Gary's new website

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Chronic fatigue in a group of elite swimmers

Some athletes are treated like working donkeys;
thrashed day in - day out.  Then they are expected
to race the Grand National Steeples
during the weekends!
The London Olympics are over and still New Zealand celebrates its wonderful medal haul. However; behind the celebrations there will be many disappointed Kiwi athletes, many will be emotionally and physically exhausted, some angry, some feeling let down and all wondering, "Why - Oh why did I fail to fire after all these years of preparation?"  Some of the more disappointed athletes will be from our swimming team, most of whom failed to fire on the day.  Most did not even do a personal best.

In this article we are going to study the health of four elite swimmers, three male and one female, who are on the cusp of representing New Zealand.  It is they who must now step up to the plate and replace the swimmers who are now going into retirement.  But there is one very big hurdle in front of all four of these apparently healthy people:  They are exhausted and three of them are struggling with chronic illness.  Despite all appearances, they are not well.  How could this be?

I am not surprised because they are typical of the swimmers who come through my door: Fit-looking young men and women by all appearances; but underneath is a dead-tired and often ill person who is struggling to get through each day.  When they describe their training programmes, they remind me of a poor Palestinian donkey.

Hi Gary,
Thank you so much for the reassurance to XXXX.  Initially he didn’t want me to take any action re his training, but after we had met with his coach he did say “thanks for that mum”.  Not that I said much I was just there to support him and make sure he wasn’t overridden by a driven coach who seems to lose sight of the fact that they are human beings and not race horses (in fact I think horses probably get a better deal, at least they get put out to rest!!)
(The writer is the mother of an exhausted elite swimmer)

These swimmers are often doing grueling swimming programmes up to 30 hours a week, sometimes more.  Because of their physical talents they will be pressured to play school sports, such as rugby and netball.  On top of this they must go to school or university and/or work full or part-time - and still find rest and energy to grow through puberty!   Impossible!

I am not criticising coaches

I was talking to Alastair Leslie, a former national level middle distance runner and now coaching a number of very good runners, mostly female.  He made a few observations that got me thinking about why there appears to have been such a dramatic decline in training capacity in youngsters today as compared to 30 or so years ago?

Back in the 1970's and early 80's when NZ had an almost unlimited number of world-class running athletes to pick and choose from, it was par for the course that these young men and women would run 100 miles or more for several weeks as part of their seasonal preparation.  There were few sports physios and sport doctors back then and not that much demand for them.  Sports orthotics were unheard of before 1980 and running shoes were little more than glorified plimsolls.  Today, few  can sustain anything like that without suffering disabling injuries or chronic illness requiring constant medical attention.  Breakdown may happen with as few as 30 miles per week.  What has changed?

I think what has changed is mostly to do with what we are feeding our kids.  Our foods have changed dramatically.  Most of our processed food has been altered and pumped with all kinds of chemicals to prolong its shelf life and improve its taste.  Unless it is brought fresh, the food on the shelf is essentially "dead".  Food and animals are grown on increasingly depleted soils.  Chicken and pork, for example, are little more than reconstituted corn and corn is little more than reconstituted super phosphate.

The standard food of the modern child is the instant noodle.  Where's the nutrients?

High calcium - low fat foods weaken bones.  No wonder athletes of today break down with just a fraction of the physical workloads of yesterday!  Refer here:


While swimmers are not subjected to high impact forces, they are expected to crank out extraordinary distances in a toxic environment (more about this later).   Nutrient imbalances, excesses and deficiencies are the norm (more about this below).

What this all adds up to is athletes with a limited capacity for training and a tendency to under-perform when it is most needed.

It is therefore hardly a surprise to me that a swimming coach who trained and competed during the "good old days" may appear to be asking too much of the talented young swimmer and may come across as being increasingly frustrated with the lack of results.

Why do swimmers, in particular, end up being chronic under performers? 

Here are the Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis reports of four elite swimmers

Exhausted female swimmer (NZ age group record holder) unable
 to swim for several weeks due to chronic chest infection.
Each one of the gifted young men and women, that are represented in these Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis reports, is on the cusp of internal representation.  One or two of them may have made the London Olympics if it was not for one thing:  They are chronically tired to the point of being ill!

(Please note that the swimmers represented in these reports have consented to me using their cases for this article).

Elite swimmer who is dead tired, always yawning and unable to
keep awake during the day.
I won't go into great detail about each individual report, or give any detail beyond age and gender, to protect the privacy of the swimmers.

Interpreting a Hair Tissue Mineral Analysis is complex and takes years of study and working with this test to fully understand the "ins and outs" of interpretation; But there are a couple of basic rules to bear in mind when eye-balling the main Nutritional Nutrients Chart.

Firstly, all of the nutrient bars for a healthy person, regardless of age, should be within the white "reference range".  Secondly, one does not want a chart which has a mix of "skyscrapers and valleys.  It is better to have all the bars high or low.

Exhausted age group record holder swimmer with chronic airways
infections and about to undergo nasal and sinus surgery.
Elite swimmer suffering "post-viral" fatigue
The complex patterns represented by the varying concentrations of minerals from the hair samples can be correlated with physiological functions within the body.  For example, elevated copper and calcium is strongly associated with low thyroid function. High calcium relative to potassium is strongly associated with chronic fatigue.  Varying levels of sodium and potassium are associated with varying degrees of adrenal fatigue.  Low molybdenum is associated with asthma and other lung disorders.  Low manganese is associated with cholesterol problems as well as joint and ligament disorders such as Osgood-Schlatters.  The list is long, as are the number of inter-relationships.  Toxic elements, such as mercury are like the Jokers in the pack - Their actions can be unpredictable and they always cause metabolic chaos.

