Category Archives: Human physiology

The warm-up and performance!

A winning team or athlete will undoubtedly want to achieve two things every session. One, perform at their best for that given day and two, prevent any injury occurring. With this in mind athletes are paying more attention to their warm-up procedure as the impact of an effective warm-up has shown to play a significant role in achieving those goals. Competition tends to encourage us to find an edge or advantage over our competitors. In some cases this allows us to be innovative and improve, in others it creates distractions. The warm-up has become a monster in some cases. It is not uncommon for some teams and individuals performing excessive warm-up protocols which show more harm than benefit.

Quite recently I attended a rugby tournament and witnessed the warm-up routines of other teams. One such team’s warm-up lasted from the time we left our team bus to the kick off of our first match. A period of about 90mins. They had a wide arsenal of stretches, mobility drills and activation exercises. They also had 21 points scored against them in the first ten minutes of the game by the tournament’s wildcard entry. In my opinion they missed the point of the warm-up, which was to prepare them for the game.

An effective warm-up will prepare you for the task ahead. In order to be effective an individual or team coach must identify what they are preparing themselves for. The following will discuss the main components of a warm-up. By understanding what is needed one can structure a warm-up that is fit for their purpose.

Body temperature

This is the main priority of the warm-up. By increasing core and muscle temperature we elicit a wide range of responses which have been proven to improve performance. 1° C increase in muscle temperature from resting is associated with approximately a 4% increase in power output. The ideal temperature being approximately 37.5°C. Excess of this will likely have detrimental effects. The most effective way to increase warm-up is to perform moderate full body exercise (Approx 80% of lactate threshold) for 5-10mins depending on environmental factors. This increase should level off after approximately 15mins in normothermic conditions. Optimal muscle temperature allows for faster nerve transmission and muscle contraction.

 

Even endurance sports benefit from an effective warm-up

Even endurance sports benefit from an effective warm-up

Cardiovascular

When we begin to exercise our cardiovascular system reacts. Blood vessels dilate and constrict to direct more blood to working muscle and away from inactive muscle and organs. Increases in heart rate also allow for increased cardiac output and blood supply.

Joint mobility and flexibility

Activity and movement reduces viscosity of synovial fluid in the joints which act as a form of lubricant. In addition, stretching may be utilized to promote elasticity of muscle fibres. Some theorize that this can prepare the muscles for rapid loading and increase ranges of motion (ROM), reducing the possibility of injury. Some have argued that increased range of motion may be problematic for joint related injury depending on the nature of activity to follow. It is wise to exercise caution with the use of stretching prior to exercise. Foam rolling has also become a popular method to promote muscle elasticity and ROM. It has shown little evidence for increasing performance where ROM is not a limiting factor. Mobility drills may also be used to promote ROM but have again shown little evidence for promoting performance where issues with ROM are not present. In short unless there is tightness or an issue with mobility it is not essential.

Dynamic stretching may offer a more beneficial alternative. Basic drills can be used which closely replicate movements required during competition. Increased specificity will prepare the athlete more appropriately for their sport.

 

Stretching should be used appropriately in a warm-up routine.

Stretching should be used appropriately during a warm-up routine.

 

Post activation potentiation (PAP)

Leading on from the previous point, an effective warm-up will also provide some PAP response. This can be read about more in a previous article here https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/01/post-activation-potentiation/. Some basic ballistic style movements and dynamic stretching can provide this. It is wise to do this following the temperature increase portion of the warm-up. Some progressive bounding or jump type movements are appropriate in most cases. This may increase nervous system activity which can allow for better contractile function of the muscle. This can improve force output and reaction times.

Competition specific

Technical drills should be used to prepare the athlete mentally for the tasks they must perform. Including some technical, skill focused drills will allow for further warm-up physically which will be specific to the tasks they must perform.

 

Warm-up drills should also prepare the athlete for contact.

Warm-up drills should also prepare the athlete for contact.

 

The recommended order of warm-up should look like this.

  • Temperature ramp (Also covers cardiovascular preparation)
  • Mobility and dynamic stretching (Covers PAP response)
  • Competition specific

A full warm-up should last between 15 and 30 mins depending on the sport. It is important that the athlete’s warm-up is as efficient as possible and wastes little time. The warm-up is not the time to address mobility or flexibility issues. These should have dedicated time given to it. A warm-up is preparation for the task. I feel that far too much time is given to mobility drills and foam rolling and these have become the core of many warm-up routines. The popularity of movement as a performance variable has allowed some to go overboard and neglect other aspects of their preparation. The main priority is getting the desired increase in body temperature, especially in colder environments. It must also be noted that warm-ups should be performed as close to the event as possible and great care should be taken to maintain body temperature if there are periods between the cessation of the warm-up and the start of competition.

