Triath­letes love noth­ing more than the lat­est gad­get to pro­pel their per­for­mance to a new level. From blood and DNA test­ing to HRV, here we fo­cus on the lat­est in­no­va­tions and as­sess their triathlon po­ten­tial

220 Triathlon Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Pro­pel your per­for­mance to a whole new level, with the very lat­est in tri in­no­va­tions

Ses­sion com­plete, time for that much-needed warm-down via the Red Lion. With red wine to hand – it’s all about the an­tiox­i­dants th­ese days – you and your tri crew, in unison, down­load your last 120 min­utes of rid­ing to your smart­phone for a se­ries of graphs and num­bers that tell you just how strong or not you are. Stress score, av­er­age power, av­er­age speed – this is the sort of tech that’s eas­ily un­der­stood by most and, more im­por­tantly, can re­sult in the nec­es­sary train­ing tweaks for im­proved per­for­mance.

Be­cause ul­ti­mately that’s what tech­nol­ogy and its in­te­gra­tion – or in­fil­tra­tion, de­pend­ing on your view­point – into your triathlon train­ing and rac­ing is all about. The prob­lem is, our sport’s awash with so-called in­no­va­tions that, once the shine’s worn off, don’t add any­thing to your swim, bike and run ses­sions. Your lat­est £500 out­lay’s soon col­lect­ing dust with that sit-up ma­chine you bought from the Sun­day sup­ple­ment.

Analysing ev­ery ‘in­no­va­tion’ to hit the mar­ket would re­quire an is­sue that matched War and Peace for length. That’s why we’ve pin­pointed the ones we feel have cre­dence be­hind them – whether sci­en­tific or anec­do­tal – and re­ally hone in on those to help you not only bet­ter un­der­stand th­ese prod­ucts, but also make you think a lit­tle more deeply about other po­ten­tially ground-break­ing train­ing tools. Knowl­edge is power – and power can save you a small for­tune!


The Brown­lees brothers’ re­spec­tive ca­reers have seen them jointly or in­di­vid­u­ally rack up Olympic medals, be nom­i­nated for BBC Sports Per­son­al­ity of the Year and have a post box painted gold in their hon­our. From March this year, added to that list was a blood test, the boys work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Swedish com­pany Wer­labs. “To get through the men­tal and phys­i­cal wear and tear of our train­ing it’s vi­tal that we’re in peak con­di­tion, both phys­i­cally and men­tally,” Alis­tair com­mented at launch. “That’s why together with Wer­labs we cre­ated this test that looks at over 30 blood val­ues.”

An en­durance ath­lete’s as­so­ci­a­tion with blood is noth­ing new, yet it’s tended to have ne­far­i­ous as­so­ci­a­tions. The Brown­lee test, sim­i­lar to those from es­tab­lished out­fits like Forth Edge, is purely le­gal, of course, and fo­cuses on biomark­ers re­lated to op­ti­mum en­durance per­for­mance like cre­a­tine, C-re­ac­tive pro­tein and haemoglobin. The test mea­sures the level of each. Take the lat­ter, whose pri­mary role is to trans­port oxy­gen around the body. Low lev­els can sig­nify anaemia, re­quir­ing an iron sup­ple­ment; too high could be de­hy­dra­tion, re­quir­ing fluid.


The Brown­lee test is com­pre­hen­sive yet, un­like Forth Edge’s En­durance Plus, it doesn’t mea­sure testos­terone lev­els. Ar­guably that’s a sig­nif­i­cant omis­sion, es­pe­cially for ath­letes train­ing in three dis­ci­plines. Over to Dr Will Manger, an ex­pert on the sub­ject. “Low testos­terone lev­els re­sult in a drop in power out­put and are a sign of over­train­ing,” he says. “So we’d ad­vise ac­tive re­cov­ery (e.g. a gen­tle bike) and re­lax­ation tech­niques, like deep breath­ing. And as testos­terone’s made up of choles­terol, we’d rec­om­mend good-qual­ity fats from olive oil and fish.” Still, with 34 blood mark­ers an­a­lysed, the Brown­lees’ blood test ticks more ath­letic boxes than Forth Edge’s dozen or so.

