Formerly one of Great Britain's top triathletes, Andy Blow is now best known as the man keeping athletes in a wide range of sports hydrated and cramp free with Precision Hydration. But as we learned, he is still unable to turn down an adventure.
Slowtwitch: Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What sports did you play?
Andy Blow: I grew up in Leicester, in the Midlands, U.K. I used to love football (soccer) when I was young and was a keen but very average player. I also did a little bit of swimming, but nothing too serious. My Dad encouraged me to run cross country as well as some five and 10km races to keep fit for soccer and he took up running at the same time so he could referee the soccer games rather than stand around watching.
In my early teens I drifted away from soccer (perhaps realizing I would never be a professional) and I entered a swim-run biathlon and loved it. There was an adult triathlon at the same event and I loved the look of the bikes so my Dad got me a $20 second hand road bike from my cousin and I started riding, joined the local triathlon club and never looked back from there. I’m still good mates with many of the guys I trained with from Leicester tri club in the 1990s, when triathlon was still quite a niche sport of course.
I started to take triathlon relatively seriously when I went to Bath University in the late 1990s, where I was lucky enough to have some great training partners like Paul Newsome (founder of Swim Smooth) and coaching from Chris Jones and ex top British Ironman Pro Richard Hobson.
I studied sports science at university but spent a lot of my time training and improved enough to get a couple of junior GB vests in the same GB team as future Olympians Tim Don and Stuart Hayes. I was definitely making up the numbers in the team rather than winning medals, but it was a great experience.
I migrated to Xterra and Ironman when the sport went fully draft legal at the elite level (my swimming was second pack stuff really) and although I did ok in some races, and managed a world age-group title in Xterra 2000, I suffered a lot with nutrition and hydration issues in the longer, hotter races. This was ultimately the catalyst for learning more about that and in the end setting up Precision Hydration.
ST: When did you realize you had a knack for sports? Was there a particular race where you had a breakthrough?
Andy: I don’t think I ever had a knack for it but I did manage to train really, really hard and practically full time for about two years in 2002-2003. As a result I got on the podium at Half Ironman UK in 2003 in a pretty decent field, which probably counts as my best ever result. I also got a couple of top tens at Ironman UK in the years soon after that, but had a very disappointing result in Kona when I had a go there in 2004.
ST: When did you get into adventure racing and swimrun? What were some of the craziest races you took part in?
I had a persistent knee injury around 2006-2007 that ended in surgery and as a result had an enforced year out of competitive sport and in rehab. When I came back I realized I’d fallen out of love with triathlon but wanted to do something, so I got a kayak and a surf ski with a view to doing some racing in those and decided to build up to doing the Coast to Coast race in New Zealand (which I eventually did in 2012).
As part of my excursions into surf ski and kayaking I did the Avon Descent, which is a pretty long and savage two day down river race in Perth Australia, and the Devises to Westminster Canoe race, a 125 mile nonstop slog in under 24 hours. I did both of those with my brother and had a great time.
I also did some trail running, including the TransAlpine stage race (8 days in the Alps) and then my long term friend and training buddy, Eliot Challifour, spotted ÖTILLÖ Swimrun and we decided to have a go at that in 2014. It was fantastic and I wish swimrun was bigger 15 years ago when I was a lot fitter!
These days I’m busy with work and travel and I’m married with two small kiddies, so just try to do one event "for fun" each year. Last year it was ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly and it might be that again this year given we’re now the Official Hydration Supplier! That’s still TBD, whatever I do just needs to be achievable on about five hours training per week as that’s all I can squeeze in these days.
ST: At what point did you get involved in exercise science and your work with hydration in high performance sports?
Andy: I studied sports science at Bath University and my first job after graduating was as the sports scientist for the Benetton and Renault F1 teams. I worked with drivers like Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso and hydration was a big issue in their longer, hotter races so I ended up getting interested in it from a professional standpoint as well as a personal one from the issues I was having in my own races.
I investigated the topic of hydration with a friend of mine, Dr. Raj Jutley, who is a top heart surgeon, and he helped me understand the role of sweat sodium loss in the equation, something that eventually lead me down a road of further tinkering with sweat testing and personalized hydration drinks.
ST: How did you conceptualize Precision Hydration? Tell us about your involvement with many of the professional sports and teams you have worked with.
