Archive for January, 2019

CoachCast: Heart Rate Variability with Simon Wegerif

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In its simplest form, training is a method of increasing biological stressors in order to increase performance in an athlete. But, how do coaches know when they push their athletes too hard and actually hurt their performance? This is especially important considering athletes encounter stress from more than just endurance training such as work, personal life, illness, and even environment.

Dave sat down with researcher Simon Wegerif to discuss heart rate variability, a precise and easily measured metric that may help reveal when the body is overstressed and likely unable to endure heavy training loads. As even more information about the importance of effective recovery is published, coaches may want to consider adding heart rate variability to the data they monitor.

   

Resources

ithlete appSimon Wegerif TwitterIntroduction to Heart Rate Variability course

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Do you “Sisu”? A New Way To Measure Mental Toughness

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In 2016, while doing research for a planned study on mental toughness in athletes, I came across the word “sisu”. Sisu is a Finnish word that roughly means “strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.” In the most of simple of terms, sisu means grit. It is not situational or momentary, though; it is a characteristic that lies deep within (have you seen Free Solo? Alex Honnold is sisu).

The word spoke to me on a level so profoundly that I named my study on mental toughness, The Sisu Study. I call the resulting test I developed to measure mental toughness The Sisu Quiz.

Measurement is important

People love quizzes. I mean, who doesn’t want to know which Friends character they most resemble or which Hogwarts house the sorting hat would put them in (according to Buzzfeed I am Chandler and belong in Griffindor). Taking an innocuous, fun quiz is straightforward enough. The results can be laughed off or you can say to yourself, “Wow, that is so accurate! How did they do that?”

But, what happens when a quiz tells you something deeply personal, like your level of self-esteem or how much confidence you possess? It becomes harder, doesn’t it?

That’s the case with the Sisu Quiz. There are some components to the Sisu Quiz that might make an athlete uncomfortable (although, I imagine if you are afraid of getting results about mental toughness, you likely need to work on your mental toughness). The questions scrutinize how an athlete handles different sporting situations. If the questions are answered truthfully, an athlete’s innermost “secrets” will be uncovered.

The Sisu Quiz was developed using three different validated questionnaires, which, when combined, measure eight dimensions of mental toughness: determination, confidence, control, constancy, self-belief, positive self-talk, visualization, and self-esteem. Through some fancy algorithms that have lots of Greek letters, which I don’t entirely understand, I am able to generate information about your level of mental toughness on each of the eight dimensions (low, moderate, or high) and your overall Sisu score.

Determining which Friends character you most resemble will hardly change your life or your outlook on how you approach your training and racing, whereas determining your Sisu score can profoundly alter your athletic trajectory.

It may seem that I am overstating the importance of the information from the Sisu Quiz. I assure you, I’m not.

Learning about yourself is difficult

I cannot emphasize enough that it takes courage to dig deep into the psyche and learn about ourselves in a way that might be different from what we imagined. Push away your doubts and fears because information about mental toughness can be paradigm-shifting.

Here’s why. Athletes spend hours upon hours training their bodies. Athletes train through the ravages of winter. Athletes buy fancy equipment and travel to exotic locales and spend lots of money on incremental improvements. However, athletes rarely spend time honing their brain. All of the training and fancy equipment and lofty goals are moot if you are too nervous to race well or if you get down on yourself at the slightest setback or if you give up because your adversary is beating you.

I tell injured athletes all the time: get a diagnosis. It is difficult to treat an injury if you don’t know what it is that you’re treating. Mental toughness is no different. In order to most productively make improvements in mental toughness, you need to know where to focus your work.

Take action

Remember this: do not put a value judgement on your Sisu score. Again, do not put a value judgment on your Sisu score. Your score is actionable information from which you can start to build a mental toughness training plan. It is something which can be raised. It is not meant to threaten your self-esteem.

My TrainingPeaks University course, The Champion Mindset: A Course on Mental Toughness, was designed for both coaches and athletes as a means to learn about research on the components of mental toughness and provide specific tips to make measurable improvements.

By taking the Sisu quiz and course, you can start on the the triad of “Identify-Learn-Enact”.

