What has changed?

An interesting question that came up last week. Well, working in the field of elite sports performance for almost 40 years, one can see changes from then till now.
So what are the major differences between working with elite athletes at that time and now?
I am not looking at natural improvement of performances or the increased use of technology.

1. 40 Years ago coaching was mainly a one-man’s job .The coach had a close relationship with his athlete or athletes. Nowadays athletes are supported by teams of advisors or specialists, in which the coach has the role of manager or coordinator with less focus on coaching, but more on adequate delegation of specific tasks to the other team members.

2. One cannot deny the role of the internet as a dominant source of information for coaches. 40 Years ago one relied on books, articles, seminars or personal contact with colleagues. My personal opinion is that the quality of information is replaced by quantity of information. Often young coaches ask me: “but isn’t writing on the internet the same as writing a book or article, what is the difference?” My answer is: just try to write a book or article instead of a Facebook post and you’ll know. On the internet every “brainfart” is fired into the internet within a minute, without any filter, reflexion or self-criticism. I said it before and I’ll say it again: the internet is the biggest garbage can that exists. I’ll give you an example: last week I gave presentation about running technique and put a picture of Mo Farah in there. I wanted to know his height and weight and some more about his running. So I googled different sources. Wikipedia gave me 1.71 m and 60 kg, and somebody stated that he supposedly had a leg length difference of 1 inch. Purely by coincidence I ran into Mo Farah here in Amsterdam two days later and decided to ask him personally. His height is 1.68, his weight 55 kg and no, he has no leg length difference! So far for the reliability of information on the internet. For speed, cost and quantity, yes, for quality, and reliability, no.

3. Information sources, e.g. about training, came from within the sport with a slow influx of information from sport-related sources. Nowadays a large part of information, ideas and concepts comes from:

• the fitness industry, not at all aimed at increasing elite performance, but mainly to look good, feel good and create general overall fitness and get average people to the gym and keeping them happy.

• rehabilitation and therapies, again, not aimed at increasing high performance, but at bringing injured, weak and elderly people back to a normal average level of fitness, not to win a gold medal at the Olympics.

• marketing of products, technical or nutritional: one can find and app or a pill that helps for everything one can imagine. It might take a few weeks or months before reality slaps you in the face, but in the end you will discover that 99.9% of the claims are exaggerations, based on sloppy science or good marketing, on hope or naivety only.

4. coaches were more independent and (self-critical) thinkers, showed creativity, and weren’t overly concerned with status, their likes on Facebook or job titles like high-performance coach or speed specialist.

5. At that time coaches were real students of their sport, they knew the history, knew the milestones of the past and knew the „greats“ in their field. The time horizon of the modern coach seems to be more limited in these aspects. They sometimes have no clue about anything that happened in their sport more than 5 years ago. But also their view of the future seems to be limited to the short-term, next competition, next month or next year. Just ask them where they and their athletes will be in 5 or 10 years from now.

So you might ask: “were things better in those days?”. No, definitely not, most things were much worse as matter of fact. Think about the sports materials, the foot wear, the equipment, the facilities, or the technology. But in scarcity or in limitations are the opportunities. One had to use one’s own brain and find creative solutions for problems that now no longer exist. These days many young coaches think they can solve a complex problem by simply downloading an app.

 

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Never do an exercise just because you can…..

At any seminar or course where I lecture, I see colleagues coming up with fantastic, complex, cool and challenging exercises.

Look around for athletes lifting a kettle bell while standing on a Swiss ball with one foot, the other foot hooked up in TRX, wearing a weight vest and attached to an elastic cord. Is this the right way to improve strength, balance, core stability? Everything pressed into one exercise. Or athletes running up a steep hill, wearing a weight vest, pushing a sled, pulling another sled, just to make sure there is “overload”.
Functional??? What a joke… what function are you trying to improve here? Where is the transfer to real life or real competition. Forget the deceiving word: “functional”.
Colleagues of mine have also been writing critically about this issue.(1)

I often see those „exercise-architects” designing programs with what I call „exercise-diarrhea“, a multitude of cool exercises of which the purpose is unclear. Other coaches copy those exercises and have their athletes or clients perform them too. Why? Because the exercise exists and …. because we can.
For me this is never an argument, we perform exercises because they significantly contribute to a better performance. If I am not sure of that… I leave them out of my program. These exercises are redundant, and often performed out of the neurotic fear of not having done enough different exercises. The majority of the coaches is afraid to set priorities, to make a choice in exercise, to leave exercises out or to do these exercises later on in the week.

