Often long distance athletes deplete themselves more than any other athletes. I’ve been in this situation more than once during my twenty IronMan races. After some events I just didn’t feel like doing much – didn’t want to train or even get household chores done. Once I got moving I’d do them – but it was difficult to just get motivated to do so. The hormonal stress of such events is coupled with NT imbalances as well as inflammation which occurs from exercising so long, and including usually a poor diet, (too many carbs during a race). But in addition to all of that, the endurance athlete has to often deal with ammonia toxicity which can suck the energy out of your body and your brain. *Read Part II of this series here.
Ammonia (NH3) is most often a result of your body breaking down protein into amino acids thus releasing nitrogen (N) which eventually combines with hydrogen (H). The liver then converts this ammonia to urea through a biochemical process called the urea cycle and then sends it off to your kidneys to pee it out as well as sweat some of it out. Some people become so NH3 toxic that they literally smell like ammonia, especially after their sweaty clothes are in the laundry basket for a day or more. This is not “body odor” stink – but NH3 stink.
Endurance athletes, and/or those athletes deficient in protein, end up literally breaking down muscle in order to use those proteins for fuel (converted to glucose) which in turn floods the urea cycle and ammonia toxicity results. This ammonia toxicity essentially makes you feel super crummy and unmotivated. Similar to the previously discussed leaky brain problem due to insulin, high ammonia levels also impair the BBB. Actually, this can get so bad to actually cause something called hepatic encephalopathy, though these individuals often have some kidney or liver impairment. Additionally, high NH3 in the brain lowers the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA which will cause a person to feel irritable and have difficulty sleeping – they can’t chill out yet they have no motivation to do anything.
Spin Your Cycle More Efficiently
The urea cycle must function well to convert the toxic NH3 to much less toxic urea. Certain nutrients are needed for this, as well as a properly functioning Krebs cycle – that’s how you make energy (ATP). If your ATP production is low then often your urea cycle will be inadequate which means your energy will be low from deficient ATP as well NH3 toxicity.
One main nutrient your urea cycle needs is manganese, along with others shared by the Krebs cycle. Vitamin B6 (P-5-P as previously discussed for NT synthesis), and vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B5 are also necessary along with biotin and magnesium (a very common athlete-depleted mineral). If you’re deficient in any of these nutrients and training long and hard, then you might be feeling unmotivated from poor urea cycle activity and NH3 toxicity AND dopamine and serotonin imbalances. Hopefully you’re starting to see how this is all related!
Creatine and Phosphorus for a Powerfully Motivated Athlete
Additionally, if your ATP levels are being depleted, you’ll also deplete phosphorus (P) and at the same time your body will rely more on creatine phosphate (CP) for energy. Phosphorus is needed to make (CP) which is a source for quick energy by the muscles and even sometimes the brain, and in this case it’s on stand-by for when aerobic metabolism is spent and there’s little left of ATP. Yet since there is not enough P to make CP, the amino acid arginine, (which is a main amino acid in the urea cycle), shunts to combine with the amino acid glycine to help make more CP not just for energy but also as a way to rid some of the NH3 through its breakdown into creatinine. So now there is inadequate arginine for the urea cycle and NH3 becomes elevated as the CP is not as efficient in detoxifying NH3 as the urea cycle. By taking phosphorus you can essentially support that creatine pathway more effectively and keep some arginine for the urea cycle and also provide the ‘P’ back in the ATP for energy. Phosphorus has long been my “go to” supplement after long distance races – it gets my motivation back almost immediately. Of course, that does not mean it will work for you. Every nutrient you decide to take should be based off your own unique physiology.
Adjust Your Diet and Training
If you’re burning up protein to use for fuel and making yourself ammonia toxic then of course you need to figure out why that is and not just rely on taking certain nutrients, especially if it’s happening to you all the time. Some physicians tell their athletes to eat more carbs. After all, if you eat more carbs then there is no reason for your body to break down protein to convert into glucose and then there is no nitrogen-ammonia problem. This, for some, works. If you are training often and with intensity then yes, I believe you need some carbs and just can’t rely on ketones for energy. You’ll just be depleted both physically and mentally. (You’re actually toxic – and that’s not good.)
