Writing Sample #1: Endocrine Disruption: Why you should throw away your old water bottles.
“The water bottles you use on your daily ride may not be as safe as you think.”
Not many people outside of science have heard about “endocrine disruptors”, a term applied to chemicals that can affect how our bodies function. Recent research is showing that they may be responsible for the shift in disease prevalence in the western world. To put it simply: cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and immune disorders have increased faster than can be explained by genetic factors. Our DNA isn’t changing, but the way we are becoming ill is. Since the 1950s, life expectancy has barely increased, but the rates of cancers, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma and many other diseases have all gone up. What is the cause?
The answer is in chemicals introduced to our bodies and the environment through industry, food packaging, and new healthcare and cosmetic products. There really is no solid definition as to what an endocrine disruptor is, and there’s certainly no list to make sure we can avoid them all, but there are many things in our daily lives that can make us chronically sick. Sound depressing? well, it kind of is. But, as cyclists, there’s a one very simple thing we can do to stay healthy.
Throw away that old water bottle!! If you’re anything like me, you have a whole box of water bottles hiding in your house somewhere, most of them manufactured by Specialized or Trek. These contain BPA, or Bisphenol-A. Some people may have heard of it, as it’s about the most well-known chemical to yet be identified as dangerous in this sense. BPA is a ‘synthetic estrogen’ which can mimic your own hormones to produce some undesirable effects. Recent studies show a correlation between BPA exposure and insulin resistance (linking it to diabetes), and a decrease in Glucose metabolism (causing weight gain problems). In men, we need to worry about the increase in estrogen-like hormones being directly related to testicular cancer, and reports that people exposed to high levels of BPA have a four-times higher chance of erectile dysfunction.
What to do? Lots of new water bottles and containers are now labelled BPA free, including Clean Bottle brand bottles, Polar bottles, and Nalgene. The newer Specialized ‘Pure’ bottles are also BPA-free. If you’re thinking about buying these products, it doesn’t take long to find out what’s in it. As for the other bottles? There isn’t too much to worry about if you’ve only been using them for a short time, but after a couple of months through the dishwasher, it’s probably best to let them go.
So why is the world not panicking about these chemicals? Well, in the EU there are already lots of restrictions in place on the use of BPA, mainly aimed at stopping it accumulating around us from a young age. There’s been no outcry because the evidence against its use is so non-specific. Its potential danger is still a recent discovery, and its widespread use has meant that so far researchers have not investigated all the effects in all situations. The other thing is that these chemicals exist around us in such small amounts. We’re talking parts-per-billion and parts per trillion here. It’s only the accumulation over a lifetime from many sources that gives them the potency to make us ill. Scientists are a conservative bunch, and tend to be cautious in recommending change; one paper suggesting caution here, and another there, is not enough to change what can sometimes be multi-million dollar manufacturing processes.
Apart from our water bottles, where else are endocrine disruptors coming from? It’s hard to give a definitive list, and there’s no need to be scared of all the things around you, but there are a couple of things that you can do to avoid upping how much of this stuff you come into contact with. Firstly, minimise hard and transparent plastics, generally the stuff that is “type 7” recyclable, as this is often lined with BPA. If you use Tupperware for storing your food, avoid microwaving or freezing those containers, as that will speed the breakdown of BPA in the resins. Avoid eating too much stuff from cans as these are also lined with BPA.
So far, conscious consumers and environmentally focussed companies are leading the way with removing BPA from all around us, but hopefully in a couple of years there will be solid restrictions on the use of these chemicals. Until then, be careful what you put in plastic, and remember that fresh food is always the best solution.
Writing Sample #2: Carborocket Product review
“This review was written for the epicprocycling.com team, which was sponsored by Carborocket. The review should not be read as objective or unbiased.”
Carborocket is a four-year old company that started as most new cycling companies have done in recent years – an athlete and enthusiast thought they could do better than what’s currently on offer. That’s a big task, considering the range of energy drinks on the market, and the size of the budgets being deployed to coax us poor cyclists into using their products.
As a cyclist, but mainly as a scientist, I have attempted to delve into this sweet powdered beverage and discover whether it’s worth its self-proclaimed title as ‘the next generation of sports drink’
I’m going to break this analysis down into a few sections:
- GI Concerns: what does it do to your stomach
- Energy provision: Does it provide optimal carbohydrates for performance
- Electrolytes: Nobody likes cramping
- Hydration: No point having carbohydrate if you don’t have H2O to wash it down
1. GI Concerns
Let’s explain why stomach issues occur in the first place: Splanchnic blood flow (i.e. – to the stomach) is reduced up to 40% during exercise as blood shifts to working muscles and skin to dissipate heat (Rowell et al 1964). Thus carbohydrate metabolism is reduced comparably. Without the blood, liquid begins to accumulate in the stomach and lower digestive tract, and eventually if accumulation is consistently greater than metabolism, it will cause diarrhoea. You need to be able to balance fluid and energy needs with your bodies’ ability to process what you’re consuming.
