The importance of the conference was reflected in CDP awards from FSEM, BASES, Royal College of Physicians (RCP), REP-S and endorsement for international education from BJSM and National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science (NIDMS).
Exercise is a crucial lifestyle factor in determining health and disease. Yet we see an increasing polarisation in the amount of exercise taken across the general population. At one end of the spectrum, the increasing training loads of elite athletes and professional dancers push the levels of human performance to greater heights. On the other side of the spectrum, rising levels of inactivity, in large swathes of the population, increase the risk of poor health and developing disease states. Which fundamental biological processes and systems link these groups with apparently dichotomous levels of exercise? What determines the outcome of the underlying Endocrine and metabolic network interactions? How can an understanding of these factors help prevent sports injuries and lead to more effective rehabilitation? How can we employ Endocrine markers to predict and provide guidance towards beneficial outcomes for health and human performance?
If you weren’t able to come and participate in the discussion, these are some topics presented. My opening presentation (see video below) set the scene, outlining why having an optimally functioning Endocrine system is fundamental to health and performance. Conversely, functional disruption of Endocrine networks occurs with non integrated periodisation of the three key lifestyle factors of exercise/training, nutrition and recovery/sleep, which can lead to adverse effects on health and athletic performance.
In the case of an imbalance in training load and nutrition, this can manifest as the female athlete triad, which has now evolved into relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S) in recognition of the fact that Endocrine feedback loops are disrupted across many hormonal axes, not just the reproductive axis. And, significantly, acknowledging the fact that males athletes can also be impacted by insufficient energy availability to meet both training and “housekeeping” energy requirements. Why and how RED-S can affect male athletes, in particular male competitive road cyclists, was discussed, highlighting the need for further research to investigate practical and effective strategies to optimise health and therefore ultimately performance in competition.
A degree of overlap and interplay exists between RED-S (imbalance in nutrition and training load), non functional over-reaching and over-training syndrome (imbalances in training load and recovery). Indeed research evidence was presented suggesting that RED-S increases the risk of developing over-training syndrome. In these situations of functional disruption of the Endocrine networks, underlying Endocrine conditions per se should be excluded. Case studies demonstrated this principle in the diagnosis of RED-S. This is particularly important in the investigation of amenorrhoea. All women of reproductive age, whether athletes or not, should have regular menstruation (apart from when pregnant!), as a barometer of healthy hormones. Indeed, since hormones are essential to drive positive adaptations to exercise, healthy hormones are key in attaining full athletic potential in any athlete/dancer, whether male or female. Evidence was presented from research studies for the role of validated Endocrine markers and clinical menstrual status in females as objective and quantifiable measures of energy availability and hence injury risk in both male and female athletes.
Alongside training metrics, if female athletes recorded menstrual pattern (as Gwen Jorgensen recently showed on her Training Peaks) and all athletes kept a biological passport of selected Endocrine markers; this could potentially identify at an early stage any imbalances in the triumvirate of training load, nutrition and recovery. Pre-empting development of RED-S or over-training syndrome, supports the maintenance of healthy hormones and hence optimal human performance.
Look out for presentations from speakers which will be uploaded on BASEM website shortly.
The wonderfully named “hip hop” study was conducted to investigate whether hopping would improve the strength of the hip bone in older males. You may be wondering how this is relevant to male cyclists in their twenties. Yet, in a recent pilot study, some male cyclists were found to have areas of the skeleton that were below average bone mineral mineral (BMD) for an 85 year old man. This finding of low BMD in cyclists was confirmed in a recent BBC programme where Dr Karen Hind at Leeds Beckett University presented the differences in BMD across sports. Keen-eyed cyclists amongst you will have recognised Ed Clancy from JLT Condor representing cyclists, though these findings will be relevant to all levels of competitive cyclists.
So maybe research with the same aims as the “hip hop” study is exactly what needs to be conducted amongst male cyclists to investigate practical and effective ways of supporting bone health and ultimately preventing injury and optimising performance. This is aim of forthcoming research in collaboration with Dr Hind.
In common with other sports, cycling is an excellent form of exercise, driving positive adaptations throughout the body, such as improved cardiovascular fitness, body composition, muscular strength and endurance together with beneficial psychological effects. However, unlike many other forms of exercise, cycling does not encourage beneficial adaptations to the full skeletal system. This is due to a lack of mechanical osteogenic (bone building) stimuli provided in cycling, particularly at the lumbar spine. In competitive road cycling, low body mass confers a performance advantage, so restrictive or inconsistent nutrition can lead to relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). The consequent Endocrine system dysfunction can compound the negative effects on bone health of a non-load-bearing sport.
