The University of Oregon Track and Field programme is one of the best in the world. So much so that their home field, Hayward Field (which will ring a bell if you've read Nike Founder Phil Knight's excellent memoir Shoe Dog) is known as "Tracktown, USA".
The University have had one of our Sweat Test Machines for a while now and they've tested some of the top talent in collegiate sports, including Double Olympic Gold medalist Ashton Eaton and his Olympic Bronze medal winning wife Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
After both getting onto the podium in Rio they retired from the sports they'd dedicated their lives to and turned to new challenges. We caught up with them recently to get some insight into what it takes to win on the world stage and what it's like to be a sporting power couple...
So, Brianne, Ashton, can you tell our readers a bit about your background and achievements in your sport?
Sure thing! Ash and I met at the University of Oregon, where we both ran track and field. Throughout the course of our collegiate careers, we won a combined total of 12 individual NCAA championships. We both went on to run track and field professionally for Nike, doing the heptathlon and decathlon.
We competed in our first Olympics in 2012 where Ashton won the Olympic gold medal and broke the world record in the decathlon that year. In 2016, we competed in our second Olympics, with Ashton winning his second Olympic gold and me winning a bronze in the heptathlon.
That's quite the resume! Ashton, you suffering cramps in your 400m workouts led to your coach looking for a solution. Looking back, did your cramps affect you in any major competitions and what did you think was causing them before you found out it was sodium depletion?
In some smaller meets it did affect me. There was one meet at the Mt. Sac Relays in LA in April 2013 where I was supposed to run the 110m hurdles and the 400m. I didn't end up running the 400m because my calves tightened up at the end of my hurdle race.
During that time, we would usually be midway through a 6 week training camp in Santa Barbara and, to break up the training, we would drive down to LA to compete. Because the weather was warmer in Santa Barbara than we were used to in Oregon in April, I would usually be sweating more and this is when I would notice the cramping start.
My coach, Harry, would always say, "Ash. Are you SURE you're drinking enough?" and then he'd ask Brianne to make sure I was when I was back at home because he knew she was the disciplinarian when it came to nutrition!
To his credit, once you made it clear you were "drinking enough", Coach Harry went in search of answers, but many coaches may not have. Do you think there's a lack of knowledge about the science of hydration amongst coaches these days?
I think the initial thought of most coaches is to "drink more electrolytes". You always hear that but typically that means Gatorade or Powerade. I think what people don't understand is that you can't treat everyone the same, because our bodies and the way they work are so different.
I would encourage people to find a really great sports physiologist who knows what they're talking about and has done the research to create an individualized plan for each athlete because a cookie cutter approach doesn't work.
So, what did you find out by taking the Sweat Test?
We found that the amount of sodium in Brianne's sweat was 798mg/l, which was on the average end, but Ashton’s was 1,638mg/L! This means that for every litre of sweat Ashton lost, he would need to drink 4 of those big 32oz bottles of Powerade to replenish it, which is tough to do when you’re trying to run a workout!
He obviously wasn’t replacing enough sodium and this was causing his muscles to cramp. Very simply put, sodium (along with other electrolytes) controls muscle contractions by triggering nerve impulses. When sodium levels drop, the nerve signals go haywire and a cramp is triggered.
Ashton, once you found out you lose significantly more sodium than average in your sweat, how did you increase your sodium intake?
I actually spoke to Trent Stellingwerff, Brianne's sport physiologist in Canada, because I wasn't sure what to do and I didn't want to take just any supplement because a lot of them are not certified safe for sport.
He suggested starting with the simple approach of just salting my food more. At that point, I barely salted my food because I didn't think it was good for me. So we started with that and I saw drastic results in day-to-day training and competitions when it wasn't overly hot. When it was really hot out, I'd use electrolyte supplements or even add salt to my standard sports drinks!
This completely solved my cramping problems. It's very cool what you guys do, and you definitely helped me understand what was happening so that we could come up with a solution to solve it. So, thank you!
Note: If Ashton's issues seem familiar to you, then it's well worth reading this blog on why athletes suffer from cramp.
