Ever wondered why some training programmes work for some athletes and not for others? Why some people are genetically gifted athletes? Why there is a fixed set of intervals for all athletes? Why certain drugs work for some and not others? Do compression socks work? What the hell does a VO2 max test tell you, is it just useless information? Is lactate friend or foe? I delve into the sport science world and try to find the answers to train smarter and hopefully become a better athlete. This page is written in my own thoughts and words with a cross-pollination from several other sites and links to the original articles. Some of it might sound like a rant but it is written to make you think. So if you read it without a open mind then your in the wrong place. Enjoy and open your mind.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recovery and adaptation, or is it?

Here are a few ideas on recovery.  When we train we break our bodies down, and we become stronger by adaptation when we recover.  As athletes and coaches we advise a variety of ideas to have a faster recovery so that we can adapt faster and complete the next session sooner but, little do we think, do we hinder adaptation? sometimes there are faster ways to recovery than we already think we know?  Here is a summary.

Antioxidants:  Antioxidant refers to the group of substances which includes vitamins E, C, A, and carotenoids.  When our body cells use oxygen, the body naturally produce free radicals which can cause damage, thus used in sport and general health to prevent cellular damage from free radicals.

The adaptation to stress caused by training is the reactive Oxygen.  So by using antioxidants you are getting rid of the stress trigger before your body can adapt.  So use antioxidants sparingly as the body has its own antioxidant defences.  Eating fruit after training will probably be ok as the antioxidant concentrations are low compared to that of supplements.

Ice baths:  Ice baths are the new in thing, and research although not conclusive generally support its use as a recovery method.  But the body when under stress has a secretion of hormones that aid in muscle repair.  By taking a ice bath the cooling of the muscle is stopping this recovery cycle which will most likely reduce adaptation.  As with antioxidants it is the timing of the ice bath that is important, that it does not interfere with the bodies natural adaptation cycle.  Taking a ice bath directly after a hard interval session would be a bad idea as where if you take it the day after would be better.

Finishing a race:  We get told after we collapse on the finishing line or hard session to stand up even though the natural reaction was to collapse! Perhaps it is our bodies natural response that it is easier for the cardiac system to pump blood laying down than against gravity, thus getting blood round your body quicker.  Makes sense huh?

Stretching:  Stretching has its place in sport when done at the right time and for the right reason, but certain people are naturally more flexible than others and need to stretch less.  It is a proven fact that stretching too much has a negative effect on running economy as the muscle tends too loose its springiness. Think of the muscle as a coiled spring, the more it is stretched the less power it will have and the more energy it requires to produce the same power. We get told too easily for every little thing that we need to stretch. A perfect example is a ITB muscle injury that comes from running where the muscle rubs agains the side of the knee. Every body says, stretch it and let it rest. Well The reverse is actually true the ITB muscle needs to be strengthened! The ITB is rubbing because it is compensating by shortening for its lack of strength! 

Cooling down:  Saving the best topic for last,  it has taken some decades to find and accept that lactate is the indicator of fatigue and not the cause of it, and that lactate helps to delay acidosis.  Any physiologist or coach worth he's pay will know that lactate is the preferred fuel used by the heart.  So if we test lactate we should look at it as a biomaker of fatigue and a indication of energy stores in the same way that we test glucose for fuel stores.

So if we get told to cool down after a hard session what is the first answer when we ask why? "Get rid of lactate"!  Here is another question, would you cool down to get rid of glucose? No! So why get rid of lactate if it is a fuel. Would it not be better to keep the lactate in our system so that the heart and brain can use the fuel.  Our kidneys get rid of the wastes in our body so if we cool down we take blood away from the kidneys and to the muscle, thus slowing down even more the clearing proces of the supposedly bad stuff. 

Here is a reply you might get for not cooling down.  "The next interval session was slower because lactate was still so high".  Answer: perhaps lactate is a indication that the body needs lactate, and the body has not recovered fully because rather the respiratory, muscular or cardiac system is still fatigued from the last session.

Think through some of these ideas, I am not saying that we should not use antioxidants or ice baths or cool down, simply have a think of how our bodies react, and not do something just because everyone else does it. Be a sheep or be a pioneer.

Many of these thoughts come from FaCT Canada who look at physiology from a different angle and make sense of everything.  More on ice baths and antioxidants read these two articles:  Antioxidant supplements are they needed  and When damage is a good thing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Understanding the weakest link and more ideas.

Some more ideas and thoughts, and why we find LBP and the weakest link. Read Athletes weakest link to get the background on this article.

This is the scenario: A pro cyclist has a well developed leg muscular system which has a good capillary network to delivery oxygen to mitochondria. The cyclist may have a vital organ as a limitation. Now move the cyclist to a rowing machine where his arms are poorly developed and utilisation of fuel to the muscle will be a problem even though he's vital organs are providing sufficient blood and oxygen to the upper body. Make the cyclist do cross country skiing, here will be another scenario where same as rowing the upper body is the limitation involved but coordination may be more of a problem.

In each of these cases LBP will be different and a different system will create LBP. Which is why LBP needs to be tested for every sport activity. To add to the previous paragraphs scenario, using tools such as NIRS and Phisio Flow, a coach can easily find out what system in the body is the weak link, muscular, respiratory or cardiac. Then adapt the training so that the weakest link will improve the LBP which will lead to a faster athlete.