Andy: In the work I did to understand my own issues with racing in the heat I learned about the role of sodium in body fluid balance and the maintenance of blood volume. I also discovered that the amount of sodium lost in sweat varies massively from person to person.
I have a very high sweat rate and lose a lot of sodium in my sweat (1,842mg per 32oz in fact) and I just hadn’t been replacing enough of what i was losing in my sweat. That was especially the case in hotter races, where I was drinking more water which was actually further diluting my blood sodium levels. I had almost certainly given myself hyponatremia (and ended up in the medical tent) on multiple occasions.
In the few races I did after learning all this I took an a lot more sodium before and during the race and it worked a treat. I just wish I’d have known about it many years earlier, who knows, my racing career could have been quite different.
I started using some unique Sweat Testing technology taken from the medical world (where it’s used in Cystic Fibrosis diagnosis) and struck up a partnership with the leading company in that field to adapt and use their technology with athletes rather than in a medical setting.
Ultimately this led to the development of a line of multi-strength electrolyte drinks that cater for athletes’ individual needs. That was because typical sports drinks don’t have enough sodium in them to replace what the average athlete loses in their sweat (around 920mg per 32oz), let alone enough to replenish what saltier sweaters like myself lose.
It was around 2011 when I formally started the company Precision Hydration. Initially we predominantly worked in pro sports with organizations and athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, Formula 1 motor racing, Premier League soccer, rugby and so on. We also worked with elite athletes in sports like triathlon, cycling and ultra running.
Although Precision Hydration is rarely on the outside of the drinks bottles you see on TV (endorsement contracts from the big drinks manufacturers mean players have to drink from their branded bottles) it’s often Precision Hydration inside the bottles, so even if you don’t think you’ve seen our products before, you probably have without realizing it.
ST: PH was recently announced as the Official Hydration Supplier of worldwide swimrun leader, ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Series. Tell us how this partnership came about and what it entails.
Andy: Mats and Michael from ÖTILLÖ approached us after the Scilly Isles event last year as I’d got to know them from taking part in a few of their races. They told me of their plans to take a more natural and low impact approach to on-course nutrition for the 2017 season and, as our PH products are 100% natural in composition, we struck up a deal to supply drinks for their energy stations in all of the 2017 Swimrun World Series events.
We’ve developed a free Swimrun Sweat Test that competitors can take to get a personalized hydration plan tailored to ÖTILLÖ events and their own needs. They’ll then know which strength of electrolyte drink to pick up at the energy stations out on the course.
The ÖTILLÖ races are so much fun, so well organized and such a good fit for our brand and products that they were just something I wanted to get involved with and we can’t wait to get things started in Hvar, Croatia this weekend.
ST: How should an athlete go about personalizing their hydration strategy then?
Andy: The first of two main factors that drive your individual net sodium losses is the total amount you sweat. This is a factor of your sweat rate and the number of hours you spend sweating during a given period. The other factor is your sweat sodium concentration, i.e. how much sodium you lose in your sweat. Figuring out approximately what these are is a sensible place to start.
At Precision Hydration we have an Advanced Sweat Test that tells you exactly how much sodium you lose in your sweat. We’ve also developed a free online Sweat Test that uses an algorithm based on all the data we’ve collected over the years to give you a good idea of your individual needs. You can then refine this (with our help if needed) in training through some targeted trial and error. We also have a regular newsletter and blog that covers the science of hydration and performance and where we share insights from our work with elite athletes around the world.
ST: We see you tend to race in nearly all of the countries you go and visit. What is your favorite place to visit and race? Is there any sporting adventure you’re gearing up for this year?
Andy: Yes I definitely love to jump in and get involved in events when I’m traveling with work.
I enjoyed doing the swim leg at a great little triathlon in Ventura, California that we supported last year and I’m toying with the idea of having another go at the ÖTILLÖ in the Scillies again this year, if I can get any run training in during the next couple of months (I still have post-op knee issues from time to time unfortunately).
I’ve also entered a swim race around Brownsea Island in Poole Harbor near where I live on the south coast of the U.K. It’s about 6km, so fairly long but not too ridiculous. ÖTILLÖ Engadin is on my bucket list at some point as well.
ST: Thanks for catching up with us.
Andy: Absolutely. My pleasure.
Note: To take Precision Hydration's free Sweat Test, click here.