What the experts say
Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology and athletic development.
As Eisenhower once reportedly said, albeit in a different context, "The plan is nothing, it's all in the planning." so it is with sport. In this literature review, we firstly look at what affects planning and then look at what constitutes a plan for an athlete in their given sport. An understanding of the training process is fundamental to planning, as is knowledge of the status of the athlete, their potential and indeed their goals. The review is then developed to look at the latest literature affecting the development of the key areas of speed, strength and skill (coordination). As one author reports 'the development of performance in competition is achieved through a training process that is designed to induce automation of motor skills and enhance structural and metabolic functions.
Training also promotes self-confidence and a tolerance for higher training levels and competition ' The author continues ' sports activities are a combination of strength, speed and endurance executed in a coordinated and efficient manner with the development of sport-specific characteristics.' Stressing the relevance of planning: 'Short and long-term planning (periodisation) requires alternating periods of training load with recovery.' A more recent publication extends the concept of periodisation and proposes new strategies for working with the idea while another looks specifically at planning for skill acquisition and the key factor of the timing of competition readiness.
Very often the planning stage is based around the needs of a particular competition phase or significant event where the athlete needs to be at their peak. Classically, the approach here is to set this date down and work backwards from that point to the current date (status) to identify the specific goals to be achieved along the way and to identify the appropriate timing of key elements of the plan. Effective planning is, therefore based around the actual goal. Without a goal, the planning cannot commence, and a plan cannot be formulated. Two recent publications[4,5] outline the key elements of goal setting for both coaches and athletes and the subsequent planning requirements. Well thought out planning will ensure the athlete has a positive experience and remains motivated along the road to ultimate goal achievement.
Once a plan is implemented, constant monitoring is critical to evaluate progress, in turn facilitating review and identifying any requirement for change. Once again, the planning stage will have identified key review times, their relevance and the options available at each stage. One recent report looks at the importance of monitoring training loads and proposes simple methods for monitoring. A training plan with no objective or (at the very least) empirical means of monitoring loads cannot hope to achieve optimum results for an athlete. On a more specific point, the need for performance evaluation along the way is also critical in providing feedback to the athlete, coach and other support staff. A paper based on the evaluation of swimmers proposes that the first means of measurement should be competition itself, followed by a detailed technical analysis of that performance. Training 'efforts' and specific training sets where certain aspects are studied in depth would be the next level.
Then follows a host of physiological measurement options. Interestingly, especially following recent publications concerning strength and power development in swimmers, these factors appear fairly low down the list. The paper continues with the supposition that the psychological skills and emotional competencies become more accentuated at higher performance levels and that the essence is, once again, in the planning. That only measurement appropriate to the athlete and their goals need to be incorporated. Finally, the paper stresses the importance of correct interpretation of information and careful choice of action.
Along the same lines, but from a generic resistance training perspective, the author of a report identifies the importance of strength, power, speed, hypertrophy, localized muscular endurance, motor performance, balance and coordination in improving athletic performance. The dynamic nature of progression is emphasized along with the importance of adapting the plan to achieve the goals.
One question that has often puzzled coaches is the transferability of strength gains from a limited to a full range of motion. A recent paper concludes that, based on a study of fifty women, assigned to one of four training groups for a specific quadriceps strength training regime over six weeks with a knee flexion range between 30 and 90 degrees, that the range of knee flexion used in each group during training had no bearing on the overall strength gain observed in isometric output at the end of the study as well as in the rate of force development both measured at 10, 45 and 80 degrees. As well as being useful for fully active athletes, the potential benefit during rehabilitation is obvious.
Muscle fatigue, a major limiting factor to performance, is a key consideration in session planning. A recent Scandinavian paper concludes that there is no difference between male sprinters, endurance runners or untrained subjects in their ability to recover from a bout of maximal intensity drop jumps (total of 100 performed maximally every 20s) either in terms of the short-term recovery or the extent of low-frequency fatigue. The authors also relate this to slow-twitch muscle fibres stating that their prevalence does not affect resistance to such fatigue or accelerate recovery from this form of training load. However, biopsy data is not reported, and so this appears to be an assumption.
Examination of the pattern of energy use during supra-VO2 max exercise and metabolic responses of both trained and active untrained subjects to repeated bouts of intense, constant power exercise, which was designed to deplete muscle glycogen, were evaluated. Sixteen males (trained and untrained) with similar genetic aerobic capacity were studied. Subjects repeatedly ran to exhaustion at 125% VO2 max. Total exercise time was significantly greater in trained (42.75 ± 3.85 min) than untrained (33.10 ± 6.95 min) subjects. The authors concluded that trained subjects spared glycogen during supra-VO2 max exercise presumably by oxidising more fat (in slow-twitch fibres). Thus, athletes who participate in anaerobic events may benefit substantially from aerobic training, as well as anaerobic training. Power athletes generally avoid endurance training, but the benefits appear to be demonstrated in this paper.
