Got Cramps?


Cramps aren’t caused by sodium loss and dehydration (but make sure you replace your sodium and stay hydrated)


Muscle cramps are the enemy.   Just when you were having a great race, on your way to a PR, and pushing your limits like never before, you get a cramp that forces you to slow down, or may leave you unable to continue.   Athletes have likely been searching for the exact cause  of  (and thus a way to prevent) exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC) since before the Olympic games in ancient Greece, but the fact is that we still don’t fully understand the mechanism  that causes cramps.   One thing we can be sure of, or as sure as we can be of anything proven by science, is that muscle cramps are not caused by electrolyte depletion or dehydration.



This seems counter-intuitive to many,  the notion that cramps are caused by dehydration and electrolyte depletion has been around for a long time and has been  repeated so many times that it many simply accept it as fact.  This is probably because athletes that suffer cramps are frequently drenched in sweat and covered in salt, so there does seem to be some anecdotal evidence for the correlation.   However the fact is that there is no known mechanism by which sodium depletion or dehydration would cause cramps.   Additionally, there is little evidence to support the theory that the loss of sweat is actually responsible for the EAMC, and a large amount of evidence to refute it.     A quick search of the scientific literature generates several studies that show essentially no difference in the water or electrolyte losses of athletes that cramp, vs those who don’t cramp .      The research of the last decade or so has led to an acceptance among exercise researchers that electrolyte loss and dehydration are not the cause of EAMC.    But if losses due to sweat aren’t responsible for cramps, then what is the culprit?


This guy needs to replace some of that sodium he’s lost.



The current school of thought is that cramps are primarily due to “altered neuromuscular control” due to fatigue.   While studies have shown that water and electrolyte losses are NOT associated with cramping, there are several factors that are definitely associated with EAMC, including lack of fitness, pre-race muscle fatigue   and athletes simply pushing themselves harder than usual.    The simple and effective treatment of stopping to rest and stretching the muscle likely gave researchers some of the first clues that dehydration was not the cause of cramps.  After all, stretching and rest does nothing to help with hydration or electrolyte levels.  The altered neuromuscular control theory truly began to take hold in 1996, and the evidence for theory has grown, as has the evidence against the dehydration/electrolyte theory.  There are a few different plausible theories for exactly how this “altered neuromuscular control” causes cramps, and as is typical, more research needs to be done. But the point is that there is a mountain of evidence to show that electrolyte depletion/dehydration is out, and general fatigue is in.



Does that mean you should skip the electrolyte beverage?   Absolutely not.  The American Dietetic Association, The American College of Sports Medicine, and Dieticians of Canada all recommend a carbohydrate/electrolyte beverage during prolonged exercise.  Dehydration due to lack of fluids, and hyponatremia due to sodium loss can be not only detrimental to performance, but deadly. So I recommend that all my athletes use a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink during all rides longer than an hour.   The most important thing about one of those beverages is that you like the taste and you’ll dink it.   It isn’t doing any good just sitting in your bottles, it has to find its way into your stomach.  I’m sponsored by Powerbar and I enjoy the taste of their lemon-lime Ironman Perform, so that’s what I put in my bottles, and in my stomach.   The carbohydrates and the electrolytes will help replace what you use and what you use.   But they won’t protect you from cramps.

It won’t keep you from cramping, but drink it anyway.


Bonus:   Some people have asked me about pickle juice to prevent cramps.  There is actually some strong evidence that pickle juice can help relieve cramps, and while researchers have typically used juice from a plain old jar of dill pickles, companies have been quick to sell pickle juice that is specifically marketed and packed for endurance athletes.  Pickle juice is high in sodium, but it does not appear to be the sodium that helps with the cramps.  The pickle juice works so rapidly, that the sodium does not have time to enter the stomach and then the bloodstream.  The most likely theory is that the acidity of the vinegar has an effect on the nerves at the back of the throat that somehow blocks the cramps.  As is typical more research is needed to determine the exact mechanism.

I’ll buy a bottle that also comes with the pickles!



Sean is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.   Have a question for Sean or a topic you would like to see covered?   Contact Sean Via his website:





1)Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jul;37(7):1081-5. Serum electrolytes in Ironman triathletes with exercise-associated muscle cramping. Sulzer NU1, Schwellnus MP, Noakes TD.