What is seen in the charts of our tired elite swimmers is the bars are all over the place.  Few of the bars are in the reference range and each swimmer has a mix of skyscrapers and valleys. These are not healthy profiles.  There is a lot going on in these swimmers.

Here are some - but not all - of the patterns that are present in these reports:

  • Elevated calcium, relative to potassium and elevated copper, are the classic patterns for extreme fatigue.
  • High calcium is associated with thyroid disorders and sleep disturbances.
  • An imbalance between calcium and magnesium is associated with neurotransmitter disturbances, muscle cramps and heart irregularities.
  • Low phosphorus, especially in the presence of high calcium, is associated with poor mitochondrial function and a tendency to osteoporosis.
  • Low or elevated sodium and potassium are indicative of various stages of adrenal exhaustion.
  • Elevated zinc in the presence of low molybdenum is associated with viral, yeast and fungal infections.
  • Elevated iron relative to copper is indicative of a chronic infection and a resultant condition known as "infectious anaemia".
  • Elevated chromium relative to manganese is associated with cracking joints and ligaments, diseases such as Osgood-Schlatters and Perthes, as well as metabolic disorders affecting fat, protein and glucose metabolism.
  • Toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and aluminium interfere with just about every level of cell metabolism and are highly inflammatory - even when present in the tiniest amounts - Just a few parts per million is sufficient to cause metabolic chaos.

A swimmer who is trying out for Olympic representation does not want even one of these tendencies, let alone half a dozen or more!

These reports may come across as deeply depressing and the immediate reaction of the reader may be to say; "Give up!"  But I interpret each one of these profiles as "Performance Potential" or the glass being half full, rather than half empty.  If these young swimmers have done as well as they have with all this stuff going on then imagine just how much better they will perform once we have cleaned the slate of all this metabolic chaos?

Are swimming pool chemicals the cause of fatigue in elite swimmers?

Fluoride, chlorine and bromine are common pool chemicals.
These sit atop iodine and may interfere with iodine's
critical functions within the body.
Some of the elements found in pool chemicals are a factor in swimmer fatigue and ill-health.  The elements to focus on are the group of elements on the Periodic table known as the Halides.

These are fluorine, chlorine and bromine.  Fluorine is now added to most municipal water in New Zealand and this is what fills our swimming pools.  Chlorine is found in municipal water and extra is added to swimming pools as a disinfectant.  Bromine is used to sterilise water, particularly spa pools.

Included in the Halides family is iodine which, you will note, sits underneath the others.

Iodine for metabolism 

Iodine is required for healthy thyroid function and health in general.  Iodine has important anti-cancer properties.   Lack of iodine is implicated in breast and prostate cancer.  Iodine deficiency is associated with some connective tissue disorders.  Some studies have iodine deficiency in countries like New Zealand as high as 90% of the population.

As mentioned earlier, fluorine, chlorine and bromine sit atop iodine in the Periodic Table of Elements.  Each of these halides can be thought of as being "Iodine Bullies".  These bullies push iodine out of the thyroid and they crowd and consequently block the thyroid hormone receptors present on the surfaces of cells.  The consequence is thyroid dysfunction often felt as extreme fatigue, depression, aching muscles, poor muscle tone, poor immunity, cold hands, cold feet and weight gain, especially about the hips and waist.

Swimming pool water is not a very healthy medium to be soaking in daily!

When reviewing the health histories of elite swimmers, there are consistent patterns of fatigue and chronic illness.  There are high rates of glandular fever (Epstein Barr virus), yeast and fungal infections, sinus and chest infections.  When you look at their Hair Tissue Mineral Analyses, you see patterns that confirm this history of chronic ill-health and under-performance.

Elite swimmers may spend 20-30 hours per week bathed in a chemical solution of two or more of these harmful halides.  In addition, they breathe the air which also contains these substances and do so at a rate many times greater than a person at rest.  And most have been exposed to this environment since childhood.  It is therefore hardly a surprise to then encounter a succession of tired and ill swimmers.

As far as I know, every swimming pool in New Zealand is chemically treated and few are outdoors.

An outdoor pool would presumably be healthier in terms of the concentration of the harmful halides in the air.  A salt water pool, such as found at Bondi Beach, Australia, presumably has no chemical treatment.  One would assume that people who swim in outdoors saltwater pools will have a better standard of health, including showing little of no signs of ill-health associated with exposure to the harmful halides.

Interventions to improve the health of our four swimmers

Each of our swimmers has differing needs.  One, for example, is terribly infected and about to undergo quite major surgery on his sinuses.  All of them need nutritional therapy to offset the toxic effects of chlorine, fluorine and bromine.  All need to increase their intake of protein and a range of fats.  All of them need much more zinc and co-factors due to zinc metabolism problems.  All of them must cut back on calcium intake and increase their magnesium intake.

All four swimmers need more rest to ensure better recovery between training.  Their biggest gains in swimming performance will come from less time spent in the pool, more time resting and more effort balancing their nutrient intakes.

When it comes to training for swimmers:

Less is more!

I think too much time is being spent grinding out the miles in the pool day in - day out.  When tired, even the quality sprint sessions are not really "quality".  A fresh swimmer will train with better quality and be more consistent over the season due to few, if any, breaks due to illness and injury.  They will enjoy swimming more than ever and be less likely to give up.
I will be publishing updates on the progress of these four talented swimmers.  Our goal is to get all of them to the next Olympics.  This is a realistic expectation.  We have less than two years to get them right.  We will do it!
About this website
The advice in these articles is given freely without promise or obligation.  Its all about giving you and your family the tools and information to take control of your health and fitness.

No comments: