Watch out for the wall!

Mass endurance events like marathons are a great opportunity for recreational athletes to compete on the same stage as elite athletes. Everyone taking part shares the prospect of hitting the wall at some stage in the race. From a physiological perspective, hitting the wall occurs because your body’s stores of carbohydrate are unable to provide the energy required to maintain the current pace. This is due to muscle glycogen depletion and low levels of blood glucose. Hitting the wall is characterised by a drastic reduction in running pace of around 30 seconds per mile for elite athletes and 1-2 minutes for recreational athletes. It may mean that some people end up walking because they simply do not have the energy to go any faster.

The main strategies available to athletes of all levels are to take on carbohydrate/fluids so energy delivery can keep up with energy demand and to ensure that energy stores are topped up prior to exercise (carbo-loading).

Taking carbohydrates during the marathon will help delay fatigue as the glucose from these products enters the bloodstream and helps maintain the rate of carbohydrate oxidation. It may also help prevent the increase of serotonin in the brain which has been linked to feelings of fatigue and de-motivation. However, even if you’ve done a good job of carbo-loading you’ll still only have ~2,000 calories worth of glycogen stored in your muscles and liver and will still have to take on more fuel during an event like a marathon. It’s a bit like the fuel tank in your car – you can fill up before you start your journey but the tank is a certain size and can only take a finite amount of fuel.

If you start to feel the effects of hitting the wall during an endurance event like a marathon then it’s probably a bit too late, particularly for higher level athletes. Recreational athletes may have another hour or so of running ahead of them and so the important thing is to take on carbohydrates in an easily digestible form. It’s therefore important to keep an eye on your race pace because setting off too quickly will accelerate the depletion of muscle glycogen. Ensure you stick to your plan and run your own race. 

At this time of year, its also important to be aware that your body tends to utilise muscle glycogen at a higher rate when exercising in the heat. Lactate accumulation also tends to be higher in warmer weather and when combined with reduced muscle glycogen could result in fatigue meaning you “hit the wall” earlier than anticipated. Temperatures can rise quite quickly during the day even if it may be chilly first thing in the morning. If temperatures are likely to be relatively warm on the day of your event, it may be a good idea to reduce your initial pace in order to help conserve your fuel stores for later on.

As an exercise physiologist, I can help mitigate the effects of hitting the wall by developing an understanding of your physiological make-up and how you perform during training or endurance event like a marathon. I can also calculate your ideal pace to help maximise performance and understand how your body will react when performing at that pace over a prolonged period of time – it’s rather like the engineers of a formula 1 team calculating the optimum amount of fuel required and looking at other variables in order to help maximise performance!!

Finally, concentration and focus may also help you cope with “hitting the wall”. Try and avoid dissociating yourself from the race by thinking about that “beer waiting for you at the finish line” or “planning your summer holiday”! During the toughest moments in a marathon, Paula Radcliffe reportedly counted from 1 to 100 to help her ward off negative thoughts and to keep her in the moment!

Hot stuff!

It finally feels like we're saying goodbye to the winter. The evenings are getting lighter and the spring sunshine is getting warmer. Whilst this warmer weather makes training a lot more bearable, it does present some challenges for long distance endurance athletes. Even this early on in the year, it's easy to underestimate how quickly we get warm when exercising. It’s important to remember that keeping cool is better than looking hot! 

Our bodies are pretty sophisticated and maintain a constant internal temperature in face of ever-changing environmental challenges. However, these challenges are somewhat exaggerated during periods of high intensity or prolonged exercise. Our ability to cope with these challenges will influence our performance during an event like the marathon or a triathlon.

When we exercise, we are actually pretty inefficient and so ~80% of the energy released is given off as heat with only ~20% used to fuel your muscles. To maintain a constant core temperature, the excess heat generated by the muscles is transported to the skin by increased blood flow. If exercise continues and core temperature increases, the body will begin sweating in order to remove excess heat by evaporation. Sweating has a limited affect unless it can evaporate or be wicked away from the skin.

