Beyond the bike, there is one fundamental thing that all serious cyclists have in common; no matter what our ability, no matter how competitive we are or what style we ride, all of us want to have long and, more importantly, satisfying sessions (ie we like to suffer). This might sound like a fatuous statement, and if we weren’t overworked, overcommitted and overstressed it would be. However, it is evident that most humans living in this country are not only time poor – we are time broke. As a result, you have to make every precious moment you get on the bike count. It pays to act like a boy scout and ‘be prepared’.
Being prepared means lots of things: Being in the right psychological space to enjoy your training is paramount (but this belongs to a different article). The social aspects of the sport also take effort and attention. Simply speaking, squeezing every ounce out of your time takes both power and endurance. An overabundance of both of these things is not a bad thing to have. Every style of riding/racing/touring takes both power and endurance. Sprinting might take more fast-twitch, fatter fibres and burn primary glycogen using ATP and hill riding might use longer muscle fibres and use ADP and tertiary aerobic metabolism as a fuel source. But both processes require testosterone to build the foundational muscle; especially the muscle that you don’t have there already, but need. The muscle type you build is a trade off and determined by how you train – having enough testosterone to build it is non-negotiable.
For better or worse, cycling is a way of life. You tend to train properly or not at all. I don’t know anyone that trains casually. Most of us have to sacrifice something important in our lives to carve a good chunk of time to ride. Thus, there is a debt to pay back with a good, long, gut wrenching, quad and calf burning session. The lactic acid must be burning a hole through the skin and the mind a complete blank with the totality of the focus – a chafed nether region is mandatory. Testosterone is not only necessary for building the muscle, it appears to be crucial for the motivation and mood to get you off the couch in the first place. It makes sense to make sure you have enough T in the tank for when the pre-dawn alarm clock buzzes.
This article looks at ways to ensure that you have a healthy supply of testosterone available for your body’s needs – naturally. Ladies, this article is for you as much as the men – you may be surprised at how important testosterone is for female sex drive and positive mood. In fact testosterone is far more important than for just enabling you to get a Schwarzenegger look, it’s implicated in all sorts of things from how sociable we are to how much serotonin (one of the key chemicals related to depression) is released in our brains. Apart from human growth hormone, it is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth.
There is nothing new about boosting testosterone levels. (Arguably, it’s a proto-physiological response to extreme effort – for instance, being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger). The Ancient Greeks conscientiously employed regimes that raised testosterone, and also documented them, they just didn’t have the technology to discover testosterone’s molecular existence. Once we did discover the molecule, of course, the first thing we did was to start making it in the laboratory. We all know where that path leads… Lance showed just how far you can push a human body with a carefully designed synthetic androgen cocktail (interestingly, there is a frightening link between injected synthetic testosterone and the growth of prostate cancers in rats. It has to do with the immortality of cells, telomeres and DNA – fascinating, but, again a different article). Anyway, the natural way to boost testosterone is via the food you eat and the habits you practise. The increases in testosterone you get will be moderate in comparison to doping – but they are enough for our purposes – and to the best of my knowledge there is no research to suggest that naturally potentiating testosterone levels has any link to cancer or any other health concerns.
Testosterone and oestrogen are arguably the most important hormones in our bodies – they keep us doing what we do to keep the species going. But testosterone levels start to naturally decrease at roughly one per cent per year; around the age of forty. So the mature folk reading the article should take particular note. It is possible to have too much, but the body is such a wonderful, self regulating system that if you are male and have normal physiology, the only way to reach excess would be to inject it. For females, the benefits far outweigh the negatives, but there are a few obvious side effects to having too much. These effects are generally genetically caused rather than diet related. Overall, testosterone is misunderstood. It washes through, and is made by our bodies every day. It’s somewhat like oil to a car engine. A fresh supply of its building blocks to keep it topped up cannot be bad. So, here it is – the guide for good healthy testosterone to get your cycling cranking.
Be lean – Most change happens here. But, there is an extremely complex relationship between, fats, cholesterol and testosterone: Overweight males have lower testosterone levels. This is likely because fat creates an enzyme (aromatase) that converts testosterone into oestrogen. Oestrogen itself is also produced by fat cells. High testosterone, on the other hand, results in increased muscle mass and decreased fat. This part is simple – a virtuous cycle. Less fat equals more testosterone and more testosterone equals more muscle and therefore less fat.
However, the process of losing weight has been shown to decrease testosterone. (Probably because burning your fat reserves also releases their stored oestrogen). This means that while you are shedding weight you may temporarily experience less testosterone – and may explain one of the difficulties of losing weight. There is also some evidence that high fat/high cholesterol diets increase testosterone. (Remember Rocky and the raw eggs…). Your own bodyproduces (in the liver) well over 60% of the cholesterol you take in every day. It may be that your ability to turn the cholesterol you eat into testosterone is more important than how much you consume in total.
