What you need to know about staying hydrated!

We have all heard the importance of hydration. We have all been told how important it is to stay hydrated in order to perform optimally. Advice surrounding hydration always seems extremely generic. Why is hydration so important and how should we actually hydrate? Very seldom is this discussed with athletes.

Hydration is important as water is involved in almost every bodily function. When the body functions optimally it can perform optimally. If it is not functioning well then any stress applied to it is magnified. That is the short explanation as to why we should hydrate. Most will understand basic biology and the concept of osmosis. Solutes and water diffuse across a membrane from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. In regard to the body we have many forms of these membranes, the simplest being the membrane which surrounds all cells. Water is needed for many cell activities including cell metabolism, without which a cell would cease to function. The science behind cell metabolism is fascinating in itself but not all that practical for the majority of athletes.

For endurance athletes cardiac output is a critical factor. This is a product of heart rate and stroke volume (Blood volume ejected from the heart with each beat). Blood is mostly made up of water. In cases of dehydration blood plasma volume is reduced as water is excreted through sweating etc. Water and its role during sweating is the most effective element in heat management. If our plasma volume reduces there is reduction in overall blood volume as red cells become more concentrated in less plasma. This results in the heart having to work harder to pump enough blood around the body. This increase in workload is pointless additional stress for the body. It is purely a mechanistic result of water loss from the blood. It will cause a reduction in cardiovascular capacity and overall work capacity. Similar effects occur at altitude in an effort to combat reduction in oxygen pressure in the ambient air. The body increases hormones which excrete water to concentrate the blood, as less oxygen is being absorbed into the blood with the reduction in pressure.

The stomach is a key organ in the process of hydrating. Water is one of the few substances that can be absorbed by the lining of the stomach. In saying that water is also essential downstream in the small intestine for the absorption of other compounds ie. salts, sugars and amino acids. If we take in a lot of these compounds water must accompany them as a buffer in order for them to be absorbed. This is important when we look at things like sports drinks. These drinks often have high concentration of sugars and in some cases salt. This can be problematic for the rate of absorption of water. Athletes often complain of a feeling of fluid in the stomach after drinking large quantities of these drinks. That is exactly the case. Water must follow these compounds into the small intestine.

What this means is that water on its own is often absorbed faster than a sports drink. For short term exercise plain water is a better choice for rapid hydration. During longer bouts of exercise and in hot conditions many minerals and salts are lost from the body. The loss of minerals, salts and the consumption of glucose will have a significant impact on muscular and cognitive performance. In addition there is a change in osmotic gradients. This change may hinder the absorption of water. Drinking large amounts of plain water over long durations may cause potential hyponatremia (low sodium levels).

In many cases the advice given for monitoring hydration status involves examining the colour of our urine. Dark urine signifies dehydration. Lighter colored urine signifies good hydration. The concern here is that if one drinks lots of water without replacing salts and minerals, water will have problems being absorbed if salt levels are low. It can lead one into a false sense of being properly hydrated.

 

Hydration is critical to performance and must be a part of your routine.

An athlete must consider the circumstances. Short bouts of exercise, an hour long for example will not deplete salts and therefore plain water is a good choice. For bouts much longer and/or in heat, a marathon or long day hiking for example, a hydration formula is essential. By replacing salts and other compounds we can maintain a better level of hydration as well as providing essential compounds to cell function. In addition many compounds such as salt absorb better with sugars. A hydration formula should not just contain salt for this reason. Amino acids also help with salt absorption. If one uses a formula containing these other compounds they have the added benefit of replacing glucose for energy metabolism as well as reducing cell damage and aiding in recovery.

There are many commercially available sports drinks and formulas. Some are better than others. In many cases some popular brands are driven as much by taste as they are function. Many are too highly concentrated with sugar. In these cases they would be better if watered down. The level of solute concentration should reflect the conditions but in most cases weaker concentrations are less problematic. Less obvious, effective choices for hydration are targeted for a more clinical setting. Dioralyte and Pedialyte are specifically formulated for hydration without all the extras that you may find in some commercial sports drinks. One can also make a pretty decent homemade formula using natural ingredients. Water, salt and honey can form an excellent and simple hydration formula. Adding a little glutamine to the mix will also tick the box for amino acid presence.

 

Many great options but often designed for taste preference rather than hydration needs

A favorite of ours is the following. It has been tried and tested with excellent results.

1 litre of water

6 teaspoons of honey or maple syrup

½ teaspoon of table salt

 

In terms of timing it is important to constantly manage hydration. This means consuming fluids before, during and after exercise in accordance to the environment and type of exercise. Something to note is the effect of dehydration on digestion. Often athletes prioritize eating over rehydrating. In the case of multi day events this is not the best strategy. Poor hydration can lead to poor digestion and slow the process of refueling quite dramatically. Gastrointestinal stress can lead to poor sleep and other issues which have disastrous effect on performance. In the case of cutting weight for sport, water cutting is a popular method. An individual will purposely dehydration themselves in order to reduce overall bodyweight. After weighing in, if one does not rehydrate first it can be very difficult to consume food and digest properly before competition. Often a hydration formula and efficient hydration strategy will have greater benefits than eating after a weigh in. With that in mind hydration should always be priority number one. With added glucose it may also be a fast way to restore glycogen so it is beneficial in multiple ways.

