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What’s the goal here, Health or Performance? – Pt. 2

Performance Training

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Before we delve into this insight I’d like to make one small note to begin, under our definition, an individual classified within a performance model, is an elite athlete competing at either a national or international level within their chosen discipline. General population clients, recreational sports performers or local/regional level competitors are fundamentally individuals training for health purposes, they are not performance athletes. 

At the performance level, individuals are truly world-class within their chosen discipline, and respect must be had for the unique requirements of these individuals and their training methodologies. Applying performance models general population or recreational athletes, whilst likely to provide some degree of result in the short-term, fails to consider the singular training history, training age, genetics, physiology and environment that separates these remarkable performers. 

This insight provides a broad overview of how various sporting activities differ in terms of their performance requirements at a fundamental level. Occasional references are made to those athletes within those sports for contextual purposes only. This is in no way a representation of the current practices, needs, or requirements of individuals at the performance level of the sport.

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In our previous training insight, we began to address the potential need in classifying our training goal in terms of health or performance.

(If you haven’t had a read of that already, why not take a quick detour here before you begin).

In the previous insight, we introduced how we distinguish between these two constructs, health and performance, need to be fundamentally different in terms of how we train clients and athletes.

Are we looking to improve a biomarker of health such as lowering blood pressure, weight loss, post-injury rehabilitation or day-to-day ease of movement?

Or are we looking to improve sport performance through an increase in task-specific strength, cardiovascular conditioning for an event, or a component of match-day performance?

When it comes to our health, we’re in a discussion that extends further than just our muscular and cardiovascular system. Our goal is to increase the variability in how multiple systems of the body operate. The respiratory, endocrine, digestive, immune, lymphatic, nervous, and of course, our muscular and cardiovascular systems, all play a role in maintaining optimal health.

It’s the adaptability of these systems, amongst others, to remain resilient in the presence of change that allows us to cope with our individual internal and external environment and the stresses it brings.

We aim to provide the body with variability and alternatives in which it can safely function.

A key component of our previous insight highlighted that during periods of stress, the body will revert back to it’s simplest operating system for both protective and energy saving purposes.

In clients, we may therefore see limitations in their ability to extend, flex, adduct, abduct, externally or internally rotate at the shoulder, spine or hip joint, as the body locks into a state of protection and hyper-vigilance.

As influencers of the movement system, we have the capacity through our interventions to influence our clients via the following systems…

Musculoskeletal: Through applied biomechanical form and progressive resistance

Cardiorespiratory: The development of multiple energy systems

Neuromuscular: Understanding and applying principles of motor control in skill development

Respiratory: Recognising and managing the respiratory influence of heart rate, muscle tone and stress reduction

Digestive: Applying nutritional principles that take into consideration the uniqueness of the individual

We concluded our previous insight with an overview of some of the methods we have in and outside of sessions to how we can assist our clients in improving biomarkers of health through the movement system.

In this insight, we’ll switch focus towards the world of performance and see how our approach may need different considerations when working with athletes involved in sport.

We’ll begin with a look at the performance requirements of four different sporting examples. Using two energy system measures, two musculoskeletal measures, and the level of movement variability involved, to illustrate the individuality and similarities of each activity.

As we can immediately see, there is wide variation in the requirements of our four individuals in their fields.

Some require more oxidative needs, others more anaerobic. Some are pure strength or power athletes, other require more variety in the way they move to maximise performance.

Using this admittedly overly reductionist viewpoint, the necessity for specificity within performance remains immediately evident. What we have before us is a spectrum of requirements for differing individuals for each of our measures. Lets take a look at these individuals in turn.

International 100m Sprinter

A simpler sporting event couldn’t really exist. Sprint from Point A to Point B in the shortest possible time without deviating. So simple they’ll even mark straight lines out for those taking part to ensure they know the lane to stay in. However here in lies one of the ultimate examples of performance specificity, and an activity truly fundamental to what makes us human.

Pure, explosive, sagittal plane expression, all over in less than 10 seconds. An awesome sight to behold.

We’ll start by looking at this individual from an energy system standpoint, and begin by asking the question would our 100m Sprinter benefit from a well developed aerobic system?

Short answer, no… Remember, this individual is unlikely to take more than a breath or two during performance at absolute max.

