What the experts say
Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology and athletic development.
In many sports, the importance of the athlete achieving a consistent level of performance is heavily emphasized. Many coaches understand that only once a dependable level of performance is reproduced can the athlete move to the next level. Rarely does an athlete progress reliably to a higher plane before having established a 'baseline' of performance at the previous level. The challenge is often, therefore, how to define what constitutes an improvement for a given performer.
A recent study focusing on track & field firstly identified the within-athlete variability within each of the contributing events from a given season with all results arising from IAAF level competition. The degrees of variability were reported as follows: track races up to 1500m including hurdles 1.0%, longer runs and steeplechase 1.4%, triple and high jump 1.7%, pole vault and long jump 2.4%, discus, javelin and shot 2.8%. It was proposed that the differences between events, or event groups, were due to factors such as energy systems, pacing strategies, wind resistance and skill. Interestingly, the top half of athletes, in terms of performance, demonstrated less variability in all track events but the differences were less clear in field events. It was proposed that the smallest worthwhile performance enhancement is equal to half of the within-athlete variability. The conclusion, therefore, is that coaches and sports scientists should focus on improvements in the order of 0.3 to 0.5% for track events and 0.9 to 1.5% for elite field athletes as being meaningful.
We are all familiar with the saying 'If you don't use it you lose it' particularly for fitness factors. A recent paper studied the retention of ankle flexibility following an 18-day intervention. The study concluded that flexibility gains made during this period, which were significant, were retained for at least the first three weeks following the end of the program.
Staying with the ankle an unrelated study looked at landing stabilization following single-leg jumps with a group known to have ankle instabilities (following sprains etc.) compared to a control group with stable ankles. Time to stabilization was longer for subjects with functional ankle instability (1.98 +/- 0.81s) than subjects with stable ankles (1.45 +/- 0.30s). The ankle instability may have impaired the subjects' ability to stabilize after a single-leg jump landing. If this is the case, then this test could be used in a training situation by the coach to provide an indication of the state of recovery of the ankle and also to compare recovery times of all athletes with the average for a known stable group.
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a familiar outcome of many tough training sessions, but how many athletes and their coaches realize that it is the type of activity that dictates this symptom rather than necessarily the volume. It is eccentric forms of exercise, often unfamiliar to the athlete that results in DOMS. A paper looked at the impact of training in a warm or humid environment on DOMS. The study found that skeletal muscle micro-damage, indirectly evidenced by DOMS, was exacerbated in hyperthermic participants dehydrated by exercise in a hot ambient environment. Individuals performing a novel exercise, particularly with a significant eccentric component, should use caution when training in a hot, humid environment and implement frequent rest and rehydration breaks.
The challenge in the gym is to maximize the outcome of sessions in terms of the goal, whether it is for strength gain or some other parameter. The squat is a popular lift for many athletes, and a research project looked at recovery times of 1, 2 and 5 minutes between four sets of lifts at 85% of 1RM (i.e. the number of lifts able to be completed in the set) following a specific warm-up regime. The results of the study identified that there was no significant difference between the volume of training completed off 1 or 2-minute recoveries (average 4.55 vs 5.10 reps per set) but that allowing 5-minutes ensured the greater volume in all cases average (6.17 reps per set). To put this into a simple context, this means that the athletes taking the 5-minute rest were able to perform a 20% greater volume of work. Athletes are forever searching for the magical ingredient that will allow them to improve - it seems to me that sticking to evidenced practice - in this case, meaningful recoveries when in search of strength and power gain in the gym - will yield far greater benefits than other potentially more damaging routes.
For those of you looking for the best and easiest means to assess 1RM without lifting the resistance itself, help is at hand in a paper that outlines a means to calculate 1RM from a series of lifts made below this level. Good practice also if you are not a highly experienced weightlifter and a little uncertain about your lifting technique to attack 1RM lifting. The approach in this paper works extremely well and has been used by this author on many occasions.