Athletes need to be practical and efficient with every aspect of their performance that they can control. Hydration is extremely important but rarely discussed in practical terms. When one considers the circumstances and has some understanding of the process one can manage the situation much more effectively. That very much applies to hydration. A little bit of thought and practice with hydration strategies can make performance more consistent and training more effective.

 

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The wonders of low intensity running.

Heavy athletes tend to hate running. It takes its toll on the joints and tends to feel like hell to complete. It is not comfortable and it certainly isn’t enjoyable for most. Recently I read 80/20 by Matt Fitzgerald. It focuses on using low intensity running for the base of a runner’s training. The concept is not new but is firmly supported in scientific literature and anecdotal evidence. It made me wonder if its concepts would apply for larger, non-runner athletes. I had seen similar concepts being used elsewhere for large powerlifters but had never really considered it a practical option beforehand. I tried it and can definitely say it worked amazingly well for improving overall fitness.

Humans by nature are task oriented individuals. We tend to want a result or some measure of how we complete a task. For running this generally revolves around a distance quantified by time. This is the mistake for many non-runners. If you are heavy you will more than likely be slow, in many cases embarrassingly slow. This can be the root of distaste for running. The thing to bear in mind is that absolute aerobic ability is often better in a larger athlete than a smaller one. They are not unfit or untrained, just hauling more load around. This means they will run slow even though they may actually be aerobically well trained. Take a prop forward for example. 130kg is a lot to move around for 80 mins and requires a massive aerobic engine. This does not get reflected once normalized to bodymass. If one can accept this then one can forget about how well or how fast they run, and focus on what matters, what they are running for.

Low intensity aerobic work is great for a number of things. In general it creates a number of extremely beneficial structural adaptations. Most of these relate to remodeling of the heart and vascular system but there are a number of other responses. In addition, low intensity work can improve fat metabolization and overall body composition, things which are nearly always concerns in a heavier athlete’s life. These are all positive but not the main points of the article. In addition it should be noted there are some aspects of low intensity work that are considered negative influences on power type sports. This was discussed in a previous article which can be found here https://hamiltonsport.com/2016/12/will-cardiovascular-training-kill-strength/. To summarize very briefly, low intensity work very rarely makes anyone slow if used appropriately.

Low intensity running in this case is running which is restricted by some measure of effort rather than speed. Heart rate or Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) both work well. Heart rate should be around the 70% of heart rate max point or an RPE about five out of ten. The speed is dictated by this, not the other way around. If these increase then slow down to a shuffle or walk if necessary.

So what makes low intensity running so wonderful? Firstly, aerobic conditioning always provides an excellent base for all athletes. Running is something which uses a large amount of muscle mass and definitely produces beneficial adaptations to aerobic capacity. Perhaps one overlooked aspect is the ability for it to teach an athlete to relax on their feet. By forcing yourself to run slower to meet heart rate one eventually learns to be more efficient with technique. While on a run the individual should focus on playing with style and stride to keep heart rate down. After a while one will learn to relax the upper body and breath nice and steadily so as to not waste effort. With some practice the ability to relax and settle into a run can be a very useful tool. It effectively allows an athlete to learn to recover while on the move, something which can drastically improve overall work capacity throughout competition.

Running slow and relaxed also saves the joints. When one becomes more efficient and fluid with style the wear and tear on joints is reduced. This will partly become a result of better technique from practice but slowing oneself down also reduces impact. By focusing on low intensity, one generally feels like things are less of a struggle and more enjoyable, making it more likely to repeat the session. Recovery from the session is also improved for the above reasons. The day after, aches and pains are very much reduced.

It should be noted that little of the above happens overnight. It will take weeks to become relaxed and efficient. The point is that limiting the session by factors other than speed makes the training more manageable, enjoyable and overall more effective. After some time, the interesting thing is athletes will run faster and faster without breaking the intensity limits. This happens quicker than many expect and after a while those who hate running can become quite good and really begin to enjoy it.

It will take time to be a comfortable runner. Being fast is not nearly as important as the process.

A lot of the above seems obvious. If one gets better and fitter at running one will be faster and enjoy it. There is no rocket science there. The point is if one shifts the focus it can really foster the training effect without creating issues that so many athletes experience when running. The slightest change in perspective can make a massive difference to the process. Heavy athletes are more susceptible to experiencing issues with running but the process should remain the same for all. There is a right way and a less effective way to approach things, in some cases a completely wrong way. In this case if running has never been something you or your athlete has used or enjoyed try shifting the approach and give low intensity running a try. With a bit of patience and diligence the benefits can be quite astonishing.

 

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Are you underperforming?

A lot of athletes may be underperforming without really knowing. Dealing with large numbers of young athletes in a number of sports is great for noticing trends. Many athletes underperform without ever really examining or noticing the cause. There are many reasons why one might underperform and many ways to spot it. A common issue which this article will focus on is the combination of under eating and over using high intensity training.

