Dr. Trent Stellingwerff – On Nutrition and Hydration

March 16, 2012 1

© Copyright – 2012 – Athletics Illustrated

Dr. Trent Stellingwerff is a former track and field athlete who competed in the NCAA for Cornell University where he was selected as a co-captain. He also competed in the CIS for the University of Guelph, where he twice earned All-Canadian status.

Stellingwerff was an academically decorated student who made the Dean’s list at Cornell University and was twice awarded Academic All-Canadian status during the years 2001 and 2002. In 2006 he took a position in Switzerland for the Nestle Research Centre (Powerbar) as a Senior Research Scientist in Sport Nutrition, Energy and Performance. Stellingwerff has also served as the Nutrition and Physiology Consultant for Athletics Canada.

He and his wife Hilary (International-level 1500m runner), recently relocated to Victoria, BC where he accepted the position of Senior Physiologist working with the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific.

Christopher Kelsall: You ran well in High School and University. Are you training at all these days, or do you just run for pleasure?

Trent Stellingwerff: I was one of those high-school kids who ran pretty fast (1:53.1 out of high-school, then went to Cornell University), but then made every mistake in the book in University and only got marginally faster. Basically, in university I just didn’t know any better, and it was a classic tale of trying to run 80 to 90 miles-per-week with three hard workouts per week, living in a house with five guys and having parties three nights a week, sleeping very little coupled with a pre-med Ivy League course load, and I wondered why I was getting sick and injured all the time. Who knew training needed some recovery?  Now I spend a big part of my life stressing the latter to athletes (importance of lifestyle and recovery), and it comes from the heart, as I know I truly did not maximize my potential.

CK: And these days?

TS: These days I still run five to seven times per week (or try), but I don’t really aspire to be competitive anymore – been there done that. Instead, while in Switzerland, I did three team adventure races which were more mountain biking and cycling. I do periodically jump into the odd half-marathon or 10k, but don’t really target it. (e.g. ran a 1:15 half a few years ago). But, I do keep in decent shape or good enough to give my wife Hilary, a good running workout when needed, that should rattle her chain a bit (laughs).

CK: What sort of epic action should take place upon her reading that comment?

TS:  Ohhh…she is used to it. Guys probably run a bit more on pride and ego (I’ve never met a male runner who didn’t believe they had a great kick!) ….I’ll probably just pay for it by having her half step me around Elk Lake tomorrow while I suffer in silence.

CK: You moved to Victoria recently to work with the Canadian Sport Centre – Pacific as Senior Physiologist. Can you describe a typical day at work CSC?

TS: Every day is completely different – that is why I like the job. My background is in physiology and nutrition, so those are my two main areas of expertise.

For anyone who has done exercise physiology/nutrition degrees and loves to work with elite athletes, it is one of those dream jobs. I am paid to work with the very best athlete DNA in Canada, and think creatively on how to make them better yet, in an engaging multidisciplinary sport-science approach – so it is really awesome! So some days include physiological testing, blood monitoring, in-the-field monitoring, at training camps and competitions, working closely with the coach on program/training design and interpretation of training and testing data.

At CSC-Pacific, I work primarily with our men’s Olympic rowing program, but I also continue with my work with Athletics Canada, and now also a few National team triathletes and cyclists. I gain so much from every type of athlete and coach, and it is great learning to cross-over to different sports.To me, a real highlight, is getting any great coach or athlete mind in my office and having a great open collaborative brainstorm.

But as with any job, some days I feel like I answer a billion emails and move papers from one part of my desk to another. You have to love this job, as it can be long hours and a lot of travel and time away from home. But I love it! The pressure and stress of getting ready for an Olympics, or at a major champs, is what makes me really feel alive.

CK: So as the saying goes, do what you love for work and you never work a day in your life. Are you there yet?

TS: I don’t know if I am there yet, but I would probably say pretty close! I love problem solving, and I love always trying to figure out new things. That is why science will always be relevant and interesting to me. I would say that I would love to work in sport science and elite sport for the rest of my life in some realm or capacity. This is why I also love working with athletes, they really are an n=1 project, where something that might work in one person, doesn’t in another. Yes, you have to have a strong ‘general’ underlying  training and or physiological philosophies, but  be continually willing to earn and adapt.

CK: A few years ago you had a peer-reviewed article published, titled, ‘Co-ingestion of carbohydrate with protein does not augment post-exercise protein synthesis’. The apparent good effects of eating carbs and protein after exercise is now a very popular myth. So no more Oh Henry’s for me after a run. In your opinion what then is the best way to augment protein synthesis or is there a way or do you recommend to just eat?

TS: This is a study I was involved with during my post-doctorate fellowship that I did at Maastricht University in The Netherlands (right near Liege, Belgium). The focus of this study was exclusively on post-exercise muscle protein synthesis, where we asked the question of whether it was just dietary protein needed to optimize protein synthesis post-exercise, or does it need to be combined with carbohydrate to optimize the responses (e.g. added calories and/or insulin from the carbs). Long story short, which several other newer studies have now confirmed, for muscle protein synthesis post-exercise, just protein is needed to optimize this recovery parameter.

However, the title of this paper is a bit deceiving, and I want to stress that both protein and carbohydrate are needed for recovery after hard training. Protein is needed to optimize protein synthesis, but carbohydrate is needed to optimize muscle and liver glycogen re-synthesis. After hard training (not a 30min run), most athletes should aim for about 15 to 25g of protein and about 60 to 100g of carbohydrate – depending on the athlete’s body weight and length and or intensity of workout. This can come from sports nutrition, or just food. Timing is the key! Both of these processes, along with re-hydration form the three main things to consider during recovery and after hard  training, should occur right away.