These are the core components of an efficient warm-up. The exact drills and procedure will depend largely on the sport itself. If your warm-up is lacking any of these components then it would be very beneficial to look at ways of adding them in. In summary a warm-up should be time efficient and fit for purpose. It should have both a general and specific portion and should always look to establish optimum body temperature. Too many mobility drills may distract the athlete from purpose and would be better placed in a training session dedicated to addressing mobility issues. It takes a little experimenting to find a balance between effort, time and effectiveness. If exercises are too intense fatigue can become an issue. It is always best to establish protocols outside competition first to avoid any issues on the day.

If you have any questions or concerns about your warm-up then do not hesitate to contact us.

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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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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.

 

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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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Supplementation and sports

The supplement industry is massive. It has also become a major component of the fitness industry. It can also be a very misleading source of information. Much like the food industry it is a business and sometimes the information available is either biased or inaccurate. This article is going to approach the subject of supplements from a physiological perspective. It will discuss the role of supplements in physiological processes and mechanisms which can influence our performance in sport. I will approach things from a mechanistic point of view and not from a dietary perspective. It will cover some of the more popular and well established supplements on the market. There are literally thousands of pills and formulas on the market. If they are not on this list then in our opinion they probably are not worth the money.

Carbohydrate supplements.

Without a doubt these work. They are very simple. They are usually made up of fast acting sugars which enter the bloodstream very rapidly. They are particularly useful in scenarios where there are prolonged bouts of high intensity exercise. They slow the rate of glycogen depletion and can provide energy substrate for glycolysis when glycogen stores are running low. They are very well supported in scientific literature and can be very convenient during exercise to prolong time to exhaustion. Not something that’s required for rest days but can be helpful in recovery.

Protein supplements.

Another well established supplement. We should all be aware of how essential protein is in the diet of any athlete. While not essesntial, protein supplements are a very convenient way to ensure adequate protein intake without taking in too much fat. Many athletes can get enough from regular foods but strength and power athletes may struggle with the volume of food required. The relatively low volume of protein shakes and bars allow athletes to avoid gastrointestinal distress while achieving desired intakes. It is also a cost effective method. We recommend a high quality whey powder from a reputable brand. There are many blends and types of protein powders but a good whey protein will cover most needs.

Creatine

Creatine has had a lot of bad press in recent years. It is our opinion that lack of education is to blame. Creatine is naturally stored intramuscularly. It provides rapid energy supply along with intramuscular ATP for sprint type activity and rapid muscle contraction. It is naturally found in many meat products. We consume approximately 3 grams of creatine per day. For many athletes supplementing with creatine allows stores to stay full. This will simply ensure that their capacity for high intensity movements is kept at optimal levels. This requires no more than 3-5grams to be taken per day. It is not uncommon to see young athletes consuming 20g and upwards daily. When used properly there is no evidence of serious side effects. Overconsumption can however, result in gastrointestinal issues and discomfort. As with most substrates in the body it is soluble in water. Like glycogen it will result in modest water retention and slight increases in bodyweight. This is not nearly as drastic as some would suggest but should be considered where body weight is important.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a well established ergogenic aid. It helps muscle contraction, mental alertness and fat utilization. Most athletes would benefit from caffeine supplementation. The major issue is that some individuals are more sensitive to it than others. In some cases people can react badly to caffeine. We recommend that it should be used in training before competition to establish tolerances. Dosage is dependent on individual tolerance. We can build a tolerance to caffeine so generally it is better to use it sparingly and only when needed. In cases of heart conditions or known caffeine allergies it should be avoided, and medical advice obtained.

Nitrates

Nitrates are found in many foods. The most common is Beetroot but they are also found in most vegetables and some commercial supplements are available. Nitrates can help reduce the oxygen cost of exercise and lower blood pressure. They can be beneficial in aerobic type exercise and can improve overall endurance performance. There is no evidence of side effects and there is no established recommendation for required intakes.