It may seem like an obvious problem but it can very easily occur in many athletes. Generally young athletes serve two masters. The first is their appearance. Young athletes want to look in shape and the media has had its fair influence on expectations of appearance and how to achieve it. In addition athletes want to get picked for their team and move on to higher levels of competition. The mix of the two creates an usual issue which leads to a number of problems down the road.

When athletes become concerned with appearance, an obsession with diet and their image becomes a big part of their lifestyle. The first thing that happens is they can become very concerned with eating too much and specifically start becoming concerned with carbohydrate intake. They also start worrying about body fat levels on a constant basis. Slight fluctuations in weight make them very concerned. Quite often their bodyweight and bodyfat levels may genuinely be higher than optimal. From a coaching perspective diet logs become the first point of reference. That’s the first giveaway. The athletes more often than not, are eating significantly less than expected and too little to perform well, yet they have less than optimal body composition.

When team selection draws near, athletes will look for an edge to get ahead of their peers. Often this involves adding training sessions outside of their training program. These sessions are commonly of quite high high intensity, most likely due to the massive media attention on the benefits of high intensity training on body composition and conditioning levels. Athletes also feel their sessions are more beneficial if they feel completely exhausted after. The implications of extra, high intensity work should be fairly obvious as the recovery demands are increased massively. Endurance athletes may also train out of their training zones. Designated intensity for a session will be ignored in an effort to work harder and hopefully reap the rewards.

In real life the combination of the above factors can be hard to spot but tends be quite recognizable once you put the clues together. Athletes will generally start with a stagnation in performance measures. Usually modest enough to not cause concern. Alarm bells usually ring when performance drops but not nearly as much when performance remains stable even with little or no improvements. The athlete tends to be irritable, somewhat fatigued but not to the point of raising any attention to how they feel. Usually it can only be noticed on casual questioning. In some cases the athlete will show slightly elevated bodyfat and possibly even bodyweight in comparison to norms. They are also usually pretty conscious of this and claim to be making dietary changes to manage it responsibly.

At face value nothing is extreme to cause major alarm. That’s possibly why the issue goes unnoticed. Two things need to happen in order to correct the situation. The first relates to training. It is massively important for the athlete to manage their training. They must stick to designated zones and avoid additional work. This takes out some of the recovery demands. The program should have a decent volume of low intensity work and a nice balance with the higher effort work. Additionally lower intensity work will improve fat utilization and body composition, something which may not occur if Glycolysis is the main energy system in use.

 

The second strategy is a little more dependent on the level of severity. If an athlete drastically under eats, they must immediately address this by increasing energy and or macronutrient intake as needed. In some cases changes can be slow as alterations in training may be enough to re-establish an adequate balance. These changes can be enough to release the brakes on their progress. It can often be met with apprehension by the individual. Training less and eating more is counterintuitive to most, but can be a simple fix.

Many of the above seem obvious and logical. It is perhaps the most common occurrence with skilled athletes who have taken a dip in form. Combine these issues with any sort of emotional stress and an over trained athlete will rapidly ensue. As a coach or an athlete it is important to think critically and logically when dealing with performance. Issues are often hidden in plain sight but ignored. Mentally tough athletes are often the hardest to manage as they suppress concerns which are quite genuine. Mature athletes are often ones who make mistakes and learn from them. They learn to recognize clues before issues occur. It is important to really learn to read the signs an individual displays. This is a skill in itself. Often a training log can be the best tool in managing your own individual performance or that of an athlete you work with. Taking time to evaluate things objectively can be more beneficial than any sort of training or dietary intervention.

 

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Warning signs of over reaching.

Dealing with a large number of athletes shows a huge amount of variation and diversity. Lifestyle and physiological factors are totally different from one athlete to another. Depending on lifestyle, an individual can have stress coming from any direction. Work, study, family, training, finance and competition are just a few of the factors that can cause stress. When an athlete trains they create stress. Normally this stress elicits a positive adaptation. An individual will recover to a point that is greater than before and they see progress. This is the basis of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) theory. If one does not recover they will not improve. If they continue to put their body under stress they will eventually begin to breakdown and see a loss of ability.

 

There are many warning signs of under-recovering. These often precede overtraining and can help one avoid getting into that situation. Overtraining, depending on the severity, can take weeks to months to reverse. That may be long enough to destroy a performance and potentially a career. It is important that an athlete be aware of the warning signs and monitor themselves to avoid overtraining. Many of these signs are well documented but others not so much. Tiredness, resting heart rate and loss of performance are the typical and most obvious indicators of over doing things. A certain amount is okay and when followed by adequate recover one can see great adaptation. Overreaching is a less severe version and can be quite beneficial when planned for appropriately. The issue is that some athletes will push the boundaries here. Some believe they are capable of more than they are and can often do themselves a disservice as a result.

 

It is extremely common for athletes to ignore tiredness and continue to build training volume. They also have a tendency to increase volume when they see a dip in performance as it is the most obvious solution to them. This creates an environment for them in which overtraining can easily occur. When monitoring for overtraining it is important to look for some less obvious signs. Some pretty common things can be used as warning signs.

1) Mood swings.

