As a kid, I spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons, with one of my favorites being that of a likable bunny chewing a carrot! With the tagline, “What’s up doc?” this classic Looney Tunes character continues to bring laughs and smiles to fans across the globe.
With the onset of the New Year, many of us are considering equipment upgrades, finalizing race schedules and hitting our training sessions with great enthusiasm. As a coach, I am prescribing the all-familiar field testing to my athletes. The information acquired through field testing provides us with valuable baseline data to establish proper pacing, power and heart rate zones across all disciplines. We use this data as a compass to guide the training process. While field evaluations and equipment upgrades are important considerations, I believe the most precious equipment is our body and mind. A wise person once said, “Health is our greatest gift.” It is prudent to be disciplined with training and complete the field tests being prescribed, however, what are you doing to safeguard your overall physical and mental health?
Speaking from personal experience and my own journey as an endurance athlete, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that until one month ago, I had not had a physical exam since my years playing collegiate soccer, over 30 years ago! Perhaps like many athletes, I had the somewhat naïve mindset that through my involvement in sport and living a “healthy” lifestyle everything must be A-Okay. I honestly did not really see the importance of having an annual physical exam, aside from bloodwork.
However, after completing a physical exam and colonoscopy in the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to health care professionals about my overall health and lifestyle, including my endurance training, and now feel more confident about my own overall health and understanding the criticality of preventative health care. As endurance athletes, there are more demands placed on our bodies than that of the general public. Along with our training and periodic field evaluations, the early season is a perfect time of year to have some basic, yet important, screenings to ensure our physical and mental health is in top form.
Annual Physical Exam
Getting a physical exam is a good starting point to safeguard overall health. According to D3 athlete and emergency room physician Dr. Gary Lucchesi, “Having a primary care physician do an initial exam will help determine the frequency of future exams needed (younger and healthy athletes may not need a full physical annually unless things come up).” Other screenings are recommended and include colonoscopies, mammograms, and prostate screenings; the timing of your first screenings for each of these depend on age and family history, and your primary care physician can discuss this with you. Dr. Lucchesi also recommends an influenza (flu) vaccination to minimize the risk of having to take significant recovery days/weeks off from training. “There is a common misconception that the influenza vaccination can give you the flu. Can’t happen. And while not always 100% effective, it may save you an ill-timed ’week off’ recovering from a miserable illness.” Endurance athletes tend to push themselves when sick and are best served to take an unplanned rest day to avoid digging themselves into a hole.
For aging endurance athletes (above 40 years of age) or anyone with a family history of heart issues, an annual ECG/EKG is recommended. While triathlon and endurance sports typically lend themselves to a healthy lifestyle, there are inherent risks. We are seeing more cases of atrial fibrillation (A-fib), particularly in men. According to well-known and respected cardiac health expert Dr. Mark Estes, “As you get into the high-intensity/high-endurance end of the spectrum – typically more than 5 hours per week at greater than 80% of peak heart rate – the risk of A-fib increases up to 10-fold.” USAT now requires elite athletes of all ages (Junior, U23, Elite & Elite Paratriathlon) that wish to participate in International Triathlon Union (ITU) events to pass an ECG as part of their pre-participation exam.
Bloodwork, including a complete blood count (CBC) and lipid panel, provides important information for all individuals. As previously mentioned, the demands placed on endurance athletes are different from the general public and warrant monitoring of other markers, including but not limited to ferritin, hemoglobin/hematocrit, Vitamins D & B12, cortisol, folate, testosterone, and prostate specific antigen (PSA) count. Your primary care physician can recommend and order additional markers that should be checked relative to your individual health and family history.
One of D3's partners is Inside Tracker and they are an excellent resource for bloodwork.
With the amount of time endurance athletes spend outdoors, an annual skin scan (performed by a dermatologist) is very important. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Melanoma accounts for a seemingly low 1% of all skin cancers but is the cause of the majority of skin cancer deaths in the United States. Early detection through an annual skin scan, along with consistent use of sunscreen (even in winter months) will decrease your risk of skin cancer and identify cancers early. More information may be found here.
Life stresses (family, work, training, etc.) can affect the body and mind in many ways. Physiological manifestations from mental fatigue/stress can be readily seen in athletes. Performance can be dramatically impacted by stress and depression. Just this past year professional triathlete, Sara True, shared her story with depression in USAT Magazine. Mental health is often brushed aside or overlooked. Anyone with symptoms or concerns should feel comfortable sharing this information with their D3 coach and consult with a reputable mental health professional.
As you embark on your 2020 season, make sure to take care of your most powerful piece of equipment – your body and mind. Wishing you a healthy and speedy season!
Coach Brad Seng is a USAT Level II, USAT Youth & Junior Elite and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. His coaching methodology revolves around the roles that both the body and the mind play in an athlete’s ability to reach maximum potential. Training the body to swim, bike or run faster, further or with more intensity is hard work. With a custom-built training plan and good nutrition on board it definitely gets a whole lot easier.