In a study of masters cyclists, decreases in BMD at all sites were more marked than in sedentary individuals. Some cyclists went from being osteopenic to osteoporotic; a rare case where exercise has a negative impact on a system in the body. Does this matter? Like all athletes, cyclists are more concerned with current athletic performance than warnings about future issues, such as osteoporosis and fracture. Yet, out of athletes across all sports, cyclists should perhaps be the most concerned. In the case of runners, suboptimal bone heath and associated RED-S may well present as a stress fracture. In the case of cyclists by the nature of non-load bearing exercise, they can push for longer with suboptimal bone and nutritional status. The full extent of any bone health issues may only come to light as result of a bike crash. Looking at the time off from injury in elite cyclists, the majority are due to fracture, with vertebral fractures often requiring long duration of recovery compared to other sites.
Maybe maintenance of BMD for adult cyclists would be realistic goal. How can this be achieved?
Multidirectional, dynamic loading patterns have been shown to produce the most positive skeletal responses. This is seen in the different site specific effects of sports, where changes of direction or plane of movement provide maximal mechanical osteogenic stimulus. Jumping and hopping have been shown to be good for bone health in premenopausal women, where brief high impact exercises were found to be beneficial for the bone mineral density (BMD) of the femoral neck of the hip.
What about targeting the lumbar spine, which is the site most at risk in cyclists? In young children, a few mechanical loading cycles of two-footed jumping from a small step improved BMD at lumbar spine compared with those that did not perform this jumping exercise. However bone is at its most responsive in childhood and skeletal loading has a more long term effect on both microarchitecture and BMD than when performed as an adult. Nevertheless, even in adulthood bone is still a dynamic tissue, able to adapt to loading stresses. Resistance training seems to be the most effective way of providing mechanical osteogenic stimulus to the lumbar spine with an additional indirect osteogenic effect of muscle pulling on bone. For example rowers have site-specific increases in BMD at the lumbar spine. In a recent study, resistance training was found to improve BMD in male distance runners with similar levels of testosterone and bone markers. This concurs with recent pilot study of cyclists, where those performing current resistance training or with recent history of participating in other sports, such as rugby or rowing, fared better in terms of BMD. In other words, the improvement in BMD mediated via mechanical rather than Endocrine effects.
Nevertheless, any form of skeletal-loading exercise will not produce the expected beneficial osteogenic effect, if performed in suboptimal nutritional status. Sufficient quantity and quality of nutrition are required to prevent RED-S. Specific nutritional factors, such as vitamin D, calcium and polyphenols, are recognised to be important in bone health. Boron is also described as decreasing bone resorption by stabilising and extending the half-life of vitamin D and improving sex steroid availability. Whilst high intake of caffeine, which can accumulate if athletes take on board caffeine gels, has a negative impact on BMD. Optimal nutritional status will in turn support the Endocrine system to mediate advantageous adaptations to exercise exercise, including bone health.
How can cyclists optimise bone health and performance on the bike with consistent and targeted skeletal-loading exercise and nutritional strategies? Watch this space! A study is planned to investigate practical and effective strategies to achieve this. No on bike hip hop dance required.
Competitive cyclists are potentially at risk of suboptimal bone health. Although cycling is excellent for cardiovascular fitness, this type of non skeletal loading exercise does not mechanically stimulate osteogenesis (bone formation). This situation of low mechanical osteogenic stimulus to build bone can be compounded by restrictive eating patterns and associated hormone dysfunction of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S).
In a recent pilot study 7/10 competitive cyclists (Cat 2 and above) had low age-matched bone mineral density (BMD) in the lumbar spine. This is comparable to another study where 15/28 male cyclists training over eight hours a week were found to have low BMD for their age and were therefore at risk of low trauma fracture. However, cyclists with a lower training volume (Cat 4) did not fair so badly in terms of BMD, due to higher body mass index (BMI) and fat mass. Although greater body mass mechanically loads the skeleton, the downside is that you need to generate more power to get up a hill.
Why is cycling unique compared to other sports where an important adaptation to training is to improve, not impair, bone health? What are the practical solutions to prevent this potential negative effect of cycle training?
The illustration shows how different sports exert site specific effects on the bone mineral density of the skeleton. In general terms, hip femoral neck BMD is more dependent on mechanical loading osteogenic stimuli, whereas lumbar spine BMD is more dependent on nutritional and Endocrine status.
What are the most effective mechanical osteogenic stimuli? Evidence from animal models demonstrates that bone responds to exercise that is dynamic, non-repetitive and unpredictable. Load and repetitions are not such important factors. This is shown in a study of track and field athletes, where sprinters were found to have higher BMD at load bearing sites of the skeleton than long distance runners due to a local loading effect rather than a systemic effect associated with repetitive loading nature of longer distance running. The other important consideration is that sprinters and rugby players tend to weigh more with higher lean mass than distance runners, providing higher skeletal loading forces. These differences in anthropometric and body composition metrics are also associated with different nutritional and Endocrine status.
In contrast to sports involving running, rowing creates a mechanical osteogenic stimulus that is directed through the lumbar spine, resulting in an associated increase in BMD at this site. This site specific effect of rowing can prevent bone loss at the lumbar that would be anticipated with rowers experiencing RED-S.