Yes, I have learned too. When I was an athlete, coaching myself, I did squats, but also calf and glut exercises for explosive strength, not to forget the hamstrings and iliopsoas for balance. And then there were the obligatory back and abdominal exercises. And the shoulder and arm exercises, biceps and triceps and the wrist curls to top it off. And this in every strength workout 3-4 times a week. I spent hours in the weight room, not getting much stronger, just getting slower, getting injured and needing more time for recovery. Over trained and fatigued by the energy expenditure of the workout and the energy for recovery. The best lessons are learned the hard way. It took me three months to figure out this was the wrong direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should limit yourself to just a handful different exercises or drills. You may know hundreds of them, just don’t try to cram them into one or into each workout. It is like having dinner, you don’t put a slice of pizza, a chocolate cake, a spring roll, spare ribs, half a taco and one scoop of strawberry ice cream all at once on your plate. You’ll get your calories that is for sure, but it most likely didn’t taste like anything. One of the most frequent mistakes is to try and hit two targets with one bullet: you will probably miss both targets. Leave alone hitting more than two targets.

Bottom line: if you’re not absolutely sure that the exercise you have in mind has a significant and positive contribution to the outcome of competition performance … leave it out. Don’t do an exercise just because you can.

 

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Hypergravity and more…..

 

I remember our first brainstorms about muscle adaptation to load. Not long before that moment, astronauts had walked on the surface of the moon where gravity is much lower than on Earth, (Earth: 9.81 M.sec2 = 1G; Moon: 1,62 M/sec2 0.2G).
So we discussed what the consequences would be for sports performances being performed on the moon instead of on earth e.g. further and higher jumps and further throws. Then the subject shifted to what would be the consequences for training on the moon like going there on a training camp for a few weeks, and come back to earth and compete.

I kind of forgot about this discussion but my conversation partner did not. It was the late Dr. Carmelo Bosco, at that time scientific consultant to the Italian Track and Field Federation and I considered him my mentor.
A few years later he published research articles about hypergravity training: he looked at the effects on the neuro-muscular system while continuously being exposed to slightly higher loads. He did this by having the athlete wearing a weight vest of 13% of their bodyweight during the day over a period of three weeks, excluding sleep and normal training.

Suppose you do squats with 2 times your body weight, so total 1G+2G = 3 G. And you perform 4 sets of 10 reps, total 40 reps. You might perform the squat in 3 seconds, going down and coming up again. Now 40 reps times 3 seconds = 120 seconds, or 2 minutes times 3 G = 6 Gminutes, this is the total load for your anti-gravity muscles or extensors. You can compare this to „time-under tension“.

Hypergravity training consists of wearing a weight vest of 13 % of your body weight = let us say 0.1 G, total 1G + 0.1G =1.1 G, but during 14 hours a day, (considering 8 hours of sleep and 2 hours of normal training in which you do not wear the vest). Now 14 hours is 840 minutes times 1.1 G = 924 Gminutes. Approximately 150 times more that doing the squats! What would be the effect for athletes? What do you think?

Dr. Bosco figured it out: great effect on explosive strength and a long retention time, which means that the training effects of a three week hypergravity period last much longer than for any comparable training method.
It’s not the intensity, but the time or duration factor that produced the result. We know this in daily life: if the sun exposure is constant, 5 minutes in the sun won’t do much, but 1 hour in the same sun will give you a tan.

There were a few disadvantages while using this method. First of all the social inconvenience of wearing a bulky vest for 14 hours (but at that time you could still go shopping in busy street without people panicking and calling the police) It was bulky and the mass was centered around the upper body only. While the 13% was OK to wear outside the track or field, training with the 13% extra was not advised due to the excess load on tendons and ligaments. These only adapt slowly to the sudden extra load.

Good news – things changed. We are now working with the same principle but with much better equipment due to better fabrics and materials, no more cotton vests and cramming little sandbags filled with sand or lead pellets in pockets.

Remember the old weight vest?

