Race Day ‘Tricks of the Trade’ from Sport Science

Introduction

You know the routine. We train hard and recover well. Leading into a meet we taper to peak for competition day. After (hopefully!) a good night’s sleep we ensure we eat well before the meet and keep up the fluids. We arrive at the venue, set ourselves up for the day, then we warm-up. Eventually we get called to the marshalling area and we finally compete.

Recently I came across a fantastic paper in the highly-respected and highly-applied peer-reviewed journal International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. The article focused on six strategies to do on competition day that may improve our performance, particularly in track and field events where explosive power is used. Some are novel and may be unrealistic but I want to share these with you. As always, try them and see if they work for you.

1.       Warm-Up harder and closer to the event

Typically we warm-up upon arriving at the venue for the competition. If we are smart we also warm-up closer to the actual event. This is because the main effect of warm-up is increasing muscle temperature which increases muscle power. The effect of a warm-up lasts about 30-45 minutes but drops pretty quickly after 20 minutes. How long the effect lasts depends on the intensity and duration of the warm-up, as well as the environmental conditions and what you do after warm-up in terms of clothing and more activity.

A 2010 review of all published research showed that 79% of studies showed improved performance with warm-up. For example, one study showed a 4% increase in leg power output for every 10C increase in muscle temperature. Thus, larger increases in muscle temperature have been shown to improve power outputs even more. This suggests harder warm-ups.

A recent 2013 study on bob-sledders not only increased the intensity of the normal warm-up by 30% to improve performance, they also reduced the after warm-up recovery time from 35 minutes to 15 minutes and improved 20 m sprint performance even more. The bottom line is to warm-up harder and closer to the event.

2.       Stay warm after that warm-up

It’s normal to warm-up and then stand, sit or lie around in the stands, tents or marshalling area where we can’t be active to stay warm and keep that all-important muscle temperature up. Wearing track suits or even outdoor adventure parkas and pants will help keep the arms (throwers) and legs (throwers, runners, jumpers) warmer.

These days you can even buy heated clothing or heating pads to keep the muscles you are going to use warm. Research has shown that keeping the muscles warmer in any way leads to improved speed and power.

3.       Post-activation potentiation (PAP)

I’m sounding like an academic now aren’t I? PAP means if we stimulate (activation) our muscles with high intensity efforts, there is a period after that (post) where the muscles are more ready (potentiation) for the hard work about to come in the actual event. Why? Because by firing up the muscles with hard work just before the event, both the nervous system and muscles are activated and ready for action. Sprinters doing weighted squats or squat jumps before racing is an example.

PAP is affected by the initial strength level you have, the timing between the original stimulus and the event, and both the intensity and volume of the original stimulus. Heavy weights (75-95% of 1 RM [Repetition Maximum] or heaviest weight you can lift) done 8-12 minutes before the event has been shown to be most effective in Rugby players sprint performance.

But is it realistic to have weights available? Usually not. But doing squat jumps or ballistic activities with hand weights or depth jumps is. All these activities have been shown by research to increase power output in athletes. Performance improvements in power have been shown between 2 and 6 minutes after doing these activities.

4.       Remote Ischemic Preconditioning (RIPC)

How do academics come up with names like this? Simply put, RIPC means briefly cutting off the blood supply to the legs (throwers, jumpers, runners) or arms (throwers) by using a blood pressure cuff or tourniquet (to pressure levels similar to when your blood pressure is taken) for 5 minutes then opening up the tourniquet or cuff for 5 minutes (alternating legs/arms) to have the blood flush back through the muscles. It’s been suggested this procedure done before warm-up might not only increase blood flow but also increase muscle excitability and power.

For me personally this method looks a little risky, especially in older athletes who may have blood pressure issues or have heart disease risk factors. I’d strongly suggest having a chat to your family doctor about this method before trying it.

5.       Exercise in the morning for an afternoon or evening meet

Research over many years has shown that speed, power and endurance performance is always better in the late afternoon. Why, because our body and muscle temperature is usually 10C higher in the afternoon which makes energy reactions happen faster in muscles.

A couple of research projects have shown that both 800 m and 400 m run as well as muscle power performance are improved when a short but sharp morning workout is done 3-6 hours before the actual event.

6.       Prime the hormones

Higher blood testosterone levels have been shown to be related positively to greater power performance. Moreover, higher testosterone levels have also been linked to higher levels of motivation and confidence to compete.

Strategies to increase testosterone levels include watching yourself perform well in video clips and being reinforced by a coach or significant other(s) and/or watching videos of aggressive or intense training sessions. Watching others or fellow competitors has the opposite effect.

Conclusion

So putting all these strategies together, Table 1 below shows how these strategies might be scheduled on competition day.