Swimming and cycling are similar in that both these types of exercise do not provide mechanical skeletal loading osteogenic stimulus. However the consequences on BMD, particularly at the lumbar spine, can be compounded in cycling by the performance advantage of low body mass and therefore potential of restrictive nutrition and consequent effect on Endocrine status: factors which impact bone health.
In the recent pilot study of competitive cyclists, although 7/10 had below average for age lumbar spine BMD, those with stronger bones had a previous history of other sports that improve BMD at this site: namely rugby and rowing, together with the cyclist doing concurrent and consistent weight training throughout the season. These findings were consistent with a study where male riders who had undertaken pre-season weight training had better BMD than riders who had not. Cumulative skeletal loading over a lifetime determines BMD. However, the skeletal system is dynamic and as with any training adaptation, any beneficial effects of skeletal loading exercise are reversible if not maintained throughout the lifespan.
Typically, the objective of off-bike strength and conditioning (S&C) is aimed at producing higher watts on the bike. Some strengthening exercises may, as by product, produce an osteogenic stimulus indirectly by muscle pulling on bone. Should off-bike work include specific mechanical axial skeletal loading exercises that are continued throughout the season? Skeletal loading exercises for cyclists would have to be effective and practical, not requiring access to gym and possible to fit into training schedule throughout the season. This will be investigated in an forthcoming study of competitive male cyclists.
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.
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.
There has been much recent coverage regarding female runners suffering with health and performance issues due to relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S). What about male athletes? A recent article about male cyclists who explained how they developed RED-S, did not receive as sympathetic a response as articles concerning female athletes. Yet multiple Endocrine network disruption in RED-S, associated with suboptimal health and performance, is equally applicable to male and female athletes.
Although competitive road cycling is excellent for cardiovascular (CV) fitness, why are male cyclists at particular risk of impaired bone health and RED-S? Cycling is a non-weight bearing type of exercise, as is swimming, so does not provide much osteogenic (bone building) stimulus. The additional element in road cycling is that, in the short term, low body weight, with associated low body fat, confers a performance advantage. However this can lead to restrictive nutrition and RED-S, that have adverse effects on health and performance, over the longer term.
A recent study looking at bone acquisition in adolescent males found that bone mass, microarchitecture and makers of bone formation were more favourable in footballers compared with cyclists and swimmers. Swimmers had the lowest Vitamin D, presumably as this is generally an indoor sport (unless you live in Australia where outdoor 50m pools abound). Another study found reduction in femoral neck bone mineral accumulation in adolescent male cyclists compared against increases over the same time frame seen in controls.
What about adult male road cyclists? When runners and cyclists were matched for age and body weight, there were no significant differences in hormone or nutrition status, yet cyclists were 7 times more likely to have osteopenia of the lumbar spine than runners. Similar results were found in another study where competitive male road cyclists were found to have reduced lumbar spine bone mineral density (BMD) for age, despite normal levels of testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), although intriguingly an inverse correlation with lumbar spine BMD and IGF1 was found. It appears that the biomechanical stress patterns on the spine in cycling are not oesteogenic in nature, which contrasts with rowing where, although also seated, the biomechanical load exerted through the spine does provide an osteogenic effect.
In addition to the non-load bearing nature of cycling on the skeleton, restrictive nutrition can contribute to suboptimal bone health. Reducing energy availability by restricting energy intake whilst increasing training load can be a strategy, especially during pre-season training to reduce body weight and body fat. Essentially, cycling up a steep incline demands less power through the pedals if your body weight is low. Nevertheless, reducing energy availability runs the risk of developing RED-S, associated Endocrine dysfunction and suboptimal bone health, on top of the non-beneficial mechanical osteogenic effect of cycling. On a practical note, with long training rides in the saddle it can be physically and practically difficult to fuel optimally. Recent research in female athletes shows that within day energy deficits magnify hormonal disruption. Could this be a factor in male cyclists where consistent fuelling is either actively avoided and/or practically difficult?
The psychological element of disordered eating has been described amongst elite male cyclists. Male cyclists, in particular, collect many metrics associated with training and racing which could be a manifestation of a drive to perfectionism. Determination and attention to detail are laudable qualities for athletes, but there is a fine line when the balance swings to behaviours and attitudes that can be detrimental to health and performance. Even starting off with good intentions can lead to problems as seen with the growing emergence of orthorexia: “clean eating”, which, ironically, becomes detrimental to health and performance with exclusion of food groups such as carbohydrates.
Exclusively practising a non weight bearing sport such as cycling although great for CV fitness, is not so good for bone health. Does this matter? Potentially injury is more likely in bike spills, which occur both in training and competition even for the most experienced bike handler. Combined with the drive for low body weight in competitive road cycling, health and performance issues can be compounded with RED-S. What are the solutions for the cyclist to support favourable body composition and bone health, which ultimately also optimises performance? A further planned study, following a current pilot study of competitive road cyclists, aims to investigate the potential beneficial effects of strength and conditioning to load the skeleton combined with a review of nutrition. See details of next study to see if you wish to participate.