However, most athletes are just training improperly. If you’re always training anaerobically and burning sugar rather than fat for fuel you will quickly become glycogen (stored sugar) depleted and rely on amino acids for energy. So don’t necessarily eat more carbs but rather train your aerobic system so you don’t burn so many carbs but burn fat. More fat, less carbs is the way to go with both training and daily diet. One caveat here is that if you’re NH3 toxic and eat more protein during this time (such as a nice big steak), you’re probably going to feel worse as you flood your body with more nitrogen. So find the balance as you recover – or don’t get there in the first place. You don’t have to actually smell NH3 on your sweat/clothes to be toxic – I never did when I used to have the problem.
That about sums up this Sock Doc Three Part Series on Athletic Motivation. There was a lot of chemistry and a lot of physiology so it’s good to read it again (and again). If it still doesn’t make sense maybe your brain is ammonia toxic or you have a leaky brain!
Listen to the Podcast of this third part of the Motivation Series with my friends over at Trail Runner Nation.
how many carbs should a track and field speed-power athlete(jumping, throwing, short sprints[100- 400m]) eat? and from what sources?
Sock Doc says
Check out the series of articles I have on carbs.
How do you recommend supplementing phosphorus? Whole foods? Supplements? Is there a best phosphorus salt for supplementation? How much do you generally find adequate?
Sock Doc says
I use a specific doc-only brand for my patients. Typically I prescribe 40-50mg once or twice a day.
Are there any lab tests that can be done to know if a person is deficient in any of these minerals and such?
Sock Doc says
I discuss some of this in Part II. Generally, labs testing for vitamins and minerals are worthless.
André Cruz says
Dr, tks for the text.
I´m preparing for my second Marathon and trainning totally MAF, 180-41=139.
On sunday I ran 2 hrs without food and water and I felt really great.
I´ll try this protocoll during all my long runs and the biggest will have 180 min.
But during the marathon what should I do?
I think I should run under 150 bpms, but what should I eat?
I´ve just bought some GU´s.
Sock Doc says
That’s a lengthy reply; I discuss this a bit in detail in the articles on carbs: https://sock-doc.com/2013/05/burn_fat/
Dan Gowen says
Greetings from Berlin. I loved the TRN podcasts, as usual. I should be commenting on Part I, but I can’t seem to find it on your website. In podcst one, you mentioned changing up the training routine to maintain motivation. Great idea, but you also said, “don’t alway run at the same heart rate…and do intervals.” Isn’t this against your training principles? Gosh, it’s hard enough to “run” or keep it at 117 or 118.
I have been meaning to ask, do you have a recommendation for a HRM. I have the Timex Ironman Target Trainer, because got high ratings, reasonable price and not a lot of extra crap. However, it seems to need about 15 minutes to settle down, like barely moving and reading 180-190, or jumping suddenly from 90 to 185, or the reverse after a while. I don’t trust it.
BTW, I enjoy the TRN podcast especially with you and Mark Cucuzzella (sp). but the host make me laugh, ringing their hands over Gels, Goos, Bionic drinks, et cetera. I wonder how I/we made it through our marathons and ultra in the late 70s with water and sometime fruit. 🙂
I am looking forward to attending one of your workshops. Unfortunately, the London one conflicted with an international visit.
Sock Doc says
No, it’s not against my principles (https://sock-doc.com/2014/02/anaerobic_training-hiit/); sometimes you got to go hard.
I like the Polar RS300X for a monitor – nice and simple and inexpensive.
Here is Part I: https://sock-doc.com/2014/04/athlete-brain/
And I hope to be in Amsterdam for a SD Workshop in April 2015 – so keep a lookout for that.
