First off, I am not a dietician, nutritionist or even self proclaimed food guru. There are plenty of folk out there willing to preach about what you should and should not eat but that’s not my area. I am purely going to focus on the role of carbohydrate in sporting performance. Quite recently there has been large debate over carbohydrate in our diets. The “Health and Fitness revolution” has given rise to an enormous amount of conflicting information. People very easily fall for the latest fitness trends in search of the magic pill! The role of carbohydrate in human performance is pretty simple, it is fuel! Lately we have seen a large amount of athletes at the performance lab attempting to eat paleo. While I don’t have an issue with the paleo concept we have noticed that their diet, while rich in fruit and vegetables, is still generally quite low in carbohydrate as a nutrient. Paleo foods tend not to be very carb dense in comparison to other sources which they have now eliminated from their diet. As a result their performance tends to suffer somewhat. Dr. Loren Cordain one of the founders of the paleo diet concept also states this concern quite clearly in his work. We go to great lengths, explaining to athletes why carbohydrates are so important in their diet. That will be the focus of this post.
As most of you are aware the body uses three main energy systems. Glycolysis is the system which deals with carbohydrate as it uses glucose to generate ATP. At low intensity exercise the oxidative (Aerobic) system is most active. At increasing intensity larger motor units become active. These motor units tend to be glycolytic in nature (Anaerobic). These consume glucose which is sourced either from the bloodstream or stores known as glycogen. Once glucose and glycogen stores are depleted higher intensity cannot be maintained. This translates to a reduction in power output and speed. It is therefore important that an athlete has an adequate amount of glycogen stored prior to competition to maintain performance. Athletes will try to develop their oxidative system in an attempt to preserve glycolytic fuel stores. Fat stores contain more energy. The longer they can run on fat for energy the less glycogen they will use. The mistake people make is in thinking there is a distinct switch between fuels and energy systems. This is not the case. At all times all three systems are active but one will be more dominant. For this reason all systems must be considered in terms of diet and training. The nature of their sport will influence the nature of an athletes metabolism.
Image: rugby world cup 2011 NEW ZEALAND ARGENTINA by Jeanfrancois Beausejour
The level of intensity varies greatly in team sports. Depending on position there can be an extremely varied utilisation of one energy system or another. Glycolysis is however generally very active throughout game scenarios in team sports. Numerous studies have examined carbohydrate supplementation during a games. The supplementation groups showed a better maintenance of speeds and a greater distance covered in the later stages of a game than the non supplementation groups. In addition to this other studies have shown in soccer that better performing teams cover larger distances per game than poorer performing teams of the same league. It is pretty clear that carbohydrate is quite an important factor in performance.
Photo Chris McCormack https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
Endurance sports are a little more interesting as the success of an endurance athlete is heavily related to fuel management and efficiency. A successful endurance athlete will dedicate a large amount of training time aimed at increasing oxidative capacity. This allows them to stay aerobic for longer essentially preserving glycogen. They aim to be as effective as possible at utilising fat metabolism. This will allow them to save glycogen for periods where they need to call on larger motor units. In short they try to use glycolysis only when they need to maintain a higher pace. The length of their event will determine the pace they wish to maintain and therefore the reliance on glycolysis and carbohydrate as a fuel source.
I will not mention individual foods or diets as I think that is mostly down to individual preference. The point I want to stress is that carbohydrate plays a very important role in performance for nearly all sports. It is important for an athlete to understand that role and not neglect it. They must choose a nutritional strategy that best suits the requirements of their given sport. At the end of the day their performance will reflect wether their diet is good for them or not!
Also referred to as a PAP response, Post Activation Potentiation has been a tool in an athletes training arsenal for decades. The basic theory is that if you lift a heavy weight you can perform a more explosive contraction soon after. So for example you might do a heavy double on back squat. Immediately after you may do box jumps or something similar and exceed expected performance. The underlying mechanism explaining this is actually quite simple. When you perform a heavy lift or contraction you must activate larger motor units to produce a more forceful contraction. These larger motor units are often referred to as type 2 muscle fibers. These fibers are generally larger and have greater capacity to produce force than smaller fibers. When activated they become slightly more sensitive to further activation for a short period of time after. When you go to perform the next contraction it will be relatively easier to produce force as these motor units are “excited”. Due to changes in sensitivity, the rate of contraction may also be significantly improved. This allows for a better power production overall.