Choice then comes down to con­ve­nience and cost. The Brown­lees’ test re­quires a home visit by a nurse with re­sults ac­ces­si­ble within 24hrs via a se­cure online jour­nal; Forth Edge de­liver a fin­ger-prick sam­ple kit that, once you’ve taken your blood, you send back for anal­y­sis. You then get the re­sults via an app within days.

As for cost, the Brown­lees’ (wer­ comes in at £139 whereas the En­durance Plus ( is £99. While rel­a­tively af­ford­able, they’re both mean­ing­less if you don’t re­peat the tests, with Forth Edge rec­om­mend­ing ev­ery three, four or six months.

Also be aware that blood test­ing pro­vides only a ‘snap­shot’ and that cer­tain fac­tors, such as re­cent meals, hard train­ing and mi­nor ill­ness, may skew re­sults.


An­other in­no­va­tive train­ing tool, although one that’s flirted with the masses for a while, is heart-rate vari­abil­ity (HRV). HRV is es­sen­tially the time in­ter­val be­tween heart beats and is a gauge of your ner­vous sys­tem. It can be mea­sured via a chest strap from Omegawave or cred­i­ble apps, like HRV4 train­ing, that de­tect changes in blood vol­ume by plac­ing your fin­ger on your smart­phone.

So what are you look­ing for? Over to Si­mon Wegerif, founder of HRV train­ing tool ith­lete, who we spoke to at the re­cent Sci­ence & Cy­cling Con­fer­ence in Nantes, France. “The idea is that small vari­a­tions in the beat-to-beat tim­ing of the heart re­flect the body’s level of stress. Each per­son has a char­ac­ter­is­tic amount of vari­a­tion when they’re well re­cov­ered, and the vari­a­tion de­creases when they’re stressed. A daily morn­ing read­ing is com­pared to their own base­line and used to de­ter­mine how re­cov­ered they are.”

So if you wake up one morn­ing and your HRV is very low – a sign of stress and po­ten­tial over­train­ing – and you planned a high-in­ten­sity run ses­sion, you may de­cide to do an ac­tive re­cov­ery swim ses­sion in­stead. And vice versa. “The great thing about HRV train­ing is that it con­sid­ers nu­mer­ous fac­tors that af­fect stress,” con­tin­ues Wegerif. “This in­cludes sleep qual­ity, fu­elling sta­tus and even jet­lag.”


To max­imise HRV train­ing, you need to mea­sure HRV as soon as you awake (and cer­tainly be­fore cof­fee), and you must take daily read­ings. The more read­ings, the more data, the bet­ter the re­sults. Also, HRV train­ing works best when used with other ‘ready-to-train’ tools, like the pop­u­lar Train­ing Peaks and their stress score.

That’s the the­ory, but what about in the coal­face of triathlon? “I’ve used the ith­lete app and fin­ger sen­sor to mea­sure HRV mostly daily for a num­ber of years,” says age-group triath­lete Ian Wa­ters. “This gives you the HRV value as a num­ber and the num­ber is green, am­ber or red. Green means all is good and carry on as nor­mal; am­ber means you should lower in­ten­sity; and red means you should rest. I started us­ing ith­lete be­cause I wanted to push my­self as far as pos­si­ble and have an ob­jec­tive mea­sure to whether I was push­ing too hard.”

Wa­ters feels it’s a use­ful tool, though we ques­tion whether not know­ing ex­actly what you’re go­ing to do that day can re­sult in a seem­ingly ar­bi­trary train­ing plan? “Not at all,” he replies. “On days I get a red I’ll rest, and usu­ally by the next day it’s back into green.”

Ith­lete, Omegawave and HRV Train­ing of­fer nu­mer­ous pack­ages with the ith­lete app start­ing from £6.99.