Training the Weakest link if:

The heart is the weak link, then one could perhaps train the heart in a way so that the respiratory system will challenge the oxygen delivery so that the heart has to react. Using Pulmonary Endurance Training PET is a example. If we have a portable device to monitor heart hemodynamics we can monitor stroke volume training. Intervals may have the ability to improve Stroke volume but only if the interval intensity (rest and load) period is so fixed, that we do not create a 'storage of blood' or a occlusion in the working muscles but rather move as much blood back into the system and to the heart to increase circulatory blood volume.

It is muscular limitation where utilization is the problem then work needs to be done on capillarisation and mitochondria density.

The respiratory system is the the athletes limitation then keeping the heart rate low by using SpiroTiger to stimulate the respiratory system.

Blood system is the limitation, then it could be improved with nutrition and IHT (Intermittent Hypoxic Training) and PET.

If the limitation is coordination and stabilisation you might think swiss balls and sit ups! Worst choice, (see my last article why)! A better answer is once again specific diaphragm training. The diaphragm is a vital stabilisation muscle of the core, strengthening of the diaphragm with breathing training will strengthen the core indirectly and stop the 'falling apart' at the core when a athlete is fatigued. The dead lift and squat actively activates the core better than core exercises! Training with specific coordination training is the better answer.

Most of these ideas needs equipment to check respiratory information, heart hemodynamics, and the muscle situation. Even not having access to this type of equipment and just understanding what is happening to the body and why we need to look for certain biomarkers will improve our training programmes. Here is a very basic idea on how we can build training programmes around recovery instead of the recovery around training as the body adapts and becomes stronger when we recover: Test LBP, then do a session where we stress the LBP or a session where we go above LBP, then retest LBP to see if the body has recovered from the session. If LBP is lower the athlete has not yet recovered, if it is back to baseline we are ready to go again. This is the beauty of the LBP assessment over a standard Lactate Test in that the athlete doesn’t need to be pushed to maximum and a LBP assessment can be done before a session to see if a athlete is ready for the next push or needs to just go for a easy bimble.

When we know what the athletes limitation is for each sport activity, then we need to decide what will improve the limitation, and not just do a set of exercises because everyone else is doing that exercise (i.e. sit up for core instead of diaphragm strengthening), once we understand what will improve the limitation then we can focus on structural training rather than functional training.


We strive to push our selves to the limit in every training session and sometimes athletes will push so hard that they may see God for a brief few seconds. The question during such hard intensities where overload and stress takes place, is there any point in stressing the system further with more repetition to over stress it? A session that stressed the respiratory system, would it be a good idea to complete another respiratory session with the SpiroTiger so that we have a drop in performance and LBP when we want to do another session the next day? Probably not until the respiratory system has recovered, what if the cardiac system was overloaded then followed by something that challenges coordination or the respiratory system? That would be a smarter idea as you are challenging something which has not yet been stressed. This idea comes from the Austrian researcher, Hans Selye. Except that most coaches will take his idea too literally and push the athlete so that the athlete has to complete the predetermined set of intervals to get the most out of the session, even though (ie cardiac workout) with the same perceived exertion the heart rate can not be maintained, lap times are getting slower and the Central Governor Model (CGM) is kicking in because the body is more interested in survival than performance, the athlete systems is now in overstress mode. The Coach missed the point where the athletes system reached its overload point and the session should have been done for the day. What Hans Selye meant with overload is perhaps not overload but simply change the way we stimulate and challenge the systems. i.e. today we challenge the respiratory system, then the cardiac system which is still fresh, coordination or technique, once a system has recovered it can be challenged again.

Example of listening to the body:

Here is a picture where we follow physiological reactions rather than set intervals, this is a profile from NIRS. Green line is total blood flow (tHB), red oxygenated blood which tell you how much blood is loaded with O2, blue deoxygenated blood. The time frame from 0 to 1400 is where the athlete warmed up to get get blood flow into the working muscle (rise in green line) upto the point (900) where the intensity increased and the blood volume started dropping and deoxygenated blood (blue line) increased as a sign of O2 usage. From line A the the intervals start, blood volume rises dramatically as there is more blood in muscle during the recovery and drops during intensity as muscle tension and occlusion takes place, the last interval by 2400 was stopped due to not reaching the recovery Tisue Saturation Index (TSI%) which was also indicated by a slower rise in the green line, so the session was over. The interval before already, the tHb (Green line) did not drop to the same level as the previous intervals. The athlete ran into ATP delivery problems due to increased intramuscular tension and thus a reduction in blood flow. (The feeling of 'blown up legs' due to a occlusion situation in the muscles).

We will always have a overall programme with a idea of what we are going to do in a session, but a perfect training session will be where, neither coach nor athlete has any idea of the sessions outcome. They do not know how many reps or how long the recovery will be, as this will be decided by biomarkers such as heart rate, glucose, lactate, breathing frequency, tissue saturation etc. instead of a paced workout where we complete 10x400m meters, after the second interval we know how to pace the session and by knowing this we have changed the physiological end result. What if we followed some of the pre mentioned biomarkers and were able to achieved more physiologically in 6 reps than the planned 10 by rather stopping when we reach the same physiological stress as the first interval? Why train for 60min when you can achieve the same result in a shorter period, or perhaps you need longer for the overload, but you will not know unless you start to understand the physiology and look at the biomarkers that is available to you. This is where we start training smart versus being sheep following a cook book.