In terms of mental toughness, you want to identify strengths and weaknesses. Once your areas that need improvement have been identified, the next critical step is to learn about those specific areas of mental toughness. The learning phase allows you to put those components of mental toughness into the context of your life and how you approach your sport. The knowledge gained during the learning phase will then enable you to enact new mental toughness behaviors that are productive rather than destructive.

Here’s an example. Suppose you take the Sisu Quiz and identify that you have low positive self-talk. The learning phase will inform you that athletes who are high in positive self-talk have less anxiety, more confidence, and improved performance. You will also learn the difference between motivational and instructional self-talk and how to rewrite your script. Finally, you will aim to enact positive self-talk in any situation which you are prone to speak negatively to yourself.

Take five minutes to fill out the Sisu Quiz and learn about your mental toughness. Don’t panic if the results are surprising. Just take a deep breath and know you can find help to improve your mental toughness.

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Why Coaching During the Off-season is Key to Athlete Success

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Whether you are coaching new or existing athletes for the upcoming season, there are many reasons why you should continue your coaching during the offseason.

Most importantly, off-season coaching provides the opportunity to get your athletes on the right track. Sometimes, the wariness of extra costs and the aversion to the “structure” of off-season coaching makes athletes feel that a coach is unnecessary. But, truth be told, off-season coaching actually saves athletes money long-term, prevents injury and burnout, dynamically increases the quality of training throughout the year, positively influences overall athlete success, increases athlete happiness, and more.

Athletes often do not understand that coaches switch focus during the off-season, but that impact is still as strong as ever in ways that rarely get highlighted.

1. Prevent panic training

Athletes sometimes only rely upon coaching during critical training cycles.

While peak performance is always the desired outcome, limited coaching can result in crammed training practices. The consequences of rushed training ultimately results in too little time to accomplish training and racing goals. Decreasing the rush cram training creates less risk for injury and builds fitness at a steadier pace.

It is especially important for new athletes or more experienced athletes new to coaching to start working with a coach in the off-season. As a coach, it is important to remember that new athletes might need extra time to adjust to coaching and the learning curve can sometimes be steep. When on-boarding a new athlete, the longer you can work together, the better, and the easier it is to plan streamlined, quality training when it counts most during peak season.

2. Strengthen weaknesses

Even though the off-season has the potential to be unstructured, it also gives athletes the opportunity to develop high-level skills. Small changes that have the potential to create huge impacts can be initiated during the off-season that would have been impossible during race season. Improvements can range from technique, strength, equipment adjustments, mental training, recover, or nutritional adaptations. Without coach direction, athletes tend to work on what they’re already comfortable with instead of working on their weaknesses. Coaching during the off-season allows you to offer guidance on the aspects of training they find most most difficult to make sure they improve in areas where they need it most.

3. Prevent overtraining and injury

Many athletes continue training at a level that is far too high in intensity, volume, and frequency during the off-season. Such practices do not allow for proper recovery necessary for next season’s success. Chronically overtrained athletes often don’t give their body enough of a break and wonder why they never reach their goals.

Coaching these athletes during the off-season prevents excessive training and creates an opportunity to focus on recovery. The off-season also provides the chance to create a dynamic, strength training enhancement period for injury prevention and rehabilitation.

4. Stay on track

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are athletes who have a tendency to lose focus, direction, and motivation in the off-season. Even if the athlete previously set strong goals, they might find themselves getting distracted with life events. Oftentimes, sport provides the structure they need by providing a constant in their life.

The last thing you want a goal-driven athlete to do is take two months off unless it’s necessary for other purposes. After all, it is always easier for your athlete to stay in shape than it is to get back in shape after several months off.

Promoting year-round activity strengthens the season’s starting point and decreases the overall time it takes for them to get back in race shape. By coaching throughout the off-season you can also prevent an athlete from only concentrating on easy workouts by including dashes of intensity.

5. Promote variety and active rest

During the season, you coach your athletes to do concentrate on the specifics. While in the off-season, you have influence to inject variety into your athletes’ training regime to keep it fresh, different, and fun.

Use this time period to develop multi-sport abilities. Activity in another sport breaks up the mundane sport focus you’ll be thinking about the rest of the year.