Not a bad example to show. Big lift allows for a big jump! Photo: Hookgrip at www.hookgrip.com
Not only can this PAP response be useful for improving power, it can also help improve strength endurance. I use the term endurance loosely there. It may allow you to perform more reps at sub-maximal loads without directly influencing fatiguing factors. For example, max repetition bench press is a common test used by many contact sport teams used during team physical testing. One or two singles close to max effort prior to the test can in fact improve the result. This is provided that the athlete does not go overboard and induce fatigue prior to the test. Often the athletes state that the weight initially feels lighter in comparison to a standard work up, warm up protocol. The PAP response can also be used in a hypertrophy program where back off or drop sets are being utilised. This is quite simply due to larger motor units being pre-activated, making a more effective use of available motor units, resulting in an improved performance. Larger volume in terms of weight lifted per session translates well into these types of programs.
While this is not a new concept or theory, the underlying mechanism is often overlooked and therefore under utilised. It is quite an effective tool and one which I have seen positive results from. Having an understanding of this concept allows a coach to be a little more creative in finding ways to help an athlete reach their potential.
This post may be a little controversial amongst endurance athletes but it is an important topic. Any serious endurance athlete will have a training plan. This plan will generally use heart rate or wattage as the variable around which they structure their training sessions. In recent years wattage has become a very popular training variable. It relates more directly to actual speed and performance than heart rate. Team Sky Cycling highlighted the importance of accurate data in their training program and heavily relied on wattage during their Tour De France preparation. It can be very successfully used to build an effective endurance training program. For this reason there has been a big shift towards Watt training and away form the traditional heart rate zone style training. Heart rate data has now become a bit of an optional add on for analysis rather than a training variable, especially with more tech orientated athletes.
While watt training for sure has its merits it also comes with an often overlooked disadvantage. The sessions’ power output targets are pre determined post fitness testing. The athlete knows exactly what wattage needs to be achieved and maintained per session in their plan. The sole focus is to stick strictly to these wattage prescriptions. The issue is that watt training does not factor in readiness to train or physical state. For example an athlete may have a poor nights sleep or be particularly stressed due to some lifestyle factor like work etc. he may even be fatigued from a previous training session. When this athlete comes to their training they might struggle to maintain the prescribed wattage but force themselves to be strict. This can result in a much higher level of stress or intensity than intended when their program was designed. Too many forced sessions can result in overreaching and eventually overtraining. It can also be mentality hard on an athlete to realise they cannot keep up with their training. Things can quickly become counterproductive.
While heart rate does not translate as well into speed or power outputs it is auto-regulatory. This means if you are fatigued, stressed or sick heart rate will reflect this. Heart rate will be generally higher and so you will reach the desired zone with less work. If you use heart rate zones as your training variable things are automatically factored in. In a fatigued state you may achieve the desired HR and duration prescribed but the performance might appear to be poor. In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. You are still getting time at the intended intensity and your recovery can cope, avoiding any overtraining type scenario. Over the long term this is actually more productive in terms of physiological improvement and mental state.
While I’m not trying to put people off using wattage for training I think it is important to highlight the issue. If you choose to use watts over heart rate you must be diligent in assessing your training state. You must accept that sessions need to be flexible to account for external factors that wattage on its own will ignore. As with any program following blindly is never a smart approach. There are many factors which can influence performance and success will always be a balancing act.
An issue I have encountered with younger athletes is the issue of bar speed during lifts. Typically younger athletes that I’ve worked with have come from school sports. In some cases these school teams have an organised lifting program attached. Most of these programs centre primarily around the weight lifted. This causes a slight problem as from the very onset of training these athletes create a mindset where weight on the bar is all that matters. As long as the weight increases when moving the bar from A to B, they are progressing.
