Friday, June 29, 2012

Beets, Spinach, Lim, Fertilizer, Bombs, and So On

One of cycling's performance gurus, Allen Lim, gets a lot of press for his recommendations.  He's worked with some well-known characters and teams:
Floyd Landis:  Lim famously claimed that Floyd's prolific and constant dousing with ice water allowed him to stick the most miraculous solo move in the past twenty years.
Garmin:  Lim took steps to improve Garmin's aerodynamics, overheating, diet, and training methodology.  Lim, in fact, was the face of their campaign to get results through scientific--ostensibly clean--methods.
Lance Armstrong:  to measure the effect of heat on the world's most famous cyclist, Lim had Lance swallow thermometers that recorded his core temperature during strenuous efforts.  (Bicycling Magazine article on Lim's work with Lance).

This past year Lim published a cookbook (The Feed Zone, a Christmas present) and moved over to Omega-Pharma Lotto.  It may or may not be coincidence that Lim's move to Omega-Pharma coincides with his new team's best year ever.  In addition to winning Paris-Roubaix, Flanders, and dozens of other races, just this past week Omega captured eight national titles.  They've been dominant, and it hasn't just been Boonen.

Lim's approach, he says, is science-based.  He draws on clinical research and other empirical evidence that's applicable to bike racing.
For many people, if Lim recommends something, it's worth trying.  I am sometimes one of these, but I also have a few doubts.  After all, how good can Lim be if Floyd and Lance's doping was a surprise?  The other option--one I'm more inclined to believe--is that Lim knows his athletes dope, but he doesn't care.

Lim can either be seen as a scientists bent on better performance, or as a PR genius--after all, what better way to play the mad scientist?  Throw on an ice vest, spray beet juice around, and write a cookbook.  That's how we won the Giro--eating and crapping out thermometers, very tight shirts, more aerodynamic cranks, and not being that great (I mean, if we're on drugs, then what is Contador on?).  

Whether intended or not, Lim's "natural" approach has the same effect on fans that the church's smoke and incense had on peasants in the Dark Ages--awe and wonder.

So when Lim proclaims, as he did at this year's Tour of California, that he's juicing beets for Omega-Pharma, I sort of smiled and shrugged.  Who knows?  If beet juice works, why would Lim put it out there?  After all, he's paid to give his own athletes a competitive advantage; not the general public.

Some recent research, however, suggests there may be something to the beet juice thing.  This article over at Pezcycling news sums it up fairly well.  The active ingredient in beets is, surprisingly, nitrates.  The claim is that, in test subjects, ingestion of 1/2 liter of beet juice for six days led to a 16% increase in endurance time in a test with escalating intensity.  The mechanism, researchers speculated, is nitrates.

Another study on nitrates found that ingestion of nitrates in spinach strengthened fast-twitch fiber in mice:  Said researchers, "Translated into human terms, consuming nitrates from for instance spinach increases the muscle strength available for things like lifting weights or sprinting up a steep hill.

This is all well and good, except nitrates are typically viewed as unhealthy.  They are among the most common preservatives added to meat, and health experts (and even ol' Paps' mom) have long warned of the dangers of added nitrates in lunch meat, bacon, and pigs in blanket snacks.  Excessive nitrites--what nitrates become in the body--can even lead to a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease that deactivates haemoglobin.  Exactly the opposite effect long distance athletes look for in our food.  Nitrates can also transform into cancer-causing nitrosamines, which is the reason why the USDA limits the amount of sodium nitrate added to meat.

One more thing that may give you pause--nitrates are found in fertilizer and explosives.  Run-off of nitrates into rivers causes contamination and environmental catastrophe.

This is not to dispute the benefits of beet juice on endurance and strength.  It's just to point out the complexity of clean sports nutrition:  if the nitrates in beets or spinach were hugely advantageous, it would be helpful to know why before loading up your innards with them.  Thus far, no one has explained why.  Not even Allen Lim.

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