Sunday, September 29, 2013

Born From Research: Interview with First Endurance

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Robert Kunz, VP of Science & Technology and co-founder of top nutrition company First Endurance. I personally learned a ton from this interview, and I'm excited to share it. In short, I was extremely impressed... my first order is on the way.

What’s the history of First Endurance?

"First Endurance was started in 2002 by my business partner Mike Fogarty and myself. We were working at Weider Nutrition at the time, a bodybuilding supplement company famous for discovering Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was working in R&D (research and development), so lots of clinical research would come across my desk. I was a triathlete and Mike was a cyclist, and we were (and still are) passionate about racing. So I’d see all this relevant and powerful research, much of which pertained to endurance performance, yet at Weider we wouldn’t do anything with it because we weren’t into those products. I’d make my case for certain ideas because no one in the market was implementing them, but they fell on deaf ears. Many of the ingredients being researched were pretty expensive, yet there was great research behind them. Twelve years ago there really wasn’t any high-end supplementation for endurance athletes. We realized and knew that triathletes and other endurance athletes were willing to spend for products that work. Optygen was our first product, and with its high-end formula we charged $50. It was a risk, but also a smart calculated risk because we knew the market, and we knew that this stuff works. People were starving for these products, even asking me when I was at Weider for products designed for body builders. We knew there was a huge opportunity and decided to launch our own company, First Endurance."

What’s your role with the company?

"I handle all R&D as well as operations, including our four manufacturing facilities. In addition, I’m the sponsorship liaison for our pro triathletes, signing them and making sure they get what they need."

From your perspective what differentiates First Endurance from other companies and products?

"First and foremost every one of our products is truly born from research. I’ve been in the supplement business a long time, working for a number of companies before First Endurance, and almost every one of the hundreds of products I saw was born from the marketing side of the business. Someone in marketing sees a product that’s selling well, and they say 'let’s make one that’s very similar to this, at this price point, etc.' That limits what you can do with a product.

If we had a marketing focus, we may have first created a product similar to Endurox, Accelerade, or Cytomax to name a few, with maybe, say, a few more amino acids. Instead, our products come from research… they’re a little more expensive because they have what you truly need to compete. Our products have what the research shows to be effective. In line with that approach, we don’t adhere to the mainstream and what the media has to say. We launched Ultragen (First Endurance recovery drink) at the peak of the 'sugar is bad for you' sentiment, yet if you look at the research - if you truly pay attention to the research, it’s very clear that a high glycemic sugar is the best thing to put in your body following a workout. Yet marketing never would have allowed Ultragen to be launched with 60g of sugar. Ultragen is born from research, and today it is considered far and away the best in the market. There’s a time and place for sugar… immediately following exercise, sugar works. We won’t just follow what’s popular, we follow what works."

What’s the process of bringing a new product or product upgrade to market?

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"It can take as little as 6 mos or as much as 3-4 years. We don’t put a timeline on it, and a product doesn’t go to market until it’s ready. Innovation comes from research and at times as ideas from our athletes. Our next step is to always then go look at clinical studies. We look at a minimum of 2-3 studies in which the subjects were trained athletes such as collegiate runners and swimmers. We also have an endurance research board of MDs and PhDs who are also guys that race Ironmans, ultra races, etc. They help with a lot of our research, and we ask for their input regarding if something looks viable. We're constantly scouring new research, and our formulas are always subject to change if we can improve them. For example, we're currently on our 3rd formula of EFS drink as well as Optygen HP. Many competitors have kept the same formula for the past 15 years, despite significant gains from research over that time. We have four manufacturing facilities that each has their own specialty in powders, liquids, or tablets. Liquids, tablets, capsules, etc. are all completely different technologies. We’re able to leverage extremely high quality people and equipment at these facilities. We go to them with our ideas, having already sourced our ingredients, and then prototypes are put together that immediately go to our sponsored athletes for testing and feedback. It makes a big difference using pro athletes – you and I have many variables in our lives… it’s hard to know which variable(s) may be driving a result. Sponsored pros train day in day out, they know they can hold '270 watts at a heart rate of 152', etc, etc…they’re like lab rats, perfect test subjects! Jordan Rapp came back to us saying things like 'I held 7 more watts than I usually do.' They have fewer variables, so they can truly measure. On that note, it's been really fun watching our sponsored triathletes win 15 Ironmans over the past 4 years, none of which having won an Ironman previously. We take it one step further after the prototype stage, with a slightly larger manufacturing run, allowing customers on our website to order and try in limited quantities. Around 1,500 participate and receive a questionnaire afterwards. So there are different levels before a product or product enhancement makes it to market. Around 2,000 retailers nationwide carry our products, including Vitamin Shoppe and REI, but we mainly stick with independent shops focused on racing."

I did a comparison last night of some products that I use vs. nutritional data for EFS drink and Liquid Shot on your site. The thing that stood out most is the increased electrolytes… not just sodium, which was higher, but others such as magnesium, chloride, and potassium, which were largely absent from other products. What’s the function of these electrolytes beyond sodium? How do they help for training and racing? Also, how does your amino acid blend compare/contrast to proteins in other drinks?

"Lots of people focus on sodium, yet the products that claim to be electrolyte fueled don’t have nearly enough sodium to sustain you over a long, hot race. They focus more on the flavor profile, trying to make it taste good. When you look at the research, electrolytes drive cellular respiration… electrolytes allow your cells to 'breathe,' giving them the ability to let nutrients in and out, and all five electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium) play a role. It’s not just sodium, yet every company focuses on sodium, and maybe potassium. It’s more expensive to add all five, but that’s what your cells need to work best. Some of our customers claim EFS tastes a little salty, but would you rather finish strong, or fuel with something that tastes like your favorite drink and you cramp through the run? That said we find that most people like our flavors, but that’s not our focus.