With times between 9.5-10.5 seconds, this is the world of the ATP-PCr System. Our immediate, yet limited, energy supply for extremely high intensity activity.

(For more information on Energy Systems, take a read of our training insight here)

Our Sprinter will barely enter, if at all, the glycolytic system, and will remain a world apart from beginning to challenge the aerobic system. Imagine telling Usain Bolt when he’s finished a race that he’s got 60secs before he runs again, he’d think you clinically insane.

This is our first example of true system specificity and rigidity. Anaerobic power and capacity is all we need.

Does our 100m sprinter need to be able to move side-to-side, twist, turn, rotate? No…

This is pure sagittal plane mechanics. Sprinting is straight-line running, extension and flexion. This is why when we see sprinters side on, they often demonstrate dramatic anterior tilt of the pelvis, deep lumbar lordosis and external rotation of the ribcage. Even in standing, these athletes are extending.

Now, if as trainers we began to increase the degrees of freedom in this individual, bringing them out of their extended state and into a more neutral position both mechanically and physiologically, we possibly run the risk of impacting performance negatively. Maybe in our Sprinters case, it’s this level of extension that provides the sympathetic drive to perform the task they need and propel them forward at such pace.

Here in lies our second example of system specificity, Sprinters are sagittal beings.

Looking at this from a musculoskeletal strength/power viewpoint, does our sprinter need to be strong… you bet they do. Ground reaction forces at foot contact whilst top-speed sprinting, can be as much as 6x bodyweight in elite track sprinters.

So they need to be as strong as possible? We’ll, kinda…!

Consider it takes between 0.3 and 0.4secs to develop maximal force under isometric conditions. How long does out sprinter contact the ground for… between 0.08 and 0.10 secs. This is not even close to being enough time to reach maximal force production. When we consider that only a few individuals since records began have squatting over 4x bodyweight, and none of these where elite level sprinters, we begin to see why maximal strength requirement is not necessary the be-all-and-end-all for our Sprinter.

What our individual requires in large amounts is explosive strength, the ability to exert maximal forces in minimal time. Whilst we know contact with the floor isn’t going to be sufficient to truly express maximal production, our goal should be to ensure that what is expressed, is of the highest possible force production possible.

From a training perspective, increasing maximal strength in our Sprinter works in the short term as we begin to somewhat bridge the gap towards ground reaction forces. Yet we soon reach a tipping point in which improving on this parameter brings marginal gains if any against invested time. We then enter into the world reducing the explosive strength deficit and looking to improve on the rate of force development in which the biggest impulse can be generated in the shortest time.

This is why the inclusion of Plyometric and Olympic Lift variations and derivations, always seem to form a part of a Sprinters training programmes. Get strong, then get explosive…

Using just these three examples, energy systems, musculoskeletal requirements and movement variability, it’s clear to see that from a performance standpoint, in the world of sprinting, our individual has need for a reduction in system variability to maximise performance outcomes.

Anything that takes away from the ability to exert force in a straight line is potentially a detriment to performance.

Professional Footballer

With 8-12km distance averaged, high-intensity sprints into the triple figures, multiple jumps, changes of directions, cuts, twists and turns, shoulder-to-shoulder tussles, tackles, periods of rest followed by chaotic moments of pressing, this is an individual that represents the epitome of multi-system variability.

Beginning with our energy systems, Football is whats classified as an phosphogenic-oxidative activity, in that it requires primarily both our ATP-PCr and Oxidative energy systems for performance purposes.

To explain further, on average a Footballer may make between 80-110 high intensity sprints across 90mins of play. This total across a game, comes to an average of 7mins 40secs. So across a match, a player may spend nearly 8mins at a speed classified as “sprinting”.

Yet the challenge with such chaotic non-linear sports such as Football, is that a sprint may be interspersed with 3mins rest, or 3secs, we really don’t know. in comparison, our Sprinter goes all-out for 10 seconds then may not race again until the following day.

With each of these high-intensity sprints, each providing an accumulation in overall fatigue, the role that energy production, more specifically ATP resynthesis through aerobic means, becomes vital to performance.

