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Hemochromatosis gene may give athletes an edge

What is Hemochromatosis?

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Hemochromatosis is a rare genetic disease that causes iron to accumulate in the body.  Too much iron can have devastating effects.  People with hemochromatosis can develop “iron overload”.  We need iron to form hemoglobin and carry oxygen to our tissues, but too much can lead to cellular damage, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and possibly cancer.  The gene that causes hemochromatosis is called the HFE gene.  A mutation in this gene results in a protein that makes iron absorption very efficient.  In order to get hemochromatosis you need to have two mutated copies of the HFE gene.  The most common form of hemochromatosis (p.c282y) appears in about 2-5 people per thousand among Caucasians.  It is more common in some areas (1-2% in Ireland).  More people have a single mutated hemochromatosis gene.  About 5-14% of Western Europeans carry one.  About 6-7% of non-Hispanic White Americans carry it.

Benefits of a Hemochromatosis gene mutation?

It is possible that having a single Hemochromatosis gene is beneficial.  Studies have shown that women with a single copy are less likely to be anemic and less likely to be iron deficient (Datz et al. 1998).  People with two copies of the hemochromatosis also absorb more zinc, copper and manganese.  At present, it is unknown if people with single hemochromatosis genes do as well.  If yes, people with a single hemochromatosis gene may be protected from several nutritional deficiencies.  In any case, it looks like people with single copies may have an advantage in that they have some protection from iron deficiency.   Iron is critical to life.  It is also critical to athletic performance.   Having that HFE gene may protect an athlete from low iron or anemia.  It may be significant.  A recent study of French Olympic Rowing, Judo or Nordic Skiing Champions (Hermine et al. 2015) found that 80% of them had a single copy of the hemochromatosis gene mutation.  The frequency of a single HFE mutation was 50% for Olympic athletes who did not medal.

Genetics may help, but hard work, smart training and good nutrition are key.

Elite athletes may have “better” genetic profiles for sports than the general population.  But once they are at the elite level, they are separated coaching, training, nutrition, personality and luck (Santiago et al. 2010).  These factors will be what matter most for those without “better” genetic profiles as well. If the results of the French study (Hermine et al. 2015) are typical, 20% of Olympic Champions and 50% of Olympic athletes may be “just average” people. At least as far as the HFE gene is concerned.  If you have a great genetic profile, be grateful, but don’t forget you can still get your ass kicked by an average Joe or Jane.

Low iron is sometimes overlooked in athletes.  Intense training can speed iron loss.  Combine that with a poor diet or under-eating to make a certain weight and you may find your athlete struggling.  It can be a problem, especially for young women, that more training or another rest day may not solve. Female athletes who have stopped having periods seem to be prone to anemia (as well as bone thinning).  Click here to get info on tests for anemia.  Eat well my friends.  Train well.  Be reasonable.



Barton JC, Edwards CQ, Acton RT.  2015.  HFE gene: Structure, function, mutations and associated iron abnormalities.  Gene.  574: 179-192. 

Hermine O, Dine G, Genty V, Marquet LA, Fumagailli G, Tafflet M, Guillem F, Van Lierde F, Rousseaux-Blanchi, Palierne C, Lapostolle JC, Cervetti JP, Frey A, Jouven X, Noirez P, Toussaint JF.    2015.  Eighty percent of French sport winners in Olympic, World and Europeans competitions have mutations in the hemochromatosis HFE gene.  Biochemie.  119: 1-5. 

Santiago C, Ruiz JR, Munjesa CA, Gonzalez-Friere M, Gomez-Gallego F, Lucia A.  2010.  Does the poygenic profile determine the potential for becoming a world-class athlete? Insights from the sport of rowing.  Scand J Med Sci Sports.  20(1): e188-94. 

Caffeine Timing Crossfit Team Training for the crossfit open wod 14.3

Polyunsaturated fats may protect against loss of muscle mass

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Our previous post (see below or click here) discussed the impact exercise on long-term strength.  In a nutshell, exercise has long term effects, even after the program has been halted.  This week we will talk about new research that shows that dietary fats may also be important for muscle mass.  Who’d have thought?  Researchers are unsure how it works, but . . . dietary fat may influence protein turnover through its effects on inflammation and insulin.  This may be important for long term health.   Preserving muscle mass may be important for athletes and for maintaining a competitive edge.  Loss of muscle mass occurs with age and is one of the leading contributors to frailty in the elderly.  Preserving muscle mass may also allow people to enjoy active lives longer.

