Tag Archives: Exercise Physiology

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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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.

Alcohol and athletes!

Check out our recent article on how alcohol interacts with our body during training and competition. As featured in BOXROX magazine!

http://www.boxrox.com/alcohol-crossfit-performance/

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.

Clear goals, Clear Progress!

Our body has a remarkable abilty to adapt. There are hundreds of processes and systems which work in unison to keep us functioning. When we apply stimuli or stress to our body, it responds in such a way that allows it to effectively continue to function under that stress. This response is what we use to become faster, stronger or fitter. The downside of this adaptation is that there is usually a tradeoff between the systems. It is extremely difficult to train all capabilities at once. This is the main challenge for any coach or trainer. They must construct an appropriate training program which achieves an improvement in certain capabilities while not negatively affecting the others.

One common scenario is related to body composition. Often an athlete will need to increase body mass while simultaneously reducing body fat. These goals directly conflict with each other. To increase body mass we need a calorie surplus but to reduce body fat we need a calorie deficit. It is contradictory. Many athletes attempt this believing that if they increase muscle mass there will be an increase in energy expenditure associated with greater muscle mass. While in theory this is possible it is a very difficult task to achieve in a real world scenario. A more effective strategy would be to alternate between periods of surplus and deficit, carefully monitoring both variables to ensure gradual progress in both. This would result in small body mass fluctuations but over time it would achieve the goal.

Another example is the athlete who wishes to improve both aerobic and strength capabilities simultaneously. While it is completely achievable, progress will be relatively slow. This is simply because while one promotes the development of type 2 fibres, the other is promoting development of type 1 fibres. This is not the most efficient approach to the task. Depending on time frame it may be necessary, but it is not as effective as partitioning the goals and focusing directly on one capability.

There are many training program designs and methodologies which look to solve the challenge of training multiple abilities at once. The problem is that combining certain training goals can be extremely counterproductive. The strategy for an athlete should be to always look for maximum gains with minimal effort and interference with other capabilities. This is not to advocate a lazy athlete. Instead it advocates a smart athlete who looks to effectively promote some qualities without negatively impacting others.

In terms of programming for an athlete, it is important to keep things as simple as possible. Athletes should have few but specific targets to work towards. Often high level athletes have so many targets to hit that they get lost. A wheelspin effect is created where their efforts counteract each other leading to very little progress. As simple as it sounds athletes should have a clear goal and stick to the process which achieves it. When they achieve this goal, they should identify their next weakness and follow the process to improve it and so on. Keeping goals clear and simple is the most effective way to make solid and consistent progress.

6 Ways to Remove Metabolites and Recover from a Hard Workout

Article on metabolite clearance post training as featured on BOXROX magazine.

Follow the link to the article

http://www.boxrox.com/6-ways-remove-metabolites-recover-hard-workout/

Weight training and endurance athletes!

Traditionally endurance athletes tend to avoid doing a lot of weight training. The reason being that they don’t want big blocky muscles which they will have to carry around during a race. This perception is starting to dissipate with modern endurance athletes, as they realize the benefits of weight training. I will discuss a number of these benefits and how they can improve endurance performance.

  1. Increased Strength

The first and most obvious benefit to weight training is improved strength. This strength comes from a number of physiological adaptations. Muscle fibres develop so they can produce a stronger and faster contraction. In addition the recruitment of muscle fibres is improved. Neural patterns become better trained allowing for more efficient contractions during movements. Ligaments also become strengthened which also increases the amount of force we are capable of applying.

This strength increase means that relative workloads become easier for an athlete. It requires less relative effort to maintain a certain pace or power output. They will find it easier to sustain a certain workload and will be capable of working more than they could previously. They also have the higher maximal power output which may be useful during sprint type scenarios.

  1. Injury prevention

Weight training strengthens ligaments and tendons. This means the ligaments and tendons can tolerate greater amounts of force. This will significantly reduce the risk of injury as they are much more resilient to damage, which may occur during intense exercise. High loads through the joints are common for all athletes during athletic movements. Making the ligaments stronger would be a good way to prevent any damage occurring.

When we spend large amount of time training a particular skill or movement the muscle involved becomes more developed. Often their opposing muscle group lacks this development leading to imbalances. This not only affects movement patterns but can also heighten the risk of injury. Weight training can be an ideal time to correct these imbalances.

  1. Core Strength

I refer to core strength on its own purely because I want to emphasize its importance. Having a strong trunk and core allows us to transmit force through our body much more efficiently. A tired runner or cyclist tends to wobble back and forth in their upper body. This is an indicator that their core has fatigued as they cannot maintain efficient posture. This is a waste of energy and a waste of effort. A strong core allows for more efficient and direct movement. This can help an athlete conserve energy without sacrificing pace. Weight training is a superb way to strengthen the core and help coordinate the body.