I often hear or read the claim made by many would-be advisors that 'You have to coach women differently to men'. While men and women may exhibit different approaches to training for various psychological reasons, I do not doubt that physiologically in terms of energy system training the actual response is the same as the appropriate training stimulus as observed in anaerobic sprint training. I was delighted that this 'belief' has now been backed up by 'evidence' from the research community. The study examined the anaerobic power of the arms and legs based on the 30s Wingate test (leg cycling or arm cranking). Once the results were adjusted for body mass, the females faired just the same as the men in terms of peak power and mean power for leg cycling. Males did show an advantage for arm cranking, suggesting a qualitative gender difference in upper-body muscular. Two things can be drawn from this. Firstly, females and males can be trained similarly for lower body anaerobic power gains, and consideration may need to be given to the quality of musculature in the upper body of a female in planning this form of training.
On the subject of the Wingate test, a further paper looked at the effect of acute salbutamol intake (therapeutic dosages) on peak power and mean power during supra-maximal exercise. The data suggested increases in the order of 10% in these factors, with no observed difference in the fatigue index. No mechanism for this enhancement was suggested. The findings are particularly significant given the prevalence of salbutamol as a prescribed short-acting beta 2 agonist for asthma treatment and hence its ready availability.
Muscular power is a critical factor in so many sports, and a paper looked at the fact that central body temperature increases through the day and combines this factor with the use of an active warm-up (consisting of 12 min pedalling at 50% VO2 max with three acceleration bursts of 5 seconds). The findings were that muscular power was maximized with measurement in the late afternoon following the active warm-up.
A further two papers researched the impact of potential ergogenic substances. Both reported no activity in the areas studied. In the first study the researchers examined whether ribose supplementation before and during intense anaerobic exercise impacts anaerobic capacity and metabolic markers. Twelve moderately trained male cyclists (22.3 ± 2.2 y) participated in the study. Subjects were familiarized and fasted for 8 h after standardizing nutritional intake. Subjects ingested either a 150 mL placebo or ribose (3 g ribose + 150 µg folate). Subjects rested for 25 min and completed 5 x 30 s anaerobic capacity tests with 3 min passive rest. Six capillary blood samples were taken before and after sprints for adenine nucleotide breakdown determination. The experiment was repeated 1 wk later with an alternative drink. Data were analysed by repeated measures ANOVA. No significant interactions were observed for any performance or blood variables. D-ribose supplementation has no impact on anaerobic exercise capacity and metabolic markers after high-intensity cycling exercise.
In the second study the effects of oral creatine supplementation on training for the competition were examined in 20 elite swimmers. Following a closely controlled experimental protocol over 22 to 27 weeks with the test performed over a maximal 50yd sprint test no statistically significant benefits were discernible for the swimmers who had been supplemented with creatine.
Moving into the endurance domain a paper revisited the 'living high, training low' (LHTL) philosophy currently being subscribed to for erythropoiesis (red blood cell production) gains for endurance athletes. The study used a group of elite middle-distance athletes with all training occurring at an altitude of 1200m. Half of the group (LHTL) slept hypoxically at 2500m and ultimately at 3000m while the control half slept at 1200m. Maximal and sub-maximal aerobic performances were enhanced in the LHTL group on day one after completion of the experiment as determined at 1200m compared to the control group. This improvement seemed to be linked to an improvement in oxygen transport in early return and other processes after a further 15 days when benefit could still be measured.
High resistance interval training for endurance cyclists has been shown to improve performance. The intervention based on applying progressive resistance aimed at generating the highest power output at a fixed reduced cadence over 8 weeks concluded in the cyclists from the intervention improving their mean power over a 40km time trial by 7.6%.
Recovery is the subject of the next two papers. The first looked at the efficacy of carbohydrate (CHO)-protein beverage after a run to fatigue, then followed by a 5km time trial 24 hours later. The beverage used was 6% CHO, 8%CHO+2% protein or 10% CHO. The results showed that additional CHO did not impact recovery as determined by the 5km time trial. However, the protein addition did support reduced muscle soreness. The indication is that additional calories from either CHO or protein above those found in sports drinks do not improve performance, but that recovery can be aided with the addition of protein.
A similar paper backed these findings up from a narrower perspective when it concluded that CHO and CHO with protein restored running capacity with equal effect
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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.