Tag Archives: Fatigue

Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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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.

Building the engine!

Our cardiovascular system is basically an engine. The bigger it is the more power we can produce. Like any powerful engine its performance is based on its efficiency and size. When we look at our body in terms of conditioning we should think of it like an engine. We must first build it and then fine tune it to be efficient for what we want it to do.

When we look at training we can look at it the same way. First we need to assemble the basic parts, this is the base miles in the offseason. This is what promotes the structural changes in our physiology. Our heart becomes larger and more powerful, capillarization occurs improving blood supply to the muscle fibers and in addition numbers of mitochondria increase within the cells. This process is gradual and is stimulated by large volumes of aerobic training. It is a relatively slow process but has a long lasting effect. Because longer duration is required the intensity must be relatively low in order to accumulate adequate volume without overtraining. This will gives us the foundation for our conditioning. Increasing aerobic capacity also has a vast amount health benefits associated, such as reduced blood pressure and a strong and efficient heart.

Once we build up a foundation we must then tune it. Now anaerobic style training comes into play. Anaerobic training up-regulates enzymes which promote glycolysis, the energy system utilised during high intensity. It also improves the ATP-CP energy system used during sprint type activity. The effects happen over a much shorter period of time and remain effective for a short period if training is not maintained.

HIIT has become popular because it yields results much quicker than LSD training. The issue is that the physiological changes that come from it are really only the icing on the cake. Without a strong base prior to HIT an athlete is neglecting a big part of their physiology. This is noticeable in a lot of team sports. An athlete may perform quite well at high intensity but struggle to utilise fat for fuel, causing him to tire late in a game. They also tend to recover relatively slower as their oxidative system does not have the capacity to remove lactate as effectively.

Rocky-Elsom-hands-on-head

Athlete catching breath between play. Source:http://www.rugby365.com

If an athlete wishes to have good conditioning for their sport they must build a big engine to begin with and then tune it to be suitable to their activity. Whether they use threshold work or sprint intervals to do so will depend on the nature of the sport. The point I emphasise is that a strong aerobic base should never be neglected. Regardless if the sport is an endurance sport or not a strong aerobic system will be of great benefit to most athletes as it is still a major part of their physiology.

Watts Vs. Heart rate.

This post may be a little controversial amongst endurance athletes but it is an important topic. Any serious endurance athlete will have a training plan. This plan will generally use heart rate or wattage as the variable around which they structure their training sessions. In recent years wattage has become a very popular training variable. It relates more directly to actual speed and performance than heart rate. Team Sky Cycling highlighted the importance of accurate data in their training program and heavily relied on wattage during their Tour De France preparation. It can be very successfully used to build an effective endurance training program. For this reason there has been a big shift towards Watt training and away form the traditional heart rate zone style training. Heart rate data has now become a bit of an optional add on for analysis rather than a training variable, especially with more tech orientated athletes.

While watt training for sure has its merits it also comes with an often overlooked disadvantage. The sessions’ power output targets are pre determined post fitness testing. The athlete knows exactly what wattage needs to be achieved and maintained per session in their plan. The sole focus is to stick strictly to these wattage prescriptions. The issue is that watt training does not factor in readiness to train or physical state. For example an athlete may have a poor nights sleep or be particularly stressed due to some lifestyle factor like work etc. he may even be fatigued from a previous training session. When this athlete comes to their training they might struggle to maintain the prescribed wattage but force themselves to be strict. This can result in a much higher level of stress or intensity than intended when their program was designed. Too many forced sessions can result in overreaching and eventually overtraining. It can also be mentality hard on an athlete to realise they cannot keep up with their training. Things can quickly become counterproductive.

While heart rate does not translate as well into speed or power outputs it is auto-regulatory. This means if you are fatigued, stressed or sick heart rate will reflect this. Heart rate will be generally higher and so you will reach the desired zone with less work. If you use heart rate zones as your training variable things are automatically factored in. In a fatigued state you may achieve the desired HR and duration prescribed but the performance might appear to be poor. In the grand scheme of things this is not a big deal. You are still getting time at the intended intensity and your recovery can cope, avoiding any overtraining type scenario. Over the long term this is actually more productive in terms of physiological improvement and mental state.

While I’m not trying to put people off using wattage for training I think it is important to highlight the issue. If you choose to use watts over heart rate you must be diligent in assessing your training state. You must accept that sessions need to be flexible to account for external factors that wattage on its own will ignore. As with any program following blindly is never a smart approach. There are many factors which can influence performance and success will always be a balancing act.