What did a 'typical' training week look like for you both in the months before a major competition?
Our training plan varied a lot throughout the year. Our major competition season was in the summer - June, July, August. In the months leading up to that, our training reduced significantly as we started to compete more, taper, and just sharpen up. Practices would be around 1-2 hours a day, so very light.
The hard training months were January, February, March. We would typically train 6 days a week and on 2-3 of those days we had two practices a day. We were averaging 5-6 hours a day. As an example, a typical week might look a bit like this...
- Shot put drills and throwing
- Hurdle drills, block starts, 100% effort over 4-6 hurdles
- High jump drills, approaches and jumps
- Sprint workout (i.e.: 10x100m w/ 1 min rest, or 4 x 40m sprints out of blocks with weighed sled, 1 min rest, 100m sprint with hand weights, 5 min rest)
- Javelin drills and throwing
- Discus drills and throwing (for Ash)
- A weight room session
- Long jump drills and jumping
- Pole vault drills and jumps (for Ash)
- A 400m workout (i.e.: 4x250m w/ 3 min rest, or 350/300/250/200 w/ 5 min rest)
- A weight room session
or, if really fatigued...
A warm up and the rest of the day off
- Shot put/discus drills and throwing
- Javelin drills and throwing
- Another weight room session (if it didn't happen on Thursday)
- A 200/400m workout (i.e. a hill workout - 250/200/150/100 with walk down recovery, or 100/50 x 10 with jog down between, and walk down recovery after each set)
Was there a particular training session you found especially beneficial and tried to never miss?
We both loved to run. It's what made us confident in our fitness. So both of us would try to never miss a good 200 or 400m running workout. That was our strength during competitions.
What did you eat and drink in the days before and on the day of an event?
We are very simple eaters. We always say that we eat the same thing as everyone else, just the healthier version. We love bacon, eggs, toast, greek yogurt for breakfast.
Sandwiches or panini and a salad for lunch, and for dinner: lasagna, chicken and rice with vegetables, homemade pizzas, just about anything anyone else would eat.
Competitions were a little bit different because we competed for 12 hours for 2 days straight, so it was mostly snacks we were eating: trail mix, bars, bananas, apples, beef jerky, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, etc.
Ashton, which gold medal was the hardest to come by, London or Rio, and why?
Rio! In London I was younger, it was all new, I was up and coming and extremely excited and eager about the possibility of winning an Olympic medal.
That's not to say I didn't appreciate or want a medal in Rio, it's just that I was getting towards the end of my career, I was beginning to get excited about what was next in my life and I was struggling with motivation a little bit and the reason why I was continuing to do track when I felt like I'd achieved all I'd wanted to achieve.
The competition in Rio was difficult. The French decathlete was having an amazing competition and was at my heels, so I really had to fight for that gold medal.
You both medalled in Rio. How did you celebrate?
We went to Peru, explored the Amazon rainforest, stayed in the 2nd most extreme hotel in the world, and did the 4 day trek on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
Does being married to another elite athlete help you perform at your best? How?
Well, we both understand each other's goals and what we're going through. We would travel for 230+ days a year. That would be really hard to do if your spouse didn't do the same, they may have trouble understanding your commitment to it.
We understood one another's ups and downs. We knew what one another had put into it so whether winning or losing, we knew the impact of those moments.
How has life been since you retired? What do you miss the most about training to compete? And what do you miss the least?
Life has been good. Very freeing because we can literally do whatever we want! We've been snowboarding a lot, hiking, camping, road tripping and we're moving to San Francisco middle of October.
What we miss most about being professional athletes is that a lot of our friends were our competitors, so we don't get to see them - and all the other athletes we've created friendships with along the way - as much anymore.
The thing we miss least is the stress of injuries, training and competitions.
What are your plans in retirement?
We're moving to San Francisco to get around more likeminded people. Ashton is really eager to explore the science and tech industry down there and see what he might be interested in.
I'm continuing the weareeaton.com website, sharing healthy recipes and information about food. I also have an app idea that I might want to explore.