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Tart cherry juice (Montmorency Cherry juice)

This is a relatively novel supplement. There is relatively little research conducted on its use, but findings so far have been extremely positive. It is claimed that supplementing with this juice has potent anti-inflammatory benefits. It is claimed to have quite a significant reduction of muscle soreness. Some studies also suggest that it acts as an effective pain relief through reduction of inflammation.

Beta Alanine

Beta Alanine is a relatively new supplement and research is still a little incomplete. It is a limiting amino acid in the resynthesis of Carnosine. Carnosine acts as a lactate buffer in the muscle and helps keep intramuscular pH levels low. It can be beneficial during high intensity exercise where it may improve time to exhaustion. There is no evidence of any major side effects. Overconsumption may however, lead to tingling sensations in extremities. Recommended dosages range from 3-6 grams daily but there is little research completed on the optimal amount.

Iron supplements

These are perhaps a more overlooked supplement. They can be extremely beneficial to endurance and female athletes. Oxygen is carried by red blood cells, one of the main building blocks of which is Iron. Iron deficiencies can be common in both sexes and may have a major impact on performance. Tolerances for supplementation vary between individuals. The best natural source for iron is liver and red meat. It is recommended for endurance athletes and female athletes in particular as it can help keep performance levels optimal.

Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oils)

These are an extremely popular supplement. There are many claims as to their benefits which include mental function, Anti inflammatory properties, joint function and sports performance. Unfortunately there is very little peer reviewed scientific research showing any benefits to their supplementation. While we know fatty acids are essential for cell function, there is little evidence to show that supplementation is beneficial or necessary. A healthy diet would more than likely supply adequate amounts of these fatty acids. However, these fatty acids are predominantly found in fish, which many people dislike. In this case there may be some argument for their use but again they are unlikely to be the miracle drug they are claimed to be.

Zinc and Magnesium

ZMA is the commercial name for Zinc and Magnesium supplements. There is great debate over its effectiveness. There have been many conflicting studies conducted. The general trend is for there to be no performance benefits whatsoever. However, anecdotal evidence suggest it may help with sleep patterns which may help with recovery.

Fat Burners

We do not recommend the use of commercial fat burners. They are usually a cocktail of stimulants and substances which have shown a modest increase in metabolism or fat utilization. They will not magically burn away fat. They simply help keep metabolism slightly elevated if at all. They are a risky supplement as some ingredients can potentially be harmful.

Conclusion

Supplements can often be touted as miracle drugs. The reality is that only in some cases do they play a role in natural physiological mechanisms. Most of the time they do not directly improve performance but instead aid the mechanisms which lead to performance. For example Creatine is often associated with hypertrophy. It has no direct influence on muscle growth. It does however, allow muscle contractions to have adequate energy substrate which allows for better muscle function and endurance. This results in better strength and strength endurance. The resulting improvement in training quality can then result in improved rates of hypertrophy.

There are thousands of supplements on the market. Many have solid scientific support and evidence. Others are marketed based on weak or incomplete evidence. Unfortunately athletes and individuals under pressure or desperate to reach their potential may feel that they need every little possibility for progress. As a coach or athlete you must realize that patience is important and one must concentrate on the process rather than the goals. It is also important to note that there are many supplements and substances that are banned and harmful to health. It is essential that athletes choose reputable “drug screened” brands. Often paying a little more for quality can prevent issues later.

Recovery Tools: Active Recovery!

Recovery has become a core factor in every athlete’s training and success. There are many recovery methods which can be employed all targeting different things. Not all methods work well for everyone and people will have their favourite. This is normal as the processes of each method are slightly different. Some things will simply have a better effect on certain individuals than others. One popular and convenient method is active recovery. In terms of effect it appears to be relatively beneficial to everyone.

When we exercise we produce metabolic by-products. These by-products can interfere with muscle contractions and contribute to fatigue. While we exercise we have a system to clear these by-products and consume them. When we stop, the rate of clearance reduces and they can be left to accumulate. Eventually they will be cleared up but at a reduced rate. Some gentle exercise post training can help ensure these metabolites are cleared effectively.

When we do more intense muscle contractions where a lot of force is applied, muscle stiffness can occur. Stiffness is when the fibres fail to fully relax causing a temporary shortening of muscle fibre length. Gentle movement can help break up this tension and reduce stiffness. Active recovery can be quite effective in doing this. The submaximal contractions allow the fibres to relax back to resting tension.