Changes in mood or personality are pretty obvious signs of stress. The term “hangry” has become a buzz word around athletes. When an athlete undereats or skips a meal they often become quite narky and sensitive. Being hungry can make some athletes appear angry. This “Hangry” state can highlight that their management of nutritional factors is poor. In addition when athletes undereat they can appear to be mildly depressed. In some cases teary and emotional athletes can highlight they simply are not eating enough to recover fully. Lightening training load and a few solid meals can produce have a massive impact on an athletes mood and personality.

Loss of motivation or being unusually moody can be a sign of fatigue

Loss of motivation or being unusually moody can be a sign of fatigue

2) Minor Illness

If an athlete is constantly coming down with common colds and “sniffles” it can be an obvious sign their body is dealing with stress. If training loads are high and they are not recovering fully the immune system becomes suppressed. Undereating for training can create this scenario pretty quickly and what is considered a common occurrence depending on time of the year may actually be a sign of things being out of balance.

3) Irregular Periods

For female athletes, particularly those in endurance sports, this can be a very obvious indicator of stress. Athletes experiencing irregular or missed periods should seek medical advice to rule out underlying conditions. In many cases high energy demands and poor nutritional management can be the cause.  Excessive stress either physically or emotionally can also be a cause. Menstruation can be an excellent indicator of overall wellbeing and balance between stress and recovery.

4) Aches and pains

Some amount of pain is normal and common for athletes training intensely. However, constant aches, pains and tightness can be a sign that they are placing the musculoskeletal system under too much stress and volume. Without adequate recovery it remains in mildly damaged state. Tension can also build up in the muscles if not allowed to recover fully. New training programs and sudden increases in volume can create a little bit of discomfort short term but if it persists it may be a sign that rest is needed.

These signs are extremely common and often pretty sensitive to training and stress induced through daily life. What is important to remember is that progress is the number one goal. If an individual does not recover then they are simply wasting time and effort. Keeping a close eye on the above factors can give them a very tight accurate control over their bodies. They can be smarter and more efficient athletes if they take advantage of these indicators and learn their bodies. Successful athletes will have a great knowledge of their body and how it reacts to lifestyle and training influences. If any athlete is concerned about anything discussed it is always wise to seek medical advice to ensure there are no underlying problems. Be aware that many ailments can give clues as to how the body is coping. In many cases they can be used to an athletes advantage when they are typically seen as a nuisance.

 

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Will cardiovascular training kill strength

One of the most poorly understood interactions in the sport and fitness world is that of cardiovascular training and strength levels. One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that cardiovascular training or “Cardio” will hinder or even reduce strength levels. In particular low intensity, high volume cardio has been touted as a strength killer.  Many will agree with this statement and anecdotally it seems to hold a lot of truth. Then we look at field athletes such as rugby players for example. Some have pretty impressive strength levels as well as excellent cardiovascular conditioning. How do they achieve this if the training methods counteract each other? In addition why do so many scientific studies with tight control and experimental design show conditioning to be improved alongside strength and power? There are similar misconceptions of strength in the endurance world. Endurance athletes believe strength training makes them slow and bulky.  How can so much confusion and mixed opinions exist in this.

 

The answer all comes down to one simple factor -Load! When we use the term load we are not referring to load as a weight, we refer to it as external stress. In this case the stress is training volume or overall training load. Typically cardiovascular training, especially the low intensity variety, is done in high volume to have effect.  Large volumes of training have high energy demands. These demands can be hard to meet nutritionally. In addition to this, large volumes of training can accumulate considerable microtrauma and damage to muscle cells. In practical terms there is an accumulation of fatigue.

 

If one wishes to increase or maintain strength levels one must train to the upper limits of one’s current ability. The neuromuscular system improves when its current capacity is placed under higher demands than it is capable of meeting. Over time and consistent stimulus it responds and adapts becoming more efficient. This is the basis of a strength program. Progressive overload is the simplest mechanism for adaptation.

 

An athlete must lift enough to elicit adaptation and increase strength.

An athlete must lift enough to elicit adaptation and increase strength.

When we train while fatigued it has obvious implications for what can be achieved. One will simply not be able to reach a level of intensity that would be considered maximal or required for any real stimulus. In short we cannot train hard enough to push our limits. With the result that the mechanism of progressive overload is never achieved as we remain well within our limits. Not being able to train maximally or at our upper limits will make it extremely difficult to see any improvements in absolute strength. In addition, prolonged periods of training in which we fail to reach intensity will result in detraining. If we don’t use it we lose it. We can lose strength as we don’t really get to the point where it is stressed.

 

Large volumes of cardio training take up a lot of time in our schedules. Larger volumes have been shown to be very effective in terms of improving cardiovascular conditioning. The issue is allowing enough time in a week to complete cardio, recover and then train strength. If it is not scheduled carefully there is bound to be latent fatigue when going into the subsequent training sessions. This is where issues arise and cardio begins to have a negative impact on overall training effectiveness.

 

Another argument is that physiologically the adaptations of cardio training counteract those of strength training. This is usually the argument used to explain why cardio kills strength. In reality the structural adaptations are largely defined by genetics. Smaller people tend to suit endurance sports just like larger individuals are suited to power type sports. Yes there is some influence of training but generally speaking we naturally sort into the sports we are suited to at a young age. Our size will influence our success in a given sport and there’s not much an individual can do about it. Larger people can be very well trained cardiovascularly but must move more mass and therefore tend to be slower as a result. Likewise smaller endurance athletes can be very strong pound for pound but will simply lack the mass to shift heavier weights. This is a major reason for weight categories in strength sports such as weightlifting.

