Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Science of Hiking

Photo credit: Robert Deaves

Photo credit: Robert Deaves

Hiking is perhaps one of the most miserable sensations in sailing. It is absolutely necessary to hike in order to maintain good boat speed. The trade off is that to achieve decent boat speed you must endure a lot of pain. Over the years I have heard many explanations for this excruciating burning sensation in the legs. I have also heard many training methods to improve hiking endurance. Scattered throughout all this, there have been many inaccurate explanations and absurd suggestions on how to deal with hiking. Hopefully this article will clear up some confusion and give an insight into how our body deals with hiking.

Hiking involves several major muscle groups. Quadriceps, glutes, spinae erectors and abdominal muscles are all heavily involved. We often refer to hiking as an isometric contraction. This is a little inaccurate. Isometric contraction involves an application of force through the contraction of a muscle which is at a fixed length. In actual fact there are gradual and slight changes to the length of the muscles during hiking making it more quasi-isometric in nature. The process of fatigue however, remains the same.

When we contract our muscles the blood vessels are squeezed and blood flow is restricted. During dynamic contractions there is a relaxation phase during which the blood vessels are released again. This contraction relaxation process actually promotes bloodflow. This is absent in the case of hiking as we rarely have a full relaxation phase. The restriction of bloodflow forces our muscles to generate energy for contraction through anaerobic means as oxygen is in short supply. The primary anaerobic energy system is called glycolysis. The major by-product of this is lactate. Normally muscle is activated from its low fatigue, low power type to high fatigue, high power types. These are known as type one and type two muscle fibres. Each fibre type is reliant on a different energy system; type one Oxidative and type two glycolytic. In the absence of oxygen, type two fibres must become active. Normally as type one muscle fibres fatigue, type two begin to activate and take over some of the work. During hiking we don’t really have that option as most type 2 fibres activate very early. Fatigue of this type can be witnessed by assessing surface electrical signals in the muscles by Electromyograpic (EMG) analysis. The image below shows EMG during a hiking endurance test. EMG activity increase as more muscle fibres are activated to maintain power output.

EMG trace of fatiguing leg extensor musculature. Activity increases as fatigue develops

EMG trace of fatiguing leg extensor musculature. Activity increases as fatigue develops


There are several reasons why these muscle fibres fatigue. Firstly the production and accumulation of lactate can interfere with muscle contractions. Secondly, there must be an adequate supply of energy substrate ie. glucose or glycogen. Thirdly repeated high intensity contractions damage muscle cells causing a leakage and reduced chemical gradients essential for efficient contraction. These combine to cause a reduction in sustainable force output.

The question now is how to manage this. Generally speaking larger cross-sectional muscle areas generate larger isometric force. So bigger stronger muscles will cope with loads much more efficiently. Adequate strength training is essential in order to cope with the forces required for hiking. In addition to this we must improve our ability to deliver oxygen and promote bloodflow to the working muscle. Capillarization of the muscle occurs when it is subjected to long durations under mildly ischemic conditions. For most of us we achieve this through cycling. The problem is that this process occurs over a long period of time and is quite gradual. That is why there is a need to complete many long duration cycling sessions in the offseason. It cannot be accomplished during a short training camp.

Improving the aerobic system also helps us to remove lactate and reduce the effects it has on muscle contraction. The main issue with large volumes of aerobic type training is that it induces an adaptation which is not favorable to muscle growth or strength improvement. It is essential to find a balance between the two. If we rely too heavily on aerobic conditioning we inhibit strength. The stronger we are, the relatively easier hiking becomes. If we do not have a good strength base then we will struggle even if we are well conditioned.

In addition to land based training we can have a big influence by actually going sailing. While the physiological adaptations to sailing are probably a little more modest we can gain a huge amount of technical advantages. Learning to shift tension on and off the muscle can help prolong endurance. Holding more efficient energy saving postures can also buy us time in relation to fatigue. Our tolerance for hiking is also improved. The more we train and become accustomed to certain processes the better we cope. Inhibitory sensors within the muscle can be somewhat overridden with training. In short, hiking more allows us to manage the fatigue more effectively.


Photo credit: Robert Deaves

Photo credit: Robert Deaves

Hiking is a pretty complex process. The biggest mistake is to assume that it is purely a reflection of aerobic conditioning. While aerobic conditioning will help endurance, strength and experience also have an enormous influence. The stronger the knee extensors, the easier hiking becomes and the less reliant we are on conditioning. Do not neglect strength work and likewise do not neglect aerobic training. They are both essential to hiking endurance. Travelling and lack of facilities can be detrimental to progress and maintenance of endurance. One should make sure that organized and consistent training is maintained throughout the season.