Brad Keyes’ main selling point for Carborocket is ‘drinkability’. Look at the current reviews on their website, and each one focuses mainly on the ability of experienced athletes to push themselves further due to the lack of stomach issues which were previously thought of as de rigueur in endurance sport.
I’ve never tasted an energy drink worthy of consuming off the bike. Carborocket has not changed that, but the flavours aren’t overwhelming, they taste real, and I can drink it for 6 hours without detesting each sip. No aftertaste, no throat burn. No stomach issues.
2. Energy Provision
My main worry before trying Carborocket was that the bearable taste was actually stopping people from delving into the science of the drink. To me it would be obvious that an athlete would feel better about their performance if they finished without needing to throw up, no matter what the real result.
I took a look at the ‘magic formula’ which Carborocket are very open with providing, and compared it to some peer reviewed research.
Firstly, the claim that a 2:1 ratio of complex to simple carbohydrates (CHO’s) allows more calories to be absorbed by the stomach.
If you’re not into your science, it might be a good idea to skip over this section – we’re going in deep! CHO’s provide approx. 4 calories per gram consumed. The limiter on how much you can use is not how much you can throw down your throat, but the amount metabolised during exercise. As mentioned above, the reduction in stomach blood flow is the main problem here. Most studies agree that the maximum glucose intake is about 1 gram per minute (or 240 calories per hour). It gets interesting when you add fructose into the mix though; the rate goes up to about 1.26 gram/minute or 300 calories. This can be explained by the fact that each sugar uses a different uptake mechanism in the intestine. It should be noted that both require sodium to get into your blood – we’ll talk about that in a minute.
Now what happens when you put a starch in the mix? Maltodextrin is basically a combined chain of 10 glucose molecules. It is flavourless and non-sweet. The long chain is broken down into glucose and then metabolised. Luckily for us athletes though, a side product of breakdown is oxygen molecules, which actually increase the activity of rate limiting enzymes in the intestine and the blood, leading to an increase in uptake to a maximum of 1.8 gram/minute. That’s an insane amount of carbohydrate! The theory, as always, doesn’t quite hold true in reality: this intake is not sustainable, and in endurance athletes, the highest sustained CHO intake is somewhere around 1.4 gram/minute or 336 calories per hour (Rowlands et al 2011).
Now, looking at Carborocket, we can see that the maximum recommended strength is 333 calories. It’s almost like someone sat down and worked it out!
So we can be sure that the combination of fructose and Maltodextrin has some backing in research, rather than just a catchy 2:1 ratio. I’m sure you’re all immensely relieved.
As mentioned above, there’s no use in taking on carbohydrate if you don’t have sodium to get it into the blood. The sodium taken in during exercise is just as critical here in the intestine as it is in the muscles. Enough sodium means efficient energy transfer, fluid uptake and muscle performance.
But what is enough? Carborocket has 440mg of sodium per 333 calorie serving. That’s hardly anything compared with the recommended daily allowance of 2400mg. Very little solid evidence can be found to give an exact answer on how much sodium is enough, simply because heat, intensity and body type will drastically change sodium loss (Sharwood et al 2002). Intake during exercise should aim to limit losses rather than maintain pre-exercise levels. So we have to rely on anecdotal evidence; from my experience I haven’t cramped using Carborocket, even during the Bailey Hundo 100 mile MTB race in 90 degree weather. Looking at the contents of other leading natural sports drinks, it seems like most contain a similar amount. Where Carborocket differs though is in Potassium. Essential for returning a muscle cell to its resting state during repeat firing, Potassium levels are just as critical, but not required for digestive purposes. Again, no exercise guidelines can be accurate, but recent info points
us in the direction of 2 mg per kg body weight per hour (Tam et al 2011) based on 20 Celsius ambient temperature. So for me being 70 kg that would be 140mg an hour. Carborocket has 170mg per 333 calories, so we’re in the right direction.
4. Fluid Intake
Firstly, I would like to dispel the common myth that dehydration is bad for performance. Although counter intuitive, mild to moderate dehydration is not detrimental, and most current studies suggest that the best performing athletes are often the most dehydrated (Sharwood et al 2002).
What does this mean for you? Basically, it means that fluid intake should be designed as a medium for taking on carbohydrates, and one should not aim to replace all the fluid lost during exercise. After a 4 hour MTB race, weight loss due to dehydration should be expected, and you should endeavour to replace sufficient fluid to maintain working core body temperature and carbohydrate delivery (Noakes 2003).
How does Carborocket help here? Each bottle of mix has an easy breakdown of caloric intake on the side – being able to measure how much energy per litre is in your bottle allows you to tailor the strength to the length, heat and the intensity of the race.
Starting each race with a plan for hydration is key – you know how your body works, Carborocket just gives you the options for modularity.
Comfort issues must also be taken into consideration here, however. Personally I know that I need to combine energy intake with plain simple water during a long race to ‘clear’ my mouth, and allow me to consume more food. This isn’t science – its comfort. Don’t limit your water intake just because you can get away with less – treat fluid loss as a necessary evil, not something to be encouraged.