2) Br J Sports Med. 2004 Aug;38(4):488-92. Serum electrolyte concentrations and hydration status are not associated with exercise associated muscle cramping (EAMC) in distance runners. Schwellnus MP1, Nicol J, Laubscher R, Noakes TD.


3)Br J Sports Med. 2011 Jun;45(8):650-6. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2010.078535. Epub 2010 Dec 9. Increased running speed and previous cramps rather than dehydration or serum sodium changes predict exercise-associated muscle cramping: a prospective cohort study in 210 Ironman triathletes.Schwellnus MP1, Drew N, Collins M.


4)Br J Sports Med. 2009 Jun;43(6):401-8. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.050401. Epub 2008 Nov 3.Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)–altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? Schwellnus MP.


5)Sports Med. 2007;37(4-5):364-7.Muscle cramping in the marathon : aetiology and risk factors. Schwellnus MP. J Athl Train. 2009 Sep-Oct;44(5):454-61. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-44.5.454.


6)J Athl Train. 2009 Sep-Oct;44(5):454-61. Electrolyte and plasma changes after ingestion of pickle juice, water, and a common carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. Miller KC1, Mack G, Knight KL.


7)J Am Diet Assoc. 2000 Dec;100(12):1543-56.  J Am Diet Assoc. 2000 Dec;100(12):1543-56. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance.

Beta Alanine, how it works and who should take it.


Beta Alanine, how it works and who should take it.

By Sean Burke:


Beta Alanine, how it works and who should take it.

I’ve written before about how I’m not a big fan of most supplements.   I don’t take many myself, and I’m reluctant to suggest them to my athletes.    Last year, I wrote about what I do take and  I recommended two supplements; quercetin, and beta-alanine.      This time, I’d like to explain how beta-alanine works and who should take it.


How does it work?

Most athletes understand that  over a certain level, hard work creates an acidic environment in the muscle tissue, and that an increasingly acidic environment necessitates a reduction in  neuromuscular output.    At some point, no matter how robust the signals are from your brain to your legs, the low ph (increasing acidit)   means that the physiological  and biochemical reactions required for a that  muscle contraction are can no longer occur.     Basically you can only pedal so hard until you have acid buildup in your legs, and then you can’t pedal anymore.    Anything that can  keep the pH of the muscle closer to homeostasis ( buffer the acid)  can   help you pedal longer and harder before you have that acid buildup and reduced muscular contractions. The majority of the buffering that occurs in  skeletal muscle is done b y immobile muscle proteins, but ~40% of the buffering capacity of muscle tissue is by two di-peptides*: carnosine and anserine.  Theoretically if you can increase the levels of carnosine or anserine, you can increase the buffering capacity in the muscle and therefore do more work.  In fact higher carnosine levels are found in sprint athletes where the athlete creates a low pH environment, and the ability to buffer the acid contributes to athletic success.    We’ve established that a robust  buffering system helps improve performance, and carnosine is an excellent buffer in the skeletal muscle.  So how do we increase carnosine levels and therefore buffering capacity? [Read more…]

10 Off Season Do’s and Don’ts

by Sean Burke

The off season is here, so I’ve come up with this list of  10 off season do’s and don’ts to help you have a great off season, and an even better 2014.

Do: Relax a little.

Take some time where you don’t look at your power meter or heart rate monitor, maybe do a different cycling discipline than your normal one, or even  take a little time away from the bike.  There is no reason to take an extended period off the bike if you don’t want to, but now is a great time to spend some extra time with family and friends,  enjoy a non-cycling vacation, or even try a new sport.

Don’t: Relax too much, or gain too much body fat.

While taking a break from your vigorous training routine is encouraged, you should still keep active.    While a small weight gain and loss of fitness may be expected, you’ll have to lose every one of those pounds and gain back every bit of that lost fitness when race season comes around.   You want  next season to build upon the last one, rather than start from ground zero.  In fact, if you are already packing  a few lbs over your ideal race weight, the offseason can be a great time to lose them.     You can cut back on the calories without worrying about hindering your short-term performance on the bike.

Do:  Keep moving.

The off season is a great time to do some cross training.  I personally include rowing in my off season.  Rowing is a great aerobic workout, and since the majority of the work comes from the legs, cyclists tend to be fairly good at it.  Rowing also works many of the upper body muscles that a cyclist neglects for most of the year, without adding the muscle mass that could come with a an upper body resistance workout.