Successful distance runners are physiologically suited for the sport. They have lighter rangier frames. Perfect for covering distance efficiently.

Successful distance runners are physiologically suited for the sport. They have lighter rangier frames. Perfect for covering distance efficiently.

 

In short genetically we are predisposed to certain characteristics which fool us into thinking the type of training we do is the reason for our abilities or weaknesses.  When looking at concurrent training the main factor that influences our improvements is fatigue. If training is carefully planned and one does not overtrain a capability or underecover from sessions, we can improve both simultaneously. Looking practically it is a lot easier to focus on one or the other but this is not always a possibility.

 

The point of the article is to highlight the fact that one can train strength and cardio simultaneously and see improvements in both. Strength can go unhindered and endurance can be improved with increases in strength. Poor understanding of the relationship between the two has led many individuals to neglect their conditioning in favor of strength or vice versa. When planning a training program one should consider the length of time it takes to recover from different training types. Progress will be ensured if one considers the differing timescales of recovery and appropriate training stimulus needed to promote adaptation. When this is accounted for concurrent improvements in both strength and cardiovascular conditioning are very achievable.

 

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Building a Big’Ole Bench

The bench press is one of the most common exercises in the gym. It was once the most popular lift that could be done. Recently it has become a victim to trends; what is old and mainstream tends to get cast aside and vilified. Now many coaches will be of the opinion that having big bench numbers will not make you a better athlete. I say that anything that increases overall strength in any movement is useful to any athlete. While not critical it is certainly something worth having. The bench press is still one of the best upper body compound movements there is.

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

While the bench press may seem relatively simple, it is often performed pretty poorly. Before you start working on building up your bench press have a look at any of Dave Tate’s bench press videos. His technique description is about as good as it gets. It is simple and gets you in the ballpark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QnwAoesJvQ

From my point of view there are two key parts.

 1) Build a solid base: Jam your feet into the floor and your shoulders into the bench. Make sure you keep your head down too. If you are rock solid on the bench then when the weight becomes a struggle every bit of energy will move the bar rather than squirming you’re body around. Feet flailing in the air will never help you get force through the bar. Being solid allows for all your effort to be transferred to the bar. It is also a lot safer than being unstable.

A good stable base and keeping the elbows tight to the body makes this lift much more effective.

A good stable base and keeping the elbows tight to the body makes this lift much more effective.

 2) Keep the elbows tucked. This means elbows closer to the body which will result in the bar a bit lower on the chest at the bottom position. While this helps keep forces moving through the shoulder in a much safer way, it also helps with the first point. Wide elbows when on the bench tend to result in the chest compressing towards the bench. The shoulders then protract slightly as the athlete begins to struggle. They then begin to wiggle and one arm inevitably shoots up in an awkward path and the bar goes in every direction but up. Not the most scientific explanation but very common when novice lifters begin to fail. Failing to keep the elbows tucked can be a result of scapular instability as well. Maintaining some scapular and upper back strength exercises are a great supplement to pressing movements.

In terms of reps and sets, it depends on the goal. Generally speaking some initial volume work is great to build up musculature and help ingrain the movement pattern. For increasing strength, back off sets work wonders for bench press. After you follow a basic starting strength program this can really take things to the next level. 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler would be my suggestion for anyone starting strength. It is simple, effective and works even with the most experienced lifters. https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/531-how-to-build-pure-strengthTo work back off sets effectively, I suggest working up gradually to max set of 2 repetitions. These should be comfortable reps with no slow grinding lockouts. It will be approximately 90% of max or slightly below. Then simply complete a couple of sets of slightly higher reps at a lighter weight.

A session might look like this: (Example 1RM of 100kg)

Work up to a heavy double

Bar X5

60kg X5 reps

75kg X3 reps

80kg X3 reps

85kg X2 reps

88kg X2 reps

89kg X2 reps

Then calculate your working percentage (This example taking 75%)

Complete two sets of 6 at 75%

There is quite a large amount of activation of motor units when working up to a heavy double. When you back off the weight feels light. You can really explode off the chest with each rep. This does wonders for training the neural aspect of strength without overloading the joints too much. Reps are quicker and smoother which is exactly how you want to train. I have used this method several times with many different athletes and without a doubt it is the most effective method for rapidly increasing bench press numbers.

There are many tools to do many jobs. The bench press is a great tool in building upper body strength and power. Use it safely and effectively to increase the potential of you or your athletes performance.

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Recovery Review: Cryospa!

I recently had the opportunity to have a session in a Cryospa. Cold therapy is nothing new. It is perhaps the most utilized method of recovery in one form or another. Ice baths and ice packs have been used for decades to treat minor and acute injury and help athletes recover from tough sessions. There are now much more advanced forms of cold therapy commercially available. We have many new tools such as cold compression/pump garments and cryospas. The cryospa is very much like an ice bath except it has integrated water jets. This allows for a steady flow of cold water around the body. In the past the water adjacent to the skin would warm up a little with body heat. While a very small factor, this has now been overcome. In addition these jets help add a massage effect into the mix.