A study just published in the Journal of Nutrition  looked at what types of fats were eaten by 2,689 women who are part of the UK study of twins.  The women were between the ages of 18 and 79.  Researchers also looked at ratios of the different types of fats (polyunsaturated /saturated fats), the percent of calories obtained from fat and the womens’ fat free mass.   “Fat Free Mass” is used as an indicator for muscle mass.  Its imperfect.  Bone, of course, has mass.  But people with higher fat free mass usually have more muscle mass.

Women who ate more polyunsaturated fats had the most fat free mass.  Women who ate more transfats, saturated fats and monounsaturated fats had less fat free mass.  The researchers also noted that the difference in fat free mass between women who ate mostly unsaturated fatty acids and those who ate mostly saturated fatty acids was about the same amount of fat free mass loss that occurs over the course of a decade.  Interesting.   These are, of course, correlations.  More research will be needed to find out if it is certain that unsaturated fats can protect people from age-related loss of muscle mass.

Good sources of unsaturated fatty acids include:

Olive oil

Welch AA, Macgregor AJ, Minihane AM, Skinner J, Valdes AA, Spector TD, & Cassidy A (2014). Dietary Fat and Fatty Acid Profile Are Associated with Indices of Skeletal Muscle Mass in Women Aged 18-79 Years. The Journal of nutrition PMID: 24401817

Womens Resistance training

Womens Resistance Training. Is it the same as it is for men? Hormonally speaking?

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Resistance training triggers a hormonal response.  If it didn’t your body would not respond by increasing muscle mass, strengthening tendons and reinforcing bones.  The hormonal changes that occur following training are well-documented in men.  Men who do resistance training show marked changes in hormones and marked changes in muscle mass.  Men and women both benefit from resistance training.  While many fitness sites and health writers tell women that they will not “bulk up” if they add resistance training to their fitness programs, many women are still reluctant to try.  What happens to women when they start resistance training?

Womens resistance training and hormones

Men’s hormone profiles change during resistance training.  Men undertaking resistance training experience:

  • increases in growth hormone (GH)
  • increases in insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1)
  • increases in testosterone
  • reduction in cortisol
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But what about women?   There hasn’t been as much research on what happens with women.  There just aren’t as many research subjects for studies, and possibly less interest.  At least in the past.  That seems to be changing.  A recent paper published by a research team affiliated with the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine looked at changes in womens hormone profiles when they started weight training.   It looks like resistance training also causes hormonal changes in women.   But the changes may be different.  Women showed:

  • increases in growth hormone
  • increases in total IGF-1
  • increases in several IGF-1 binding proteins
  • a decrease in free IGF-1
  • no change in cortisol
  • no change in testosterone

IGF-1 appears to protect or increase bone strength (Courtland 2013).  Laboratory animals with low IGF-1 had “older” more fragile bones than animals with higher IGF-1.  Growth hormone also maintains tissue and helps maintain strength.

Why do Growth Hormone and IGF-1 matter for women?

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Strong Woman Shirt with All-Seeing Kettlebell. Awesome Power and exceptional femininity

Women have less bone and muscle than men to start with.  They are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men.  Women may also notice the impact of strength loss before men.  This can be a serious problem leading to frailty later in life.    Frailty is a major factor in loss of independence.  Most women already know they should include resistance exercise in their fitness programs.  Hopefully understanding why and understanding how it works will help provide a little more motivation.