I have a fair amount of “Dynamic” or “Power” work in the programs I set. I think it’s obvious that athletes benefit from speed work as well as strength work. The issue arises during these sessions. I’ll use the power clean as an example. Many of the athletes I work with believed that as long as they get the bar from floor to the front rack position it is a successful clean. Luckily they understand for the most part that this should be a smooth and fluid motion and rarely do I find them in compromising positions. However, bar speed was often compromised. As long as the bar is heavier they believe that they are improving. At times these lifts become a slow heave to move the weight, accompanied by a massive spread of the feet to get into the catch position. I believe this acquired technique is the product of simply trying to shift weight.
I spend a lot of time detraining this mentality. At times the purpose of certain exercises in our program is to build power and speed. They should therefore be done as fast as possible even if that means decreasing the load. I leave the strength work to the core lifts like Squats and deadlifts etc. When we do power work I want their mentality to be focused on speed and explosiveness and a precise and swift movement. When we incorporated banded bench press into the program I think the athletes realised that a lift which they typically considered a “How much do you lift” exercise, could be utilised very differently.
After a few months we now squat and bench press at near maximal loads weekly, as well as incorporate their more dynamic variations successfully. I was happy to be able to change their way of thinking when it comes to bar speed and purpose of the lift. It’s great to now hear feedback on how lifting more quickly and more explosively has helped some very strong players become quicker on the pitch.
I heard a really good quote recently from rising UFC star Conor McGregor. He said “Everything does work. There’s a time and a place for every single move”. I think this really applies to training and human performance. I regularly see trainers and coaches making sensational claims about different training techniques and simultaneously bashing others. I think it really reflects a poor understanding of human physiology when these types of claims are made. From my experience every technique or protocol is beneficial in its own way. The trick is to know what works when, and why.
The body responds accordingly to any stress it’s placed under. How it responds varies greatly from one thing to another. A perfect example for training protocols is the LSD vs. HIIT debate. The recent consensus is that HIIT is far more effective in promoting cardiovascular endurance and that LSD is a waste of time. What may take three hours of slow jogging can be achieved in minutes with hard sprints, making LSD totally redundant. HIIT has been proven to be an effective training tool but so too has LSD on numerous occasions. Both methods create different physiological impacts which cause adaptations, which in time lead to improvements in overall performance. Despite this, LSD has taken a huge amount of criticism in recent years. The same goes for several other training techniques.
The worst possible approach we can take is to think that there is a black and white in terms of training. There are so many complexities in the way our body functions that we cannot possibly assume to understand it fully. We need to accept every concept, every theory and every idea. We don’t necessarily need to act on them all but we must at least consider them.
Part of the reason I became so interested in human physiology was because of the endless ways in which we can make improvements to performance. I felt that by understanding and studying human physiology I could make the best use of the vast amount of training techniques to achieve a goal. So McGregor’s quote is something I’m pretty fond of. I believe there is a time and place for every technique and by learning more about how our bodies function we can utilise an appropriate strategy to achieve the desired result.
My name is Ross Hamilton. After completing my Bachelors Degree in Natural Science (TCD), I began sailing competitively full-time in the Olympic class Finn dinghy. I narrowly missed qualification for the London 2012 Olympics, and have represented Ireland at 3 World Championships, Olympic Qualifiers, and many World Cup events.
I have been involved in many sports over the years, including Swimming, Rowing, Rugby, Weightlifting, Athletics and of course Sailing. I have always had a strong interest in human performance and development which grew as I worked toward achieving my own performance goals. After my campaign for the London Olympics, I began my Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology to explore this subject in more depth.
Having decided to cease competing at the international level, I turned my attention to using my expertise and knowledge to help other athletes like myself to achieve their performance goals. This confirmed my interest in working not only in my own sport but in many others and at various levels. The challenge in problem solving for different scenarios keeps me extremely motivated.
The focus of my study and work is as both a Sports Scientist and Strength & Conditioning coach. I believe that a theoretical and scientific foundation combined with practical application in a real world setting allows for an effective approach to achieving optimal performance in athletes.
I am currently an S&C coach working with Dublin University Football club (Trinity Rugby), Bray Wanderers F.C and several other international and Olympic level athletes in a range of sports.