Many triath­letes delve even deeper by un­der­tak­ing a DNA test. Muhdo is one of a grow­ing band of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing ar­guably the most well-known DNAFit, of­fer­ing DNA pro­fil­ing to max­imise your per­for­mance via ‘be­spoke’ train­ing and nu­tri­tion advice. Its po­ten­tial for ‘cus­tomised’ advice holds great ap­peal with re­searchers be­liev­ing the global mar­ket for such kits could be worth more than £8bil­lion by 2022.

The idea’s sim­ple. The DNA test­ing com­pany send you a kit where you take a swab of your mouth, pop it into a test tube and send it back to, say, Muhdo who’ll ‘per­form a de­tailed anal­y­sis of your DNA to pro­vide you with per­son­alised fit­ness rec­om­men­da­tions’.

“We test for the nu­cle­obase pairs within a SNP (sin­gle nu­cleo­tide poly­mor­phism) of a gene,” ex­plains Muhdo’s Chris Collins. “We then ex­am­ine cer­tain base char­ac­ter­is­tics that are col­lated into cat­e­gories such as stamina, power, VO2 max, etc. We also look at di­etary mark­ers.”

Th­ese SNPs are the heart of Muhdo and their com­peti­tors’ of­fer­ings. For ev­ery gene there are three pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of SNPs. E.g. with the ACE gene (see be­low) you can ei­ther have II, DD or ID, with each ex­press­ing a cer­tain phys­i­cal and men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic. In the case of the ACE gene, II is linked with en­durance ca­pa­bil­i­ties while DD is as­so­ci­ated with power.


The likes of Muhdo and DNAFit have iso­lated genes that, they say, have enough re­search be­hind them to in­flu­ence dif­fer­ent pa­ram­e­ters of per­for­mance, of which they’ll then of­fer train­ing or nu­tri­tion advice. For in­stance, the gene ACTN3 is as­so­ci­ated with power; PPARA reg­u­lates fat; and VEGF, blood ves­sel growth and so en­durance. And then there’s that ACE gene, which is in­volved in blood pres­sure control and, sub­se­quently, power and en­durance.

ACE first came to promi­nence in 1998 when Pro­fes­sor Hugh Mont­gomery stud­ied army re­cruits un­der­go­ing ba­sic train­ing. Mont­gomery showed that sub­jects with the II com­bi­na­tion en­joyed the great­est en­durance in­creases; those with DD the least. So, by virtue, II was linked to en­durance per­for­mance.

Sim­ple? No. Noted ge­neti­cist Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis took DNA sam­ples from 221 na­tional Kenyan ath­letes, 70 in­ter­na­tional Kenyan ath­letes and 85 mem­bers of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. The re­sults showed that the II geno­type of the ACE gene wasn’t strongly linked with elite en­durance sta­tus. “Their suc­cess isn’t down to favourable ge­netic char­ac­ter­is­tics,” ar­gues Pit­si­ladis. “It’s more tied in with chronic ex­po­sure to al­ti­tude in com­bi­na­tion with mod­er­ate-vol­ume, high-in­ten­sity train­ing, plus a strong psy­cho­log­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion to suc­ceed for eco­nomic and so­cial ad­vance­ment.”


Pit­si­ladis feels the field is too im­ma­ture for com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion and more re­search is re­quired. Then again, there’s re­cent re­search like this that adds sup­port to DNA com­pa­nies: the Univer­sity of Tri­este found that those fol­low­ing di­etary advice based on ge­netic anal­y­sis lost 33% more weight than a con­trolled group.

And, as it stands, nu­tri­tion advice based on DNA is ar­guably more valid than train­ing advice. That’s cer­tainly the ex­pe­ri­ence of age-grouper Wa­ters. “The re­sults from the DNAFit test kit showed low VO2 max po­ten­tial, high in­jury risk and slow re­cov­ery. None of this matched my ex­pe­ri­ence. I train twice a day, log 15hrs per week and have rarely missed train­ing be­cause of fail­ure to re­cover. So I ig­nored the advice.

