Thursday, July 4, 2013

Building your Performance Pyramid I: The 'Health Base'

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
I’ve heard it said that elite athletics and health are mutually exclusive, i.e. that, at the very top of the sport, athletes are riding on such a razor’s edge of overtraining that none could be considered healthy. I don’t agree with this, and would actually go as far to say that at the VERY top of the sport, the athletes who are able to consistently turn in top results are only able to do so by having a very strong base of general health behind them.

In fact, to both absorb an elite level training program & to respond to such a program requires a very strong constitution. Athletes who lack such a constitution find themselves perpetually overtrained or injured – no recipe for reaching the top! But what goes into this superman constitution & is this something that can be developed?

As a coach to athletes at all levels of the life/performance spectrum, I witness a large range in 2 very important attributes in the training process:

1.       Recovery from training

2.       Response to training

The first ultimately determines how much training an athlete can absorb over the course of a week, month or year. The second determines just how much fitness the athlete gets from a given training load. Both of these qualities are largely contingent on the athlete having a ‘healthy system’, which, in turn depends on the athlete living a healthy life!
Let’s delve into these 2 foundational qualities in a little more depth…

What determines how quickly an athlete recovers from a given dose of specific training?

Well, considering most competitive events rely heavily on the athlete’s ability to generate energy from sugar (glycolysis), the rate at which an athlete is able to replenish their ‘sugar stores’ after an exhaustive bout of specific training is certainly an important factor in how quickly they recover & are able to commence the next bout of specific training.
So, what determines this rate of sugar replenishment within the body? I’ll give you a clue, it’s probably the most talked about hormone these days when it comes to health, that’s right, insulin.

A primary role of insulin is, in response to feeding, to open up the gates of depleted muscle cells so that they can be refilled. The problem comes when the stores are always full, i.e. the athlete has too much sugar in their diet.

Body says: “Neat, sugar in the blood stream. Send insulin to open the gates of the muscle cell to let some in to refill them”.
Insulin gets to the gate of the muscle cell and there is one of those “Parking lot full” signs there.

After a few times this happens, eventually Insulin loses his motivation to send the message, i.e. the body becomes insulin resistant.

But, "I’m an athlete, you’re taking about diabetic problems here. I’m too fit to worry about that sort of thing. Right?"

Competitive ‘Type-A’ working athletes can have some of the most messed up gluco-corticoid systems around! Think about it; they are typically time limited, which means when they train, they ‘hit it hard’. They come back to a stressful work desk which signals the body to keep the blood sugar coming (and maybe hit the candy/soda machine if it starts to drop) In short, the body never knows when the next assault is coming so the parking lot is always full!

Let’s ditch the metaphor and talk some actual numbers. Julia Goedecke is at the forefront of metabolic research for athletics. In a 2000 study, Julia and her colleagues looked at resting respiratory quotients among a group of athletes. The respiratory quotient is an indirect method of assessing how much carb/fat an athlete is burning at rest. Among this relatively homogenous group of ‘fit folks’, what they found was surprising. The amount of carbohydrate that these athletes burned at rest spanned a very wide range, from 0% to almost 94% of their resting energy needs were being met by sugars! The implication for the athlete looking to recover as quickly as possible is clear: If sugars are being burned, they’re not making it to the muscle for replenishment/recovery. How much longer is it going to take a ‘sugar burner’ to replenish his glycogen stores when he is using so much of it for his basal energy?
Furthermore, if your body is burning sugars preferentially, there’s a good chance that your little insulin messenger is getting tired of doing his laps & when you need him the most to actually get the glycogen stores in the muscle back up…well, think “boy who cried wolf.”

There are 3 important practical applications here that will serve to improve your health base…
1.       Don’t eat sugars when your body doesn’t need them

2.       Particularly in the early season, minimize those times that your body does need them, i.e. avoid excessively stressful (depletive) training. If in doubt, go easier!

3.       If you are serious about athletics, also make it a high priority in the early season to set up your life to minimize the non training stressors which, undoubtedly, affect your recovery from the demands of specific training.

A second important role of insulin in recovery is that it serves as a ‘switch’ between anabolism & catabolism in the body, i.e. it serves as an important messenger to tell the body to switch from ‘breaking down’ the body to ‘building up’ the body. An athlete who is insulin resistant is also resistant to body repair and growth!

Athletes who are perpetually awash in cortisol due to either excessively stressful (intense) training or an excessively stressful life never experience the ‘switch’ that enables them to build the body back up after tearing it down – a process that is the crux of effective training!

I can confirm this from experience. After working with athletes from all professions and life circumstance, I can attest that the range in training response to a given training load between those athletes who lead the most stressful lives and those who live the most simply can be as great as 50%, i.e. it can take twice the amount of training to get the same fitness benefit when an athlete has other stressors to deal with. Of course, typically these athletes also exhibit a blunted recovery profile and can’t tolerate the same level of training. They certainly can’t tolerate 2x the training that they would need to keep pace with an athlete with a ‘healthy system’.

Hopefully, these examples illustrate the importance of starting from a strong ‘health base’. Athletes who have very healthy metabolic/endocrine systems recover much more quickly from, and get more fitness benefit from, the specific stress of training when the time is right.
Live smart.


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