Cross-training is applicable to the in-season sport in ways that might not be apparent upfront. Suggest new routes, new workouts, or even some outside reading that applies to their sport. Consider suggesting some camps that help increase your athletes’ exposure to new skill sets and experiences.

6. Low pressure communication and reflection

The opportunity to reflect without the added pressure of competition is possibly one of the best elements of continuing or starting coaching during the off-season. It allows you to bounce various ideas around for future improvement.

During the off-season, you should still give your athlete some space, but also think about exercises that build motivation, prevent burnout, and promote full recovery for the upcoming season. Adjusting coaching guidance can create a space in which the athlete starts to miss their sport and will be ready to start for the upcoming season.

Your role as a coach is incredibly important regardless of the training period. While rest is crucial for any training plan, guidance during the off-season ultimately results in more forward progression. You, as the coach, take on the role in which you aren’t just there for them in-season, you are there for them throughout all dynamics of sport development. You have the power to create an influence that allows your athlete to make the most of your coaching relationship and develop a foundation for successful training, and much of that starts in the off-season.

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Using Leg Spring Stiffness to Measure Running Economy

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The holy grail of distance running has always been to use less energy and oxygen at specific speeds. The recent development of power meters raises the question whether we can use the new running metrics to learn how to run smarter, more economically, and, subsequently, faster.

In recent research with Radboud University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, we found interesting correlations between Running Economy (RE) and Leg Spring Stiffness (LSS). This might be important because LSS is just one of the new metrics available to runners through running power meters.

Previously, research on the Energy Cost of Running (ECOR) showed how valuable this parameter might be for the day-to-day determination of running economy and running style improvement. Thanks to running power meters, we now have easy access to new metrics like these that might help in reaching the ultimate goal of running faster at a certain effort.

What is Leg Spring Stiffness?

In its simplest definition, LSS measures the stiffness of the muscles and tendons in your leg. As a result, LSS is a measure of how well a runner recycles the energy applied to the ground in each stride.

Increases in LSS indicate economy improvement over time. It important to keep in mind that LSS is individual and cannot easily be compared across different runners. As a result, LSS should be standardized for body weight in comparisons over time. Trends in LSS/kg for specific speeds should be the focus of any analysis.

What is Running Economy (RE)?

Next to VO2 max, Running Economy (RE) is widely considered the best predictor of endurance running performance. Economical runners use less oxygen compared to other runners at the same speed.

However, most runners are not in the position to determine their RE often. RE is usually determined in a physiological laboratory using data from oxygen consumption VO2 at a constant submaximal speed.

RE is a complex, multifactorial concept that reflects many metabolic, cardiorespiratory, anthropometric, biomechanical, and neuromuscular aspects. With so many factors, it is not possible to come to firm conclusions which running style is the most economical. Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce the RE (and thus become more economical) with training.

What is Energy Cost of Running (ECOR)?

With the emergence of running power meters, it is now possible to easily measure an alternative for RE using the Energy Cost of Running (ECOR). ECOR can be calculated with the power and the speed from a run using a simple formula.

Based on the theoretical relationship between RE and ECOR, we can presume that runners who reduce their ECOR will also reduce their RE resulting in more economical and faster performance.

Running watches now provide the opportunity to determine many running metrics such as cadence, ground contact time (GCT), vertical oscillation (VO), and stride length. Using all of these metrics, runners can optimize their running style in order to reduce their ECOR (and ultimately their RE).

Higher LSS Is Correlated With Lower RE

In 2018, we performed a research project at the physiological laboratory of Professor Maria Hopman at the Radboud University of Nijmegen (RUN), the Netherlands. The project included 13 young runners (12 to 17 years). All runners performed a maximal incremental exercise test on the treadmill (velocities between 11-21 km/h), both at the beginning of the project (baseline) and after 16 weeks of training. Oxygen consumption was monitored and various running metrics were recorded using a Stryd power meter.

A Pearson correlation analysis was conducted on all the results to assess the relation between ECOR, RE, and various running metrics. The primary findings are summarized in the table below:

Correlation between RE and ECORResults are zero-order Pearson’s correlation coefficients. Bold numbers are statistically significant at the 0.05 level.