Another mechanism it can influence relates to bloodflow and temperature. In order to repair damaged muscle cells after intense exercise they need a good supply of nutrients. This supply comes from the blood. Increasing bloodflow to tired muscles ensures they get a good supply. In addition increasing local muscle temperature can help the muscle fibres loosen up and restore contractile function. Gentle exercise activates the muscle pump which flushes blood through the muscle as it contracts and relaxes.

These three mechanisms have some quite favorable benefits on getting back to top performance in a short period of time. An important factor and one which many people get wrong is when and how to do active recovery. Active recovery first and foremost should not contribute further to fatigue. Intense exercise is not recovery; it is simply another session. Often people perform hard conditioning instead of resistance training believing it promotes recovery. While some aspects may have a similar effect, the benefits are cancelled out by the increased metabolic and cell stress. A reliable intensity to work at is 50-60% of Heart rate reserve. The session need not be any longer than 30mins to be effective. We recommend low load bearing exercise to reduce any further stress on joints etc. Swimming, crosstrainer and biking are excellent choices.

Deciding when to employ active recovery is also tricky. In most cases we should employ some sort of short active recovery in our warm down procedure. This allows us to clear metabolites immediately after a session as well as stabilizing core temperature in a more gradual manner. Some like to use recovery sessions on their day off. In this case promoting bloodflow and reducing stiffness are the main mechanisms. This scenario is problematic as one must refrain from turning recovery into more conditioning work. While for some, running and rowing may be suitable, many heavier athletes will actually induce more fatigue and joint stress using these exercises. A 5k run is not a recovery session it is aerobic training, while less intense it simply applies a different type of stress.

It is important for athletes to understand the purpose of active recovery and the mechanism by which it works. Just because a session is of lower intensity it does not automatically become recovery work. The sole purpose of active recovery is to promote a restoration to a rested state and therefore maximum performance potential. It has a clear purpose and application. Smart athletes recognize the difference and they reap the rewards of using it effectively.

HIIT, fat loss and muscle!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular training method. When used correctly it effectively improves cardiovascular conditioning, burns fat and promotes new muscle growth. In addition a relatively short HIIT session is sufficient to elicit substantial performance gains. Like any training method, understanding the basic physiological principles will make a big help to using it effectively. This article will explain a bit about this type of training and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

HIIT is popular because it is time effective. An individual can burn a lot of calories in a short space of time. As the name implies it is an intense form of exercise. Our energy systems function on a simple mechanism of energy charge. The rate of energy (Adenosine Triphosphate/ATP) utilization in the muscle cell must be matched by an energy supply system. Slow rate of energy expenditure during low intensity work is supported by oxidation. Oxidation supplies a lot of energy but at a slow rate. High intensity work is supplied by the glycolysis and phosphate systems which have a much faster supply. Supply must meet the demand. There is often a slight lag between utilization and supply. This means that even during rest intervals and post exercise energy consumption is still elevated. In simple terms our metabolism is increased and we continue to burn more calories than at normal rest conditions. For this reason even though a 20min session burns, for example 500kcals, energy expenditure is raised throughout the day. A low intensity session lasting one hour may burn 800kcal with minimal elevation in metabolisms for the rest of the day. For this reason HIIT may actually burn more calories on a daily basis. This is why it is so effective at fat burning.

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

In addition, the power output which is produced during the work period of HIIT is high. Higher power output during work periods are often effective in improving your conditioning. It also helps maintain strength and power simply by utilizing larger motor units. The main issue to consider with HIIT relates to energy supply. If we cannot supply the cells with adequate energy then they become damaged. This is known as metabolic stress. A certain degree of metabolic stress or damage can be reversed. This is what promotes new muscle growth. Moderate metabolic stress during training can, at times, be quite effective for promoting hypertrophy.

If we place too much stress on the muscle cells the damage can be irreparable. The cells will begin to die. When this happens on a regular basis muscle wastage can occur. It also places the body under larger amounts of general stress which will begin to impact on our immune system. There is a large list of potential health implications that this can eventually lead to.

Preventing this scenario is relatively easy but not always something we think about. One of the determinants to energy supply is our energy store. In the case of HIIT we need adequate stores of glycogen for an adequate supply of energy. If we do HIIT in a fasted state we are putting ourselves under severe metabolic stress, as there is little energy supply to fuel it. In addition the lack of energy will dramatically reduce performance so conditioning benefits may also be lost.