Table 1: Theoretical timeline for pre-competition strategies on competition day (Modified from Kilduff and others, 2013)

6   hours before

45   min before

20   min before

15   min before

8-12   min before

0   hour

Morning workout

(short/sharp)

RIPC

Active Warm-Up

Video Clips

Positive feedback

PAP

Compete

Passive heating

RIPC = Remote Ischemic Preconditioning; PAP = Post-activation potentiation (see above)

I’ve always been a believer in ‘trying before you buy’. So give some of the strategies above a go in training or at minor competitions and see if they work for you. If they do, hold onto them. If they don’t, move on.

My book The Masters Athlete has some great tips on warming-up and tapering strategies for masters athletes.

Bibliography

  • Fradkin, A.J. and others (2010). Effects of warming up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24: 140-148.
  • Kilduff, L.P. and others (2013). Preconditioning strategies to enhance physical performance on the day of competition. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 8: 677-681.

Stay Warm After Warm-Up for Hot Performances

Introduction

It is well known in sports science that warm-ups that increase muscle temperature also improve power output in high power events lasting less than 5 minutes of so. Indeed, there is about a 4% increase in vertical jump power for every degree centigrade increase in muscle temperature. In cycling, peak power output improves up to 10% for every degree centigrade increase in a muscle’s temperature.

Warm-ups of high enough intensity can increase muscle temperature by 3-4 degrees C.  However, we usually warm-up then sit and wait for an event to start so that benefit of warmed up muscles drops as our muscle temp drops. However, what if we keep the muscles warm and prevent that drop by wearing (hot!) pants with heating elements in them to keep the muscle temp elevated to the level we had after the warm-up?

Here is a British study (yep, those brits love their cycling research!) aimed to determine the effect of passive insulation versus external heating during recovery after a sprint-specific warm-up on thigh muscle temperature and subsequent maximal sprint cycling performance.

The Research

On three separate occasions separated by three days, 11 male cyclists (24.7 ± 4.2 years old, 1.82 ± 0.72 m tall, 77.9 ± 9.8 kg) completed a standardized 15-min warm-up (5 min cycling at 100 watts then 5 x 10 second sprints separated by 1 min 50 sec of pedaling at 75 watts) on a cycle ergometer. The warm-up was followed by a 30-min passive recovery period before completing a 30-second all-out sprint test on a bike. Muscle temperature was measured in the thigh muscle (vastus lateralis) at 1, 2, and 3 cm depth before and after the warm-up and immediately before the sprint test. Absolute and relative (/kg) peak power output (watts) was determined and blood lactate concentration was measured immediately after exercise. During the 30 minute recovery period, participants wore a tracksuit top and either (i) standard tracksuit pants (CONT), (ii) insulated athletic pants (INS), or (iii) insulated athletic pants with integrated electric heating elements (HEAT). The heating element covered the back and front of the thigh but not the middle of the legs and was like a small electric blanket that was heated to 40-42 degrees C.

The Results

Warm-up increased muscle tempaterature by approximately 2.5 °C at all muscle depths, with no differences between the three conditions. During recovery, muscle temperature remained much more elevated in HEAT compared with INS and CONT at all depths. Power output (watts/kg) in the 30-second sprint was elevated by 9.1% in HEAT (20.9 ± 1.6 w/kg) compared with CONT (19.2 ± 1.7 w/kg). The increase in blood lactate concentration was also significantly greater after sprint in HEAT (6.3 ± 1.8 mmol/L) but not INS (4.0 ± 1.8 mmol/L) versus CONT (4.1 ± 1.9 mmol/L).

The research team concluded that passive heating of the thighs between warm-up completion and sprint cycling using pants incorporating electrically heated pads can lower the decline in muscle temperature and improve sprint cycling performance.

The So What?

The results of this study highlight how important it is to keep the specific muscles involved with sport as warm as possible after warm-up until the event we are doing starts. We can do this by staying active right up to the start of the event, wearing warm gear up to the event, or using heaters or heat pads (blankets) to keep the muscles warm. This study supports other previous studies that show this works in high power events lasting up to about 5 minutes in duration.

In longer endurance events where high power outputs aren’t as critical, the same principles also apply but aren’t as important if we can build into the event once it starts. However, where positioning is critical in endurance events (eg open water swim events, triathlon, cycling) when powerful starts are important, there are some lessons to be learnt from this research. Stay as warm as pssible up to the start of your event.

For more on warming up smart as an older athlete, see Chapter 4 (Principles of Training the Masters Athlete). Now avialable as a stand-alone pdf chapter along with 18 other chapters in the only book I’ve ever seen that brings the science of sport to athletes over 35 years of age.

Source: Faulkner, S. and others (2013) Reducing muscle temperature drop after warm-up improves sprint cycling performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 45(2): 359-365.

Tapering for Competition – Whats’ the Latest?