Don’t:  Go crazy with your off season sports and injure yourself.

Many cyclists are near obsessive about their training, and love the rush from heavy or intense exercise.   So,  its easy to go straight into an off-season sport with the same vigor that got them through the race season.  If you aren’t careful, you can overdo it in your off season sport and wind up injuring yourself, making it tougher to get going again when race season rolls around.

Do:  Include some weight-bearing exercise.

Research has shown that masters riders that ride but don’t do sports like soccer,  running, weightlifting, or other weight-bearing activities do not have the same bone density as athletes that participate in those sorts of sports.  Cycling is great for your heart and your aerobic system, but it does nothing to help keep your bones strong.   The off season is a great time to add some weight-bearing activities.   Your weight-bearing activity doesn’t even have to be intense.   A nice hike, or a moderate strength workout will do the trick.  A qualified cycling coach or a trainer with a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist ( CSCS) certification can help you put together a strength training plan that will help you meet your goals as a cyclist, and stay injury free.   The bonus is that the added bone density will help keep you cycling into your golden years.

Don’t:  Start off too hard with the weights.

You may be very fit, but if you haven’t been hitting the weight room, you are going to really feel that first resistance workout.  Many strength gains are made and muscle damage is done during the eccentric part of the contraction or the part when the muscle is lengthening under load.    This is also sometimes called the “negative contraction.”  Your legs’ strength can be excellent from all of those hours on the bike, but cycling has no eccentric contraction, and the first time you hit the weights, you are sure to experience some Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).   Easing into your resistance program minimizes the muscle soreness and can lead to greater gains in the long term.  See above about a qualified cycling or CSCS strength coach.

Do:  Get in some occasional exercise intensity

As cyclists we love to get our blood pumping, both from the physical exertion and the thrill competition.      If we go long without that thrill, then we’ll definitely start to miss it.     Its perfectly fine to do  the occasional hammerfest group ride,  or the hard mountain bike ride to get your blood pumping and your competitive juices flowing.   There isn’t some physiological barrier that cannot be crossed without ruining your entire off season.    In fact, those occasional hard rides will help you hold onto more fitness   than you would otherwise have.

Don’t:  Be an off season Hero

There is no prize for being the fastest rider all off season.  Everyone knows a rider who crushes during the off season, but is then shot out the back once race season comes around.    These riders seem to have the same  level of fitness all year around,  and  I guess that’s fine if you aren’t training for anything in particular.   But if you want to be a racer, you should be on a periodized program that makes you the fittest you can possibly be when your big events roll around.  If you dedicate yourself to this, then you’ll inherently be less fit at other times of the year, and that’s OK.

Do:  Start thinking about next season

The time to start thinking about 2014 is now.  Early fall is a time when many new clients come to me in order to plan for the next year.   I can help them put an off season program together and begin thinking about their goals for the following year.   Having your 2014 goals in mind will also help you stay focused on keeping enough fitness in the offseason to build on all of your hard work from this year.

Don’t:  Stress over it

The majority of my clients are doing this for fun, but even (especially!) my elite/pro-level athletes need  a little time to recharge their batteries each year .  I’ll push them during the race season, and I help them stay focused during the off season, but it’s OK to relax a little!

Sean Burke is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.  Sean and his associated coaches work with athletes of all levels, from true beginner to elite.   You can contact Sean at


Using a Power Meter to Calculate Energy Expenditure




Sean Burke ©Jinna Albright

by Sean Burke

You may have heard riders say that they know how many Calories* they burned on a ride by looking  at their power meters.   These riders simply look at the total amount of kilojoules on their computer, and then say that they burned the same amount of Calories on the ride.   While, strictly speaking, that statement isn’t true, the total work done in kilojoules is an excellent estimate of how many food Calories it took to do the ride.   Let’s examine the relationship between watts, kilojoules, and then Calories, as well as the math behind calculating energy expenditure from power output.

Steve is a pretty good cat 3 racer. He weighs  75 kg ( 165 lbs) and his threshold power (sustainable steady-state effort) is 300 watts.  If Steve  does the state time trial championships or a 1 hour criterium at his threshold power,  he’ll burn about 1000 Calories per hour.  If he does an endurance pace ride, he will burn about 700 Calories an hour.