If it’s chilly on race day or at the beginning of your long training session, avoid the temptation to wear too many additional clothes. These will act as insulation and interfere with heat transfer to the skin and sweat evaporation. This in turn will increase heat storage, which may result in fatigue and reduced performance. Instead, try using a bin liner or something that can be thrown away to keep you warm at the start. Don’t worry, you’ll soon warm up when you start exercising even in cool and overcast conditions!

Also, it’s important to be aware that your body tends to utilise muscle glycogen at a higher rate when exercising in the heat. Lactate accumulation also tends to be higher in warmer weather and when combined with reduced muscle glycogen could result in fatigue meaning you “hit the wall” earlier than anticipated. Temperatures can rise quite quickly during the day even if it may be chilly first thing in the morning. If temperatures are likely to be relatively warm on the day of your event, it may be a good idea to reduce your initial pace in order to help conserve your fuel stores for later on.

Finally, when sweating becomes the main way of removing excess heat, sweat loss must be matched by fluid consumption in order to avoid dehydration. A certain level of dehydration is inevitable because our stimulus to drink may not occur until we have already incurred a small water deficit. Dehydration will reduce skin blood flow and sweating responses during an event like a marathon or triathlon which will increase core temperature and potentially bring about the onset of early fatigue. Make use of the water stations and feeding stations along the route and aim to drink to thirst. The sports drinks will not only provide you with a source of fuel but they also contain electrolytes which help replace some of the lost salts and minerals. You should also refer to the medical advice issued the event organisers and take time to look at the course map to ensure you are familiar with where the water/feeding stations are positioned.

So, in order to optimise your Spring training or race performance, aim to be cool rather than look hot! If it is cold outside, wear layers that can be easily removed & replaced to help maintain skin airflow/regulate deep body temperature, look to reduce your race pace and keep hydrated. 

Pre-event tapering – the key to successful endurance performance

For anyone running a spring marathon, you should now be reaching the ‘business end’ of your training and no doubt starting to have a real mix of emotions.  As marathon day becomes closer, you’ll probably start feeling a mix excitement and apprehension as you start to analyse the effectiveness of your training. It’s perfectly normal to have these doubts and this is something that is common among first-timers, seasoned marathoners and elite athletes alike. 

However, now that the end of your training is in sight, it’s important to spend some time on planning your taper period which is arguably one of the most important parts of your training.

What is a taper period?

A taper period can be described as a reduction in training load which is designed to optimise your performance. The challenge is to reduce he physiological and psychological fatigue which has accrued over the last few months without losing your fitness and training adaptations. In other words, you should arrive at the start line feeling physically fit, psychologically refreshed and raring to go!

How do I plan my taper period?

Your training load can be described as the combination of your training intensity (how hard), volume (how much) and frequency (how often) and should be reduced during your taper in order to optimise your performance on the big day. Each of these components of training can be manipulated to lessen the load in the run up to your marathon. However, you don’t want to just suddenly stop training and put your feet up for two weeks. This could result in de-training and have a negative effect on the training-induced adaptations that have accrued over the last few months. So, how do you balance the need to reduce fatigue without ensuring your hard work during the winter doesn’t to go to waste!

Firstly, when planning your taper strategy, try and ensure the intensity of your training is maintained. If you run at a certain pace for your threshold/high intensity training sessions then continue at this same pace. This will help avoid the potential for any de-training effect.

Secondly, you should aim to reduce volume progressively to approximately 40-60% of your pre-taper volume although this is dependent on you as an individual. During a progressive taper, volume is reduced gradually over the entire taper period as opposed to a step taper where there are just one or two rapid decreases in volume. Your training volume can be manipulated by decreasing the duration of each session and/or the frequency of your training sessions.

For more experienced runners, it seems that decreasing the frequency of training sessions may not result in an improved race performance. Instead, you should try to maintain the frequency of training sessions or reduce them very slightly (by approx. 20%). This will help prevent de-training and can have psychological benefits – i.e. suddenly dropping 3 or 4 sessions a week can make you feel sluggish or you may experience a ‘loss of feel’ in relation to your pacing. However, for less experienced endurance runners, the frequency of your training sessions can be reduced by 30-50% without any loss of any fitness.