Regarding ECOR, the correlations confirm that ECOR is lower at higher speed, at higher cadence, at lower ground contact time, and at lower vertical oscillation. This is in line with theory that vertical movement and ground contact should be limited to improve performance. It is noted that the relationship between ECOR and cadence and the relationship between ECOR and vertical oscillation were statistically significant at the 0.05 level.

Regarding RE, the results confirm that RE is lower at higher speed and at lower ground contact time. Both correlations were statistically significant after 16 weeks and are in line with literature findings. The correlation between RE and cadence and the correlation between RE and vertical oscillation are counterintuitive, but these are weak and may reflect the fact that RE is the composite of many parameters. The most striking result is the strong and statistically significant correlation (even at the 0.001 level) between RE and LSS.

Physiological explanation for the relation between LSS and RE

As explained before, the LSS represents the stiffness of the leg muscles and tendons. Based on the the assumption that stiff muscles and tendons are able to recoil more elastic energy upon landing, runners with a higher LSS would use less energy and oxygen lowering their RE.

We believe that the strong correlation between RE and LSS is very important. It may even explain the counterintuitive relationship between RE and VO. From the results of individual runners, we noted that runners with a high VO also had a high LSS. This means that most of their higher vertical energy use may have been returned as elastic energy.

The results are also very promising for applications in the running community as runners may be able to use LSS as an indicator of their RE on a daily basis.

Conclusions

The results confirm our earlier findings that the running power data can be used to optimize training and running technique on a daily basis. Improvements in training should lead to both lower energy cost (ECOR) and oxygen cost (RE) of running at certain speeds.

In addition, RE was found to be strongly correlated to LSS. That means that runners with a higher LSS have a superior RE, which may indicate that LSS is a useful way for coaches to measure (through proxy) RE.

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Arm Your Athletes With Real-Time Data

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Pain.

In the mind of the experienced endurance sport athlete, “pain” can be just another way to describe the the sensations which lead to achievement of one’s goals. Throughout this dance with discomfort, the athlete is engaged in an inner dialogue, and the topic of conversation is whether to keep the foot on the throttle and tolerate the discomfort a little bit longer or let off the gas and seek a slightly more comfortable intensity level.

The athlete is constantly collecting a combination of objective and subjective feedback in order to determine the optimal effort. These data may include power, cadence, heart rate, distance to the finish line, elapsed time, rating of perceived exertion (RPE), respiration rate, proximity of fellow athletes, and more. 

All of that feedback has a powerful impact on performance. If an athlete is struggling midway through a hill climb, but feels like the effort is going well, perhaps in the form of encouraging words from a spectator or viewing favorable performance metrics, they are far more likely to continue at a high intensity until the top. On the other hand, without that supporting data, and given that the body’s central governor is constantly sending messages designed to keep the athlete from doing damage to itself, the athlete is far more likely to succumb to the negative sensations and slow down, thereby falling short of a “peak performance.”

Having convenient access to meaningful data in these moments can make the difference between persevering or pulling the plug. As coaches, our job is to provide our athletes with both the right tools and the training guidance to understand what the numbers mean in the moment; having one without the other is almost useless.

We all know athletes who have resisted technology, and instead prefer to go with their gut. Unfortunately, many athletes simply have poorly calibrated perceived effort monitors (PEMs), and need both the technological tools and the coaching in order to improve calibration, and, in turn, their ability to rely on RPE. To help those athletes, I’ve had success with an “art and science” conversation, which lets the athlete know that they don’t have to be slaves to these tools forever, but rather move through alternating art and science phases.  

While novices are often the best candidates when it comes to seeing the value provided by objective data, such as power, heart rate, and speed, sometimes it is the more experienced athlete who could benefit from a periodic “science” phase. This is especially true if they have plateaued or set a uniquely audacious goal this season.

My challenge to you is to explore new ways to incorporate that real-time feedback into the workouts that you are already prescribing. Whether it is with new tools like the Solos Smart Glasses or just encouraging your athletes to consistently make a “system check” during a workout, building a relationship with that data is sure to increase your athletes’ ability to push through the hard times with objective knowledge.

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