Tag Archives: Power output

It’s never wrong to be strong!

There are very few sports where absolute strength is unimportant. Regardless of whether or not the athlete’s bodyweight is important to performance, strength is always beneficial. A strong athlete will often be able to make up for skill more often than we like to admit. We have all seen clumsy, brutish athletes simply overpower and overwhelm more skilled opposition. In combat sports the argument is that two fighters of equal skill, bodyweight will be the defining factor. This is the reason for weight classes. Now, in a particular weight class we recognize that the stronger fighter will have the advantage.

Despite this we still argue that strength isn’t everything. While I believe other factors are just as important I will present a case for absolute strength being a critical factor. First we will look at the debate of relative strength. The Powerlifter/strongman vs. Olympic lifter is one such example. On one hand we have the Olympic lifter, a master technician who can shift weight more efficiently than most other athletes. They have incredible strength relative to bodyweight. Then we look at a powerlifter or strongman. They demonstrate tremendous strength while not being as technically efficient as an Olympic lifter. They also have much greater bodyweight which diminishes their strength to weight ratio. The following video shows how they compare when asked to squat their own bodyweight for max repetitions.

While the strongman and Olympic lifter achieve the same total reps the powerlifter has a greater total load lifted. Work done is an extremely important factor in all sports. This simply demonstrates that despite him not achieve the same reps his absolute strength allows him to beat more efficient lifters.

In the case of endurance athletes the argument may not be as obvious. Endurance athletes must sustain workloads in order to be successful. Our initial thought may be that their conditioning is going to be the critical factor. Again this is not the case. The greater an athlete’s maximal power output is, the easier he can manage submaximal work. Relative workloads become less intense. An athlete who must sustain 300watts when his max is 350watts will struggle against an athlete who maintains 300watts with a max of 400watts.

Crossfit athletes are also a very good example of this. They are often prescribed workloads which disregard any differences in the size or strength level of an athlete. In this case an athlete who must complete 20 deadlifts of 100kg, having a max effort of 150kg will need to work much harder than an athlete who has a max effort of 200kg. The first athlete is lifting 75% of their max in comparison to 50% with the second. This allows for a large advantage which may be too great to overcome even with a more efficient technique.

While I do not advocate neglecting technique or conditioning, it is important to realize the advantage that absolute strength provides. A weak yet technically good athlete will automatically be at a disadvantage. For this reason it is a very good idea to ascertain strength standards which athletes should look to achieve in their discipline. If they fail to do so it may highlight where they might struggle during competition. Very often direct attention to strength development can make a very significant impact on an athlete’s performance. Neither coach nor athlete should ever disregard the benefits of an effective strength program. It is often overlooked especially in technical sports. At high levels of competition this oversight may be the weakness that gives the opposition the opportunity they need to win.

Carbs and competition.

First off, I am not a dietician, nutritionist or even self proclaimed food guru. There are plenty of folk out there willing to preach about what you should and should not eat but that’s not my area. I am purely going to focus on the role of carbohydrate in sporting performance. Quite recently there has been large debate over carbohydrate in our diets. The “Health and Fitness revolution” has given rise to an enormous amount of conflicting information. People very easily fall for the latest fitness trends in search of the magic pill! The role of carbohydrate in human performance is pretty simple, it is fuel! Lately we have seen a large amount of athletes at the performance lab attempting to eat paleo. While I don’t have an issue with the paleo concept we have noticed that their diet, while rich in fruit and vegetables, is still generally quite low in carbohydrate as a nutrient. Paleo foods tend not to be very carb dense in comparison to other sources which they have now eliminated from their diet. As a result their performance tends to suffer somewhat. Dr. Loren Cordain one of the founders of the paleo diet concept also states this concern quite clearly in his work. We go to great lengths, explaining to athletes why carbohydrates are so important in their diet. That will be the focus of this post.

The Science

As most of you are aware the body uses three main energy systems. Glycolysis is the system which deals with carbohydrate as it uses glucose to generate ATP. At low intensity exercise the oxidative (Aerobic) system is most active. At increasing intensity larger motor units become active. These motor units tend to be glycolytic in nature (Anaerobic). These consume glucose which is sourced either from the bloodstream or stores known as glycogen. Once glucose and glycogen stores are depleted higher intensity cannot be maintained. This translates to a reduction in power output and speed. It is therefore important that an athlete has an adequate amount of glycogen stored prior to competition to maintain performance. Athletes will try to develop their oxidative system in an attempt to preserve glycolytic fuel stores. Fat stores contain more energy. The longer they can run on fat for energy the less glycogen they will use. The mistake people make is in thinking there is a distinct switch between fuels and energy systems. This is not the case. At all times all three systems are active but one will be more dominant. For this reason all systems must be considered in terms of diet and training. The nature of their sport will influence the nature of an athletes metabolism.

Game sports

rugby world cup 2011 NEW ZEALAND ARGENTINA

Image: rugby world cup 2011 NEW ZEALAND ARGENTINA by Jeanfrancois Beausejour

The level of intensity varies greatly in team sports. Depending on position there can be an extremely varied utilisation of one energy system or another. Glycolysis is however generally very active throughout game scenarios in team sports. Numerous studies have examined carbohydrate supplementation during a games. The supplementation groups showed a better maintenance of speeds and a greater distance covered in the later stages of a game than the non supplementation groups. In addition to this other studies have shown in soccer that better performing teams cover larger distances per game than poorer performing teams of the same league. It is pretty clear that carbohydrate is quite an important factor in performance.

Endurance sports

Photo Chris McCormack https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Photo Chris McCormack

Endurance sports are a little more interesting as the success of an endurance athlete is heavily related to fuel management and efficiency. A successful endurance athlete will dedicate a large amount of training time aimed at increasing oxidative capacity. This allows them to stay aerobic for longer essentially preserving glycogen. They aim to be as effective as possible at utilising fat metabolism. This will allow them to save glycogen for periods where they need to call on larger motor units. In short they try to use glycolysis only when they need to maintain a higher pace. The length of their event will determine the pace they wish to maintain and therefore the reliance on glycolysis and carbohydrate as a fuel source.

I will not mention individual foods or diets as I think that is mostly down to individual preference. The point I want to stress is that carbohydrate plays a very important role in performance for nearly all sports. It is important for an athlete to understand that role and not neglect it. They must choose a nutritional strategy that best suits the requirements of their given sport. At the end of the day their performance will reflect wether their diet is good for them or not!

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.