Now we can work with flat, little weight pads of 50, 100, or 200 grams, easily Velcro’d over all relevant muscle groups: upper arm sleeves, fore arm sleeves, shoulders, upper body front and back, thighs and calves. Not only that, the special fabric also supplies you with compression so more blood will be shifted from the skin and be available for the working muscles.

 

Hypergravity equipment

You can now easily increase and decrease the loads, and place the loads where you want, arm, legs, trunk, not only for hypergravity use, but also for specific strength training. You can move, run, sprint and play while wearing it!

One little snag: be aware of the coaches who will ask for heavier weights i.e. 500 gr pads (the more, the heavier: the better!!). Then the athletes will no longer be able to move properly (think RoboCop) and the movement patterns will be disturbed and injuries will occur.

Bilbiography

Bosco, C: Physiologische Betrachtungen zum Explosivkrafttraining unter Hyperschwerkraft-Bedingungen; Leistungssport, No.2, 1985, pg.19- 24. (in German)

Bosco, C; Rusko, H; Hirvonen, J:The effect of extra-load conditioning on muscle performance in athletes; Med.Science Sports Exerc. Vol.18, No.4, 1986, pg.415-419.

Bosco, C: Adaptive response of human skeletal muscle to simulated hypergravity condition; Acta Physiol.Scand.Vol.124, 1985, pg.507-513.

Bosco, C; Zanon, S; Rusko, H; Dal Monte, A; Belotti, P; Latteri, F; Candeloro, N; Locatelli, E; Azzarro, E; Pozzo, R; Bonomi, S: The influence of extra load on the behavior of skeletal muscle; Eur.J.Appl.Physiol.Vol.53, 1984, pg.149-154.

Rusko, H; Bosco, C: Metabolic response of endurance athletes to training with added load; Eur.J.Appl.Physiol.Vol.56, 1987, pg.412-418.

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The World Championships surprises

While recovering from the accumulated lack of sleep caused by watching the World Championships Athletics the last 10 days I observed a few interesting things.

I guess everybody  noticed the many surprises, positive and negative: Mo Farah and Usain Bolt lost where they looked undefeatable so many times before. The loss of Elaine Thompson in the 100 meter women, etc. For Jamaica the WC results were bad, mainly due to the fact that three athletes dominating sprint before, Bolt, Thompson or Fraser-Price, were not in good shape or weren’t there at all. Interesting though: Jamaica does no longer seem to limit itself to producing only good sprinters: a gold medal in men’s hurdling, also finals in shotput women, and even the 5000 meter men.

Focusing on the positive surprises: USA 3000m steeple women: gold and silver. The boost of South Africa and smaller countries: Venezuela, Norway. Syria taking a medal in high jump. The “recovery”  of the dominance of USA in sprint events and Kenia in the longer distances. France and Germany taking their places again and yes, the 800 meter men, which is always a roulette, saw two non-Africans winning gold and silver. Turkey winning the gold medal in the 200 meter.

And what about the Netherlands, many people ask me. Yes, we have 5 very good athletes, all female: Dafne Schippers (100m and 200m), Nadine Visser (hurdles and heptathlon), Sifan Hassan (1500m and 5 km),  Anouk Vetter (heptathlon), Susan Krumins (5 km and 10 km).  They were all good and they peaked at the right moment.

The men were terrible this time: Churandy Martina injured himself before the Championships and the years start counting against him.  Eric Cadee, our discus thrower threw 64.93 in 2017, but did not make into the finals with a disastrous 58.60, more than 6 meter less! Menno Vloon, our pole-vaulter jumped 5.85 this year but had a strange accident during the qualifications and was out.

Thymen Kupers, who won his 800 meter heat very convincingly with the fastest time overall, did not start in the semi-finals due to an injury.

Richard Douma, the 1500 meter runner stumbled in the heats, still made it to the semi-final and became dead last in a terrible time, of course.

Eelco Nicolaas, our best decathlete of the last decade,  scored a hopeful 8539 points this year only to give up the second day due to an injury. His colleague Pieter Braun, scored 8334 points this year but ended with 7890 points, 500 points less.

The 4×100 relay showed where they are without Martina: nowhere. They  stumbled in the heats with a sixth place in 38.66.

Isn’t it peculiar, the men doing so terrible, injured or not being able to peak and the women doing so great with  4 medals?