Dan Gowen says
Amsterdam might work. Have fun in London!
I’m looking for a transitional minimalist shoe to wear for the time being until I work out the trigger points in my legs and feet to help with my plantar fasciitis. Problem is that I’m wearing correct toes and the only shoes that are wide enough for me are the Lem’s, Vivobarefoot and Altra.I’m not ready for the Lem’s or Vivo’s.I’ve tried those out but feet are sore.I’m not thrilled about the stack height of the Altra’s but I need to work out my trigger points before I essentially get into an extremely zero drop shoe.Do you think I should just stay with the Altra’s for the time being?
Sock Doc says
Yeah options are limited. The Altras might be your best bet. Dr. Ray has a list of shoes on his site that are more compatible with the CTs.
Isaac Walker says
Hi Soc Doc! Brilliant podcast series and articles – just listened for a second time.
Question – 3 times I have been ammonia toxic in the past 6 months. Each time was on a fast tempo run less than 1 hour in hot weather. I was fatigued but not to the point where I couldn’t go and do some more – however a very strong smell of ammonia was present. I have since started eating more of a higher fat/lower carb diet and haven’t had the problem since during tempo runs. I train for ultras at slower paces and rarely do much speed work (1-2 times every 2 weeks). Did these short sessions when I became toxic mean I exhausted my ATP quickly and wasn’t able to convert fat/glucose fast enough for my energy expenditure? I do have a very low heart rate (resting and max) so not sure if his would impact. Thanks!!!
Sock Doc says
I’d say it most likely means you’re depleting your glycogen stores. Eat more carbs on those fast tempo days.
I was reading a prior post of how you drink half a can of coconut milk with 4 eggs.I think you said Thai Kitchen brand.I bought the Whole Foods organic 365 brand to try. How are you preparing the eggs?Are you blending them together? I have a source of pastured cream and eggs.Any ideas if I can mix all 3 together?
Sock Doc says
yes – but I eat them separately. I eat my eggs over easy usually.
Phil Redinger says
Hi Sock Doc,
Great podcast on TRN. Ammonia toxicity in racing is a new idea for me to think about. I do have a question regarding prevention of Nh toxicity. In the past I have used an amino acid supplement (I use MAP but there are others out there and many products like Hammer Gels have some in them) during racing. Typically 1-2 tabs per hour. I have noticed an improved clarity of mind even 10-12 hours into an Ultra. These products are supposed to be pure Amino acid and very little nitrogen waste. Is/would this be a way to prevent your own protein breakdown by supplying amino acids for the body to use, thereby preventing a buildup of Ammonia?
Thank you for your great information and the time you spend teaching and helping fellow athletes.
Sock Doc says
They can help some not just with buildup but also with breakdown depending on the AAs in them but most of the NH3 buildup (control of) will be determined by the proper training – your overall fitness as well as nutrient availability.
Joe Mayer says
Hi Sock Doc,
I’m an avid listener to the Trail Runner Nation Podcasts and have been working my way from oldest to newest. I recently listened to the podcast concerning this article and it really spoke to me. I have been running for roughly 5 years and have progressed from 5k’s up to a Marathon last year and have my eyes on an ultra in the future, but I want to do it right. I have often smelled of ammonia after runs, and believe I have become ammonia toxic at times. I’m sure a lot of this is diet related and I’m taking the steps to fix that. My question is, is it safe for me to still engage in longer runs while I work through my diet changes? I’m at a healthy weight and I’m taking in plenty of calories. I also watch my heart rate and stay within the Maffatone prescribed aerobic zone, but I fear that I’ll end up doing more harm than good if I am in fact ammonia toxic. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. I love your site and I’m learning a lot! Thank you.
Dr. Stephen Gangemi "Sock Doc" says
If you’re smelling of NH3 that definitely means you’re lacking some nutrition or pushing yourself too hard (harder than what you think anyway). So, you might best back off on the training a bit and ramp up the nutrition in the diet until that balances itself out.