Let’s do the math.

First, we need to convert Steve’s 300W race pace into total work.    A watt is a measure of work over time.  Specifically, 1 watt = 1 joule/second.  Since we want to get the total amount of work, we need to multiply the average watts  X 3,600 seconds (1 hour).

300 watts X 3600  seconds =  108,000 joules, or  1,080 kilojoules.  So the total amount of work Steve did in the hour was 1080 kilojoules (KJ).   Let’s go ahead and convert that to Calories.  Calories and joules are both units of energy, and there are exactly 4.184KJ in 1 Calorie.  1080/4.184 = 258, so Steve did 258 Calories worth of work, but he actually burned way more calories than that.

You see, the human body is only about 24% efficient at turning food energy into mechanical energy, and the rest is essentially lost as heat.    While that percentage isn’t exact, and is dependent on several factors,  it is going to be VERY close to that 24%.      The amount of KJ in a Calorie is a given, and while the 24% metabolic efficiency isn’t exact, I would argue that the  +-2-3% accuracy of  your power meter contributes more to any error in the calculations than does this assumption of 24% efficiency.   So we can simply multiply our mechanical work calories by 0.24 to  get our required food Calories.

258 Calories  X 0.24 = 1,075 Calories. [Read more…]

Save 40 seconds off your 20K with beet juice!


Save 40 seconds off your 20K with beet juice!

Save 40 seconds off your 20K with beet juice!

Save  40 seconds off your 20K with beet juice!

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

I know it sounds too good to be true, and to be honest I didn’t believe it either at first.   I have degrees in nutrition as well as exercise physiology.   And when I started graduate school I intended to be a research scientist, but coaching sort of found me along the way.    My point is that I try to take an analytical and scientific approach to my coaching whenever possible.   I’m also what I describe as “ an open minded skeptic” when it comes to ergogenic aids or supplements.   So when I first heard some of the claims made about using something as simple and safe as beet juice to  improve performance, my first thought was “ I’m not buying it.”   But good scientists does his research,  so I found myself searching the research journals , and reaching out to some of my academic contacts to get me full texts of some of the most important research studies  on beet juice, and I’ve become a believer.

The Research

Most of the recent work in this area has been done in the lab of Andy  Jones in Exeter,  UK.   He built upon the work of others to find that dietary nitrates   can actually reduce the oxygen costs and increase gross efficiency when putting the power to the pedals at submaximal efforts.  This is significant because the oxygen (O2) costs for experienced cyclists are very stable:  10ml/O2/watt/minute.   A stronger rider can put out more watts, but   the O2 required for each watt can be predicted with a very high degree of accuracy.  If an athlete can   create more power with less oxygen, he definitely has an advantage.   Jones and other have found similar results time and again, so we can be sure the one  study was not just a fluke.   In 2011, Jones and is colleagues did a study that is probably one of the most important for us cyclists.   They found that a single dose of 500ML beetroot juice taken 2.5 hours before a time trial improved performance by almost 3%.   That doesn’t sound like a lot to a non-racer.  But we all know that 3% can be the difference between winning and losing. (Last year  one of my athletes missed the international podium by less than 0.05%).   The participants in the study went 4 seconds faster in a short 4K time trial and 48 seconds faster in a 16K time trial, just by drinking beetjuice.   Other studies found similar results, with improvements as small as 1%, and as large as 3%.   These studies were all double blind and placebo controlled (neither the participants nor the researchers knew what the athletes were taking until after the results were gathered) so the risk of any placebo effect is very small.    Time savings are on par with the difference in time between a pair of box section rims, and a set of 808s.  And all you have to do is drink a little juice.

How does it work?