So after a quick peek into the science behind hydration, it’s obvious that Carborocket has done their homework in formulating the product. Having the right composition will put you in the best position this summer when you line up to compete.
This still doesn’t mean it’s right for you though – everyone is unique, especially when it comes to taste. Try out a few of the flavours and see for yourself. You really have nothing to lose.
Writing Sample #3: TRACTION
I clip clop over the wooden floor in my cycling shoes – that harsh metal sound that only cycling shoes make. I fill my water bottle in the kitchen, listening to the water rising in the bottle; I don’t even have to look to see when it’s full. I walk through the kitchen and creak the garage door open, click the light switch, and hear the squeak of my tires as a wriggle my bike from the hook. I shut the door, the draft makes it slam, and as I wheel my bike towards the road, the free hub whirrs in anticipation. I hop on board and the tires buzz on the driveway as they take my weight, and splash gently as I cross the drainage ditch by the road. Cycling through town, I listen for cars; morning drivers more concerned about finding a Starbucks with their IPhone than worrying about my life on the side of the road. I can hear, by the sound of the leaves rustling, what the wind is doing, and whether or not I should be heading for a sheltered trail, or out into the open. The trailhead beckons, and I wait for that moment when the tarmac gives away to gravel. Almost like bacon hitting a pan, the sizzle of the gravel under my tyres signals the beginning of today’s venture. The noise changes as the gradient steepens, I can hear the turn of my pedals loading my back wheel, the rubber gripping and turning, holding onto the dirt. The chain, which should have been oiled before the start, complains harshly as I clunk into an easier gear. The noise reminds me; smoother, faster lighter of the pedals. I reach down and take a drink, the bottle top pops open as I grab it with my teeth, and the reassuring fricative sound of the bottle sliding back into its holder tells me its secure.
A silent noise, if possible, alerts my attention to the left, where a foe runs behind a tree – I’m the first person it has heard since dawn, and my passing presence is judged not a threat, it continues to graze just metres from the trail. The distraction causes me to graze a tree with my arm, the bark scrapes at my skin, a dry rasping sound which nature intended us to avoid. I come away lucky, with just a scrape, and continue to the top of the trail. My breathing becomes rhythmic; I can hear in my head the timing of lungs, legs and bike. Each turn becomes easier, but that makes the pace faster, and the breathing harder. The top is in sight, I let the whir of my tyres slow to a gentle crackle, and brake for the first time, the rotors giving off a gentle hum as they are used for the first time. I hear my suspension release as I put a foot down and admire the view. The silence, like that deer, stuns me, because it isn’t silent. The road I turned off 20 minutes ago, now 1000 feet below, accommodates a lone car, the motor whining off down the canyon to the daily grind. Above the pinion forested foothills, the hubbub of the Front Range rises into the morning sunlight and mixes with other unidentifiable sounds of the forest. The trail that I’ve ridden a hundred times tells me the creek around the corner is raging, and I prepare for the wet cold splash of the run off crossing the trail. After my lazy minute has expired, I take off. Gravity is now my friend; the squawking of my un-lubed chain is replaced by the clatter of it hitting the chain stay and I overzealously approach the first corner. I apply my front brake – beckoned by a warble of its own – and my Lefty fork compressed with a whine as my weight transfers forward onto my front tyre. It responds with sounds of its own. The single most important sound of mountain biking: TRACTION. It grips, it lets go slightly, and the sideways movement pulls against the tread. Each of these in balance tells me what I want to know – how close to the edge am I? Every time I‘ve ridden my bike, I‘ve listened for that sound. The noise has meanings to me that only another bike rider would know. I hear the tire letting go, the suspension wheezing under pressure, and know I’m on the edge. I learn into the corner, focusing on the creek I can see ahead. My bike lets out its own creak, the back wheel scrubs into place with a reassuring judder, and I know I’ve made it, this time, around the first and most important corner. I click click click into a harder gear and pedal towards the stream, loading the tires as much as my ears tell me and launch into the air, the rear tyre briefly catches the water and flicks drops of refreshment onto the back of my calves, and the front tyre splashes briefly into the other side as I come up short. I settle into the trail. Noise to ears to brain to muscles, I listen and respond as the music of the singletrack plays out in front of me. I slow as a rider approaches, brakes gently warbling, and say hello, although I receive no response as the rider is wired into their private universe; one I’m not invited to, although its one I would rather not join.
I make my exit from the trail, todays playlist winds to an end as I splash back though the gutter by the side of the road and clunk noisily out of my pedals and up the steps. I open the door to the sounds of the kettle boiling highly on the stove, and the coffee grinder performing it’s once a day duty, signal the return to reality. I spend the day cuing the playlist in my mind. I will be ready for the next rendition.
Jamming my headphones into my ears and blinkering me to the rich surround sound of bike riding seems perverse and weird. I ride for a lot of reasons, but one is to feel connected; not to the digital world, but to the outside space, that can only be enjoyed with full concentration.
I ride bikes because it makes my heart beat faster, and I like that sound.