The rest of the women, like the men, were quiet unconvincing too to put it mildly.  In throwing and sprinting they, like the men, stayed far behind their best performances of 2017. 4×400 meter relay got DQed, 4x100m was dead last in the final, Broersen, heptathlon, gave up injured and in shotput Boekelman more than 1 meter from her best performance in 2017(!?).

Here is the secret:  Schippers trains with a foreign coach, and so does Hassan, Krumins is training in the US as well.  Vetter is coached by her father and Visser might leave her coach as well, if history is an indication for the future.

These hard numbers prove that Dutch track coaches suck and although our Olympic Committee tries to tell the world that we have the best educated coaches in the world, nothing is further from the truth. Their education is practically non-existent or totally inadequate to cope with the demand of performing at the highest level.  If they are as good as they think, why are the best performances  produced by athletes who train with foreign coaches?

Enough about the Dutch.

It also becomes more and more clear that the concept of nationalism or competing for your country is old-fashioned and arbitrary, athletes change countries as easy as they change clubs or coaches.  Just as in other sports. International immigration is normal.  They rightly choose for the money, the passport or the training facilities. Is the medal in the 5 km for Sifan Hassan a medal for the Netherlands, for Europe (like a reporter said) or a medal for Africa? I don’t know and I don’t really care, as it is a medal for Sifan Hassan. Where she comes from, where she lives and for which country she competes is hardly interesting. Until we find a better solution we will have to deal with athletes who compete for a country.

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Peaking for beginners.

Isn ‘t this what it is all about? You trained hard for that particular competition and now you want to be the best you can be. Or are you just training to train, or training to compete no matter what the result will be? I guess not.
I write this while watching the World Championships Athletics in London, and calculate the results of the Dutch team so far. A few days ago I gave a TV interview about what peaking is and how to do it.

Here it is in a nutshell: Peaking is delivering your best performance (ever or of the year) when it counts, most of the time during a major championship such as Olympic Games or World Championship, but also at the Superbowl, the NCAA, a Grand Slam, Grand Prix or Diamond League. It’s our major task as coaches.
Quite a few athletes do very well in local championships or the national championships, but when it comes to the Big One, they don’t perform as well.
Peaking isn’t rocket science nor a mysterious process. Like many things it’s quiet simple if you know what to do and how to do it. But looking at the results you find out that many coaches don’t have clue.

It consists of three main components:
1. Fitness
2. Readiness
3. Stress resilience

1. The important factor in fitness is conditioning: the athlete needs to have a high level of fitness, strong, fast and/or good endurance, depending on the sport, but furthermore an adequate technical level and tactical skills. This is the easy part, because this is what we train for on a daily basis and what we can measure and control by testing.

2. Readiness is more difficult as it is harder to know whether the athlete is ready or not. With ready we mean that the body’s physiological systems are fully charged and well-coordinated. By training and conditioning we temporarily decrease readiness. The athlete gets tired but recovers on a daily basis , but there is also an accumulated, residual or deeper fatigue. Readiness means freshness, not being fatigued. Nowadays we use sophisticated equipment such as Omegawave to measure the readiness level of the athlete. But for my own athletes I designed a simple algorithm for tapering, to make sure there is little chance they enter the stadium fatigued.

3. Stress resilience or the ability to handle stress and deal with the pressure that comes with competing at the highest level. The ability to handle your doubts or fears whether you are good enough to win or good enough to produce a good result. And the added expectations and pressure of parents, peers, coach, club, federation, media and sponsors.

So in order to peak the athletes have to be fit, recovered and stress resilient. Most of the time I find that two of three of these factors are OK, but the third one is inadequate.
Only in hindsight can we judge if the athlete peaked. It’s hard to predict if an athlete is going to peak if you don’t know them well. Many athletes THINK they will peak or assume they are ready based on the wrong assumptions: “I never trained so hard before”, “I feel in good shape”, “my competitions so far were good”, “I see this as a challenge”. All great, but it’s not enough nor by any means a guarantee for peaking.