There are a few theories on how and why beet juice helps athletes go faster, and one of them is related to the mechanism that helps that “little blue pill” do its magic.  Beets are very high in nitrates(NO3) that your body converts to nitric oxide(NO).    Saliva and stomach acid are important in this process, so no mouthwash or spitting before you drink your juice (no kidding).     NO is an important vasodilator in your body and the endothelial cells in your arteries actually make NO when you exercise.   NO essentially opens up your blood vessels to allow blood to flow through more easily.   (Those little blue pills help NO do its job particularly well in a very specific part of your body)  Dr Jones suggests several ways that the NO may improve performance.  One is that the vasodilation helps the O2 get  from the lung into the blood and then from the blood into the muscle more efficiently.    Another is an increase in the efficiency of the mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell.”  While the third possibility offered by Jones is a reduced ATP cost for muscle contraction.    The efficiency of mitochondria and  reduced ATP cost for muscle contraction are two things that training  doesn’t change.   Training can result in MORE of these “powerhouses”  but making them more efficient is almost unheard of.    So improving these mechanisms by simply drinking beet juice is an exciting prospect.      Jones, and the other researchers aren’t quite sure of these mechanisms and are basically taking an educated guess.  One of his papers includes the following quote: “These suggestions are naturally speculative at the present time and await further investigation.”   Translation:  We think this is why it works, and we’ll figure it out eventually.


Potential Risks

The potential risks are relatively minor, but de aware that everything that comes out of your body will be pink/red for about 24 hours after you drink your beet juice.   Beet juice can cause a bit of stomach upset,  so be sure to try it for a training session some time before your big race.    The stuff is also a bit “earthy” tasting and may take some getting used to.   Its not terrible, but it isn’t exactly refreshing either.    The vasodilation caused by the NO  will also lower you blood pressure just a little, so  exercise caution and speak with your physician if you are taking blood pressure meds or one of those medications that leads to extra blood flow down below.    Some researchers have cautioned that we don’t yet know the long term effects of frequent nitrate supplementation, but any risks are probably quite small when you are getting those nitrates from beet juice.

My Recommendations

I like to go with the tried and true protocols that worked in the research studies, so I’ll offer up two suggestions and you can figure out what you prefer.   The first is to  drink 500ml of beet juice  2-3 hours before your event.  You can make your own juice by putting three beet roots( the round part of the beet that grows underground), into the juicer.   You’ll want to skin the beets before you  juice them,  and then follow them up with an apple.   The apple  sweetens it up a little and hides a bit of the earthiness.   You can also head on over to Whole Foods and buy yourself a bottle of James White brand beet juice.    The James White isn’t cheap at around $6 a bottle, but  it’s well worth the performance improvement.    The other option is to buy  a concentrated beet juice  product called “Beet-it”.    This stuff is also made by James white and can be ordered online at   When you use the concentrate you’ll need to  drink 140ml ( 1 bottle) of concentrate every day for 5 or 6 days before your event.       There may be other beet juice procedures that work just as well, and future research will help sort that out.  But these two protocols are proven and tested, so those are the ones I recommend to my athletes.

There are other products on the market that contain NO or NO3, and are intended to improve performance.   Many of them come in brightly colored packages and come with pictures of bulging muscles on them.   But I am much more comfortable as an athlete and as a coach drinking juice over taking powders, pills and supplements.  Why bother with that stuff when plain of beet juice can take 40 seconds off your 20K?


Sean is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.

Below is a partial list of resources, it is enough to get you started on your own research if you wish:

Effects of dietary nitrate on oxygen cost during exercise. Larsen FJ, et al 2007

Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. Bailey SJ, et al   2009

Acute dietary nitrate supplementation improves cycling time trial performance.
Lansley KE,  et al 2011

Whole beetroot consumption acutely improves running performance. Murphy M, et al 2012

Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists. Cermak NM, et al 2012

No improvement in endurance performance after a single dose of beetroot juice. Cermak NM, eta al 2012

Influence of acute dietary nitrate supplementation on 50 mile time trial performance in well-trained cyclists. Wilkerson DP et al, 2012


What Does it Take to Ride With the Pros? Part 2

Sean Burke

Sean Burke

Last time, we looked at Team Calimax  p/b Pista Palace rider Eder’s Frayre’s power file for his 8th place  finish on stage 2 of the Redlands Classic Stage race.   This time we’ll examine his file for the 4th and final “Sunset Loop” stage, where the riders do 12 laps of a 6.4 mile circuit with approximately  500 feet of climbing per lap, and then finish it off with 5 laps of the criterium course that the amateur riders race earlier in the day. Sunset Loop is arguably the most difficult stage  of the race.  Not only do the racesr have 4 days of racing in their legs, but hitting that climb 12  times causes the group to shatter.   Typically only 20-30 riders make it with the front group and onto the finishing circuit, and the rest of the pack is given a pro-rated time.  We knew this would be another opportunity for Eder  to shine, as he can get over the hills, but still pack a punch in the finish.