  1. Hormonal support

Weight training promotes certain hormones which can be beneficial to all athletes. It can help promote lean body mass and reduce fat mass. This means that you carry less “dead weight” in favor of muscle which can contribute to your performance. As an athlete you will become more energy efficient.

The most important thing for any athlete to remember is to favour movements over muscles when weight training. Their goal is performance orientated and their program should be different to that of a bodybuilder. If they train compound multi-joint movements with an emphasis on form and the goal of getting stronger, they will see a benefit.

Most endurance athletes fear weight training for fear of getting too big. In reality this is quite unlikely. Our capacity for hypertrophy is largely determined by genetics. We tend to identify our body type shortly after puberty. Heavy, more muscular individuals are unlikely to ever succeed in a sport that favors slender, lean bodies like endurance running or cycling. While we can influence our size, it is usually quite apparent we are naturally suited to some sports more than others. We enjoy sports that we can compete at. If we are the wrong shape or size we tend to avoid that sport because we don’t do so well at it. A high level endurance athlete is unlikely to gain the amount of muscle mass that would hinder his performance. They can still however, see significant strength improvement without muscle gain. They should not fear weight training as it is likely not to become a problem unless they are struggling with an unfavourable body type to begin with.

In summary, athletes of all types will benefit significantly from weight/strength training. They should always approach it from a movement perspective and not try to isolate muscles unless prescribed for prehab or rehab purposes. Endurance athletes are now realizing that an appropriate strength program should not be feared. It can and should be implemented to their program as they are likely to see quite noticeable improvements in the areas discussed.

“4 Steps to Efficient Recovery” as featured on BOXROX magazine!

Practical approach to recovering from training featured in BOXROX magazine. Useful for any athlete!

Follow the link to read the article.

http://www.boxrox.com/recovery-after-crossfit-training/

Conditioning for the competitive Crossfitter!

Crossfit can seem like a daunting undertaking for many coaches. It’s not so different to other sports. It should be viewed similarly to team sports where there are multiple components required to perform. One thing I think needs to be addressed is the intensity of a WOD (Workout of the Day). Many believe that if you aren’t redlining or pushing the limits then it’s not tough enough or productive. While skill and strength work may be done at lower intensity I feel Metcons are a source of concern. They tend to neglect lower intensity steady state work. Several big names in crossfit performed poorly in the endurance style events. 2011, 2012 and 2014 had events which brought some of top competitors to their knees.

Many wondered why the “Fittest Athletes on Earth” struggled on “Weekend Warrior” style activities. Some blamed the lack of skillset, others the heat and the competition intensity. Physiologically I think there is quite an obvious answer. These athletes are over reliant on glycolytic metabolism. When you train at high intensity repeatedly you adapt to that environment. Glycolysis is the dominant energy system and it will increase in terms of capacity when training.

Oxidative metabolism can be improved when training at high intensity but only through a few mechanisms. Many processes involved in oxidation can only be improved with volume and duration. This is neglected by short high intensity type training. I believe this is a major missing link.

Our glycogen stores are relatively small and can be exhausted quite quickly. The greater our glycolytic capacity, the quicker we deplete glycogen. We cannot sustain activity of this type for long. We need an aerobic base to support our performance. Fat oxidization is a much more sustainable source of energy. The greater the oxidative capacity the higher the sustainable workload. One way to look at this is thinking of our aerobic base as our cruising speed. Our anaerobic and ATP-CP systems are our afterburner.

The following graphic shows three athletes. Athlete A has a strong base (Oxidative system), an above average anaerobic capacity (Glycolytic system) and an above average ATP-CP capacity from his HIT training. Athlete B has an above average aerobic system but relies heavily on his anaerobic capacity. His ATP-CP stores are again average. Athlete C is our average weekend warrior for comparison. Untitled While athlete A and B are quite close in their overall work capacity, Athlete A has a better sustainable work capacity. His aerobic base allows him to maintain a high work rate. Athlete B almost matches Athlete A overall, but will never be as competitive when activity is of long duration. He may be able to complete short intense workouts with similar or better performances than Athlete A, but can only maintain high intensity for a short period.

It is essential for an athlete’s conditioning that some period of his training regime include LSD style work. This ensures that he has a strong aerobic foundation to build upon. Longer duration, volume style training promotes structural changes which have great benefit to the cardiovascular system.

Athletes of any sport should never neglect their aerobic work. It may seem boring and time consuming, but it is necessary. Recent media has given LSD style training a bad name, and cast a shadow over it. While HIT style work may be very effective overall it does not cover everything. Over utilizing it or neglecting other areas will undoubtedly create weaknesses in an athlete’s physiology. In a sport like Crossfit, these small holes in an athlete’s capabilities may cost them dearly in competition.

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