IGF-1 Supplements

Some supplement or nutriceutical companies market IGF supplements to women telling them it will increase youthfulness and vitality.  You may see claims that the supplements are “safe” and “natural.”  To be honest, no one knows if they are safe or not.  There simply hasn’t been enough research to know.  While IGF-1 may protect bone and muscle some suggest that suppressing IGF-1 leads to a longer life-span.   It is also very hard to know how much IGF-1 is in a supplement.  You may be getting nothing, or you may be getting an amount that may harm your health in the long run.   Supplement contents may be “natural.”  But, that is no claim to safety or to effectiveness.  Better to keep strong and healthy by eating well and exercising (and including resistance training) rather than trying to tweek your hormone levels.  We are the product of millions and even billions of year of evolution.   That deserves respect.


Niemann I, Hannemann A, Nauck M, Spielhagen C, Völzke H, Wallaschofski H, & Friedrich N (2013). The association between insulin-like growth factor I and bone turnover markers in the general adult population. Bone, 56 (1), 184-90 PMID: 23792936

Courtland HW, Kennedy OD, Wu Y, Gao Y, Sun H, Schaffler MB, & Yakar S (2013). Low levels of plasma IGF-1 inhibit intracortical bone remodeling during aging. Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 35 (5), 1691-703 PMID: 22976122

A new design featuring Our Lady of the Kettlebells

WODMasters have released a new shirt for Women

The new shirt for women features Our Lady of the Kettlebells on a background of stars.   On the back is our WODWOMEN slogan.   Our design is also referred to as “Nuestra Señora de Pesa Rusa.” So far the shirt is available only in womens sizing.  The fabric is 100% ring-spun, pre-shrunk cotton.  This Shirt for Women is also perfect for the Catholic Crossfitter.

Crossfit shirt women Our Lady of the Kettlebells

Strong women’s shirt: Our Lady of the Kettlebells, post WOD. Sorry about the messy hair and sweat stains.

Shirt for Strong Women, Inspired by Our Lady of Guadalupe

Some may notice a certain similarity to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  She is a very familiar and well-loved Icon.  Especially here in Texas.  If you are unfamiliar with the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe here it is (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Traditional accounts tell how, while walking from his village to Mexico City a peasant Juan Diego saw on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac a vision of a girl of fifteen or sixteen years of age, surrounded by light. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the local language, she asked that a church be built at that site, in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the Lady as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan’s uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found at the usually barren hilltop Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, which the Virgin arranged in his peasant tilma cloak. When Juan Diego opened the cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and in their place was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, miraculously imprinted on the fabric.

Here she is for you. A shirt for strong Women.


Crossfit Training: Women require different rest strategies for strength and competition.

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CrossFit women and men may differ in need for rest after WODs.  Or strength training. This may be important as athletes prepare for the CrossFit Games. Women lose strength faster than men when they take time off.  Muscle mass seems to stay the same for both when athletes reduce training for 7 days. The responsiveness of rested muscle fibers to electrical stimulation also seems to stay the same. However, women still lose more strength than men during rest periods. Rest periods are sometimes referred to as “unloading.” A new paper on why this happens suggests its nerves.  Not muscle tissue. The study looked at 7 and 14 day unloading periods. This is a long rest period for CrossFit athletes. But common among weightlifters.  Many athletes will be unloading prior to The Games. Weight training causes changes in muscle tissue. That is pretty obvious.  However, it also produces changes in nerve function. Nerves adapt and become more efficient. They become better able to recruit cells and coordinate their actions.  And make a trained person able to lift more weight.   Or a CrossFit athlete better able to do a WOD.  The larger loss of strength in women seems to be rooted in the central nervous system.   Women’s neurons may be quicker to let down their guard. This may mean that women should take shorter rest periods than men in order to maintain strength. And shorter rests before competitions.

What about Masters CrossFit and Masters Athletes?

Most studies are done using young volunteers.  There are usually a lot of them hanging around Universities.  And someone needs to collect and analyze the data.  This is often left to middle-age and older academics.  This means there is a lot less information for Masters athletes.  There is very good evidence though that neuro-muscular function improves with training in middle and older age.  It looks the same for men and women.  So keep at it.

The Take-Away: Women may need shorter unloading periods before competition than men.

Masters Athletes:  Use your judgement.

Deschenes MR, McCoy RW, & Mangis KA (2012). Factors relating to gender specificity of unloading-induced declines in strength. Muscle & nerve, 46 (2), 210-7 PMID: 22806370