King of the Mountain: How Hemoglobin Can Get You to the Top

By Carl Valle, July 13, 2015


Improving one’s endurance is a simple and powerful formula of hard work, great nutrition, and smart recovery. The training process to get to improved endurance becomes complicated when the body is pushed to the limit and enters a period when the body starts to make compromises in order to maintain health. For years, athletes have looked to science, including the dark side of doping, in order to improve their endurance by boosting hemoglobin in their blood. Hemoglobin is a limiting factor in elite endurance, part of a family of indices that make up a winning formula. Some of the world’s elite cyclists are currently battling some the most brutal of conditions at the AMGEN Tour of California. InsideTracker is busy analyzing how biomarkers change over time with some amazing cyclists competing in the Tour, and what we have already learned can help anyone looking to improve their endurance.

Hemoglobin: One factor that Determines our Fate

The amount of oxygen delivered to the cells is constrained by how much hemoglobin one has in their body. While not the only variable to performance, hemoglobin is one essential player to endurance, ranging from feeling great during a hike to pushing the limit in the Alps of the Tour de France. Analyzing hemoglobin is the tricky part, since our blood varies in viscosity from changes in both plasma, the fluid without red blood cells, and in total blood volume. Sport scientists have drilled deeper into calculations to determine the total amount of hemoglobin in the blood, and this measurement is called total hemoglobin mass, a key metric to cyclists trying to win and a measurement that is key for those trying to catch the cheaters. Without knowing the details of blood plasma and blood volume, glancing at the hemoglobin levels in your body can only help screen for anemia with sedentary people. Not so exciting for athletes. The good news is that various techniques and analyses can help any level of athlete get more from their hemoglobin score, from weekend warrior to the world class cyclist. The combination of work on the road, in the pool, or on the bike, along with a few other physiological measurements can show how the body is improving from training. Coaches have the secret with regards to hemoglobin; it’s the right perspective to try and drive the number up and higher. It’s not so much about having the best algorithm or equation, it’s about doing all the right things to keep hemoglobin up and not worry about fighting for inches when most of the time one is in fact losing yards. The average cyclist needs to move away from looking at saving ounces with an ultra light bike frame and instead focus on a logical approach to lose a few pounds of body fat by doing the basics with caloric intake. Sounds wise enough, doesn’t it? The same crisp thought process applies to hemoglobin. Focus on addressing the simple and impacting areas that support hemoglobin, not chasing the perfect number.

Enter the GU Energy Labs Project - Analyzing Unknown Territory

The GU project was started months ago when GU Energy Labs’s founder and InsideTracker Ultimate user Brian Vaughn wanted objective insight on how blood biomarkers reveal the true picture of an ultra athlete’s biochemistry during training, during a bike tour, and during recovery after competition and training. An onslaught of investigations into data from “Super Humans”  was initiated, ranging from fueling strategies to hacking the autonomic nervous system with the latest options in physiological monitoring. The goal was clear: blood test the ultra, super human athletes and let the data tell the story. No hypothesis, no control group, no intervention. What we learned is that research can’t be limited to sterile and synthetic observations in a lab, they must be done in real life. Each athlete needs to move away from the notion that normal is likely to be average, and that line of thinking is never going to work when one moves towards being one’s best. In a fantastic blog, Alex Hutchinson identified the need to appreciate individuality when pursuing one’s limit. Using the approach suggested by the Sweat Science author, the next level of performance is possible from a N=1 focus. Sport science research shows what can happen for human performance. Monitoring yourself and following through with the plan is what makes it happen. With the GU Energy Labs Project every athlete has access to their blood data and the direct cause and effect to performance is right there in front of them. The Tour of California is nearly completed, but our investigation with their season just started, we are crunching the numbers and seeing relationships that may lead to new innovations later.

How Freddie Rodriguez and other Elite Cyclists Develop Aerobic Power

We learned a lot from “Fast” Freddie about the need for pure aerobic time on the bike. Polarized training has many forms, but the idea of going either hard or easy is nothing new. Even without a coach, an athlete instinctively knows you can’t go hard every day, and legendary coaches like Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon embrace this training method with amazing results.  Science is now investigating training programs and what type of training system work best, and the results are starting to shed light on what athletes need to be doing in general. Fine tuning programs is about tailoring a program to fit the individual, not changing to fit the program. What we learned earlier from the Runner’s World blog post is that not everyone responds the same way to a program, hence the term non-responder. It can be fairly argued that overall there are things that everyone should do, things that everyone should consider, and things that only work for you. Freddie over years learned what works for him, and knows what he can share for others that can help everyone. Challenging the aerobic system requires milage and while quality matters, endurance is about going hard and long. The fine line on breaking barriers and breaking down is very thin, and is analogous to walking a tightrope. In order to widen the walk of risk, it’s imperative that athletes monitor both blood biomarkers and training.

How to Improve Hemoglobin with Extreme Personalization

The first step in improving hemoglobin and other metrics like hemoglobin mass starts with supporting the biomarkers that drive red blood cell formation and the body that produces the power on the bike, ground, or water. Surprisingly, endurance athletes need to think like speed and power athletes and look at their androgens and creatine kinase, markers that sport scientists use to evaluate muscle breakdown and fatigue patterns. Hemoglobin improvements simply can’t occur without the right nutrients and planned recovery if the body is not optimized. Tired and sore legs will never push the heart and internal chemistry to improve, so increasing hemoglobin is more than just time and mileage.  A hard workout never realizes unless the right nutrients are perfectly optimized for repair and regeneration. It can be tempting to be fixated on one number, resulting in spending unnecessary worry and effort that can backfire by not seeing the forest to the trees and zoom in on just one leaf. It would be far fetched to say that hemoglobin falls into one place as that would be oversimplified, but when Olympic athletes are deficient in Vitamin D, fighting for small marginal gains is putting the cart before the horse. Years of testing athletes and seeing the results of the world’s elite, we realize even the top cyclists and other endurance athletes have similar vices and very human mistakes that regular joes have and make.

Getting Tested is about Precision Timing


Obviously getting tested and tracking data is a logical conclusion in seeing how training, nutrition, and prescribed rest help improve factors that drive improvement. Just testing is great for screening, but sport science can be done in the real world when athletes and coaches time their blood tests smarter. Investing into blood testing is a commitment, and arbitrary timing of tests can discover problems before they get worse, but higher precision can be done when a user of InsideTracker tests at the end of a training phase when they are recovered. Following the playbook of great research, the point of testing to see if a change (hopefully improvement of course) was made from the efforts over weeks. After comparison, the blood testing results can see if the wattage on the bike, milage on your GPS watch, and speed in the pool made the difference. By testing after a training period you think made a real difference, get tested and get a reality check to decisively determine if you are what you think you are. The “Ultimate” truth serum is in our blood, and anyone can benefit from smarter testing, not just the best cyclists in the world.

What's Your Hemoglobin Staus?


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