In measurable sports like athletics, swimming, weightlifting, it is easy to evaluate if the athlete peaked or not. For myself, I use the 2% rule: if the athlete is within 2% of his/her best performance that year, they peaked. If the athlete performed worse 2% from their best performance that year, they did not peak. In some track events, you don’t need to apply this rule e.g. in the middle or long distance races where a tactical race with a fast last lap only and a slow time can still deliver a gold medal. The 2% margin is quite large, but also includes possible unfavorable weather conditions, like head wind, low temperature, rain or slow tracks.
But if you want to apply a sharper 1% margin that is fine too. If I apply the 2% rule to the Dutch team at the 2013 World championship, only 9 out of 17 athletes peaked, after applying the 1% rule only 5 out of 17 events the athlete(-s) peaked. In any case a strong display of inability of the coaches to make their athlete peak at the right time. Let’s face it, this championship is the final goal of the training process.

The most neglected factor is the stress resilience factor. Here improvement takes a much longer time than most coaches assume and for sure is not the result of hard physical training. Some part of the ability to cope with stress is genetically determined and hard to compensate, but possible in my opinion.

One can see this because some athletes train hard and are well-rested and ready but they repeatedly crack under the pressure of the Big One, sometimes year after year. Others don’t train as well as they should, but always seem to go beyond themselves and surprise you with a great performance at the championship and even a gold medal or a personal best.
Peaking is not difficult but it is complex to understand and complex to control the three major factors involved at the same time.

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Nature teaches, we learn.

Holiday is always a good time for slowing down a busy brain, reset the mind and let some new ideas come up. Science, mainly biology, physics and chemistry, is always my primary interest, much more than sport to be honest. I remember as a boy being an enthousiastic member of The Young Researchers Foundation, organized by university students, who practiced teaching chemistry, physics and technology to kids. This foundation still exists.

Although I was, like many boys of that age, fascinated by rockets, explosions and smells (once I made the whole neighborhood smell like pineapple: I synthesized ethyl-butyrate), I also learned e.g. paper and column chromatography.
Hiking in the mountains not only makes you feel small and irrelevant, but it also makes me wonder still about the true marvels of nature and human’s futile attempts to improve  nature.

Let me give you a simple example. In an attempt to improve human health or to combat disease the immense pharmaceutical industry is trying to find solutions for common or rare, for acute or chronic diseases. The cost of these, in terms of financial costs, but also of human suffering by side effects, or experimental medication that doesn’t work like it was anticipated, is beyond belief.
Herbal medicine has been consciously neglected too long. Conveniently forgetting that herbal medicine is the mother of pharmacology, medical science and pharmacology went the easy way by becoming more and more specialized in looking for isolating and changing natural products. (Only recently again, science “discovered” the importance and the power of synergy of plant compounds)

For some part, isolation and modifying a natural molecule is done to improve the qualities of the compound, (better absorption, stronger effect, less side effects) but the main reason is: being able to patent a „new“ compound, thereby having “improved” on nature and most importantly, generating absurd levels of profit for the shareholders. Yes, human health has become commodity to be exploited and look around, it works out really well.

In my opinion it is hard, if of not impossible to improve on nature, not in an esoteric sense, but from a scientific point of view. Think about the many thousandof different plant metabolites that exist and of which only a small portion has been discovered and tested. One of the big problems of modern medicine is the resistance of bacteria against modern synthetic antibiotics, think MRSA (modern antibiotics basically started in the 1940’s with the discovery of penicillin).

Now think of plants being involved in a chemical warfare with bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, and other pests and threats. Have you ever thought why these plants, or better said most plants, are not extinct yet despite these continuous attacks? Simply because plants, through evolution, developed their own well stocked cabinet of antibiotics as a defense system to protect themselves. And better yet: throughout the hundreds of thousands of years, bacterial resistance against these compounds does not seem to play a role. For bacteria it is easy to develop resistance against one singular, isolated, synthetic compound, but not against many diffrent plant compounds since the resistance process is specific and costs a lot of energy.
To be fair, a plant has the advantage of having had hundreds of thousands of years of hard and serious experimentation under lethal pressure: synthesize the right compounds against an attacker, or become extinct!

The vegetable part of Mother Nature supplies us with lots of goodies, apart form our daily nutrition. We often take most of them for granted because they are so integrated in our daily life. A short list: tea, coffee, beer, wine, tobacco, cannabis, opium, cocaine, etc. All of these are derived from plants and used to enrich the daily lives of billions of people on this planet. Or are used because we disagree with the current status of our organism and so we use chemical, although natural, substances like the above to change that. It has always been there from the beginning of mankind and a known phenomenon in all human cultures.

