Male Athletes: the Bare Bones of Cyclists

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?

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Periodisation of key training factors support the Endocrine system to optimise performance

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.

References

Mechanisms for optimal health…for all athletes! BJSM 2017

Optimal health: including female athletes! Part 1 Bones BJSM 2017

Optimal health: including male athletes! Part 2 Relative Energy Deficiency in sports BJSM 2017

Lifestyle Choices for optimising health: exercise, nutrition, sleep BJSM 2017

Sports Endocrinology – what does it have to do with performance? BJSM 2017

Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S) Practical considerations for endurance 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

 

 

 

Male Cyclists: Bones, Body composition, Nutrition, Performance

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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.

For more discussion on the Endocrine aspects of Sports and Exercise Science and Medicine, BASEM Spring conference 22 March 

References

Cumulative Endocrine Dysfunction in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)

Optimal health: including male athletes! Part 2 Relative Energy Deficiency in sports BJSM 2017

Too healthy to ride? How clean living could slow you down Cycling Weekly 2017

Body Composition for Health and Sports Performance

Longitudinal Adaptations of Bone Mass, Geometry, and Metabolism in Adolescent Male Athletes: The PRO-BONE Study JBMR 2017

Bone Related Health Status in Adolescent Cyclists Plos 2011

Participation in road cycling vs running is associated with lower bone mineral density in men Metabolism 2008

Evaluation of the Bone Status in High-Level Cyclists Journal of Clinical Densitometry 2012

Effect of exercise training programme on bone mineral density in novice college rowers BJSM 1995

Energy Intake and Energy Expenditure of Elite Cyclists During Preseason Training Int J Sports Med 2005
Kings and Queens of the Mountains Science4Performance 2017

Cumulative Endocrine Dysfunction in Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)

Perfectionism and Risk for Disordered Eating among Young French Male Cyclists of High Performance Perceptual and Motor Skills 2004

Kings and Queens of the Mountains Science4Performance 2017

Addiction to Exercise – what distinguishes a healthy level of commitment from exercise addiction? BJSM 2017

Optimal Health: For All Athletes! Part 4 – Mechanisms BASEM 2017