Through ATP-PCr and Glycolytic measures alone, we simply don’t have the capacity to supply the demand needed to maintain high-level performance. We need oxygen. (For more information take a read here)

If our star Striker is unbeatable over 10m’s, but needs a full 5 minutes to recover before they can hit even close to the same level of intensity again, they’re effectiveness over 90mins is going to be severely limited. In this event, in steps the glycolytic system with its inefficient removal of waste product, and up shoots our fatigue factor early in the game.

Do we want our Footballers to be able to sprint quickly? Of course…

Do we also want our Footballers to have robust oxidative systems (eg. high VO2 Max)? Most definitely…

Our Footballer requires energy system variability.

This ties nicely into the musculoskeletal requirements of the sport. Positional prerequisites and player characteristics will largely dictate the physical needs of the individual. It’s a genuinely unique environment that can have 5ft 4” 60kg individuals and 6ft 7” 95kg individuals competing on the same field in direct opposition.

Yet fundamentally what we know is that muscular strength underpins the capacity for muscular endurance and is the building block upon which muscular power is built. If we don’t have a baseline requirement of strength, whether this be classified relatively (against bodyweight), or absolutely (in terms of total figure lifted), the likelihood of reaching the top stages of performance are going to be increasingly limited without a truly world-class technical or tactical advantage over the opposition.

To be as effective 20mins into a game when we’re fresh, and equally effective when 85mins in and we’re fatigued after 100 high-intensity sprints, 30 near-maximal effort jumps and nearly 11km total running distance on the board, it’s going to be underpinned massively by a muscular strength component.

Therefore, do Footballers need to have muscular endurance and strength and power at a basic level? They do…

System variability again…

As we began, Football is a multi-directional, transitional, invasion game.

Players will change directions hundreds of times, both left and right, planting, cutting, twisting, turning. From a movement system perspective, the requirements are obvious.

Freyette’s 3rd Law of Spinal Motion dictates that movement in one plane of motion, limits possible movement in another. Eg… If I’m rotated in my spine, it limits my ability to then either fully flex or extend…

If our Footballer presents with Sprinter-like extension posture and movement mechanics (anterior pelvic tilt, bilateral rib flare, deep lordosis), possibly also with an inability to adduct, abduct, internally or externally rotate at the hips and shoulders, we’ve got potentially major issues for our systems.

This individual is going to severely struggle when asked to move in the frontal and transverse planes without compensation, and Football needs multiple planes of motion.

Like the musculoskeletal and energy system requirements, this individual needs movement system variability…

So far, we have two performance individuals, both involve the action of sprinting yet both have incredibly different requirements from a performance perspective. As a result each clearly deserves a unique appreciation for how they are independently trained.

Elite Level Powerlifter

Sporting requirements? Lift the heaviest total load possible in the Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press. As simple as that.

A very narrow scope of performance is required. More similar in scope therefore to our Sprinter than Footballer, but unique all the same.

From an energy system standpoint, much like our Sprinter, we’re in the world of ATP-PCr.

This is single-rep output, nothing particularly glycolytic or oxidative here. (unless we consider the ratio allowed for recovery between attempts, in which we may introduce an aerobic component for ATP resynthesis) 

This is back to the world of system specificity and rigidity, anything that takes away from the unique requirements of the sport may only hinder the performance capacity of the individual.

In terms of musculoskeletal requirements, this is where we begin to see difference between our Powerlifter and Sprinter. As was highlighted earlier, one of the issues will sole focus on maximal strength training with Sprinters, is that in the event itself, sprinting, ground contact time is shorter (0.08-0.1secs) than the time requirement needed to reach maximal force production (0.3-0.4secs). Our Powerlifter has no such problem.

This is all about the development of Pmm, maximum maximum performance. We are looking to create the most favourable conditioning both intrinsically and extrinsically to enable this individual to provide a true expression of Pmm. Time is not an issue.

This is typically why we’ll see many of the same postural characteristics within Powerlifters as Sprinters, a bias towards extension coupled with far greater muscle and total body mass. Again, the ability to twist, turn, side-bend, adduct, abduct have limited impact on performance when sagittal plane motion is predominately required.

Interestingly however, consider this unique requirement and interplay between health and performance.

Due to the extreme loads lifted in sports such as Powerlifting, it’s not uncommon for individual to literally pass out on completion, or during, a maximal lift. This is an internal system and brain so threatened by what’s occurred and the subsequent sharp increase in blood pressure beyond homestatic levels, that to prevent complete system failure (i.e. death), it renders the individual unconscious for it’s protection….