The race started off with a brutal pace, and Eder   averaged 315 watts for the first 15 minutes of the race.  The first 5  of that was actually  relatively easy,  and after 5 minutes he  had to do a solid 10 minutes at 340 watts ( 5.48 w/kg), and this was only 10 miles into a 94 mile race.  (Trust me, you’ll enjoy your training rides more if you don’t start them off like this)   The pace was so hot that many riders couldn’t  muster that sort of effort after  3 days of racing,  and were popped that  first time up the hill.   The rolling nature of this course is what makes it especially brutal; there is no time for rest, even on the downhill.    Most courses with 500 feet of climbing have a downhill where riders can rest and recover, but  the most rest Eder ever got  was around two  and a half minutes of each lap at just over 200W.  Compare this to the Beaumont  stage  2 days prior, where he  had an extended period at less than 100 watts each lap.    He never really went longer than a few seconds without pedaling, and had to spend the downhill sections jockeying for position.   Even those precious moments of rest were marked by several 500 watt spikes that were  required to  hold or improve his position.  [Read more…]

What Does it Take to Ride With the Pros?


What Does it Take to Ride With the Pros?

What Does it Take to Ride With the Pros?

What Does it Take to Ride With the Pros?

by Sean Burke

Almost anyone who has thrown a leg over a bike has dreamed about being a pro rider and wondered what it takes to really race with the big boys.  The Redlands Classic Stage race is one of the biggest pro-am races in the US, where some up-and-coming amateur racers  get to live that dream and really test their mettle against the best pro riders in the country.  Team Calimax rider and Crank Cycling coached athlete Eder Faryre is one of them.  Luckily for us, he had an SRM on his bike for the whole race,  so we’ll get to know exactly what it takes to race against the pros.  And not just race against the pros, but get a real result. Eder was 8th place  (top amateur) in the 120 mile Beaumont  road race on Friday as well as 9th place in the grueling Sunset Loop Road Race on Sunday, so we’ll focus primarily on those stages.

Redlands has been Eder’s primary focus since the beginning of the season, and we consider two top 10 finishes in a race of this caliber to be a success.   He has goals of being a European pro rider, and he has the talent, the supportive family,  and the work ethic to get him there.  He is definitely capable of getting results in your typical SoCal crit course, but where Eder excels, and where we have focused his training    is the longer, more grueling races such as  Beaumont and Sunset Loop.  Basically, the longer and harder the race, the more Frayre will shine.   [Read more…]

Hematocrit and Iron in Athletes

Sean Burke

Sean Burke

Hematocrit and Iron in Athletes

Cyclists are always looking for an edge, and that leads many to a visit to the doctor for a blood test. One  of the first things a racer looks at is hematocrit levels.   Hematocrit  is one  indicator of oxygen carrying capacity, so  upon initial examination, this makes sense.  Hematocrit  probably became part of the consciousness of your average cyclist when the UCI created upper hematocrit limits before a racer has to take time off for “health reasons.”  This  somewhat arbitrary level of 50, and reports of some professional racers obtaining special certificates allowing them to have hematocrit over 50,  has led many cyclists to expect that their  hematocrit levels should be  higher than that of a non-athletic person, and that higher is always better.  But this is not necessarily true.

Your blood is mostly made up of red blood cells (RBC) and plasma; with platelets, white blood cells and other substances making up a very small percentage of your total blood volume.  Hematocrit level is essentially the  percentage of whole RBCs in your blood.  When you train, the number of red blood cells goes up. But here’s the thing:  plasma volume goes up even more than RBC volume.   And since hematocrit levels are expressed as a percentage,  hematocrit levels may actually go down.  But this is ok, because you still have more plasma, and more RBCs than if you weren’t training.   I  sometimes explain it like this:  if you  are in an untrained state your hematocrit may be only 45,  and as you train, it may go down to 42, but  since it is 42 out of a larger total volume of blood, you actually have more RBCs in that trained state.    To explain it another way, would you rather have 45% of  $100 or 42% of  $120?      42% of 120 is an extra $5.40,  just like having extra hematocrit even though your levels have gone down from 45 to 42.