Introduction

Ah the art of tapering or peaking for an event! Those last few weeks or days before a major event where we hope that all those weeks, months or years of training, commitment and sacrifice come together to maximise our performance on the big day! Part science, part art, and part experience, a recent review published in a respected peer-reviewed journal has looked at all the studies conducted on tapering to give us the latest on what science says works when it comes to the taper.

One of the world’s leading sport scientists in the area of tapering and co-author of this paper is Inigo Mujika. He defines a taper as: a progressive, nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable amount of time that is intended to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimise sport performance.

Training load is reduced by manipulating training intensity (how hard you train), training volume (eg k’s per week), training frequency (times per week), the pattern of the taper, the duration of the taper, and the training load leading into the taper. Here is what the research has found in relation to these variables:

  1. Intensity of training: Conclusively, intensity of training needs to be maintained throughout the taper for all sports and events. Intensityshould not be reduced or increased when dropping training load during the taper.
  2. Volume: In 2007, a major analysis of all tapering studies available at that time showed that the greatest improvements in sports performance took place when training volume (eg. k’s per week) was reduced by 41-60% (about 50%) of pretaper values. Moreover, the same research showed that this drop in training volume should be done by reducing each training sessions duration, not how often you train.
  3. Frequency of training: Decreasing training frequency has not been shown by research to improve performance. The research suggest that training frequency be maintained during the taper.
  4. Pattern of the taper: The figure to the right shows four of the common types of taper undertaken by coaches and athletes. The fast decay method with a large drop in training volume initially that tapers off closer to the event appears to be the most effective.
  5. Duration of taper: A taper of between 8 to 14 days is suggested by the research to be the range shown to be most effective for athletes. Any longer and the effects of a drop in training volume start to appear and any shorter the effects of fatigue may result. The taper duration may be influenced by the training load leading into the taper with the greater loads meaning longer tapers. Each athlete should input to what length of taper may work best for them.
  6. Pretaper tarining load: Some research has suggested that boosting training load by 20% in the 28 days leading into the taper improves performance over normal training loads leading into taper. Research we conducted in our own laboratory supports this. We found that 4 weeks of overloaded training followed by 2 weeks of taper lead to greater performance (improvemenst of 7% in 3k run time trial) in team players than those players who did the same taper after normal training loads.

Recent research has also identified a number of other factors that may enhance tapers. These include:

  • Light massage to reduce muscle fatigue, particularly when combined with wearing compression garments.
  • Compression garments following training and during long-haul flights or car travel.
  • Cold water immersion following training
  • Sleep in a dark, calming and cool environment preceded by a warm shower.
  • Short naps no longer than 20-30 minutes.
  • Maintaining hydration status during taper and particularly in the 48 hours before the major event.
  • Carbohydrate loading, particularly in the three days prior to the event.

Hope these tips help. For more on tapering and the specific of the recovery strategies above, see Chapters 10 (Periodisation and peaking for the masters athlete) and 15 (Recovery strategies for the masters athlete) of my book The Masters Athlete

Source: Le Meur, Y, Hausswirth, C., and Mujika, I. (2012). Tapering for competition: A review. Science and Sports, 27(2): 77-87.

Pump Up the Music to Fire Up Performances

Introduction

I love listening to music to relax. Cold Play, U2 and Sleepy Jackson are my favourites. But I’ve never thought to use  music to pump up my sporting performances. Here is some research suggesting that listening to music can help sprint performance, especially in the morning when you might be half asleep!

The Research

The purpose of this research was to assess the effects of listening to music while warming-up on the dailyvariations of power output during the Wingate all-out 30-second sprint cycling test. 12 physical education students underwent four sprint cycling tests at 7am and 5pm, after 10 min of warm-up with and without listening to music. The warm-up consisted of 10 min of pedalling at a constant pace of 60 rpm against a light load. During the sprint cycling test, peak and mean power in watts were measured.

The Results

The main finding of the study was that both peak and mean power improved from morning to afternoon after no music warm-up. However, these daily variations disappeared for mean power and persisted with a greater morning-evening difference for peak power after music was used in the warm-up. Moreover, peak and mean power outputs were significantly higher after music was used in the warm-up compared to a no music warm-up during both morning and afternoon testing.

So What?

Thus, this research strongly suggests that music should be used during warm-up before performing activities requiring powerful muscle contractions, especially before morning competitive events. Previous research as shown that afternoon performances are generally better than morning because our body temperature is higher by about a degree Celsius in the evening when most world records are set. Warmer muscles mean better energy production. So to pump yourself for those high-intensity morning sessions, think about getting the earphones on!

For more scientifically-based advice on (legal) performance-enhancing ways to improve performance (including specific details on how much and when and how to take supplements such as caffeine, creatine, sodium bicarbonate), see Chapter 18 (Performance-enhancing supplements and the masters athlete) of my book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Chtourou, H. and others (2012). Listening to music affects diurnal variation in muscle power output. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 33(1): 43-47.

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