Yet elevate blood pressure to these or similar levels often enough through training, and the average blood pressure of the individual begins to increase.

Now, from a health perspective as we outlined in our previous insight, we’d look at this and say an increase in system variability is needed, its unhealthy to have blood pressure this high. Yet this is a manifestation of the training requirements of the sport, its a physiological adaptation needed to allow the task to be performed. Whilst it may be deemed healthy, would the same maximal strength output be possible without such a sharp rise in blood pressure??

Food for thought…

Professional Golfer

Our final example brings us to the world of Golf, a sport many consider the pinnacle of human movement. A combination of frontal plane hip mechanics and transverse plane thoracic rotation, performed under extremely high-velocity, with near mastery levels of control and co-ordination.

Yet when we consider the world of Golf, we see about as varied a field in terms of physical appearance and levels of athleticism, as we will within any sport. Compare the likes of John Daly, who may would classify as overweight, if not obese, to individuals such as Tiger Woods and Rory Mcilory, who redefined the sport in terms of levels of athleticism within Golf.

Fundamentally, the energy system requirements of Golf are limited at best. Across a period of 3-4hrs an individual may hit 65-85 shots at most. The most taxing component from an energy system requirement is the walking period between shots, which barely registers from a training standpoint.

However what enables individuals like John Daly, known primarily for his driving-distance, to compete on the PGA Tour against individuals such as Rory Mcilroy, is the understanding an uniqueness of the sports musculoskeletal and movement requirements.

A golf club may weigh anywhere up to 1kg depending on individual preference and club type. We would not in anyway classify this is as a heavy implement. Using the shot type of driving as an example, a golf swing may take between 750-900ms on backswing and between 250-300ms on downswing, that’s an explosive activity with a very light implement.

It’s the lightness of the implement that enable the velocity of the action. Motion velocity decreases as external resistance increases. We’re therefore dealing not with the maximal strength end of the spectrum, as velocity and the implement resistance don’t allow for maximal strength to be expressed. This is rate of force development, explosive power.

Our Golfer when driving, needs to generate the maximal level of force achievable in the shortest possible time to ensure that on impact between club and ball, they are capable of expressing as much of their explosive strength as feasible in the time.

For this to occur, we have a huge biomechanical underpinning, of which movement variability plays a large role.

If we remember back to Freyette’s 3rd Law, movement in one plane of motion limits the capacity for movement in another. If our training puts us excessively into positions of extension, lacks variability in pattern and position, ignores the need for frontal plane pelvic control and transverse plane thoracic rotation, we’re consciously limiting the potential ability of the movement system within key requirements of the sport.

Our Golfer therefore can’t shift hips appropriately and the can’t rotate without compensatory patterns.

Yet as we began, Golf is fundamentally frontal plane below the diaphragm, and transverse plane above.

Whilst we began with the statement that Golf is limited in it’s energy system requirements, our respiratory system plays a crucial role in Golf performance.

If we cannot exhale fully, we are restricting the capacity for the body to move in three planes of motion. Imagine trying to swing a golf club with two inflated balloons underneath your arms, it’s going to be a struggle.

In this example, by learning to fully exhale, internally rotating the ribcage, we have the capacity to perform actions such as posteriorly rotating the pelvis, shifting into acetabular-femoral internal rotation on the left, left-thoracic trunk rotation without compensation, all requirements of an effective golf swing.

This is an increase in system variability providing us options in the positions in which we can breathe, rotate and rest.

System Variability vs System Rigidity

Through four examples of sporting activities, we’ve seen a raft of not only differences in task and system requirements, but similarities as well.

Yet the key take-away point of this training insight is the need to fully understand the multi-system requirements of a sport and individual.

Some sports and individuals require a broadening of system variability to meet the unique demands of the sport/event to enable an increase performance. Others need a very specific narrowing of focus and increase in system rigidity to enable them to perform the task at hand at an elite level.

What remains however is the undeniable need for individualisation. Cookie-cutter programmes may provide basic solutions within health, in which the simplest of programmes can often see wide-ranging influences upon multiple systems. Performance however is another world.

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