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Meal timing and frequency


We were asked by a reader to discuss meal timing and frequency, the pros cons of different strategies. There is no one definitive answer to what is better, three square meals, six spaced evenly through the day or intermittent fasting etc. It all depends. The best diet is the one which best suits your goals given your circumstances. I’ll discuss a few scenarios which may shed some light on what works best and when.

Scenario 1: Traditional Three square meals.

In this case the daily caloric and nutrient needs must be achieved through three meals. For most athletes this would mean meals would need to be quite large. Larger meals need more time to digest. If an athlete is undertaking multiple training sessions in a day the timing of these three meals may cause issues. The athlete must leave adequate time for digestion while also ensuring they are fueled for the next session. In some cases this may be possible but there would be many athletes for whom this would be impractical.

Scenario 2: Six meals spaced evenly.

In this scenario the athlete is pretty much eating before and between all sessions. This is probably more beneficial as they are fueled for activity as well as eating to recover. The smaller meals would allow faster digestion and can potentially avoid issues through choosing foods which are low in bulk or digest quickly. For high level athletes this may be difficult, as finding time to prepare and actually eat the meal could be difficult, especially in the case where an event may last several hours during a single day


Turkish weightlifter and Olympic hopeful Mete Binay, 27, poses in front of his daily meal intake in Ankara May 29, 2012. Binay is a world champion weightlifter and his daily diet is 3500 kcal. He drinks at last two glasses of milk every night. His diet is largely composed of red meat. He consumes plenty of sweet desserts everyday and takes care never to miss a full breakfast. Binay is also keen on organic food. Shortly before competitions he begins to supplement his diet with ergogenic aids and vitamin pills. Picture taken May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkish weightlifter and Olympic hopeful Mete Binay, 27, poses in front of his daily meal intake in Ankara May 29, 2012. Binay is a world champion weightlifter and his daily diet is 3500 kcal. He drinks at last two glasses of milk every night. His diet is largely composed of red meat. He consumes plenty of sweet desserts everyday and takes care never to miss a full breakfast. Binay is also keen on organic food. Shortly before competitions he begins to supplement his diet with ergogenic aids and vitamin pills. Picture taken May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

In both scenarios there are issues and benefits. Eating regularly can become a chore but leaving long periods between meals will promote hunger and cravings. From a physiological perspective foods have functions which must be considered in relation to the timing of their consumption. Carbohydrate is an essential fuel for exercise. For that reason glycogen stores must be at optimal levels when competing. In training however, exercising in a glycogen depleted state can promote fat utilization, an extremely beneficial process for an endurance athlete. Such athletes may consider low carbohydrate meals prior to some training sessions.

Protein plays a major role in recovery, so a fast digesting protein source, post training, is important to start this process. Fatty meats tend to digest slower and may want to be avoided in this case. Other micronutrients should be in good supply throughout the day.

There is no doubt that long periods without eating are problematic. They cause nutrients to be depleted and promote hunger, irritability and cravings, issues which can be major distractions for athletes. There is some debate over insulin levels and blood sugar spiking through manipulation of diet. Generally insulin promotes absorption in cells so post training these spikes are not necessarily bad as they promote recovery through rapid absorption of sugars into the cells. During rest, glycogen stores are replenished, sugar is not being burned as fuel and cannot be stored as glycogen. In this case it is stored as fat. This is not good for athletes. For this reason fast digesting carbohydrate should be limited to periods during or post training. Outside of this time slower digesting carbohydrate should be eaten.

In the case of athletes needing to lose weight there is quite a lot of debate. Does an athlete need to lose fat or general mass? In the case of fat then they could utilize some fasted low intensity training. Bear in mind training in this state will hinder performance so if an athlete is undertaking a tough session then it should not be in a fasted state. If the athlete needs to reduce overall mass then a general caloric deficit is required. Again this should impact training as little as possible and so the bulk of calories should be consumed around the training session to allow for both performance and recovery. These strategies are discussed in a previous article.

In summary, how an athlete approaches their diet depends on their goals and individual circumstances. Ideally they must arrange their diet so that they adequately meet performance and recovery needs. They must do so in a way which is both practical and sustainable. This will keep them healthy. If they must manipulate body weight and/or composition then there are added considerations. In general timing the bulk of daily carbohydrate intake around training works best. Most athletes tend to find themselves having 2-3 larger meals interspaced with several large or small snacks. Schedule will greatly dictate how you approach meal timing and frequency. Experience will show you what works best for you.