“When it came to nu­tri­tion, how­ever, it showed carb sen­si­tiv­ity so ad­vised a low-carb diet. It also men­tioned an in­creased need for an­tiox­i­dants, B and D vi­ta­mins and omega-3. I fol­lowed the advice, lost a lot of weight, and felt fu­elled and ready for each train­ing ses­sion.”

Some ex­perts agree there’s more va­lid­ity in nu­tri­tion than train­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, with the ge­netic vari­a­tions be­hind a con­di­tion like lac­tose in­tol­er­ance well-un­der­stood. But then there’s un­pick­ing how much im­pact de­rives from genes or sim­ple be­havioural changes. “I hadn’t strug­gled to lose weight in the past,” Wa­ters con­tin­ues, “so I’d no way of know­ing whether this was a help or not.”

Advice like in­creas­ing omega-3 also feels generic but, ar­gues Collins, this and Pit­si­ladis’ com­ments are an easy stick to beat DNA com­pa­nies with. “Re­search is build­ing in what’s a fast-mov­ing in­dus­try; within just a year, one com­pany could col­lect 1,000 sam­ples and con­duct stud­ies that move the field on.”

As for cost, DNAFit’s Diet & Fit­ness (dnafit. com) is £249; Muhdo’s ( £249.99.

“As it stands, nu­tri­tion advice based on DNA is ar­guably more valid than train­ing advice”


Blood test­ing, DNA anal­y­sis and HRV train­ing are a snap­shot of the tools that triath­letes around the world are us­ing in search of a new per­sonal best. But what of the fu­ture? It’s a ques­tion we posed to triathlon coach and au­thor Matt Fitzger­ald, but first, elite triathlon coach Tom Ben­nett.

“Keep an eye out for the emer­gence of ke­tones for fu­elling en­durance per­for­mance,” says Ben­nett. “There’s re­search that th­ese are su­pe­rior to car­bo­hy­drates in fu­elling triath­letes.” Ke­tones dif­fer to ke­to­sis, which is es­sen­tially a high-fat, low-carb diet with the aim of util­is­ing more fat and spar­ing pre­cious glyco­gen re­serves. Stud­ies show this ap­proach is lim­it­ing at higher in­ten­si­ties of ex­er­cise. In­stead, ke­tones are a sup­ple­ment, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the time to achieve di­etary ke­to­sis – favourable when ex­er­cis­ing. Cur­rently, there are two down­sides, with cost re­ported at £2,000 a litre and a very bit­ter taste.

“In-dwelling sen­sors beyond heart rate and GPS are also not far away,” Ben­nett con­tin­ues, mean­ing tools that non-in­va­sively mea­sure im­por­tant de­ter­mi­nants of en­durance per­for­mance like mus­cle glyco­gen and lac­tate lev­els.

As for Fitzger­ald, well, his rec­om­men­da­tions and con­cur­rent con­cerns pro­vide the per­fect con­clu­sion to our look at in­te­grat­ing tech into your triathlon train­ing. “I rec­om­mend spe­cific prod­ucts and tools to ath­letes in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, but th­ese are just as likely to be lowtech (e.g. the Sacro-Wedgy for [but­tock paincaus­ing] pir­i­formis syn­drome) as high-tech (e.g. the Al­ter-G anti-grav­ity tread­mill for train­ing through im­pact-re­lated in­juries).

“I like to see a cer­tain de­gree of pen­e­tra­tion within the elite ech­e­lon be­fore I sup­port a par­tic­u­lar tool,” be­lieves Fitzger­ald. “Yet this hap­pens more of­ten with method­olo­gies, like glyco­gen-de­pleted ses­sions, than with tech­nolo­gies. In fact, I spend more time steer­ing ath­letes away from high-tech gad­gets and gim­micks and tamp­ing down the ‘magic-bul­let men­tal­ity’ that un­der­lies their draw. I’m not anti-tech­nol­ogy but most triath­letes stand to gain more from fo­cus­ing on the ba­sics, such as build­ing pain tol­er­ance and body aware­ness – pro­cesses that some tech­nolo­gies di­rectly thwart.”

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