Cyclists were the subject of research in a paper looking at pedalling cadence, efficiency and power output. The findings, based on a study of 8 professional cyclists, demonstrate that riding at high power output yields greater efficiency and economy at higher pedal cadences (100rpm) versus lower cadences (60rpm). The message seems to be to use a lower gear and higher cadence to maintain efficiency over 6-minute bursts.
Finding a correlation between a measurable gym-based strength activity and speed sounds very useful, and this is what researchers looking at 17 elite football players have found. Maximal strength half squats correlated exceptionally well with 30m sprint times and vertical jump height. Unfortunately, no data is given to support the conclusion that improving half-squat performance improves sprinting speed. Staying on the subject of sprinting another paper identifies the fact that for maximal runs to exhaustion for 15 competitive male endurance athletes bicarbonate (82.3s), lactate (80.2s), citrate (78.2s) all produce an improvement over chloride (placebo - 77.4s) when taken 90 minutes before runs. It would be interesting to see if the results altered in any way with variation in times of administration before runs since different digestive / biochemical pathways may be involved.
The use of contract-relax Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching (CRPNF) to enhance flexibility has been popular for some time. However, the scale of the voluntary contraction made by the athlete when performing CRPNF has not been studied. According to recent studies contractions as low as 20% of the maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) still, yield the same benefits for enhancing hamstring flexibility based on a study of 72 male subjects. Furthermore, utilisation of lower MVIC's should reduce the risk of injury during CRPNF work. An interesting selection criterion was used for all participants - the inability to reach 70degrees of hip flexion during a straight leg raise - a very useful indicator for all coaches which may well correlate with a propensity for a hamstring injury in training/competition.
Many coaches commonly advocate static active stretching and two publications[16,17] from the same group report the effect on force and jumping performance as well as force, balance, reaction time and movement. Conclusions were that an acute bout of stretching impaired the gains from the warm-up in terms of balance and movement time and, perhaps even more significant improvements gained in the range of movement at this point led to a reduction in quadriceps torque or force by as much as 10.4% for up to 120 minutes after active stretching! The stretching debate has run around the world recently from several perspectives. This data, however, support the previously held view of many coaches, but not hitherto taken seriously, since it was only viewed as 'anecdotal' evidence. It seems that major performance benefits can still be derived for many athletes through appropriate and optimal preparation on the day of competition. Finally, having done all the work and competed, how best to recover.
Sports massage is very popular and viewed as desirable by many sports. However, two recent papers fail to support the benefits expected from massage. One looks at limb and skin blood flow after concentric quadriceps exercise. The agreed desirable benefit would be to enhance femoral artery blood flow and muscle temperature. However, this did not occur even following deep effleurage and petrissage massage. Skin blood flow did increase, but this may only serve to divert flow away from the recovering muscle, thus questioning the efficacy of massage. The second paper was based on bilateral eccentric quadriceps exercise for 16 subjects and the measurement of loss of strength and recovery over three days with and without massage. Massage treatment of one leg did not improve the level or duration of pain or recovery of strength when compared to the other untreated leg in all subjects.
A recent study of fifteen Japanese college rugby football players seems to point the way. Seven performed only normal daily activities, and eight performed an additional low-intensity exercise during the post-match rest period. Players were examined just before, immediately after as well as one and two days after the match. Blood markers were used to assess the physiological condition, and the Profile of Mood States (POMS) scores were examined to evaluate the psychological condition.
Muscle damage recovered with time almost equally in both groups, but the POMS scores were significantly decreased only in subjects in the low-intensity exercise group. Rugby matches impose both physiological and psychological stress on players. The addition of low-intensity exercise to the rest period did not adversely affect physiological recovery and had a significantly beneficial effect on psychological recovery by enhancing relaxation.
This supports the belief that the body needs time to recover and then adapt to the training or competition load and that low-level exercise or 'active' recovery in itself does not appear to facilitate this. However, psychological recovery is of enormous importance when facing the next physical bout and will affect motivation to train or compete. Interestingly, neuromuscular recovery is thought to take significantly longer than physical muscular recovery - up to 5 times longer. It would be interesting, therefore, to look into factors affecting the return of coordination/skill factors in a similar way.
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About the Author
Nigel Hetherington was the Head Track & Field Coach at the internationally acclaimed Singapore Sports School. He is a former National Performance Development Manager for Scottish Athletics and National Sprints Coach for Wales. Qualified and highly active as a British Athletics level 4 performance coach in all events he has coached athletes to National and International honours in sprints, hurdles as well as a World Record holder in the Paralympic shot. He has ten years of experience as a senior coach educator and assessor trainer on behalf of British Athletics. Nigel is also an experienced athlete in sprint (World Masters Championship level) and endurance (3-hour marathon runner plus completed the 24 hour 'Bob Graham Round' ultra-endurance event up and down 42 mountain peaks in the English Lake District). He is a chartered chemist with 26 years of experience in scientific research and publishing.