First a little theory behind cold therapy. The main mechanism is thought to be vasoconstriction. In reaction to cold stimulus our body constricts blood vessels to reduce blood flow to cold regions of the body. It redirects blood flow through vasodilation back to the core to help maintain core body temperature by reducing the blood’s exposure to cooler temperature. Doing this is thought to help reduce swelling around injuries and also force metabolites in the blood produced from heavy exercise away from the muscle. It is also thought that once the cooled areas begin to warm blood flow is increased as constriction ceases. It is theorized that this returning blood from the body’s core and organs is oxygenated and carries a fresh supply of nutrients to help aid recovery. For this reason cold is often used in conjunction with heat which has the opposite effect of promoting bloodflow.

Cooling the body is thought to help switch the body from sympathetic to parasympathetic. In short it goes from fight mode to rest mode. This should help athletes to relax and sleep after exercise. It will also allow digestion to become more efficient helping refuel the body. This downregulation of the body’s nervous system can be very important in the recovery from exercise as this is when adaptation is most likely to occur.

Ice Baths are one of the most popular forms of recovery.

Ice Baths are one of the most popular forms of recovery.

While there are some solid theories and evidence behind the use of cold therapy there is also some conflicting research. Some argue that cold therapy may interfere with the body’s natural recovery mechanisms. This review will not become a critical analysis but it is important to note there is some valid disagreement in the literature.

In order to get the most out of the session I decided from my own knowledge and opinion that it was muscle soreness I wanted to examine. Soreness from training or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is extremely common in athletes. In the days prior to the session I decided I would try and induce as much DOMS as possible so I could see how the cryopsa helped reverse or reduce it. I did the things I know cause soreness for me and it was not a schedule I would recommend to anyone. It was designed purely to enduce soreness and not for any training benefit. My training looked like the following.

Day 1- Lower body strength training (Focus on Intensity)

            5X5 Heavy deadlift @85%approx with 2-3 minute rest

            3X 15 Split squat supersetted with Walking lunges with 1 minute rest

            3X Rounds of 5 reps Front squat @50%, 10 Jump squats, 15 bodyweight squats with 1min rest

Day 2- Sprint intervals

            10X 20m sprint walk return rest

            5X 200m with two minute rest

Day 3- 60minute TT cycle with hills.

I was sore after day one but day two and three really built upon that initial session. After the cycle on day 3 my legs felt dead and aching. I felt tight and my glutes and quads had definite soreness moving around. Range of motion was also quite poor due to the tightness. On the afternoon of Day 3 I had my session in the spa.

The spa itself can be filled with epsom salts and magnesium which are also thought to help increase rates of recovery. I was given little neoprene booties to keep my toes from going numb. The water temperature was 4°C. Stepping into the spa was pretty unpleasant as expected. I felt winded and wanted out. This died down after a minute. I was submerged up to waist level but it can also be done with only ankle and knee submersion or all the way up to the shoulders. The whole cycle lasted 10minutes with the jets on full blast. The jets definitely made it feel colder than a standard DIY ice bath.

The spa was pretty user friendly despite the initial shock getting in.

The spa was pretty user friendly despite the initial shock getting in.

When I left the spa my legs were cold and a little numb. As the heat came back into them they definitely felt fresher than when I walked in. Over the course of the day as they heated back up I didn’t really notice any major soreness which was different to before I completed the session. It almost felt like the cycle session was removed from my week in terms of it’s after effects. The dull throb and deadness was gone from my legs and I felt a bit freer moving around. I did feel a little stiff still and there was still a bit of soreness but not quite as bad as before. I would love to have done some performance measure but there is plenty of literature out there and I wasn’t looking to do a full experiment. This was to satisfy my own thoughts and curiosity.

Legs were pretty numb leaving the spa but quickly warmed up.

Legs were pretty numb leaving the spa but quickly warmed up.

The bottom line is I have some doubts on cold therapy as with most things. In saying that I genuinely felt the spa session took an edge off my soreness. If I had full access I would definitely utilize it on a regular basis. This is a very subjective opinion but one cannot discredit the mental impact of recovery. If an athlete feels better and fresher regardless of their actual physiological recovery it is a major benefit.

Different things work for different people and there are tools and methods I simply find useless. The Cryospa is not one of those. I highly recommend trying it or something similar. See how you feel and if it works for you. A lot of being an experienced athlete is trial and error and simply learning your body. A certain amount of individual experimentation is necessary to do so.

I would like to thank Bodyright Physiotherapy (http://bodyrightphysio.ie) and Cet Cryospas (http://www.cetcryospas.com) for the opportunity to try something new. I hope some of those who read this may find my experience useful to them and encourage them to experiment with things for themselves.

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The 2 building blocks of a successful program

As we enter the summer season many athletes will now also be entering an important training phase. For most team sports we enter the offseason and for other track and field athletes it is the beginning of competition season. In both cases this time of year is extremely important for athletes. An offseason can make or break many athletes. Often the pressure and excitement can distract athletes from the real goal. Progress is always key when it comes to training. Without progress there’s not much point training.

