Category Archives: Strength and conditioning

Warning signs of over reaching.

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

 

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

 

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

1) Mood swings.

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

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

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

2) Minor Illness

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

3) Irregular Periods

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

4) Aches and pains

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

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

 

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Will cardiovascular training kill strength

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Building a Big’Ole Bench

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

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

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

From my point of view there are two key parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work up to a heavy double

Bar X5

60kg X5 reps

75kg X3 reps

80kg X3 reps

85kg X2 reps

88kg X2 reps

89kg X2 reps

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

Complete two sets of 6 at 75%

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

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

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Recovery Review: Cryospa!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2- Sprint intervals

            10X 20m sprint walk return rest

            5X 200m with two minute rest

Day 3- 60minute TT cycle with hills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2 building blocks of a successful program

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

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

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

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

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

fitness

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

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

 

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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.

The Ultimate conditioning tool: Threshold intervals.

There are many conditioning methods and tools out there. One of our favorites is threshold sessions. The goal of these sessions is get some volume of training in and around lactate threshold. Training the vicinity of lactate threshold has proven to be very effective at improving ones conditioning. Traditionally it was considered an endurance athletes concern but team sports have shown great success with this type of training.

Implementing this type of training is relatively simple but does require a little bit of preparation. The most efficient thing to do is go to the nearest performance lab and perform a lactate test. This basically establishes your work load and heart rate at lactate threshold. The DIY option is a little less accurate but can still be quite effective. One simple way to establish a decent estimate is the method described below.

DIY LACTATE TEST

After a comprehensive warm-up conduct the following.

  • Run, Row or Cycle a 10min time trial on an even surface. Try and maintain as steady a pace as possible for the entire 10mins. Make note of heart rate and or watts/pace every 30secs for the final three minutes. The average of these will be a pretty close estimate of your lactate threshold. It will be accurate enough to use effectively but not 100% as you would get with a lab test.

Once you do this you can construct the sessions. The intervals should reflect the nature of your competition. Longer distance races deserve longer intervals. The work:rest periods should be 1:1 or 2:1 for longer intervals. 3-4 reps performed twice a week will be enough to start seeing improvements.

Here are some suggestions for some popular sports that have shown to help improve overall conditioning in a short space of time.

Rugby/Soccer/Hockey

4X 4mins with 4mins rest @90% of Lactate threshold (Pace or Heart rate) twice per week

Rowing/Sprint Triathlon

3-4 X 5-10min with 5mins rest @85% of lactate threshold (Pace, Watts or Heart rate) twice per week

5k, 10k or Half/Full Marathon

3-4 X 5-10min with 5mins rest @85% of lactate threshold (Pace, Watts or Heart Rate) twice per week

If using Heart Rate, with each successive repetition heart rate will creep up about 2-3% to maintain pace or wattage. This is normal. If using Wattage or pace there should be a similar decrease with each progressive rep. As fatigue develops across the session less work will be possible at the lactate threshold point. The 2-3% shift accounts for this fatigue. Do not panic if you see this relatively small drop off. The session will still be effective.

In summary these sessions are a great method for improving aerobic conditioning. Not everyone has access to a lab so the DIY test is a very useful and cost effective alternative. It is accurate enough to still use the sessions effectively. Which sessions you choose will depend on what sort of sport you partake in. Add a few of these into your sessions and you should notice a solid improvement in your conditioning within a matter of weeks.

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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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