A hematocrit level of 42 is considered “normal” in most labs.  But sometimes athlete’s hematocrit levels will drop lower, to levels that are flagged as “low” and the athlete can be told he has anemia, even when he does not.  In some studies,  the relationship between hematocrit and  fitness is an inverse one, meaning that athletes with the lowest hematocrit were actually the fittest athletes in the study.   Most athletes know that there is a relationship between iron and hematocrit.   A simple explanation of that relationship is that iron is part of the “heme” portion of the red blood cells that actually carries the oxygen, and that appropriate levels of iron are required for your body to make adequate RBCs.    This leads many athletes (especially those that have been told they are anemic) to consider supplementing with iron.   There is no benefit to taking iron supplements when iron levels are already  sufficient.  Studies have shown that there is no  athletic benefit to increasing iron stores in the blood once they are adequate.  Iron is not easily excreted.   The result is that over-supplementation  can lead to iron toxicity and can even be deadly.   This, along with the fact that low iron levels  measured as serum ferritin  can be as tough to diagnose as low hematocrit levels, means that I usually caution against athletes taking iron supplements.

Athletes do lose some iron through sweat, and female athletes lose some iron due to blood loss through the menstrual cycle,  but in my opinion this iron is best replaced through a healthy diet rather than through supplementation. Animal products such as liver, beef, and lamb are the best sources of Iron, not only because they  contain iron, but because iron from animal sources is more readily absorbed than  iron from plant sources.    Green leafy vegetables, beans, and tofu are good sources of iron,  but those sources of iron are not absorbed as well as the animal sources.    Vitamin C actually helps with the absorption, so tossing some oranges in your spinach salad can help with the iron absorption.

While I typically don’t recommend iron supplementation, it may be appropriate in some circumstances.   That  is a decision that should be  discussed with  your physician.   But since hematocrit levels  in athletes are frequently misunderstood among doctors as well as the general population, my recommendation is to see a doctor that is board certified in sports medicine,  or at least a doctor that is accustomed to working with an athletic population.

Sean is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA


Brun JF, Bouchahda C, Chaze D, Benhaddad AA, Micallef JP, Mercier J  Clin Hemorheol Microcirc. 2000;22(4):287-303.The paradox of hematocrit in exercise physiology: which is the “normal” range from an hemorheologist’s viewpoint?

Weight LM, Klein M, Noakes TD, Jacobs P

International Journal of Sports Medicine [1992, 13(4):344-347] Sports anemia’–a real or apparent phenomenon in endurance-trained athletes?

Garza, Dan A.B.; Shrier, Ian M.D., Ph.D.; Kohl, Harold W. III Ph.D.; Ford, Paul M.D.; Brown, Monte M.D.; Matheson, Gordon O. M.D., Ph.D   Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: 1997 Volume 7, issue 1:  The Clinical Value of Serum Ferritin Tests in Endurance Athletes


What to Do When You Want to Race Every Weekend



What to Do When You Want to Race Every Weekend

by Sean Burke


The race season is already in full swing here in Southern California and the rest of the country is soon to follow.   Many regions have so many races on the schedule that a bike racer can have a tough time choosing when to stay home and when to race.   Some racers even choose to race almost every weekend.   And why not?   We love to race our bikes, in fact that’s why we do all those hours of training and spend ridiculous amounts of money on gear. So, why shouldn’t we go race?  Many coaches might instruct their riders to back off on their racing schedules, but I’m going to do just the opposite.   I’m going to give you a few tips for fitting all of that racing into your schedule.

If you are going to race almost every weekend, you need to be sure to include the race  as a “hard training” day in your training plan.  Exactly how many days a week  a rider can do  hard workouts is going to vary greatly depending on age, years of training, outside stressors,  nightly sleep, and even his or her natural ability to recover.  It’s up to you (and your coach if applicable) to figure out how much you can train and how many days of interval/hammerfest/race intensity training you can do in a week.  Don’t forget to  include race days in your calculations.  I’ve seen riders run themselves into the ground by doing intervals or local bunch rides 3 or 4 days a week, and then following that up with a race  on the weekend.     Don’t be that rider.

