Category Archives: Q&A

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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Mistakes in Strength and Conditioning.

I like strength and conditioning because it is one of the few things in life that really rewards effort. When you train you can see your progress quite clearly in the changes in numbers and performance. The process of becoming stronger and fitter is relatively simple in comparison to other things in life. Whenever I hear someone who is struggling to reach a goal I immediately question their approach. In my experience most issues with people failing to hit targets are a result of a fairly simple mistake. Often people are so close to the right process that they actually move backwards when trying to fix their problems. Here are a few issues which I have seen quite commonly in the past years working with a fairly large number of athletes. Some might appear harmless but its astonishing how progress can be slowed by the following things.

Goal Setting

Competitive athletes are usually very driven people. They welcome challenges in most cases. This can result in them setting unrealistic goals which give them the idea of overcoming all odds. They create an underdog situation for themselves. It seems obvious that setting unrealistic goals unwise yet it is an easy thing to fall victim to. Media has exacerbated the issue also. Often progress and comeback stories are heavily exaggerated which leads many athletes into a false sense of what is achievable. Some belief is a good thing but many individuals set themselves up for inevitable failure. An experienced coach is an essential and useful tool to an athlete who may just be basing their goals off false information. If you have a goal, that’s great and it’s a starting point. The process in achieving it will more than likely be quite a measureable one. Discuss it with your coach, as it will become clear on paper how much time is required to realistically achieve targets. A good strength and conditioning coach will be able to formulate a strategy with clear numerical targets throughout the process. If the numbers don’t add up then you may need to reassess the goal to begin with.

Buying Snakeoil

Information is very readily available on the Internet and other media. The information you see is not always good information. Not everyone providing it is in a position to do so. There is a phrase “There is no profit in simplicity” which I heard a top coach say once. People don’t like buying simple programs they already know. They want something new and spectacular. Having worked with professional athletes I can honestly say sometimes I feel underwhelmed by how basic most of their training is. They are incredibly consistent and diligent and that is why they get so far ahead. They don’t look for complicated and advanced programs; they do exactly the opposite. They make life as basic and as simple as possible. This gives them the best chance of success. Inexperienced individuals always want something a bit special or different. These individuals make life difficult for themselves and waste a lot of time. In short don’t buy into outrageous training methods, products or claims. By all means try new things but realize we already know quite a bit about what works and what does not. Consistency is always number one and any program fails without it. There is no magic pill out there but plenty of folk trying to make a quick buck.

"The missing piece of the puzzle"

“Maybe this can get you to the next level”

Staying true to your discipline

This is a “Grass is Greener situation”. Athletes training for a sport become trained for the tasks associated with that sport. We are getting better with our programming and more professional with our approach to sport. This lets us improve and set new records. Many times I have seen athletes chasing goals that are unrealistic in their sport. The reason they do it is because they see a friend or other athlete capable of achieving something which is not relevant to them. They spend time training toward a goal which will not translate into their own discipline this can be witnessed when strength athletes train like bodybuilders for example. They want single digit body fat or massive muscles which the process in achieving may actually hurt performance in their own sport. Another example might be when disciplines begin to overlap for training purposes and the overlap goes to far. Some athletes may incorporate some Olympic lifting into their training and suddenly find themselves entering competitions and training specifically for weightlifting. Distractions creep into a program like this in many ways. While it might be fun for a change of routine it can lead to an offseason being wasted.

Patience

Often very small issues can put the handbrake on progress. When an athlete is diligent to a program it is quite easy to assess the program, isolate the issue and correct. When an athlete loses patience there is a large temptation to immediately try to change things. This can lead to quite dramatic shifts towards other techniques or even coaches. Often this puts them even farther away from the goal and digs them into a deeper hole. Training programs are often an evolving thing which needs tweaks along the way. It is much easier to tweak a program when you know what you are dealing with. When an athlete starts adding his own things to a program or starts to do his own thing without informing the coach it makes it very hard to make adjustments. I personally like when an athlete gives me feedback and have no issues changing my own approach. We learn from experience and sometimes situations are challenging and need some experimentation to get right. When an athlete is patient and diligent, a coach can serve him a lot better. It is common for an athlete to miss a goal only to tell the coach he changed things that weren’t working. A coach can’t help anymore as it is not possible for them to isolate an issue in the unknown.

In summary the key issue that catches most athletes off is simplicity. A successful athlete makes life simple. Simple things are easier to achieve. The “Marginal gains” theory was popularized at the London Olympics when team GBR structured their approach around one or two percent improvement here and there. Nothing outrageous, just add up the little things. This led to them winning a lot of events and setting a lot of world records. Keep things simple and you will be a lot more effective in making the progress you want.

