“Oh no, are we out?” I asked my wife after I got home from a run. “Yes,” she said. “OK. I will be back.” I sprinted out again, this time to my car to speed to the grocery store and buy three packs of Hershey’s Chocolate Bars. Why? Because I like them. Like, REALLY like them. As I stood in the checkout line waiting for what seemed like forever, I found my attention zeroing in on a copy of Men’s Health magazine. There is nothing like a picture of a ripped, healthy looking dude next to the words “27 ways to get healthier” to make you feel a little guilty about going to the store to buy three packs of chocolate bars.
Shoot, I thought. Am I unhealthy? I generally think of myself as a healthy person. I do eat, on average, one chocolate bar a day, but other than that I eat my vegetables, I rarely get sick, I have the energy to do the things I want, I train daily, and I race triathlons at a professional level.
As I savored the milky richness of my chocolate bar on the way home, I pondered over the question some more. If I am healthy, what makes me healthy? I always assumed that triathlon made me healthy, but does it? I came to the realization that health is made up of a whole lot of things that are constantly spinning through time; things like genetics, nutrition, physical fitness background, physical fitness ability, lifestyle choices, environment and even relationships. The one way triathlon primarily impacts my health, however, is through physical exercise. Exercise is fundamental to our success as triathletes. We exercise and we exercise a lot compared to the average American. We need to exercise in order to go as far and hard as we do on race day. When we exercise in an intelligent way (i.e. train), our bodies adapt to the stress. They become stronger and more resilient. In turn, we get healthy side effects such as a stronger heart or more efficient lungs.
Now, I am certainly not oblivious to the fact that triathlon training and racing can negatively impact your health due to things like overtraining, overuse of specific tissues or simply pushing the body too hard in hostile conditions. Athletes hire me as a coach, in part, to help them avoid these things. With that said, triathlon is a healthy sport to participate in due to its positive impact on our cardiovascular health, brain health and bone health.
1. Triathlon Training Promotes Cardiovascular Health
A good working cardiovascular system is essential to our health. Our arteries are the blood vessels that take blood away from the heart and toward the muscles. It is very important for the arteries to work properly so they can bring nutrient-rich blood to our organs. When we are young, our arteries are elastic, flexible and open. As we age, however, our arteries become thick and stiff. Through a process called atherosclerosis, the arteries become blocked up with a substance called plaque. This plaque is the buildup of fats such as cholesterol, triglycerides and phospholipids. Plaque restricts blood flow to organs in the body, contributing to heart disease, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the leading cause of death in the United States (National Center for Health Statistics, 2016).
In triathlon, we do a substantial amount of training to support our racing. One major benefit of this training is that it staves off atherosclerosis by preventing and, in some cases, reversing plaque buildup. This works because of how exercise impacts the number of little carriers that deposit fat and remove it from our cells. These carriers are called lipoproteins. There are the low density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as “bad cholesterol,” which deposit fat into our cells. There are also the high density lipoproteins (HDL), known as “good cholesterol,” which remove fat from our cells. LDL can attach and deposit fat into the arterial walls creating plaque while HDL can remove the plaque from arterial walls. When we exercise as much as we do to prepare for triathlon, LDL levels decrease and HDL levels increase. The fat carried by the HDL is taken to the liver and repurposed. Ultimately, this process helps us maintain our arteries. Although our triathlon training does not necessarily make us immune to atherosclerosis, it helps to slow the process and sustain normal blood flow to organs like the heart and brain.
2. Triathlon Promotes Brain Health
The same exercise that helps us maintain good arterial health also supports our brain. When we exercise, studies show that the body increases blood flow to the brain, which contributes to positive structural and functional changes.
A study in Physiology looked into the impact of physical activity on adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN) or, more simply, the creation of brain cells in the area of the brain associated with memory and higher thinking skills. Researchers tested three groups of rats, modifying their exercise program. The researchers compared a control group of sedentary rats to a group that did high intensity intervals and another group that did aerobic training. The scientists found that where there was no significant change of ANH in the sedentary rats, the high intensity trained rats showed a modest increase, and the aerobically trained rats showed the most significant increase. This suggests that the aerobic training we do as triathletes could possibly increase brain cell numbers and improve our ability to think.
Two other studies, both using human subjects, found that physical exercise is associated with improved white matter integrity. White matter is responsible for the speed, coordination and connections between parts of the brain and the rest of the body. Breakdown of white matter has been shown to be associated with diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s (Bergland, 2014). Another study found that aerobic activity improved white matter integrity in active children between the ages of 9-10 (Chaddock-Heyman et al., 2014), while Zu et al (2014) found that aerobic activity improved integrity in “low fit” participants ages 60-78. Regardless of the age we begin training, the aerobic training we do to prepare for triathlon can help improve the structure of our brains.