The take home message is this. Fuel up for intense exercise! Low intensity exercise can be done in a fasted state as the oxidative system works effectively to provide fuel. With intense exercise such as HIIT style training, you must have some glycogen stores or glucose in the bloodstream. If you are in a totally fasted, glycogen depleted state then consume some simple sugars close to training. By doing so you can maintain high intensity and reduce cell stress. You will still achieve an elevated metabolism that promotes fat burning. You also place the cells under just enough stress to help promote hypertrophy

It is important to understand training methods as the smallest oversight can cause more harm than good. HIIT is an effective tool but if it is not adequately fuelled it loses a lot of its benefits. It is a popular successful way to train and should be used in any program. Like any training method the process is the important part. It needs to be considered and managed properly in order to see the full benefit.

Training masks; the science behind them!

People like new toys and gadgets, especially ones which can improve their performance. In recent years breathing masks and gas masks have become popular amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. The idea originated from firefighters and the military who experience some extremely intense, physical situations while wearing breathing apparatus. The experience of wearing these masks in such scenarios can be quite overwhelming. In order to familiarize themselves with these situations they began to train while wearing their equipment. Obviously the more accustomed to something we are the more comfortable we are with it. Shortly, after we saw them to be used in the fitness community. They started to use similar equipment in search of more intense training methods.

In very recent years breathing masks have been produced commercially and specifically for the fitness and sports industry. Like any new training tool it comes with many benefits. This article is aimed at examining the physiological theory for the use of such masks. By understanding the physiological processes taking place we can make better use of such equipment.

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The major misconception which seems to have formed with the use of these masks is their ability to replicate high altitude. High altitude has been linked to many physiological benefits to cardiovascular conditioning. The concept of this relates to the partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen (O2) molecules move from lungs to blood and the blood to muscle through a process of diffusion. The molecules travel across thin membranes from areas of high, to low pressure. If ambient oxygen pressure is low, as it is at high altitude, less molecules cross from lungs to the blood and so forth. The amount of O2 in the air remains exactly the same (20.93%) but overall air pressure (Barometric Pressure) is greatly reduced. In order to compensate, our body first increases breathing rate and take bigger breaths. This allows us to utilize a larger portion of the lung and alveoli allowing more O2 to diffuse into the bloodstream. Another reason is to excrete Carbon dioxide (CO2). By blowing off CO2 we drop the pH level of the blood and create something known as “Respiratory alkalosis”. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed by our red blood cells. This process occurs similarly at sea level.

When exposed to this over long duration (16hrs+ per day for a minimum of two days)(Chapman et al, 1998) our body increases a hormone called Erythropoietin (EPO). This hormone when combined with iron stimulates the creation of new red blood cells, a larger amount of which allows us to transport more O2 around the blood. In addition our muscles respond to training by increasing mitochondria and capillarization of the fibres. This allows our muscles to consume more oxygen. The issue with altitude training is that our breathing rate can only increase so much and the other adaptations are relatively slow to occur. As a result the intensity of our training significantly drops. This is why many athletes choose to live at altitude and travel to sea level to train. It allows the adaptations to occur without training intensity suffering. This limitation is well documented.

Breathing masks do not alter the partial pressure of O2. They simply restrict airflow. They do not specifically filter O2 from the air. We compensate for this restriction by breathing more forcefully creating positive pressure to overcome the resistance. This is similar to techniques adopted by individuals suffering with breathing difficulties such as asthma and COPD. Pursed Lip Breathing is an excellent example of a breathing technique used to compensate for resistance. It is also something we automatically do when wearing a gum shield or mouthguard. We do not experience any increase in EPO as pressure gradients are maintained. The processes taking place at altitude are different from the ones taking place when using these masks .

In order to compensate for resistance we must breath with more force, both when we inhale and exhale. We use the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. These muscles are like any other; they become stronger when a stress stimulus is applied. When using these masks we are in theory strength training our breathing muscles. This can allow us to utilize a larger portion of our lungs, making our breaths more efficient and deeper. It also allows us to develop our breathing muscles, which will make breathing easier in normal conditions. This is of great benefit to an athlete’s conditioning as the effort in breathing will be greatly reduced.

Elevation-Trianing-Mask-PKR_3596

In addition to physical adaptations we can also experience some mental benefits. In scenarios where breathing is restricted we get a sense of breathlessness. This often causes panic. In a competitive environment panic can be a debilitating experience. Like firefighters and military servicemen, becoming accustomed to that feeling can have a great benefit. Learning to be comfortable and to relax allows our breathing to settle. Having the experience to know how to breath efficiently in such a scenario can allow an athlete to maintain composure. I believe this to be a very significant benefit to the use of such masks.