It’s important to remember that your taper period will not produce miracles or make up for inadequate training! Tapering is usually effective but the maximum gains you can expect are likely to be around 3%. Having said that, a 3% gain shouldn’t be sniffed at especially given that fact that you aren’t being asked to do anything more than you’ve been doing previously. For a 4 hour marathon runner, a 3% performance gain could knock 5 or 6 minutes off your finishing time.

How soon should I begin my taper period?

The optimum taper period for a marathon is likely to be ~14-21 days although this will depend on your training status, the severity of your fatigue as you begin your taper and your previous experience.

In summary, the effectiveness of any taper period is very individual and what works for your training buddy may not necessarily be appropriate for you. Generally, a 2 week taper period, where your overall training volume is progressively reduced by 40-60% without altering training intensity or frequency, is likely to be the most effective way to maximise your performance.

Finally, have faith in your training even if it hasn’t gone according to plan! While planning your taper period, take some time to look back on how far you’ve come since your started training for the marathon. To get this far, you’ve shown real grit and determination and probably discovered more about yourself than you’d originally thought!

Endurance training - go long, go slow!

For endurance runners, the ‘weekend long run’ tends to be taken for granted and its benefits are often overlooked. Although it may not be as sexy as a fast-paced interval session on the track or as physically demanding as hill reps, there are a number of good reasons why these long, slow sessions should form the bedrock of your training.

Your body is truly amazing and will initiate a number of physiological changes designed to improve your aerobic energy system and help your body cope with the increasing distance of your long run as marathon season approaches.

Some of these adaptations include:

A big heart!

  • An increase your maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) – this increases the amount of oxygen available for the aerobic production of energy which is key for endurance performance
  • Increase in total blood volume – this results in a greater amount of blood pumped out by the heart in each beat
  • Increased haemoglobin content – this improves the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood

Become a lean, mean efficient running machine

  • Increased ability of the muscles to extract oxygen from the blood
  • Fuelled by fat – develop an improved ability to utilise fat as an energy source which helps spare your stores of muscle glycogen
  • Possible improvements in biomechanics – long runs result in continued repetitions of complex neuromuscular movement patterns. These utilise the majority of major muscles and joints within the body and could make you a more efficient runner, meaning you use less oxygen at a given running speed
  • Stronger connective tissues and increased muscle stiffness - increases the energy stored by the tendons resulting in more energy returned on each step and making you a more efficient runner

Keep cool when the going gets tough!

  • Long duration training can also help improve thermoregulation - this is the way in which your body copes with the increasing internal body temperature which occurs during long duration exercise.
  • Mental toughness – running for prolonged periods of time can help you develop psychologically as well as physiologically. Learning how to train your mind into coping with the increasing distances is very important as well as learning how to control your pace so you don’t utilise your stores of muscle glycogen too quickly.

So, you can see from the above that these long runs are really important. They should be run at a pace that doesn’t stop you from performing well in your other training sessions. If they are run too fast, it’s likely that you’ll begin to suffer from accumulating fatigue which is an early indication of over-training.

Your level of fitness and experience will dictate the starting level and so ‘long run’ is a relative term. In order to provide the optimal stimulus for endurance adaptation, low intensity training should make up approximately 80% of your overall training. The remaining 20% should be higher intensity and threshold training.  Aim to do at least one of these long runs a week and ensure you gradually increase your training time/mileage by no more than 1-2 miles or approximately 10%. This will ensure that your body is able to adapt and cope with the additional challenge in a progressive manner rather than suddenly increasing the workload all at once.

Need help or advice?

If you have any training related questions then please contact me via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/puresportsperf/ or Twitter: @PUREsportsperf - Alternatively, if you want more specific, bespoke training advice then you can contact me by email:  john@puresportsperformance.co.uk

Cross-training during injury

As we head into peak #marathon training season, there may be occasions when your #endurance #training is reduced or temporarily stopped due to injury or bad weather. Although training adaptations are reversible and may result in reduced performance when training resumes, it’s important that you don’t panic.

A well-planned and structured cross-training programme can help maintain your physiological and psychological fitness until you’re back on your feet again.