Yes that is right, testosterone is made by the body from cholesterol – I bet that makes you view your bacon and eggs differently. I am not suggesting you go out and choose a diet high in cholesterol, I am just pointing out that it is more complicated than ‘cholesterol = bad’. I like to think of the body as a jet engine, if you are ignited and producing a lot of thrust, you can afford to be sucking through a bit of cholesterol and burning it up as high octane fuel. If you stop moving, things tend to get gummed up – arteries get plugged etc.
Getting back to being lean, women need to be careful about being too thin. Females with extremely low body fat do not produce enough sex hormones in general. This applies to some ultra athletes and women with eating disorders, so you can definitely push things too far. Loss of menstruation and other physiological symptoms accompany this.
OK, the simplified, bottom line is; having only a little fat and mucho muscle results in plenty of testosterone (even if it takes a significant dip to get there). It’s hard to make change permanent – but don’t put in a half hearted effort that might just lower your testosterone without a beneficial decrease in fat and increase in muscle. This results in an endless yo-yo cycle.
Have more sex – This one is a no brainer and another virtuous cycle. Increased testosterone (both male and female) results in stronger sex drive. Greater sexual activity results in greater testosterone levels. One German study indicated that even having an erection increased testosterone levels significantly. Next…
Eat more healthy fats – There is what I would call a very modest amount of evidence that Omega-3 fats can increase testosterone levels. These fats can be found in fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines etc), avocados, seeds and nuts. Given that there is abundant evidence of the other health benefits of these fats, why not increase the ratio of them in your diet?
Cross train – Don’t just cycle. You need to do a range of different exercises that train several large muscle groups. In terms of the research, it is easiest to isolate the effects of lifting weights. It has been shown that weightlifters’ metabolic rates increase not only at the time of exertion but also for hours afterwards. This means they keep burning kilojoules. And a similar increase in testosterone levels also applies, especially when large muscle groups are trained. Remember that greater muscle to fat ratio also results in higher testosterone. (Similarly, cardio work is very important but regular cyclists have got that covered). Evidence suggests that testosterone is raised during high intensity interval training. In fact, studies have shown increases in testosterone in unfit men riding exercise bikes even at a modest pace. Exercise – just plain good for everything.
Avoid cortisol – Cortisol and testosterone have an inverse relationship; as one goes up the other goes down. Cortisol is famous for being the stress hormone, but as always it is more complicated than that. For example, physical exhaustion results in cortisol release. Ideally you would want to leave ample rest times between heavy duty cycling. This is hard to achieve if you are trying to progress every time you train. Also, stress should be avoided where possible and managed where it is inevitable – mindfulness, yoga, taking breaks, breathing exercises and of course cycling (exercise) can all be helpful in stressful environments.
Sleep – A lot of our testosterone is synthesised at night. One study has shown a 40% decrease in testosterone due to sleep deprivation. Not surprisingly, cortisol levels rise in relation to sleep deprivation. Seven to eight hours is generally considered optimal.
Other good foods – Almost all research on just about anything results in a similar piece of advice – Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. The same goes for testosterone. You need adequate levels of zinc (blocks aromatase), copper, magnesium, vitamin D (perhaps A, B, E and C as well). All of these things are covered if you eat a large and widely varied amount of vegetables and fruits. Particularly good stuff for testosterone appears to be broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, bok choi, radishes, garlic, onions, oysters, nuts and seeds etc. As usual, avoid white sugar and other refined carbohydrates, as well as trans-fats and too much alcohol*.
(*beer does not count as alcohol – unless you don’t like it… Unfortunately, it has huge amounts of kilojoules.)
It strikes me as I read over this article that I have unintentionally written a general ‘good health’ guide; eat well, exercise, healthy sex life, be lean, get enough sleep and avoid stress. A wealth of scientific research into the longest living people reveals that this covers about five of the seven commonly shared habits they have. Two things spring to mind about this. Firstly, if you keep it natural, testosterone’s strong link to good health is not that surprising. Secondly, this link is a good thing (imagine if testosterone was only boosted by, for instance, 30-plus hours a week of television and potato chips). For a cyclist it’s a rather convenient truth, and although many, if not all of us have room for improvement, the steps are pretty simple to take. Make good choices, take responsibility, enjoy your cycling, tear it up on the road. Often, and for various reasons, I come back to thinking how lucky cyclists are. We have a passion for something that ticks so many boxes, not only for a healthy lifestyle but for a maximised life.