Like any new tool or training method it is very important to understand the processes taking place and the adaptations that come with them. Unfortunately there is relatively little research available on the use of breathing masks. I believe them to be an effective tool when used for the right goal. With any training an athlete wants the best results. Examining the physiological process taking place we can often learn to make best use of the tool. While science cannot always give the exact answer it usually puts us on the right track.

Hamstring savers!

The hamstring is a major risk area for many athletes. Hamstring strains and tears are possibly one of the most common soft tissue injuries amongst sportspeople. The most common presumption amongst athletes when they suffer from hamstring issues is that it’s a flexibility issue. Not an outrageous assumption but often not the problem. Many athletes spend a considerable amount of time stretching and foam rolling etc. to improve flexibilty in hopes of preventing issues with little success. While there are qualified medical professionals to provide information on the epidemiology of hamstring injuries we will focus on what can be done in your training to help.

In terms of flexibility we have often seen athletes with excellent flexibility strain a hamstring. Our first thought is to examine the warm-up protocol. A good warm-up should improve elasticity within the muscle fibres and reduce the chances of injury. Even with an extensive and effective warm-up the same players seem to be susceptible to the same injury. Eliminating flexibility and warm-up from the list of causes has led to another much less discussed issue which could be the cause.

Muscle imbalance is often associated with small stabilizer muscles but can also be present in much larger muscle groups. When an athlete has got good overall strength, muscular imbalances can be hidden. This is especially true for the lower body. Most strength programs will have a squat type movement. It is an excellent full body exercise. When time restrictions are present in training it is often used as the sole lower body exercise. For many athletes this is not an issue and they see great overall development using the squat on its own. Some however, develop a technique which utilizes the Quads and Glutes much more so than the hamstring. They can lift heavy loads and so we assume they are strong even though the hamstrings may not be doing nearly as much work as they should be. When these athletes sprint they have great power generated from quads and glutes but the hamstrings are lacking. This weak link is where the break in the chain occurs.

In order to prevent injuries athletes should make sure they develop all the muscles involved in the movements they perform. This sounds obvious but can often be hard to achieve. There are several strategies one can employ. Firstly using a unilateral exercise in addition to the squat can help fill in the gaps. Adding a lunge or step-up type movement can be a major benefit and is highly recommended. It puts an athlete in a different movement plane which is often more movement specific and utilizes more appropriate muscles and activation patterns.

The second approach would be to train the temperamental muscles directly. Most good strength programs will have a hamstring orientated exercise present, owing to the high prevalence of hamstring injury in athletes. The concern here is the execution of such exercises. Again alternative muscles can take over and hamstrings can still be neglected. Exercises such as Romanian Deadlift (RDL or Stiff Legged Deadlift), Glute-ham raises and Reverse Hyperextensions are all popular hamstring exercises. It is very common for these to be performed incorrectly. Athletes with strong lower backs can easily perform these movements with high load and work around the hamstrings. Obviously the first recommendation is to make sure they are being observed carefully to ensure proper technique. In a team training scenario this is not always possible or effective.

In efforts to overcome these issues and protect the hamstrings a solution is needed. The Nordic hamstring curl may be the answer. It is extremely hard to cheat on this exercise and it will promote excellent hamstring activation. Using a slow or even paused eccentric phase, the hamstrings cannot hide. It is relatively easy to instruct and needs very little equipment. Often an athlete with enormous deadlift strength will be humbled by this simple bodyweight exercise. For that reason it should be high on the list of priority exercises. It can be easily scaled for athletes from beginner to elite level. Research has also suggested it to be quite an effective tool. The preventive effect of the Nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players – a randomized controlled trial, Van der Horst, Smits, Petersen, Goedhart, and Backx, in Injury Prevention (2014).

Often injury prevention is a little like detective work. The obvious answer is not always correct and the solution is not always clear. Ensuring an athlete has strong well developed hamstrings can be the missing piece of the puzzle. Hamstring injuries can be both debilitating and frustrating. The level of recurrence can be quite high. There are a number of considerations which have been discussed which should be considered when constructing an effective strength program.

Isometric training!!

There are three types of contractions that muscles can perform. These are Eccentric, Concentric and Isometric. Each one refers to the action of the muscle.