Short term (<1-2 weeks) reductions in training (i.e. due to bad weather) are unlikely to cause any issues with your level of fitness. The first stage of de-training is likely to occur within 2-3 weeks and may result in a reduction of VO2max (5-7%). These changes occur at a ‘central’ level (i.e. at the heart rather than in the skeletal muscle) and so alternative exercises can be introduced to prevent de-training and the reduction in VO2max. The second stage takes place over a longer period of time (8-10 weeks) and may result in VO2max returning to pre-training levels. Any rate of decline depends on your training status prior to your injury (Mujika & Padilla, 2000). This second stage of de-training is more specific to skeletal muscle and may mean that your body becomes less efficient at utilising fat stores. This places greater reliance on muscle glycogen during exercise at the same intensity. There may also be significant increases in blood lactate levels at the same work rate and decreases in muscle mass during longer periods of de-training (>8 weeks).

So, what should you do if you have to reduce your training?

Any cross-training programme should be planned in consultation with your GP, consultant or physio. As a rule of thumb, cross-training should be a sport specific as possible whilst avoiding any further aggravation of your injury. For runners, a treadmill is the obvious option provided there is no injury risk. Always ensure the gradient is set at 1% to take the lack of air resistance into account when running indoors (Jones, 1996). Cross-training using an elliptical trainer may be a suitable, sport-specific option. For all cross-training sessions, it’s important to maintain the same frequency, relative intensity (i.e. 80% maximum heart rate), and duration as your normal training sessions. If you are unable to take part in sport-specific exercise due to injury, arm cranking or deep water running in a swimming pool may help maintain VO2max or prevent a significant reduction. In some cases, you may be able to reduce workload (i.e. by 50%) rather than have a complete break and still maintain aerobic performance for up to 3 weeks. This shows that enforced time off should not always be viewed negatively provided low intensity exercise can be maintained.

For more information on managing an enforced break from training, contact me by email: john@puresportsperformance.co.uk or tweet me at: @PUREsportsperf

Recovery - its a balancing act!

For many of us, January is a time to begin increasing our training in preparation for spring/summer competitions. To be successful in sport, training should be structured in a way to optimise performance. Training programmes are defined by volume (how much), intensity (how hard) and frequency (how often). These variables determine the way your body adapts to training.

So, how do we structure training to maximise effort but still gain a sense of enjoyment and well being? In other words, how to we find that balance between training hard and recovery?

We all need to train hard in order to improve but the relationship between training load and performance is individual. Recreational athletes tend to have smaller training loads but benefit from large improvements in performance. Conversely, more experienced athletes will require higher training loads in order to cause small increases in performance (Fisher & Gooderick, 2011 & Budgett, 1998). These improvements in performance, however big or small, are the result of adaptations to your body and its response to exercise. This adaptation process relies on a sufficient, and regular, training stimulus to bring about a physiological change (ACSM, 2010). In other words, we need to train above a certain ‘threshold’ level in order to overload the body, make ourselves feel tired and activate our physiological repair mechanisms. For a runner or cyclist, this may mean increasing the duration/intensity of your training sessions whilst for a strength athlete, it may mean increasing the number of sets or reps in the gym.  

The acute fatigue (tired legs, sore muscles!) experienced during periods of overload training is only to be expected and with adequate recovery, it will disappear and your body will adapt to the increased training load (Fisher & Gooderick, 2011). Recovery should therefore be the ‘bedrock’ of any training programme. People often skip a rest day as a result of missed training. If you continue to train when tired, your body will suffer increasing levels of stress which could lead to further fatigue, over-reaching (short term excessive training), possible over-training and under-performance. We then find ourselves in a vicious circle where training is increased in reaction to under-performance rather than increasing the recovery period.

The best way to ensure sufficient recovery is to take a cyclical approach to your training. For example, you could train in a four week cycle. This means training volumes/intensity gradually increase for the first three weeks resulting in periods of overreaching. These heavy training weeks are required in order to ensure there is sufficient ‘overload’ needed to promote adaptation and enhance future performance.  During these periods of functional overreaching, you may experience a reduction in performance before a recovery phase in the fourth week. This cyclical approach will ensure you have adequate recovery to balance the overload period whilst minimising any detraining effect.

In order to achieve increased levels of performance, you need to have a well-structured training plan that balances heavier training weeks (overload) with adequate recovery. Finally, your training philosophy should never compromise quality for quantity. If you feel too tired to train at the appropriate intensity, take a rest rather than complete the session sub-optimally.