These plant compounds also cause the confusion that makes it hard to define the difference between a poison, a social drug, a street drug, a medication or a doping agent. The same compound can belong to different groups, dependent of time and cultural factors. Just think about the different ways one can look at coffee. This whole issue is surrounded with a high level of irrationality.

Going back to hiking in the mountains. In the first hour of a hike I found some interesting plants. First of all, the Aconitum napellus of Monkshood, amongst the three strongest plant toxins in Europe. It was already mentioned by the Roman writer Ovid, who called it “stepmother’s poison”.(1) Also Shakespeare wrote that Romeo committed suicide by using this poison. And let’s not forget professor Severius Snape, who informed Harry Potter about the powerful Wolfsbane Potion, containing Monkshood.(2)

Aconitum napellus (Monkshood)

During the same hike many potential compounds against cancer were found along the trails. A few:
–  Chelidonium majus, used against cancer in the anticancer product product „Ukrain“,  main component chelerythrine (3,4)

Chelidonium majus

– Berberis vulgaris, the main component berberine, (5) good as an alternative to lower cholesterol instead of statins too (6)

Berberis vulgaris

– Chamomille main component apigenin (7,8)
– Dandelion (Yes the simple and abundant dandelion!) (9,10)

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion)

We already know that compounds in these plants do work on cancer cells in the lab. But since there is no money to be made from these compounds, as they can be found everywhere. The research and testing on human subjects and patients would cost way  more money than would ever return from making a therapeutic product out of it. So many valuable compounds are produced along the side of the road or are growing in your own garden, without people bothering to use them. This what we call progress.

But billions of dollars have been spent (since Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971) and thousands of intelligent experts and researchers have been thinking about and looking in vain for a final solution for cancer. Some simple conclusions can be drawn: 1.until now their thinking was inadequate, 2. they have been looking at the wrong issues 3. they have been looking at the right issues but from he wrong perspective. Three easy solutions: think in a different way, look at other issues and/or look from another perspective.

Maybe part of a solution has been around for a long time, waiting to be finally discovered, hidden deep in the metabolism of some plants? The example is here, in 2015 Youyou Tu won the Nobelprize for Medicine (the first Nobelprize for a Chinese scientist) for the research she did on Artemisia, a plant used to combat malaria, knowing that Artemisia already has been used in China for many hunderds of years against fever.

Limited bibliography.
1 Tai, C.J; El-Shazly, M: Clinical Aspects of Aconitum Preparations; Planta Med. Vol.81, 2015, pg.1017–1028.

2 Rowling J.K. Harry Potter and the philosopherʼs stone; Pottermore, London, 2012.

3 Malíková J, Zdarilová A, Hlobilková A, Ulrichová J: The effect of chelerythrine on cell growth, apoptosis, and cell cycle in human normal and cancer cells in comparison with sanguinarine.  Cell Biol Toxicol. Vol.22, No.6, 2006 pg.439-53.

4 Ernst, E; Schmidt, K: Ukrain – a new cancer cure? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials; BMC Cancer, 5, 2005, 69

5 Tillhon,M; Guama´n Ortiz, L.M; Lombardi, P, Ivana Scovassi, A: Berberine: New perspectives for old remedies; Biochemical Pharmacology,Vol. 84, 2012, pg. 1260–1267.

6 Weijia Kong, Jing Wei, Parveen Abidi, Meihong Lin: Berberine is a novel cholesterol-lowering drug working through a unique mechanism distinct from statins; Nature Medicine, Vol 10, No.12, 2004, pg.1344-1351.

7 Srivastava, J.K; Gupta, S: Antiproliferative and Apoptotic Effects of Chamomile Extract in Various Human Cancer Cells; J. Agric. Food Chem. Vol.55, No.23, 2007, pg.9470–9478

8 Zhu, Y; Mao,Y :A pigenin promotes apoptosis, inhibits invasion and induces cell cycle arrest of T24 human bladder cancer cells; Cancer Cell International 2013, 13:54,pg.1-7.

9 Ovadje, P; Ammar, S; Guerrero, J-A; Arnason,J.T; Pandey, S: Dandelion root extract affects colorectal cancer proliferation and survival through the activation of multiple death signalling pathways; Oncotarget, Vol. 7, No. 45, 2016, pg.73080-73100.