Most drinks with protein contain whey protein concentrate, which has amino acids in it. However, whey protein is a large protein molecule that is difficult to absorb… it can take hours. The research shows that proteins can benefit your ability to improve glycogen resynthesis and absorb carbohydrates, but shows that branch chain amino acids are what truly give you the benefit. Amino acids are much smaller molecules and can be absorbed in seconds, whereas full protein concentrates take hours. Free form amino acids give you all the benefit of protein without waiting, so you don't have to tap your body's limited glycogen stores. Free form amino acids are much more expensive. Had we been marketing driven, we’d just use whey protein… that 'looks' better on the label. Looks great, but it slows down absorption. Again, it’s rare in our industry for products to get made strictly on the research side."

EFS Liquid Shot seems like a very unique idea, similar in function to a gel, yet a completely different product. What are the benefits over a gel?

"Again we really pride ourselves on doing a complete clinical review for every single ingredient we use. Our intention was to produce a First Endurance gel, yet in the literature review we found that gums, which are used to make a gel, slow down gastric emptying. Fluid gets in your gut, then needs to empty in your bloodstream. All these other companies use gums to make them thick. We immediately said 'no way'. Liquid Shot is more viscous (liquid) than gels because there aren’t any gums in there. It works much better by not slowing down the gastric emptying process. The research is black and white that gums slow down gastric emptying. The worst culprits of all of those little 'gummy' products. I guarantee we’ll never make a product like that at First Endurance, because we care about the performance of a product... not just that it fills a space that sells."
In a past interview with a nutrition expert based in Boulder, he raved about Optygen HP. What’s the difference between Optygen and Optygen HP and what’s the science behind this stuff?

"As I mentioned Optygen was the first product we launched, because we understood our customer base and understood what our customers were doing. Most endurance athletes are chronically over-trained and over-stressed on a daily basis. We knew this about all our friends and ourselves, and early research at Weider showed that rhodiola and cordyceps were effective in modulating cortisol, the stress hormones that are chronically elevated when you’re in an overtraining, suppressed state, during which you’re burning muscle instead of building muscle. Your performance suffers, and it can affect your lactate threshold and your VO2. You begin to plateau or feel worse in your workouts. What’s going on? Well, it’s physiological. The modulation of cortisol is the primary benefit of Optygen. You recover better, your physiology improves, and you start training better day in, day out. You can consistently get stronger over a longer period. It’s not a magic pill… you still have to put the work in, but allows you to stay healthier. Being over-trained also suppresses your immune system, so you get sick more.

Optygen HP does everything Optygen does, yet adds beta alanine, which has a wealth of great clinical research behind it regarding the ability to synthesize the lactate your body produces, clearing lactic acid. Beta alanine allows your system to work faster and better, with a direct performance benefit. On top of that it has a 2nd mechanism that improves markers of overtraining inflammation, allowing muscles to recover quicker. For athletes training every day, you can recover stronger for the next morning. 

The new 2013 formula also adds our proprietary Optymax blend. This blend has been shown in several clinical studies on trained athletes to improve glycogen re-synthesis, spare glycogen during exercise, and improve inflammation response following exhaustive exercise. In laymen terms this means you burn fat more efficiently so you can go longer. Following a hard workout, soreness and torn muscle tissue repair happens much faster so you can bounce back and be ready faster for your next workout. It's this ability to recovery faster that allows athletes to make big gains in their training over a few critical months. 

Both Optygen products are systemic products, meaning you can’t take it that day and expect it to help you. We’re talking more the last four months heading into an Ironman when you want to keep improving each day over time. People think 'oh I don’t train like an elite athlete,' but it’s not necessarily about how much. If I’m working 55 hrs a week and I’ve got kids at home and I’m training for my first half marathon, I’m stressed. Someone can be overstressed training 5-6 hours a week if they’re not accustomed to it. Others not at all training 15 hrs a week if they used to train 30. There are lots of variables. Your body doesn’t distinguish between stress from training, your boss nagging you at work, lack of sleep, etc. Mild training relieves stress and provides an endorphin fix, but moderate and heavy training can become stressful for your body. It’s an upside down bell curve, reducing stress at first, then creating stress. Where you are on that bell curve determines if Optygen is for you."

By using natural ingredients, is it difficult to patent protect your products? Is it a challenge to keep others from infringing on your proprietary formulas?

"You try to protect your IP (intellectual property) as much as you can. Some try to reverse engineer and knock off your products. We try to focus on the quality of our company, our manufacturing, and our grasp of the research. We don’t worry about it so much. People have confidence in who we are as a company. Our pro athletes know that they perform better with First Endurance products."

What’s the best practice for using First Endurance products before and during an Ironman for example, which may have sponsorship arrangements to provide other products “on the course”?

"Some of our athletes won’t take a single non-First Endurance calorie in. For example, the Wurteles (Heather and Trevor) lean more this direction. Jordan Rapp is strictly First Endurance through the bike, but he doesn’t like to carry anything while running. He relies on aid stations through the run. We don’t require our athletes to do anything, in fact in their published post-race nutritional accounts, we encourage them to list everything, even competitor products at an aid station. We give them that leeway… customers appreciate, understand and believe you when you’re transparent. It does vary from athlete to athlete. Some carry a concentrated bottle of Liquid Shot on the bike, then just take water on the course. On the run they may carry a Liquid Shot flask and take water. Liquid Shot makes it really easy to get what you need… each flask is 400 calories, and you can make a 1200 calorie water bottle very easily. The key then is getting enough water. On a hot day for every 100 calories you take in, no matter what form, you should drink 12 oz of water." 

Check out their website and follow to learn more about First Endurance:

First Endurance

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