In terms of physical development progress comes in the form of adaptation. When we train, the body is placed under stress which we must adapt to if we want to survive it. Some adaptation takes more time than others and this must be factored in. For that reason most athletes tend to leave big goals for the offseason where they have time to work on things without needing to focus on competition. The two critical components to a training program are consistency and recovery. Both tend to be taken pretty lightly. Everyone plans to be consistent and most people think they recover, but what does that really look like on the ground?

Consistency is a word kicked around a lot by coaches and it always seems to come with a motivational talk paired with team commitment. No doubt they are also important but often they cloud the issue. When I think consistency I think frequency and volume. Is the athlete training enough to support adaptation towards their goal. In some cases this may mean training twice a day and in others maybe once or twice per week. If an athlete fails to complete the required frequency then he will lose his consistency. Not only in attendance but also in progress. This may be due to hectic schedules or motivation. Consistency is the driving force of adaptation and it must be explained in a more practical way. The frequency and volume of training must reflect the training goals. This doesn’t always mean training every available minute but this is often how it is interpreted.

Consistency also blends into recovery. Recovery means reversing the loss in performance associated with the fatigue induced by training stress. The simplest forms are sleep and nutrition. Then there are a wide range of techniques all aimed at different mechanisms in the body. We need to be concerned with those aiding and promoting the adaptive process. For this reason an athlete must look at their goals for the answer. Hypertrophy is the simplest example. If an athlete wishes to increase muscle mass he must support this with adequate nutrition. Without adequate protein and energy intake growth will not occur. He can foam roll and ice bath all day long but without adequate nutrition his efforts will be in vain. The recovery must match the process.

When you combine consistency and recovery the body will display a trend. If you have trained with adequate frequency and recovered appropriately then there will be significant adaptation. If the program is suitable to the goal then you will have progress towards it. Consistency develops this trend and the trend is what delivers the results.

fitness

Most of this will appear obvious but can be the downfall of many programs. Highly motivated individuals can overthink the process. They can do too much and take too many techniques into consideration without actually taking care of the process at hand. The best programs and often the best athletes are the ones with the simplest approach. The simpler something is, the harder it is to get wrong. If you make your program something simple enough to be followed, and put in place a recovery protocol that is simple enough to do the job repeatedly, then it’s difficult to go wrong. Making small steady progress is often more beneficial than large sporadic jumps in performance.

The take away message is to start small. Make things simple and get them right. Watch the progress and slowly add and build techniques to suit you and your program. Don’t be fooled by the latest trends and don’t get over excited. Be simple, repeatable and realistic. Over time the adaptations accumulate and before you know you’ve separated yourself from many of your peers.

 

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Train smart! Auto regulating your training

For most of us when we train we use a predetermined load to dictate intensity. For endurance type training we may use split times or wattages. Strength athletes may use % of 1 rep max (1RM) This all ensures we are working within the desired ranges to get the most progress. As technology becomes more accessible we are relying on the numbers from our training more and more. This is partly because our scientific knowledge is improving and partly because we are now quite a tech savy society who like gadgets and gizmos. For the most part it is good that we can organize and be more accurate with our training.

Human nature often takes us to the extreme. The numbers can become a dictator rather than a guide. Many athletes become bogged down in the numbers. If they fail to hit a certain target on a given day the session is a disaster. This can do strange things for motivation. Some may become despondent and others become frantic in making up for failure. A panicked athlete tends to make strange moves and this can have a detrimental effect on the overall plan.

Something we all need to remember is our training status. This is also referred to as readiness to train. In many cases the pre determined numbers don’t consider this. In some cases they do. If our percentages are based on our best performances then we are comparing ourselves to us at our 100% best. This can create issues. For example if we lose sleep or have exams or any sort of emotional stress our body will not be at 100%. Dehydration, hot weather, cold weather, missing a meal or even the wrong shoes can impact on performance. Our targets on paper may not take this into consideration. Many determined athletes may force a performance in training as a result. This has some major implications for performance and recovery down the line.

In order to avoid such a scenario from occurring an athlete may incorporate some form of auto-regulatory management of training. This basically ensures that the athlete alters load based on readiness to train.

Endurance

In endurance sports many athletes work off wattage based on physiological testing conducted prior to their training block. Both wattages and Heart rate (HR) are normally measured during these tests. The great thing about HR is that it reflects readiness to train. HR variability is a good indicator of fatigue. Higher resting HR suggests greater fatigue or an incomplete level of recovery. An elevated HR will also be present during training. So for any given load or wattage the HR will be elevated. If the athlete used HR as the determinant of training load he might still cycle at 40% of HR max but the wattage may be lower than an optimal 40%. This does not matter as the athlete is at 40% capacity for that given day. If that’s his plan for the day then he will achieve the same thing without exceeding recovery. If an athlete only used wattage he may force his body to reach a wattage but his heart rate may increase to 60% and exceed daily prescriptions. If he does this regularly he or she will be following a different program than originally planned. They will actually be training out of their zones. For that reason many athletes may want to use HR to dictate training load and monitor wattage or split times as a means of feedback on performance.

Heart rate based training is quite effective and may be more beneficial in the long term to reduce overtraining.

Heart rate based training is quite effective and may be more beneficial in the long term to avoid overtraining.