10 Sigstedt S.C; Hooten, C.J; Callewaert M.C: Evaluation of aqueous extracts of Taraxacum officinale on growth and invasion of breast and prostate cancer cells; Int.J.Oncology, Vol.32, 2008, pg.1085-1090,

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Why almost all our ideas about training are wrong (or at least: based on the wrong assumptions)

In the last post I already indicated the importance of the individual. I have been going through a lot of books lately to look at the same information I have looked at before, but this time from a different view.
I adapted the concept of the strictly individual approach from the beginning of my work as coach somewhere in 1975. And throughout the years I got more convinced about its value for performance.
“ Look at your athlete, not at your program” sums it up nicely, but “improve your athlete, not your program” will do as well.

The case is that what I learned during my coaching courses was all based on the average athlete, by great pioneers in the methodology of training (Matwejew, Werchoshansky).

However, when I run into my first international level athlete, (something I did not know at that time) I found an outlier. And everything I learned at my course failed to work for this particular athlete. A few years later I trained another world-class athlete and the same thing happened: everything that worked for the first one, did not work for this athlete and the other way around. Looking at these athletes it wasn’t difficult to figure out why that was: they were complete opposites in almost all variables, but both were outliers from the average still.

Look at the age when athletes start in their sport: some of them start early, some of them start late. Or find out what they did before: some of them did other sports before, while others never did anything different and specialized from the very start of getting into sports. Some of them have a 5 year career, others a 30 year career (e.g. Merlene Ottey)

Some of them respond very well to certain training methods, others hardly respond or are getting injured. One athlete’s overload is another athlete’s overkill.

One sprinter could jump and do plyometrics like a kangaroo, with great improvement in explosive strength and without injuries, the other sprinter of the same level got pain and would be injured after a minimal set of jumps or bounding. So what to do: do plyometrics or not at all ….. well, it depends on the individual athlete.

This is also one of the reasons why I don’t put much time into technique training as it is supposed to be done. For me technique is an individual tactic used to solve a given motor task. Yes, the strategy might be the same, but the tactic might be different, dependent on many anatomical and physiological factors In sprinting we could already see an extreme example in the former elite GDR female sprinters some were successful with focus on stride frequency (Goehr, Stecher), others with focus on stride length (Koch, Gladisch). So, yes as they say there are many ways leading to Rome (but keep in mind that many people do not even arrive in Rome, or arrive too late).

A few examples: we see pictures of anatomical structures, in books about biomechanics of running, but who’s muscles are we really seeing there? As we know, anatomical structure dictates function and the other way around. So a different anatomical structure will lead to a difference in function.
Look at the variations in the structure of the patella, one variation is much more predisposed to be involved in knee injuries than others.

Possible anatomical variations of the patella

Another example: the individual variations in structure of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon (1)

Individual variations in calf muscles and Achilles tendon structure

Videos or photos of exemplary athletes surely give you the wrong impression! You can only run like Gebreselassie or Bolt if you ARE Gebreselassie or Bolt! Everyone else is doomed to fail!

One fine example from some time ago where in a former GDR textbook a photoseries of the start of Merlene Ottey was shown with the note that this was a textbook example of a good start. Whereas my own notes of the same start, being her coach at that moment, say it was a very bad start.

Blockstart 200 m Merlene Ottey in GDR textbook

 

Another one: during a scientific research project we looked at the force production at the starting blocks with elite athletes. Looking at the picture you see large individual difference despite the facts that they were all elite sprinters of comparable level.

Force-time curves blockstart elite sprinters

During this project, just for kind of fun, the sprinters also tried to copy Ben Johnson’s start, but they all failed to even come close (and they were strong and explosive guys).
So, how valuable is scientific research in this issue? In medicine or in sports we are looking to improve the health or the performance of individual patients or athletes. And often average data, like norm values or reference values are used as guideline for progress.

An example: look at the average data as the result of fMRI test as a response to a standard stimulus. (2)

MRI group average

But now look at the individual response: none of them looked nearly like the average! (2)

 

MRI of the individuals in the group

 

Here is the key: when someone tells speaks to you about “the average athlete” remember that you might not want to coach the average athlete but rather the non-average of elite athlete, the outlier. The average sprinter runs 12 seconds in the 100 meter. Looking at psychological factors the situation is even more pronounced. Its seems that psychological traits are hardly stable factors. And most of our behavior is purely contextual. One thing should be clear: there isn’t even such a thing like the average person: the average person has one breast and one testicle.