Contact me for more information on how to plan and structure your training or follow me on Twitter @PUREsportsperf

Marathon training - Christmas is over, what now?

Christmas is over and the New Year celebrations are just beginning to wear off! As we approach the beginning of January, you should be starting your marathon training if you haven’t done so already. For those of you new to marathon and half marathon training, here are some of my initial thoughts and suggestions:

Get yourself a training plan

Having some structure to your training is really important. It creates a sense of purpose to each training session, ensures that you progress in the right way and helps prevent overtraining. There are some really good plans available at: http://www.greatruntraining.org/

Focus on building your endurance base

Long ‘easy’ runs should form the bedrock of your marathon training plan. These runs help your body adapt and continued training will result in an increase in the density of mitochondria (the oxygen power house!) within your muscle cells and an increase in the muscle capillary network. Both of these changes enable the muscle to become more efficient at processing and extracting oxygen from the blood.

In addition, there chemical changes which take place as a result of endurance training that enable the body is able to increase the use of its fat stores and spare muscle glycogen at the same given work rate. The long training runs also result in repetitions of complex movement patterns which utilise the majority of major muscles and joints within the body. This may improve your running biomechanics and make you a more efficient runner. The pace of your long, easy run should be a good 60-90 seconds slower than your 10k race pace and you should be able to hold a conversation.

Build up gradually

Your training, including your long runs, should be built up very gradually. If you follow a good training plan, it should aim to increase your training by about 10% a week. For your long runs, this will mean increasing the duration by approximately 10-15 minutes or 1 to 1.5 miles a week. Aim to build up your training by 10% a week for three to four weeks and then reduce or maintain the overall distance/time for a recovery week. This ensures that your body is able to recover and adapt to the increasing training load.

Finally

Make use of running groups and on-line resources like #ukrunchat on Twitter. It is a great way to share tips for marathon training and to encourage you through these next few months. Here are some final tips:

1)      Consistency is the key, it’s no good flogging yourself to near death on a long run and then being so shattered you can’t train the rest of the week.  You need to be out there a minimum of three times a week.

2)      Invest in your training – good shoes and a waterproof jacket are essential

3)      Get a regular sports massage

4)      Run with a buddy and remember to have fun!

Elite & trained male cyclists required!

Is ‘brain-doping’ the future for endurance athletes? This is your opportunity to join a developmental and breakthrough research programme at the University of Brighton.

Neuro-doping (or ‘brain doping’) is a relatively new development in the world of sports science. It involves the modulation of brain activity using electric or magnetic fields with the potential for an improvement in the physiological and psychological aspects of sports performance.

I was involved in early pilot testing with some of the PhD researchers at the University of Brighton. It’s encouraging to see that the research to date has proved promising, with hints of performance improvements. Although these types of interventions may open up a number of ethical questions, more research must be carried out before it can be determined for certain that a performance benefit exists.

This is where the University of Brighton need your help! The researchers are looking for elite or trained male cyclists to investigate the effects of ‘brain-doping’ on cycling performance.

You will receive a VO2max test and a performance report which can be used to assess your current fitness levels and plan your next block of training.

If you would like to be part of the study, please contact R.Cowan1@uni.brighton.ac.uk

 

 

Marathon training support.....BECAUSE 26.2 MILES IS MORE THAN JUST A DISTANCE!

Next spring might seem like a long way off but if you are planning of running a marathon then it makes sense to start planning your training now.

Although a lot of training plans may not start until December/January, I would really recommend starting some easy runs now in order to build up a base level of fitness. For complete beginners, this may mean bolting together small blocks of running and walking until you are able to continuously run for say 40-60 minutes by mid-December. Even if you are an experienced runner, it is always sensible to start your planning early and include other aspects like cross-training and strength work.  

If you are planning on following a set training plan, do you know your 'threshold runs' from your 'interval runs'? How fast should a 'hard' session be?  Do you want to make sense of your training plan and customise it with bespoke training zones and paces? #pimpmytrainingplan

If so, the marathon training support package can help you answer these questions, ensure you get the best from your training and achieve your full potential.....BECAUSE 26.2 MILES IS MORE THAN JUST A DISTANCE!

CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Sports science has many elements!

Sports science is often associated with high profile Olympic sports such as marathon running, triathlon and track events. However, elements of sports science can be used in a variety of ways across a full spectrum of sports. Over the last three years, I’ve been involved in helping champion Motocross rider, Mel Pocock prepare for his winter training with Sol Gilbert.  With a relatively small training window of 6-8 weeks, Sol has the job of getting Mel and several other riders ‘race ready’ for the forthcoming season.

These guys are highly trained athletes. Motocross requires the active involvement of the entire musculoskeletal system and the utilisation of both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. The sport places unique performance demands on the athlete due to the varying factors such as course terrain, obstacles, forces from the bike and the impact of landing. During a competitive race, heart rate, oxygen uptake and blood lactate are maintained at a level around the second lactate threshold which is comparative to running a 10,000 m race (Konttinen et al, 2008). Determining the physiological profile of a rider is an essential part of a structured training program geared towards improving the rider’s ability to withstand the rigours of competition.

In addition to strength and power, motocross riders must have a high maximal aerobic capacity that physiologists would associated with maximal oxygen consumption (V̇O2max), a good aerobic endurance or capacity to sustain a high percentage of their V̇O2max for a long time, alongside good skills and technique so that they can perform with minimal energy expenditure.

My role is to focus on one aspect of Mel’s physiological potential, namely aerobic endurance by using blood lactate profiling. The information from the treadmill test we carried out last week has been used to set training zones for his high intensity and threshold run training. These accurate and bespoke training zones help to ensure Mel’s training is optimised and mitigate potential overtraining.

Blood lactate profiling can help customise your own training plans and, when performed more than once in a season, are a good indicator of your training progress - CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS

What is sport and exercise physiology?

Exercise physiology is the study of how exercise alters the function and structure of the body (EIS: http://www.eis2win.co.uk/pages/Physiology.aspx).  A sports physiologist examines the short term responses and long-term adaptations to sports performance in a variety of environments. A physiologist, possesses a wide-ranging understanding of the body, enabling them to advise athletes and coaches of how training and preparation influence competition performance.

In order to fully understand an athlete’s response to exercise, a physiologist can carry out a number of different tests which can take place in a lab, which ensures a controlled environment to compare exercise test results. However, it is not always possible to simulate sporting activity in a lab and with advances in technology physiologists use field-based testing as much as possible. This work is important as it can help evaluate training as it happens, allowing an athlete and coach to monitor what impact a particular session has had on the body.

Are you getting the expected results from your training? Do you need some personalised actions to achieve your goals? If so, then physiology can help improve performance by giving you important objective information which can help you optimise your training for peak performance.

 

 

Monitoring your training

I think we all know that athletes  need to hard in order to improve. However, many athletes new to endurance sports may not appreciate that adaptive training gains can only be maximised to a threshold point.

Beyond this point, additional training will not produce further performance gains and could lead to overtraining and athlete ‘burn-out’.

A certain level of fatigue is needed in order to activate essential physiological repair mechanisms. With adequate recovery, the fatigue will disappear and adaptation will occur making your stronger and fitter! Sometimes, as we begin to increase training, we may find ourselves trying to balance an increased training load and inadequate recovery which could result in overtraining. Your training load is influenced by the amount of training (volume) and intensity.

There are a number of different ways to try and quantify training load including real-time observation/measurements, physiological monitoring (heart rate, blood lactate concentrations and oxygen consumption) during training sessions and obtaining a subjective estimate of an athlete’s training load. A quick and easy way for us all to track our training load is to use a diary to record how we felt after each session.

Using a simplified exertion scale, where 0 = rest and 10 = maximal effort, rate your effort (how hard you thought you were working during the session) and multiply it by the length, in minutes, of your training session.

This will give you a session rate of perceived exertion (s-RPE) which can be added to all your other sessions that week to provide you with an overall training load for the week. This can be used as a tool ensure that you are adhering to a periodised training programme and benefiting from the cyclical recovery weeks. It can also you detect when you may not coping with your training because you tend to submit higher s-RPE scores for similar sessions carried out in the previous week or month.

This is such a simple way to help ensure you are optimising your training you'd be silly not to give it a try!