Another study looked at changes in brain function by using the long-term data of a human study called Coronary Risk Development in Young Adults (Neurology, Burzynska et al., 2014). In the 1980s, participants did a treadmill test to exhaustion. The same participants repeated the test roughly 30 years later and followed it up with cognitive testing. This cognitive testing required them to remember lists of words and distinguish colors from text. The results showed that those who were fitter at a young age performed better on the cognitive tests later compared to those who were less fit at an early age. This is, perhaps, the most convincing study that suggests that the fitness that we build through triathlon, especially if we start early, can actually improve our memory when we are older.
3. Triathlon Promotes Bone Health
A third way that triathlon supports our physical health is by helping us build strong bones. Our bones are constantly remodeling themselves, which means they are continuously breaking down and building back up. When we are young, the body builds bone quickly, which leads us to have strong, dense bones. As we age, bone replacement slows and osteoporosis, the process where bone replacement is slower than bone removal, can occur. In fact, one in two women and one in four men over the age of 50 will end up getting osteoporosis fractures (Lawrence, 2011).
One way to prevent low bone density is by doing load bearing exercises like the strength training and running that we do to prepare for our triathlons. In their review, Layne and Nelson (1999) show that the majority of studies on load bearing exercises and bone health create denser bones and prevent fractures. Lifting weights is likely the best exercise for building bones and we can add this into our training once or twice a week. Just as exercise does not necessarily prevent the occurrence of atherosclerosis, weight bearing exercise does not necessarily prevent osteoporosis; however, if we eat nutrient-rich foods and do weight bearing exercises, we can help lower our risk of disease.
One thing that sets triathlon apart from other sports is that it has both weight bearing and non-weight bearing components. While other sports such as running or basketball require you to put force on your bones almost all the time, triathlon does not put as much stress on the bones since the training is divided between swimming (non-weight bearing), biking (non-weight bearing) and running (weight bearing). On the other side of things, triathlon training improves bone density unlike sports that are primarily non-weight bearing such as swimming or cycling. On top of this, if an injury that could lead to a stress fracture occurs, triathletes can modify their training by decreasing the volume of running and increasing the volume of swimming and/or biking. This keeps the athlete engaged and contrasts to other primarily weight bearing sports that might require the athlete to take time off from their sport.
A Final Note
Too often, I see people in the gym trying to get healthy and waging a war against their body to do it. I see them pounding out miles on the treadmill and limiting their calorie intake. They clearly hate every minute of it. One great thing about sport is that it can refocus your mindset. You come to your workouts with a purpose that goes well beyond improving your health. You work out in order to master a set of skills like ascending a hill or improving your catch to help you reach your goals. The focus toward mastering skills and improving performance holds our attention much longer and is more fun than working out for the sake of being healthy. Further, when you train as an athlete you begin to look at your body not as an enemy but as a tool. You listen to it and it teaches you what is healthy. You start to understand that it needs fuel, sometimes even Hershey’s Chocolate, in order to energize your workouts. You learn that it needs a certain amount of rest so that you can continue to improve. And when you don’t fuel your body well or give it enough rest, your body lets you know.
When we focus our eyes on sport, good health becomes a byproduct. This does not give you a pass to disregard your yearly checkup with your doctor or to avoid all fruits and vegetables because you can get by on just white bread; however, the great thing about triathlon is that, when you train consistently, you will improve your cardiovascular health, your brain health, your bone health and many other aspects of your health without really thinking about it.
Jon Fecik races as a professional triathlete, is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, and works for Complete Human Performance. He guides a vast spectrum of age-groupers, from those who finished their first sprint triathlon to those who qualified for and competed at Nationals, Worlds, 70.3 Worlds and the IRONMAN World Championship. Follow Jon on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Learn more at jonfecik.com and completehumanperformance.com.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.
Bergland, Christopher (2014). Why is physical activity so good for your brain? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201409/why-is-physical-activity-so-good-your-brain
Burzynska, AZ, Chaddock-Heyman L, Voss MW, Wong CN, Gothe NP, Olson EA, et al. (2014) Physical Activity and Cardiorespiratory Fitness Are Beneficial for White Matter in Low-Fit Older Adults. PLOS ONE 9(9): e107413. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107413
Chaddock-Heyman, L., Erickson, K. I., Holtrop, J. L., Voss, M. W., Pontifex, M. B., Raine, L. B., Hillman, C. H., & Kramer, A. F. (2014). Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1-7. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584/full
Lawrence, Jean (2011). Building stronger bones. Web MD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/features/building-stronger-bones#1
Layne, J.E., Nelson, M.E. (1999). The effects of progressive resistance training on bone density: a review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 31(1), 25-30. http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/9927006
National Center for Health Statistics. (2016). Health, United States, 2015: With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus15.pdf#019
Nokia, M. S., Lensu, S., Ahtiainen, J. P., Johansson, P. P., Koch, L. G., Britton, S. L. and Kainulainen, H. (2016). Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained. Physiology, 594, 1855–1873. doi:10.1113/JP271552
Zhu, Na, Jacobs, David R. Jr., Schreiner, Pamela J., Yaffe, Kristine, Byran, Nick, Launer, Lenore J….Sternfeld, Barbara (2014). Cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in middle age. Neurology, 82(15), 1339-1346. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0107413