CK: And for the masses?

TS: For most of the masses who just do 30min runs, an aggressive post-exercise nutritional recovery protocol is probably not needed (they would just needed re-hydrate and ingest a much lower level of protein and carbs, and thus much lower calories). They might be the most “recovered” athlete in the world, but they also will probably end up with more non-functional body mass than they desire.

CK: “Body mass”. Are you being politically correct?

TS: Yes.

CK: I noticed you said, “re-hydration”. There seems to be quite a volume of new research indicating that paying attention to organic-like signs of being thirsty maybe a better way to gauge when a person should hydrate. Is an elite or competitive endurance athlete who is in the heat of battle still able to accurately tell where they are at through typical signals?

TS: This is a very scientifically controversial topic, with a lot of evidence to suggest that thirst might not be a good enough guide, but also some evidence to suggest the opposite. My personal opinion is that for the vast majority of athletes, thirst is probably a pretty good guide – except in extreme conditions. For example, if someone is going to do an Ironman in the furnace of Hawaii, they better be practiced at handling a lot fluids and carbs and have a very well thought out fueling and hydration plan, other than going into the race thinking they will just drink when thirsty and “fuel” when hungry. In these cases, athletes will drastically under-consume fluids and carbs, and it will probably be too late.  There is a lot of new evidence and thinking to suggest that the gastrointestinal tract can be ‘adapted’ to handling more fluids and carbohydrates through practice (just like how the muscles can be adapted). So practicing this is a very important part of  the performance puzzle for anyone racing longer than ninety minutes. Just like training periodization, nutritional periodization (such as fueling and fluid practice) should be periodized in the four to six weeks prior to a major endurance competition.

CK: For competitive marathon runners is taking on water unnecessary during the marathon event, if the temperatures are mild?

TS: Generally no – it is still necessary. You are correct in suggesting in your question that  marathon hydration needs are weather dependent, while marathon fueling needs (carbohydrate intake) is weather independent.  But, even in very cool weather, athletes will still sweat and some amounts of fluids need to be consumed to get the all important energy (carbohydrate) down. Athlete sweat rates are so individual, even in cooler weather – so this needs to be practiced and tracked prior to race day (e.g. 1kg of body weight loss = 1 L of sweat)., and it is normal and athletes should aim for about 2% body weight losses during prolonged training and competitions. But, if an athlete sweats more than 2% body weight losses, they need to drink more. In very cold weather, when athletes wear layers, they actually can sweat a lot!

CK: Can you tell me about the glycogen sparing effect?

TS: Glycogen sparing refers to the mechanism by which an athlete might spare glycogen when taking in carbohydrate (CHO) during endurance exercise, thus allowing some muscle glycogen to be present at the end of a race when they need to kick (I examined this very question in a 2007 publication). Although somewhat controversial in the scientific literature, this is one of the proposed mechanisms responsible for why taking in carbohydrate during endurance events improves performance.

CK: What are your thoughts on the practice of ”training low and racing high”  in regards to fueling with carbohydrate for endurance athletes?

TS: Nutritional physiologists call this altering “CHO availability” around training. This is based on the hypothesis that to maximize endurance training adaptations (not speed/power athletes!) a periodic (not always) lack of CHO availability (or substrates) might actually help to drive training adaptations, instead of always being well-fueled. This is analogous to altitude training where you take something away (e.g. oxygen saturation) to try to further drive adaptations in the muscle.

Obviously to “further drive training adaptations” this suggests that the athlete is already at the high end of the training adaptation curve (or nearing a training ceiling) – thus should not even be considered for junior athletes, or most of the masses, who just need to get out and train or run more! But, what are ways we can make training ‘smarter’ or ‘harder’ for someone like a Reid Coolsaet who already runs 220 to 240km/wk? At some point there is diminishing returns in training volume when you get up over this kind of mileage (e.g. higher risk of overuse injuries), but don’t get me wrong I believe in high volume training for endurance athletes). So I do work very closely with some of very top-elite endurance athletes and their coaches to implement altered CHO availability around their training to try and further maximize their training adaptations. We would NEVER do this in racing. So, again like altitude, we could call it periodically “training low”(low muscle glycogen or low CHO availability) but always “competing HIGH” (always having full muscle glycogen and fueling while racing).

I should precede this by: “don’t try this at home”.

An example is overnight fasted running. So you wake up, just have a coffee and water and head out the door on a run. For elite endurance athletes, over 10-12 weeks, we might actually work them up to handling 60 to 100 minutes of this!  Yes, they are tired and feel like crap at the end – but this is exactly how the end of a race feels. But, this also requires an aggressive recovery protocol, and then close monitoring and appropriate periodization, as this athlete will probably not be able to go hard/fast again for at least 48-72hrs. There is a lot of new emerging science with muscle biopsies looking at this, and finding an altered training response by doing this (e.g. see work by Hansen et al. and John Hawley’s research group in Australia).

CK: So training low is not something that you would recommend all year round?

TS: No – it needs to be thought out and balanced within an intelligently designed and periodized training program. There are times of the year that athletes may never do it (e.g. in the few weeks leading into a target race, or during rest & recovery phase). I would also never recommend it to someone who has not already nearly maximized their individual peak tolerated training volume and load. For someone running 30km/week it just doesn’t make sense — run more first!

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