What the experts say
Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology, and athletic development.
Planning, of course, happens in several time frames simultaneously. One key time frame is the final warm-up phase before the performance. A recent paper aimed to examine whether athletes can self-select their optimal warm-up and investigate the effects of warm-up on performance. Cycle time to exhaustion at maximal power (Pmax) was used as the performance measure and various intensity warm-up regimes were compared. The conclusion was that a warm-up intensity ranging from 54-72% of Pmax and inducing an increase in heart rate to 80 +/- 6% maximum heart rate, was found to be optimal. While most athletes were able to self-determine the intensity of their optimal warm-up, for others there was still a need for control since over-warming or under-warming led to subsequent underperformance.
A further paper looked at a specific warm-up regime for sprint cyclists before performing 7-minute performance trials. The data indicated that priming exercises conducted in the moderate- and heavy-intensity domains could improve severe-intensity cycling performance by approx. 2-3%, the latter condition was doing so despite a mild lactacidosis being present at exercise onset.
Meanwhile, a further study has examined gender differences in peak muscle performance during growth and found that in the younger age groups from age 8 to 14 there were no significant differences between boys and girls for anthropometric characteristics and cycling performance (peak power and optimal velocity). Between 14-16, a clear gender differentiation was reported and, from 16 upwards, despite known differences between males and females - e.g. increase in total body fat levels in females, the actual relationship between cycling peak power and lean leg volume remained the same. This suggests that other factors, such as fibre type and neuromuscular activation, might also be partly responsible for the observed higher peak muscle performance in males.
Planning also has major importance in rest intervals between activities either to facilitate the adaptive physiological response or to allow sufficient time to perform a further quality repetition. Within a given resistance session, two critical factors have been reported in the scientific press.
Firstly, a study looked at a regime of 5, 2, and 1-minute recoveries between sets of 8RM lifts of either squats or bench presses. The 5-minute rest condition resulted in the highest volume completed, followed in descending order by the 2- and 1-minute rest conditions. The ability to perform a higher volume of training with a given load may stimulate greater strength adaptations.
Secondly, a comparison between 1 and 3-minute recoveries in a similar lifting environment reported that with the shorter recovery measurably higher leukocyte levels (+83%) occurred when compared to the longer recovery period (+16%). This would suggest that there is an increased immune response leading to potentially higher levels of inflammation being seen if recovery is too short. Appropriate strength training often provides an enormous opportunity for the performer to improve and so consideration of regimes that work and will allow the required adaptation to occur are critical.
Often coaches and athletes find themselves faced with the necessity of using machines when they would have preferred to access free weights and vice versa. This can lead to problems in establishing meaningful continuity in training. Help is at hand though where the authors have devised an equation for calculating 1RM from the Smith Machine (SM) and translating them into 1RM for free weights for both the supine bench press and parallel back squat. There were differences between men and women between the two lifts studied, so:
The following equation can be used for men and women:
Whereas this equation can only be used for women:
The efficient coordination of agonist and antagonist muscles is one of the important early adaptations in resistance training responsible for large increases in strength. Weak antagonist muscles may limit the speed of movement; consequently, strengthening them leads to an increase in agonist muscle movement speed. Effectively combining both agonist and antagonist muscle exercises into a power training session is the challenge addressed by a report whereby an intervention group trained using a set of bench pulls as an antagonistic action to bench throws (40kg). A 4.7% increase for the group compared to controls indicated that a strategy of alternating agonist and antagonist muscle exercises might acutely increase power output during complex power training. This result may affect power training and specific warm-up.
It has been established over recent years that one of the key missing components in many athletes' strength conditioning armoury has been eccentric muscle strengthening. A paper looked at a comparison of the same overall training volumes but at differing intensities for isometric quadriceps eccentric exercise and concluded that the lower intensity eccentric work leads to a better recovery and a lower power loss even up to 72 hours after training. A fascinating paper looked at levels of abdominal muscle activity while training in various ways or with various pieces of equipment - i.e. trunk flexion with the Ab Roller, Abslide or FitBall and conventional trunk curls. Performing abdominal exercises with the Ab Roller, ABslide, and FitBall did not elicit greater activity of either the upper or lower rectus abdominis than performing traditional trunk curls. Use of the ABslide elicited greater external oblique activity and significantly less upper rectus abdominis activity than the other 3 modes. Both the ABslide and FitBall resulted in the greater involvement of the hip flexors, an undesirable feature of abdominal exercises. When choosing how to facilitate abdominal strengthening, it is vital to be aware of such factors.
