This is the final piece of my BSMPG series, following the Boston Sports Medicine Performance Group seminar hosted at Northeastern University. In this series of articles I’m sharing my experiences, notes and thoughts so that you can get some value out of them, and I can commit them to something more permanent than paper.
I’d recommend you check out previous instalments of the series as the speakers put out some really good information, and I want to help spread that information:
Part 7: Al Smith, part 2
If you haven’t already read my notes from Al Smith’s first talk at BSMPG, go back and read it. It contains some really good and refreshing ideas on sports performance, and it will also lay a nice foundation for this piece.
After his keynote address, Al presented again in the afternoon as part of a breakout session, this time to talk about the limited stuff that really does work in high performance, highlighting the work of some of his colleagues in the UK:
- Question the relevance of everything to your athletes, your situation. Just because there is research to support it, doesn’t mean it will be of value to you or your athletes.
- We understand very little about trainability i.e. the middle piece of the puzzle that lies between training input and performance outcome. We understand these two very well, but not nearly as well the factors that underpin the performance improvement. This is the future of sport science (probably with particular emphasis on exercise genetics).
- Psychoneuroendocrinology is an exciting potential area of study. This is because it recognises that stress management is ultimately brain governed- by weighing up the demands of stress upon the system and allocating energy resources, the brain is in charge of how much we adapt to a training stimulus.
- He said it again- humans are complex, adaptive systems. We cannot just apply simple, linear scientific data to human performance and expect it to work 100% of the time.
- New research suggests steroid hormone levels can give inference to mental state of engagement in sporting performance.
- Women working in high risk professions such as financial trading exhibit significantly higher concentrations of free testosterone than the rest of the population.
- Likewise in athletes. The higher the level of female athlete, the higher the level of free testosterone. In international podium finishers, females have just as much testosterone as the average (non athlete) male. Either they have high free testosterone before training, or they have a high responsiveness to training but the relationship is clear.
- Feedback can exert a powerful effect on endocrine status and eventual performance. In one study athletes were separated into two conditions. Both groups were told that over the course of the study they would practice sprinting the 100m. However one group was tricked into running progressively shorter distances each week (whilst being told that their times were obviously improving). The other group was tricked into running progressively longer distances (and told they were getting slower).
- Throughout the course of the study the group receiving positive feedback experienced a progressive rise in testosterone, whilst the long distance group’s testosterone declined. This manifested itself in significant performance changes at the end of the study. Despite a near identical training volume, the group that experienced the rise in testosterone ran 0.2s faster. The group who’s testosterone dropped ran 0.5s slower. This suggests we can have a powerful physiological and performance effect by manipulating the training and competition environment of our athletes.
- Studies have also documented acute improvements in explosive power output following exposure to either aggressive or sexual video material. These changes are correlated with a change in androgen profile- another plus point for manipulating athlete environment!
- In one very clever study, RFU sport scientist Christian Cook investigated the differences between (retired) elite rugby players and sub elite rugby player when metabolic pathways for adaptation (mTor, testosterone and IL-6) were blocked with drugs.
- After one short training programme, both groups experienced blunted adaptation. However the longer the study went on, the better the retired elite rugby players were able to find a way to adapt and improve to the training programme, whilst the sub elite players were unable to improve. It appears that- physiologically- elite athletes will always find a way to adapt, Al think perhaps through neural mechanisms.
- In Al’s experience, science seems to lag behind best practice of the most successful coaches. This is a dilemma for high performance as we need to be evidence based practitioners, but practice is typically always one step ahead of evidence.
- Again, we need to be careful of applying group averages from research conducted on non-elite athletes to individuals competing at the elite level of competition. The more he learns, the more Al prefers a holistic approach to performance similar to elite music. In the music arena, practitioners are only concerned about what they can do in each area to improve the performance of the individual, elite performer. They do not concern themselves with what is best for the average musician- that is not the business they are in.
What lessons I took from the presentation
Once again Al got the gears in my brain moving. I need to be not so quick to rubber stamp interventions just because they are scientifically documented. Likewise I need to think in a more holistic fashion about raising performance in elite individuals where appropriate. If it works, just be glad it works rather than questioning every detail of the science.
The presentation has also reignited my interested in steroid hormones on rugby performance (something that Val Nasedkin was talking about 3 years ago when I attended CVASPS. No matter what athlete they are dealing with at Omegawave, they are concerned about steroid hormones- they appear to be that important). This is definitely a future area of investigation for me, specifically how much androgen profile can be improved with training, diet or athlete environment, or if it can be used as an indicator of trainability or a talent identification tool.