What the experts say
Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology and athletic development.
Coaches know that effective planning of an athlete program requires a comprehensive understanding of the sport in question and the technical, tactical, mental and competitive demands. On a purely generic base, most sports also require a fundamental understanding of the relevance of the various fitness components to the performance of the athlete. A successful training plan will be based on sound thinking and an assessment of the specific fitness component needs of the athlete as well as knowledge of the possible interaction between the different components.
While weekly planning or micro-cycling provides the routine for the athlete to get his or her teeth into and the longer-term goal (analogous to the macrocycle) is their ultimate destination; it is the medium-term, measurable improvement cycle or mesocycle that invariably provides the right level of timely motivation toward the ultimate goal as well as the tangible reward for the coach that everything is moving in the right direction. And it just so happens that fitness factor improvements - e.g. in strength or speed can be aimed for and realistically achieved in this timescale (6 to 8 weeks). Similarly, analysis and understanding of actual performance data can provide so many indicators as to the progress of the athlete and hence where they might focus their training attention. The long and the short of this are covered in this month's review starting with an article based on 100km running and moving on to pure sprinting over very short distances. A substantial number of strength and power papers have also been reviewed with some covering complex and contrast training.
A paper from South Africa, arguably the home of ultra-distance, reports on factors affecting pace change during a 100km event. Interestingly the race leaders held a higher pace for longer from the start and slowed least during the entire race. By contrast, Paul Tergat's World Marathon best seems to be based on metronome-like pacing throughout. Very little data is available to support simplistic arguments based purely on energy systems and glycogen/fuelling to define performance especially when training habits, the mentality of holding fixed rhythm running as well as other physiological factors are considered. The question, therefore, remains as to whether, universally, a fixed pace is better than a steadily declining pace for endurance. From the coach's perspective - trial and error may still be the best way forward rather than assuming that you are coaching a hare or a tortoise.
Recovery from intensive training, competition or a match depends on many factors - replenishment of muscle glycogen being one. A study reveals that some replenishment can occur even in the absence of food and at the expense of other endogenous (naturally available) carbon sources, e.g. lactate. The study also highlights a specificity situation whereby type II based muscles tend to replenish part of their glycogen stores, even in the absence of food, during active recovery. This suggests that just when the athlete thought they had finished the gruelling endurance session, the coach can throw in some speed work!! Note: Complete recovery can only be affected by following accepted energy replenishment guidelines - i.e. eating!
For those following the health and fitness agenda currently stealing the political limelight, an interesting paper looked at the rate of fat burning of endurance athletes and untrained obese subjects. Endurance athletes peaked at 75% VO2 peak while obese subjects peaked at 65% VO2 peak. The rate of fat burning, however, was twice as high in endurance athletes! The message - simple - you can train to lose fat when not fit, but as you get fitter, you lose even more fat! Careful and well-managed fitness programs for obese or overweight subjects can provide very rewarding returns.
It has been reported that on its own, the practice of basketball does not have any beneficial effect on strength performance - it needs to be trained.
Performance measurement in a 'game situation' based on a series of jumping activities familiar to the players can be used as a daily tool. Key parameters for basketball players are identified as ground contact time between landing and take-off - an indicator of explosive motivity - and time of suspension - a specific measure of proportionately developed strength correlating to the height achieved of the centre of gravity of the subject. Testing can be a very useful tool for all sports - this study identified meaningful tests that were fun, familiar, easily performed and unobtrusive.
Water-based training has grown in popularity from its initial roots in rehabilitation to being widely used by many coaches as an alternative to land-training with one premise being that it has less impact on joints (the body is supported) and specifically helps in muscle conditioning. A publication identified the fact that water-based training leads to a significantly lower heart rate and lactate production than the same activity performed on land. Coaches may need to take account of this when planning water sessions and set session goals following these points. For example, if the session goal is to develop lactate tolerance, water may not be the best medium!
The specificity of the training principle predicts that combining, for example, resistance and endurance training (concurrent training) could interfere with the maximum development of strength and endurance capacity that results from either type of training alone. A recent study throws new light on this. Working with untrained male volunteers who underwent endurance only training (ET), resistance only training (RT) or concurrent training (CT), the study revealed that strength gains were the same in the RT and CT but that the CT group did not develop the same level of endurance improvement as the ET group as measured by VO2 peak. In summary, power athletes seeking to improve elements of endurance to support recovery in training, for example, can achieve this while maintaining a progressive strength program. Endurance athletes, the report, suggests, may not achieve maximal endurance benefits while undergoing a combined strength and endurance program. Training sessions in the weights room require technical skills for handling weights and a thorough understanding of the principles of strength and power gain. Several recent publications have provided useful information for the strength conditioning specialist, coach and athlete alike:
Rest periods between sets can determine the potential gains from the session. In the first study based on recreational weight-trainers a recovery of 1 minute between two sets of bench presses at 75% 1RM to exhaustion yielded far lower total work than if either 3 or 5 minutes recovery was taken. Regardless of the recovery period, the second set of lifts produced fewer repetitions than the first set. The trial went on to demonstrate that subjects could sustain 8 to 12 reps at this intensity provided 3 minutes of recovery was taken. The tendency for many athletes in the weights room is to return to the bar too early and be unable to finish the series and hence fail to derive full benefit from their session. Moral of the story: plan your rest periods and take a stopwatch to the gym and use it!
