This week’s topic, in my humble opinion, is the most neglected subject area in the Sports Science education system*. If the evidence that I refer to is indirect I apologise, but in the graduate population I encounter their understanding of this area is almost completely absent. Therefore, if there are course leaders reading this please include the subject of elite athlete training methods in your courses, devote modules to it and champion it as one of the most critically important concepts for working with sports.
When a painter paints, each brushstroke is applied with fine detail or sweeping masterstrokes or somewhere in between. The artist must account for the mix of colours on the palate, the hue chosen to be taken onto the brush, the brush size, the pressure, the length and texture of the application. Concentrated attention must be embraced to ensure the stroke is delivered correctly. The painter is rarely able to assemble the picture without occasionally leaning back to view the wider perspective, the context, the effect and thus the broader picture. Truthfulness of each portion and the effect of each brush stroke can only be judge and understood with the bigger picture critique. In this metaphor a training session is each brushstroke and the training programme is the picture. The standard teaching of training programme construction involves a reference to frequency, intensity, duration and rest:recovery ratios. We are also taught about the acute effect and the long term effect of training predominantly at a certain intensity (this area is starting to flower again with the wave of cell signalling insights emerging in the literature). The assembly of training might involve a look at the programmes of previous Champions, but rarely so, it is more common to defer to the work of Bompa and his periodization models, e.g. single and double. It is also rare for students to be required to, or off their own back, go forth and apply these ideas to a real life athlete. To this last point – this is a crying shame. I liken this to taking a photography course, learning all about the camera with the various shutter speeds and apertures etc, and developing or photoshopping afterwards – but never actually going out and taking pictures.
Enough of my rant about a lack of real-life sports training application in courses, or the incessant whinge of “ain’t enough opportunities”, and on onto the topic that is starting to make a difference. It is not unusual for sports physiologists to ‘know’ a great deal about each brush stroke, the intensities, the duration, the rest and importantly the overall effect. When I finished my undergraduate degree I was extremely satisfied with the process of logic that scientific publication had taught me. 1) what physiological capabilities are important for event performance; 2) look to literature for answers as to the best training to improve said capability; 3) find space for that type of training in a weekly training programme; 4) look to the periodization literature to help the planning of training.
But, there is grandeur in another view. Stephen Seiler led some of the first studies acknowledging ‘how athletes actually train’, with a distinction set between what the prevailing literature promotes and reinforced by the observation that often what athletes do, is different from what coaches ask. In his paper of 2002, he drew a nice example of ‘threshold’ training, a training zone prescribed ad infinitum by physiologists up and down the land regardless of performance level or event type. Threshold training is undoubtedly effective within certain limits (as @jamiepringle paper testifies); it is probably most reinforced by the Londeree meta-analysis and perpetuated by physiologists with lactate analysers deployed whenever an athlete does some exercise. The concept was firmed up further with the definition of the ‘maximal lactate steady state’. The issue that Seiler noted was that “elite endurance athletes where training is predominantly performed below the first ventilatory or lactate threshold, or above the second threshold, but rarely at “middle [threshold] intensities”. This observation was repeated across numerous middle distance and endurance sports, i.e. athletes with unlimited training and recovery time choose to ‘polarise’ (lots of low, not much middle, some high intensity) training. The critical point is that this is how athletes actually train. I have witnessed on countless occasions, physiologists imposing the textbook prescription based upon a study (or three), but with no context of what the athlete does or knows works, let alone how these individual training units interact. We often give sports such as rowing, cycling, swimming and canoeing a hard-time because they do lots of volume work. I presume the intent is to prescribe based upon energetics, when the oversight is to acknowledge the need for extensive entrainment of the novel neuromuscular locomotory movement.
This concept is a tanker-sized topic that needs turning around. First needs to come some acknowledgement of the validity of how athletes actually train. Second an extensive training monitoring and decent system needs to be developed to acquire, synthesise and allow for data interrogation and insight. Once training has been fully collated (and Barry Fudge (@bfudge) and Andy Shaw will testify to this being a very challenging thing to do) only then can you then prescribe, manipulate and develop from an informed basis (for example case study see our paper).
I think this topic should be number 1 in my top 10 applications of sports physiology and there will be references to this area later in the list (ooh cheeky tease), but it is severely hampered by a lack of widespread investigations and recognition that undermines application. Nevertheless as a consequence of the work of colleagues such as Seiler and others and our insistence on raising this as an issue that we should know what athletes actually do, that this matter of understanding ecologically valid training methods must make the top 10 applications of sports physiology.
I will sum up with the story of how I was awoken to this way of thinking (and apologies to those who know me, as this is a name dropping tale oft told). On coming into the role of physiologist with the GB rowing team, I was ‘advised’ by other scientists that, “they train like they did in the ‘60s”, “they need to do far more threshold work, but instead they paddle all day long”, “they don’t listen”. The nagging concern was that who am I to tell these experienced coaches and athletes what to do, at 24 years old what do I know about training for rowing? The big man Redgrave put it most bluntly (in 1998 prior to his 5th), “I have won two gold medals with Mike Spracklen doing interval training and I have won two gold medals with Jurgen Grobler doing lots of low intensity training. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I do lots of it. But at no point in the last 20 years have any of you scientists looked at why these approaches work.” It was not only a humbling message and a clear statement to look at the whole picture, but suddenly I had an interesting topic for my PhD. Nice one Steve!
*please let me know if you do actually teach this, as it will warm my cockles

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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