Sleep and Competition

This post comes in response to a question we received from a reader. “Why is getting a good night sleep important before competition?”

Sleep is restorative and not preparatory in terms of physiological function. When we sleep there is a down regulation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is our “Fight mode” which reacts to stress and allows us to “Perform”. The opposite is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is our “Rest Mode”. It allows the organs to dial back on activity and gives them a chance to recover fully. When in rest mode the immune system is highly active. Time and energy goes into repairing damaged tissues and resupplying fuel stores. If we were constantly in fight mode the body would eventually break down and the safety stops would be activated. Our immune system would also become depressed and we would become more susceptible to infections and illness.

Studies examining the physiological response to impaired or reduced sleep prior to competition have shown no significant negative impact. It does not have a direct impact on physiological capacity or function. However, mental and cognitive function are significantly reduced. This on its own will cause noticeable decrements in performance. In terms of an athletes mood state there will be a drastic decline in motivation depending on the individual. Their ability to push themselves mentally and stay alert will be reduced.It is also important to note that we are discussing lack of sleep rather than a night on the town. The later has many other factors added to the mix which can cause issues.

When an an athlete may be competing or training for multiple consecutive days, sleep plays a restorative role. It becomes a major part of the bodies natural recovery system. Disturbed or impaired sleep my hinder the restorative processes that have been mentioned from taking place. The ability of an athlete to recover is vital in maintaining performance when there are multiple days of activity.

From a practical perspective, an athlete should always try to get adequate sleep. The optimal amount will vary from one individual to another. If an athlete misses sleep before the competition has started they should place their focus on mental preparation and motivation as this will be the site for concern. After the race they should look to get sleep for both mental and physiological benefits. Inadequate sleep will result in poor recovery which will likely result in a drop in performance on consecutive competition days.

Athletes should make note of what is normal for them and what lets them perform at their best. Having a record of sleep is a good tool to allow an athlete identify when there might be an issue. This can be useful in the grand scheme as certain trends in sleep patterns can be identified and managed. Many athletes suffer from sleep disturbances as a result of nutrition, travel, stress and a wide range of factors which can be managed.

In conclusion, a lack of sleep before a big competition is not ideal preparation for an athlete. It is not always avoidable and so it is important for them to understand how it might effect them. It is a factor which should be monitored and managed as part of an athletes routine.

Training day or night!

This post comes in response to a question we had from one of our readers. He asked “Why can I lift more when I train in the evening, as opposed to early morning training?” First of all, everyone is a little different in terms of what works for them and what they prefer. There is not always a wrong or right when it comes to training. Often the answer lies between what works and what allows you to be consistent. However, there may be some physiological reasons which could answer why someone may perform better later in the day than in the morning. Circadian rhythms which are often overlooked when it comes to health and performance science but they are very real. These are natural rhythms of life which we constantly are subject to. The seasons and solar cycle are two such examples which have a direct impact on our lifestyle and health. Our body has a natural flow of hormones and neurotransmitters which are directly influenced by our environment. When we sleep our body goes into standby mode allowing us to rest and recover. When we awake there is a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare us to go about our daily business.

This all starts with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located within the hypothalmus a very active part of the brain, which is essentially the control centre for our endocrine system. The SCN is stimulated by sunlight through our eyes and triggers our start up switch on a daily basis. Other hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone follow similar patterns stimulated and regulated by a number of other factors. The timing and magnitude of these chemical patterns will vary slightly from one individual to another. These rhythms can therefore dictate when we are primed for certain actions. One of these rhythms is our body temperature. We tend on a consistent basis to have a daily peak in the afternoon. This is provided we do not influence it through exercise etc. Increased body temperature optimises muscle contractile function and a range of other things that can improve our strength performance.

In addition to these natural rhythms we have lifestyle influences. We know that there are nutritional differences from morning to evening. When we wake, we are in a fasted state and usually the complete opposite in the evening. The ingestion of certain food types can dramatically alter mood state and energy levels. We also have decreased flexibility as a result of lying relatively stationary for a long period. Sleep inertia is also an influence. This is that sleepy, clumsy mood you feel when you awake in the morning and it takes time to recover from. These are all factors which not only impact performance but also mood and motivational state. These exclusive of other factors, can be significant.

Some people are relatively unaffected by these things, while others may feel them dramatically. We are creatures of habit and sometimes we simply become used to doing things in a certain way. When we break routine our mood can reflect it. Regardless of these factors an individual may feel more prepared to train in the morning and see no real difference to training in the evening. It all comes down to the individual. In terms of management of an athletes performance we should consider this issue and take it into consideration for planning. Training should ideally be scheduled at approximately the same time of day as competition. Over time the athlete will learn to manage themselves in such a way that they can perform optimally come competition time.

I hope I managed to answer the question sufficiently!