Several years ago, while performing a set of leg extensions in the gym - 3 reps at 95% 1RM for power development in sprint starting I noticed that if I performed a short - 2 to a 3-second isometric contraction in situ immediately before the lifts I was able to move the resistance far more quickly. While I could grasp the potential benefit of this in my event I did not fully understand why. A recent paper has answered my question: Based on power/performance measurements immediately after a 3 second maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVC) of knee extensors improvements in jump height of 5.03%, maximal force, 4.94% and acceleration impulse at 9.49% were observed. Cycle sprints and countermovement jumps were unaffected. Selected dynamic activities can be enhanced by performing 3 repetitions of 3-second duration MVC's.
With the recent comments and reports on swimming training arguing the case very strongly for more specific land-based strength/power training for short-distance sprint events, it was interesting to read the paper concluding that stronger track cyclists have an advantage in producing power and are generally faster sprint cyclists. Why am I not surprised?
Smarter ways to train are always being sort. With power athletes, a popular form of training is so-called 'complex training' where the athlete performs a heavy resistance in a strength-oriented set followed by a dynamic or power-oriented set. In a bench press / explosive bench press throws in a Smith machine-based study sixteen rugby players familiar with complex training showed a 4.5% increase in power output in the second power training set against normal strength-based work only.
A variation currently being proposed on the complex training method is a 'contrast training' method. Based on half squats and jump squats as the strength and power activities respectively groups underwent various combinations of setting. Complex training of three sets of half squats followed by 3 sets of jump squats did not produce the same level of power output as in the contrast set. However, this was only the case for strong athletes.
Continuing on strength training programs a recent paper concluded that a combination of high and low-intensity work for 4 weeks after an initial 6-week hypertrophic phase of leg press work yielded a greater strength gain than continuing with the hypertrophic workout. The results suggest that a combination of high- and low-intensity regimens is effective for optimizing the strength adaptation of muscle in a periodised training program. On the subject of strength development, a study looking at vertical jump performance showed that at either sub-maximal or maximal effort the torque power contribution to jump height from ankle and knee joint muscles was unchanged whereas at maximal jump height the contribution from hip extensors was elevated significantly. This could offer a modality for specific training regimens for different muscle groups.
Finally, we move into the speed domain with an eye on muscle function. It has been concluded that from an experimental comparison of different warm-up stretch protocols that active or passive static stretching reduces 20-metre sprint performance based on a study of 97 male rugby players. This is in comparison to active dynamic stretching, which served to improve performance. If your performer is required to produce their best over short sprints, then static stretching carried out before this activity is likely to reduce their performance compared to a dynamic routine. This applies to a training or competition situation. Earlier, we looked at the relationship between strength and endurance work. On a similar basis, a paper has studied the effect of specific straight-line sprint training on agility and vice-versa. The outcome was that there was little or no discernible transferability of skill from one to the other either way and that they remain separate skills. This offers a message to the coach keen to develop either quality in their athlete.
Speed merchants are susceptible to a hamstring injury, most specifically the biceps femoris (BF). The whole reason for this fact still escapes sports science and the medical profession. However, a recent study that looked at hamstring muscle group recruitment, timing and extension/flexion phases during sprinting on a treadmill identified the fact that of the muscles concerned - semitendinosus (ST), semimembranosus (SM) and BF - the BF undergoes a greater degree of lengthening and at a slightly later point at the end of the swing phase that both ST and SM potentially exposing it being 'the weakest link'. This suggests that specific eccentric, as well as concentric strengthening with appropriate flexibility, may help most to alleviate the chances of a hamstring injury during sprinting.
An interesting final study has attempted to model sprinting performance based on approximately 10-metre acceleration sprints from a standing start with the objective of identifying strengths and weaknesses for individual athletes across the acceleration spectrum and to assist the coach in developing an athlete-specific training plan. The need for this approach can be appreciated when we consider that two athletes may record the same time for a given distance acceleration sprint, but one may still be accelerating and one may have reached maximum speed - the two athletes may have different training needs but this can only be truly identified if we look at more detailed information through the different phases. A good move and one that could potentially move many athletes to a higher performance level if adopted widely.
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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 10 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.