  • Eccentric contractions are where the muscle contracts while the fibres are lengthening.
  • Concentric contractions are where the muscle fibres contract while they are shortening.
  • Isometric contraction is when force is being applied in a situation where the muscle fibre neither shortens or lengthens. The joint is generally in a fixed position when this occurs.

There are also some scenarios where the rate of lengthening or shortening is slowed to a point where it can become quasi-isometric in nature. This resembles the type of slow grind that can be experienced when performing near maximal lifts.

Isometrics are useful in training as quite a lot of force can be applied in a relatively safe way. The high forces require an extremely large neural input. It can be a great way to train the neural aspect of strength. In addition it can prepare muscles and tendons to tolerate very high forces which may occur suddenly during sport. This makes isometric training quite an effective injury prevention strategy.

While there are benefits to training with isometrics it can be difficult to perform safely. Certain equipment may be necessary in order to effectively perform a movement isometrically. It also requires some experience of lifting in order to breathe appropriately. Because you must maintain a valsalva or “Bracing” position for a prolongued period there are some risks associated. People with high blood pressure or who may be prone to fainting should avoid such types of training.

Performing these types of movements is relatively simple for the experienced lifter in an adequate facility. Take for example a squat movement. The athlete should set the spotter pins above the bar at an appropriate height (1/4 squat depth etc) with safety bars just below. Using proper technique they simply squat the bar until its path is impeded by the spotter pins. They should continue to exert as much force as they can for a prescribed time. Because they are squatting against a “fixed” bar they wont need to the load the bar as load is now redundant.

Isometrics can be a useful tool in an athletes training method arsenal. While it should be utilized by experienced lifters, certain applications and variations can be utilized by other athletes also. Used in an efficient training program isometrics can be effective in improving strength levels and preventing injury.

Stalled progress!!!!

There are times in our training when no matter how much effort we put in, progress seems to stall. Our natural inclination is to do more work. This is rarely the solution. We know that the body adapts well to stress stimuli. We use progressive overload programs to take advantage of this to make us stronger and fitter. If we use one training program for too long the abilities it focuses on will improve significantly up to a point. Over time weak links can appear as some abilities greatly exceed others. It may simply be caused by a lack of practice or perhaps a more physiological based reason.

There is an expression that says the best training program is the one you are not doing. We naturally tend to focus on the skills we have an aptitude for. We become addicted to progress and we generally progress best at things we have a natural disposition for, largely  because we enjoy doing them. The things we avoid or neglect do have a tendency to catch up to us and often hold us back.

For example an athlete may be training specifically for strength. They have a low rep high load program to do so. Initially there is great neural response and they become stronger without significant increases in muscle mass. Progress then stalls. They may try to force weight onto the bar during his lifts but does not successfully achieve the reps. They become frustrated because they are seeing no progress. The problem is not with the rep scheme. The problem lies in that they may have achieved maximum strength for their current muscle mass. Contractile strength is largely determined by the cross sectional mass of a given muscle. At this point they should look to increase mass and raise the level of force that they can produce. After addressing this they could return to a strength program and once again see steady progress.

In the case of endurance athletes it is not uncommon for them to perform large volume at low intensity early in a season to build stamina. When they go to race they may find that while they do possess good stamina, they lack high end pace for faster races and at the finish. Some assume this is a lack of fitness when it is in fact a lack of both power and sprint capacity. Spending some time focused on shorter sprints will allow them to have a higher ceiling of power that they can utilize during more intense stages of a race.

While these scenarios seem obvious on paper they are rarely easily identified by an athlete. When there is an emotional attachment to the training and performance it is easy to become distracted from the obvious. Coaches and athletes all have certain styles they favour and rarely venture too far from what they are used to. Often stagnation occurs due to lack of variety in their training.

The best way to overcome this is to have an appropriate testing procedure. Athletes and coaches must be analytical and honest with where they are and where they need to be. Things are often quite clear and the solution quite simple when regular testing is implemented. What is difficult is having the confidence to leave their comfort zone of training to address the problem. Endurance athletes in particular can be extremely hesitant to utilize strength training despite the benefits, which have been detailed in a previous article https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/03/16/weight-training-and-endurance-athletes/. A good athlete and coach need to have the confidence to address an issue even if it does not fit with their current training methodology. It is simply a waste of effort to continue when there is no progress being made. Identify what is missing and improving it will often jump start progress all round. So if you think your progress is stalled stop and think what your program is missing.