Conversely, trying to be fresh for every race every weekend can also leave you in the undesirable position of not being as fit as you can possibly be for your biggest events of the year.    If you are going to race 3 or 4 times a month, you simply can’t go easy 3 or 4 days before every race.   That will leave you with far less training stress  than is optimal and you’ll wind up being mediocre all year.      If you want to race that often, the best thing to do is to simply “train through”  some of the races.    That means no  taper or special rest days beforehand.    Do make sure to include the race as a hard ride in your training program as described above; just don’t get into the habit of  trying to be as fresh as possible  for every race, or you’ll never realize your full potential.    Train through those less important events (you may still surprise yourself with your performance), then taper or rest a little bit before your 3 or 4 most important  races of the year.  This should leave you riding stronger than ever for the biggest events on your calendar.

Sean Burke is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA.


How to adjust your training when you get sick.



How to adjust your training when you get sick

By Sean Burke

am reminded of this topic after receiving emails from many of my athletes who have been under the weather in recent  weeks,  as well as being sick enough  to be bed- and couch-ridden myself  for about 36 hours just a few days ago.     Besides the normal winter colds, there is an especially virulent flu affecting more people than usual and many of my riders are having to tone down their programs.    As a coach, sometimes my job is simply to be the voice of reason.  Cyclists can be obsessive about their training.  They want to get in every   interval, every minute, every kilojoule, every kilometer.  But sometimes the smart thing to do is just take the day (or a couple of days!) off.   This can be especially tough when you feel like your fitness is coming along well or you are close to a big event.   Sometimes it’s ok to  train right through it, but   frequently the best plan of action is to  take a  few  extra days off, or extended periods of easy training.

When to train right through sickness:  As a general rule, you can train right through it when training doesn’t make it worse and you don’t have a fever    An example would be a minor head cold, with the characteristic congestion, headache, nasal pressure, and clear mucous.      Getting on your bike can raise your body temperature and actually help clear out some of that congestion  by loosening up the  mucous and  getting it out of there.    Just be careful not to hit your riding buddies with those snot rockets.    It will pass in a matter of time and you may take some medications to treat the symptoms (See my earlier posts on USADA,.  Your body just has to beat that sickness on its own and antibiotics  won’t do anything to improve the situation.     Keep in mind that everything changes if you have a fever,  the  infection  moves to your lungs, or if you have colored mucous, a sign of a secondary bacterial infection.


When to adjust your training:   Any time you have a fever, you should take the day off.  A fever is part of your body’s way of fighting off invaders and you need to marshal your reserves to fight this thing.    You may have an important   workout or ride coming up, but riding when you have a fever is only going put you in a hole and make it worse.  You’ll wind up taking longer to get over your sickness and you’ll miss more days of training than you otherwise would.   If you have a case of a head  cold that turns into a secondary bacterial infection as described above, you definitely need to see a doctor, who will most likely  prescribe antibiotics to  take out the bacteria.    I know many riders who are reluctant to take antibiotics, but if this upper respiratory tract (URT) infection works its way down into the lungs, you could develop pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.    This is much more difficult to get rid of, and could result in an extended period off the bike.  It’s much better to nip it in the bud   early and get back to doing what you love.    Pneumonia can develop from a viral URT infection as well as a  bacterial one, so you should also  get of your bike and see a physician if you  experience any wheezing or labored breathing.

The situations above are all cold- and flu-like symptoms that are associated with the winter months.   Other situations that warrant time of the bike are obviously situations like vomiting or diarrhea and  gastrointestinal pain/distress.   If you experience any of the above symptoms along with severe back pain you should get to the doctor right away as the back pain could be a sign of severe dehydration  and possible kidney failure.

Whenever you take some time off due to illness, be sure to ease back into your training.        You don’t want to challenge your already weakened immune system and have a relapse.    Some of the gastrointestinal issues can leave you dehydrated and your carbohydrate stores depleted, so you may need an extra day or two to refuel and restore your body.    Most of this stuff is common sense, but  cyclist can be hard on themselves and the drive to train can sometimes  overpower that  common sense.   As a coach, sometimes my job is to tell riders that its ok to take the day off.  Typically,  my athletes already know that a day off is the right decision, but the same killer instinct that compels them to race bikes, also makes them want to power through it rather than take a day off.  They just need someone to remind them that, sometimes, not training is better than training.


Sean Burke is the head coach for Crank Cycling in San Diego CA

Disclaimer:  I’m not a physician, so  the above isn’t medical advice and I can’t diagnose your disease.      Use your noggin and see your doctor if you are ever unsure about what to do.