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Will bulking up slow me down? Not if you do it right!

Manu Tuilagi

This is a dilemma faced by many athletes in many sports. The debate relates to an increase in body mass and its impact on the speed of the athlete. Traditionally heavy athletes are considered slow but strong. Light athletes are considered quicker and more nimble but lack mass which is beneficial in contact. In the modern era of sport, athletes are statistically bigger and faster. It seems our traditional thinking is being proven wrong.

When we think of speed we usually are thinking of a mixture between the ability to change direction quickly and top speed. They are closely linked but not the same. Change in direction involves both deceleration and acceleration. Top speed is more a case of overcoming braking or decelerative forces. In both examples the rate of force development is key. The more force one can produce the more they displace their mass, the more they move. Strength is required to produce force but also to control deceleration. Stride rate has been shown to have little impact on top end speed. Stride length however, has a great impact.

Athlete’s strength levels tend to have a narrower range than their bodyweight. This means that lighter athletes will tend to have a better relative strength to weight ratio. This generally translates into them being quicker. In recent years, bigger athletes have begun to demonstrate similar levels of speed and agility. They also show greater strength levels. One important factor in strength to weight ratio is lean body mass. Bodyfat contributes little to the generation of force yet will contribute significantly to decelerative forces. Therefore excess body mass in the form of fat will have a negative impact on speed.

Gaining mass is traditionally accomplished using high volume weight training to induce muscle hypertrophy. Programs which aim purely at achieving hypertrophy tend to promote modest strength improvements. Athletes may put on extra mass over the course of a short offseason. They then feel sluggish when they return to competition. This is often because their relative strength to weight ratios have become less favorable.

In some very rare cases there is structural influence in the muscle mass which can inhibit the rate of muscle contraction. Muscle fibres contract through the sliding filament theory. This sliding of fibres creates friction. The more muscle filaments the more friction. Friction reduces rate of contraction. Rate of contraction is very important when we need to produce power. This has only been witnessed in a handful of circumstances where specific muscle groups may be overdeveloped. Track cycling is one such sport where this can occur from time to time.

Robert Forstemann, some of the biggest legs in sport

Robert Forstemann, some of the biggest legs in sport. Despite his enormous quadriceps he is still one of the fastest track sprinters in the world.

So the question is, how is it possible to increase mass and maintain functional speed on the field of play. Simply put the key factor is time. An athlete who gains mass over a longer period will be able to spend time keeping other capabilities at a relatively similar level. Speed strength and neural training can be implemented ensuring these also develop. These are key components in the rate of force production. A program which cycles between short blocks of training, gradually developing each capability will achieve the goal. This is known as periodization. An athlete could also train all three capabilities in the same training block, but would witness more modest improvements.

Most of the time losing speed when bulking up is a result of doing things too quickly. Athletes may gain 3-5kg in a three month period with little emphasis on pure strength or speed. They have the new mass but have not yet trained to carry it on the field. Often they panic and attempt to lose the weight again. This means they never have a chance to train to their new potential. This usually promotes a reluctance to attempt to increase mass in the future.

In summary gaining weight will only slow an athlete down if the weight gained is in the form of fat. Initially they may lose speed only if their rate of mass increase exceeded their rate of strength improvements. Some top sprint coaches suggest that a sprint athlete would need to be able to back squat twice bodyweight before they will reach full potential. Hypertrophy style rep schemes are also not typically associated with neural improvements. Neural training in the form of speed strength style training is essential to maintain fast rates of muscle contraction.

Obviously speed is a skill and technique in sprinting and change of direction is important. The issue is that athletes tend to want things quickly. They focus on one thing while neglecting another. Genetically we are predisposed to be big or small, fast or slow. We rarely give a whole lot of time to our weaknesses as it distracts from our strengths. If athletes are a little more patient and approach things with a patient and diligent attitude then they tend to be more successful in the long run. Many athletes do not have the technical skill mastery to reach their potential to begin with. In this case they cannot blame their body mass.



Ma’a Nonu at 100kg+ has little issues outrunning defenders significantly smaller than him.

The conclusion is that there are many aspects of increasing body mass which can have a negative influence on speed. Despite this, increased muscle mass can improve power output through increasing force production capabilities. If they support these changes with a period of speed strength and neural focus training then they should see no major loss in speed. It is difficult to achieve dramatic changes in body mass without it having an impact.

Athletes must weigh up the benefits, versus the time in which they have to make changes. At some point size will have a detrimental influence but most athletes never get close to this point. Athletes who fear that they will get slower should be assured that this is rarely the case when their training is appropriate and gradual.


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