Strength

Strength athletes are just as susceptible to these issues. Normally strength athletes train based on 1RM which may be tested at monthly intervals. While this is a very practical and largely successful method, some advanced athletes may run into problems. We can see that for team sport athletes weekly competition makes percentage based training very problematic as weekly loads vary massively. Again mundane things like work schedules, study and diet can also impact our daily readiness to train. It is extremely difficult to control all factors involved. 80% today may be more like 90% tomorrow. For the tech orientated individual something like a Gymaware or Tendo unit may be a good idea. There are good guidelines available which can be used to monitor the speed of the barbell. This can be used to keep you within the ranges acceptable for your goals. It will also take into consideration how you lift on that given day. As long as you are within speed ranges you avoid exceeding your training intensity.

Another less scientific method is using a daily training max. On a given day you may work up to a 1RM for a given lift. This would not necessarily be a true 1RM but something that can be achieved without needing to get fired up, or creating any substantial fatigue. Some may put a time cap on establishing this 1RM, for example 10mins to establish 1RM. The athlete would then perform working sets based on a percentage of this daily 1RM. This can be a very effective way for an athlete to train without any additional technology.

Regulation of training intensity is very important for an athlete. Most athletes now understand that training smart is as important as training hard. While we don’t want to go overboard with the concerns around our training we do want to give ourselves the best possible chances to progress. After all that is why we train. A good coach should be looking to factor in methods of both monitoring and prescribing appropriate loads for training. It is quite easy to push an athlete; it does not necessarily mean that you are improving them. Experiment to see what is practical and effective for your athletes and training. Always remember consistent progress is the real goal!

 

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Exercise performance in the heat!

As it is coming closer to the summer months here in the Northern Hemisphere, now is a good time to discuss how heat influences performance. Paula Radcliffe is possibly the greatest example of heat stress and performance. Her race at the Athens 2004 Olympic games was a disaster. She blamed the extreme heat for her lack of performance at a period where she appeared to be in great racing form. Heat exhaustion also claimed several top athletes at the 2015 Crossfit Games. It is an often overlooked and significant concern for many athletes.

As we exercise, the by-product of metabolism is heat. This heat production raises our body temperature. Our body tries to maintain a range between approximately 36-37°C. It has several mechanisms to do this including sweating and directing blood flow to the surface of the skin. This helps dissipate heat through evaporation. If temperature rises above this range, safety mechanisms in the form of temperature sensors in the body will intervene. Your body will actively try to reduce its activity in an effort to slow you down to the point at which it can get temperature level back under control.

In terms of endurance, cardiac output is a major determinant of exercise performance. If we sweat, the water in our blood plasma is reduced. Cardiac output will reduce and endurance performance will be diminished. For this reason we try to maintain our hydration as best as possible. The hotter the ambient conditions the more we need to drink to replace lost fluid and maintain our performance capacity. If we drink large amounts of water and sweat a lot, we run the risk of excreting a lot of salts which are in sweat. If we do not maintain a salt/water balance we can start to experience cramping in the muscles. Often athletes drink until urine has a very light yellow colour. This is generally a pretty accepted method of monitoring your hydration. However, if we do not replace salts we can achieve light coloured urine relatively quickly but without properly reaching hydrated status. In the case of extreme heat and sweat adding a hydration tablet or isotonic fluid is beneficial. It not only replaces salts but can help rehydrate as fluid is absorbed more efficiently when it has isotonic concentrations of electrolytes.

An important factor to consider in the heat is the relative humidity. Humid conditions are much harder to cool down in as sweat and evaporation are not nearly as efficient. It is also good to consider the fact that in dry conditions sweat may not be as noticeable as evaporation is quite rapid. In both cases we can lose a lot more sweat than we think. As fluid loss is so detrimental to performance it is essential to maintain a strategy of drinking and staying hydrated and be aware of the conditions.

In terms of warming up, an increase in body temperature is extremely beneficial to muscular contractility. If our temperature is too high though it will have a very negative effect. In extreme heat remaining cool may be more important than increasing temperature before a race. It is even more important to manage heat during competition especially in longer events. Wearing light coloured, light material clothing can help reduce heat from the sun. Precooling using a cooling jacket, cold drinks or dampening your clothes can also help keep body temperatures down in hot conditionings. Overheating during a long race can have disastrous effects. In Paula Radcliffe’s case it was likely her extensive warm-up in the heat raised her temperature to a point where she could no longer manage optimal temperature when the race started-Something which would not have been an issue racing elsewhere.

 

Heat exhaustion can creep up on you and put an early end to your competition. It can also be extremely dangerous.

Heat exhaustion can creep up on you and put an early end to your competition. In can also be extremely dangerous.

It is rare that many athletes experience truly extreme heat as many event organizers take safety into consideration. However, sometimes we compete in foreign regions and some athletes are more accustomed to hot temperatures than others. The heat can have a very significant impact on performance. It is essential that athletes always consider the competition environment and have strategies that allow them to be at their best. It is always good to be prepared. Always bring a cap and light coloured shirt to competitions. Sunscreen and water are essential to a competition kitbag. Conditions can change fast and the simplest forms of preparation can make all the difference.

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