Biomarker Profiling – 28 years and learning...

November 13th, 2017

EARLY DAYS
 

“Way back in 1989, I came across blood profiling, or as it was at the time, a module of a sports science degree I was keenly embracing. We looked at simple blood metrics and studied how certain factors varied due to exercise, such as the density of cells to plasma, or haematocrit (aka HCT). I was interested in all data that I could get about me – it not only helped build up a database of numbers to fuel my thirst for “sports science” but it also highlighted ways in which I could get faster. I was only 22 but had already done 10k run races, half marathons, sprint triathlons and even a solid debut 11 ½ hour Ironman distance triathlon. I was an endurance bunny with a thirst for numbers.

What started out as just another module for other students turned out to be a catalyst for me. I could see that the application of this knowledge could yield powerful results. You see, I was low on haemoglobin (Hbn 13.3 for the record): the iron pigment in blood that grabs oxygen at the lungs and takes it to the muscles, plus it retrieves carbon dioxide from muscles and shuttles it back to the lungs to be breathed out. So low on Hbn that an expert coach and physiologist advised me that my dietary habits had to change.

This 'profiling' of some rudimentary metrics was easy to get done, especially if you had the reputation as being a lab rat! I was up for any experiment, from sitting in a cold bath, exercising whilst breathing air simulating altitude, to yet “another” max-test protocol, and lactate studies so numerous my fingertips looked like a dart board.

FIRST LESSON: blood data can throw up some surprises which may have you challenge your diet and training habits – heed warnings early and you can improve yourself from the inside-out

 

ATHLETE SERVICING 
 

Though the university data was useful it was not regularly followed up - and whilst not forgotten, other scientific training habits had to be instilled into athletes through coaching, magazine articles and early websites. This meant such things as heart rate training, cycle power analysis and carbohydrate feeding over-shadowed blood profiling.

I was next aware of blood profiling through a company called ImmunoSport based at Birmingham University. I was tested by them in July 1998 just after the Duathlon National Championships – the results were the basis of an article on blood profiling and were published in Triathlete Magazine. The test gave some basic data, which in hindsight was well ahead of the game, and as such I think appealed to so few as knowledge of training, nutrition and tech was still in its infancy. For the record here's all the data and what their interpretation was:

 

MID SEASON, AHEAD OF THE GAME
 

Blood Measure 
Normal
My Result
Interpretation
White cell count 4-11 3.6  LOW
Neutrophil count  2-7.5 1.8  LOW
Lymphocyte count  1-3.5 1.3  NORMAL
Haemoglobin concentration  13.4-17 14.6 NORMAL
Hematocrit percentage  40-50 44 NORMAL
Glutamine concentration 450-750  580 NORMAL
Zinc concentration 11.5-19.1  15.6 NORMAL
Creatine Kinase activity 15-110  123 HIGH (a result of racing 4d earlier)

 

I actually eased up training and cancelled some races as a result of the test showing I had done my peaking and needed to recharge. That's a hard one to do without data as you can always think to yourself “I'm weak if I cancel races or alter my training”. The plus side was data showed that my dietary changes had increased haemoglobin by 10% in the 90's and this coincided with racing better as the decade went on.

Insert long delay and many other coaching and performance factors to analyse - I was next using a biomarker service (Indurance) between 2014 and 2016. This was now a service whereby the athlete took the blood themselves at home with a finger prick sample (for most tests) and results now went online within a few days. I was able to check back in on my Hbn data, that number that had got me into this whole concept two decades earlier. Here's how the numbers had changed over time, and for the better.

 

OCTOBER 2014, BACK ON BLOODS
 

Blood Measure 
Normal
My Result
Interpretation
White cell count 4-11 4.06 OK FOR ME
Neutrophil count  2-7.5  2.34  OK FOR ME
Lymphocyte count  1-3.5  1.39  NORMAL FOR ME
Haemoglobin concentration 13.4-17 16.2  HIGH FOR ME
Hematocrit percentage 40-50 50 HIGH
Red Cell Count  4.4-5.8 5.22 HIGHER END FOR ME

 

As I was trying to learn from the service I looked at a training camp mini-study to show how blood data can be used to verify that an athlete is doing themselves good, not harm. I think it is too often assumed that training equals good when many times it leads to injury, illness, burnout or declining performances.

I would have “bloods” taken just before a camp, during a low volume of training, a pre-camp taper – always a good way to go into a 20-hour 6-day training block. Then repeat it once back home again. I went to Club La Santa wanting to eat well, listen to my body and get the full benefits of the camp, not just in miles, smiles and vitamin D but also from actual metrics that said what was happening under the hood. Here's the before and after:

SECOND LESSON: blood profiling gives clarification to how you feel and a confidence that you are not just about to break – it tells you when enough really is enough – I nailed the camp!

Club La Santa, Lanzarote Training Camp: before and after...

 
4.2.2015
16.2.2015
Haemoglobin 14.2g/l 15.7 g/l
Red Cell Count 4.66 5.16
Red Cell Size 88 92.4
White Cell Counts 5.51 4.39
Neutrophils 3.18 2.28
Testosterone 15.9 nmol/l 15.6 nmol/l

 

FROM THE TOP DOWN
 

Well I was certainly not at the “top” of the game in 1989. I had a solid VO2max of 70 and a peak power of 399 watts, which is solid but not game-changing! But since those early days as a student up to today, talking with, advising and working with top athletes, you realise Blood Profiling is a no-brainer for them. From seeing the effects of altitude to checking iron stores aren't doing a mid-season plummet – it's like an MOT for their body, but more regular than just once every 12 months as per the car analogy.

Many course record holders for Ironman triathlons and Top 10 elite runners find it strange that amateurs would not do “the profiling”, as anyone who invests time in training should take control of their performance and health if they can. I am convinced many can save money elsewhere to ensure they can afford blood profiling. From selling un-needed bike parts, electronic gadgets and “tat” in the loft to smart house insurance, clever utilities, shopping around and being canny on the high street.

THIRD LESSON: it's insuring against your training and diet grinding your body into submission internally. The NHS is not there for people who get this wrong – so it’s time to invest in your own MOT to keep ahead of the curve.

LOOK OUT FOR JOE’S NEXT BLOG: Over-dosing supplements and athletes that have found profiling has profoundly changed their racing and longevity

Bio: Joe Beer has worked with leading athletes, such as legendary champion cyclist Graeme Obree, the UK's first Ironman winner Matt Belfield, former Scottish Ironman record holder (8h 17mins) & Ironman Wales winner - Scott Neyedli and European Long Distance Bronze medallist & Outlaw winner Vicky Gill. Joe works with elite triathletes to first time Ironman wannabes, leading time triallists to club riders. He has written over 1,000 articles in magazines including 220 Triathlon, Cycling Plus, Runners World and Peak Performance. He has several books to his name including Need to Know Triathlon (Harper Collins, 2008) and Time Crunched Triathlon (Hale Crowood 2016) and now available in Kindle version and WH Smith eBook. Joe is a five time Ironman including the legendary Hawaii Ironman World Championship. Thirty multi-sport seasons and counting, he continues to race multi-sport events and time trials.

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