Rather than measuring stimulation levels, another paper reported on providing self-administered neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) and its effect on strength, endurance as well as, for example, the individual's perception of their shape and satisfaction. Twenty-four adults stimulated their abdominals five days per week (20-40 minutes per session) for eight weeks and, in comparison to a control group had a 58% increase in abdominal strength, a 100% increase in abdominal endurance versus a 28% increase in the control group. Waist circumference decreased by 3.5cm compared to no change in the control group. All 24 subjects in the group felt that their midsections were more "toned" and "firmed" and 13/24 (54%) felt that their posture had improved as a result of the stimulation. None of the control group subjects reported changes in these parameters. There were no significant differences in body weight, BMI, or skinfold thickness for the study in either group. NMES, as used in the current study, resulted in significant improvements in the muscular strength and endurance of the abdominal region, as well as the subject's perceived shape and satisfaction with the mid-section.
The word on the street of the knowing strength conditionist is no longer 'core-strength' but 'Pilates'. A recent paper looks at this World War 2-devised technique for improved balance, stability, posture, injury prevention and treatment, and probably any other quality you wish to add! - it is or will be the new revolution. I never personally understood this naïve approach based on, for example, how many sit-ups the athlete could perform in 30 seconds - I might subscribe, perhaps, more to how few they might perform while continuously moving very slowly and holding everything together!! Developing strength is important, but if not performed in parallel to a sympathetic flexibility program, then the trained strength gains may lead to a loss of range of movement. A timely paper compared three different stretching approaches for the hamstring muscle group and concluded that static stretching beat all other forms over a 4-week program. Unfortunately, the limitation here was that only one 30 second hold was performed with each stretch on each of 3-days per week - not exactly in line with training principles for improving fitness components and not a realistic test of the efficacy of the various forms of stretching.
Moving into the speed domain this month and some preliminary results from a survey of what it takes to be a sprint swimmer have emerged. A large study of 12-14 age-group boys and girls found that both genders have common factors that correlate well with fast 100 metres freestyle swimming including upper extremity length and horizontal jump distance. For boys, an additional factor was grip strength whereas for girls' additional factors were body height, hand length, and shoulder flexibility. For girls, the association with performance of these factors was lower than the factors for boys suggesting that the three parameters stated could be used to select young male swimmers - interestingly one factor was anthropometric and two were land-based strength/power tests!
A study looked at cycle sprint training (30-second repetitions) over eight weeks and found that specific power output and VO2 peak increased, but that muscle fibre type did not change. That glycogen degradation during sprint exercise was unaffected by sprint training of this nature, suggesting that this form of sprint training enhances oxidative rather than glycolytic energy pathways.
An illuminating paper reporting on the relative anaerobic/aerobic energy system contribution for 100 metres and 200 metres sprinting revealed that, somewhat surprisingly, there are gender differences and that the aerobic contribution to 200 metres running, at least, appears to be greater than previously thought to be the case (33% for females and 28% for males). Over 100 metres the contribution is still significant (25% and 21%). Those aerobic conditioning sessions that most speed merchants hate so much are more important than they realize?
Moving to longer distances but still focusing on speed a study looked closely at the performance impact on speed endurance of cyclists of sodium bicarbonate supplementation. As reported previously this substance is capable of buffering against acidosis brought on by increased lactate levels. Sprint bursts placed during the session showed significant levels of improvement under the influence of the bicarbonate, and plasma levels remained higher in these subjects than in controls.
A study that looked at 800 metres running could not correlate laboratory findings with track performance in respect of VO2 consumption. Middle distance athletes tested on the track attained VO2 max by around 45 seconds and maintained this for about 33 seconds on average. The surprise came in the last 38 seconds when athletes failed to maintain and showed a significant decrease in VO2.
And finally, you have 8 minutes to take a breather - and that's official! Researchers have concluded that this is all you should take during track speed workouts over anything up to 800 metres - even those going deep into lactate limitation of speed - so do not blame your coach next time out - blame those sports scientists!
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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, and 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 the 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.