Bibliography:

  1. Edama, M; Kubo, M;  Onishi, H et al: The twisted structure of the human Achilles tendon; Scand J.Med.Sci Sport. Vol.25, pg.e497–e503, 20

2. Miller, M.B; van Horn, J.D et al.: Extensive Individual Differences in Brain    Activations  Associated with Episodic Retrieval are Reliable Over Time; Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience Vol.14, No.8, pg. 1200–1214, 2002.

Rose, L.T; Rouhani, P; Fischer, K.W: The Science of the Individual; Mind, Brain and Education; Vol.7, No.3, pg.152-158, 2013.

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New developments

Yes, it looks like I am slacking on my blog posts a bit. The main reason is I am working on two new books at the same time, which takes a lot of my time. In the meanwhile I have been working on some interesting issues.

We did a project with real-time testing of HRV of police officers during shooting. They were stressed before they started by a hand-to-hand combat and by putting their feet in ice water for three minutes.

Ice-bath 3 mins

Now we look for the relationship between measured stress levels and shooting performance. I have an idea but I won’t tell you here, just read the post before and you’ll get the direction of my thoughts.

Shooting test

In the coming months I will also be doing testing on the effects of whole-body cryotherapy in which a large part of the body is exposed to liquid nitrogen with an approximate temperature of – 110 degrees Celcius for 2-3 minutes.

 

Whole-body cryotherapy about to start

It’s not new, as a matter of fact the idea of this producing a positive effect tot he human body is old. Don’t try to compare this to the effect of normal icebath or cold water immersion for a longer period of time.

Something else that I have been following for since 2003 is blood flow restriction or KAATSU training in which a limb, arms and/or legs. Also this I will be testing for more positive effects. Blood flow restriction is a temporary limitation of the blood flow by strapping a band around the limb and exerting a pressure, compare this to measuring blood pressure. It’s not that any method will do, the pressure and the time have to be monitored carefully and optimized according to the individual.

Also I will start my own education seminars for coaches in fall, since the coaches education in Holland, especially for elite coaches is at an all-time low since I started lecturing for coaches in 1981. Too many people who don’t have the foggiest idea about what a coach needs to know, have been employed to fill the curriculum in many sportsfederations. People who have never been coaches themselves, nor have been educating coaches themselves, have the power to decide what is important. With the result that in Holland many coaches are still living in the last century. Organisational complacency and a sports political agenda tells the coaches they are amongst the best educated coaches in the world, but how do they know?

Lecturing in USA, Canada, Australia, China, Norway, Switzerland, or Germany at least gives me an idea what the levels are and how the Dutch compare. I have never seen one of those persons in charge of coaches education around anywhere and I know they never leave their office into the real world to find out.

A shame, my younger colleagues deserve better and I am in the process of organising seminars, like I used to do at the turn of the century. Small seminars on, new subjects and good speakers, like in the past Per Tesch, Marco Cardinale, Bill Laich, Atko Viru, Paul Balsom, Carmelo Bosco, John Hellemans, Joel Gold, etc. It will be in invitation only, so I will be sure this information will be understood and used.

Lecturing: I will be lecturing this week at the Nelli Cooman Games in Holland (20st edition!) and giving a clinic together with Nelli herself.

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The elephant in the room for improvement.

I admit, this is one of my hobby horses and I like to ride it hard and often.
In many fields of life, industry, medicine and sports, the scientific management principles of Taylor, mind you more than 150 years old, still dominate. (1)

Words such as manager, standardization, productivity, efficiency, protocol, KPI, assessment, norm or average, are still used to express the powerful impact of Taylorism. Yes, Taylor absolutely made a big step forward as far as efficiency is concerned. He sharpened the thinking about running companies in those days, but that step was 150 years ago! One of Taylor’s important approaches was that he timed the workers in completing a certain task. From this he derived an average time for an average worker, which then became the reference or norm.

Taylor wasn’t the only one in the age of the Industrial Revolution, who loved measurements and averaging. Quetelet, who averaged the size of the Scottish soldier (2). Francis Galton who measured human beings on many mental, physical and moral variables and based on these, ranked them from “Imbecile” to “Eminent” (3). Or Thorndike, who developed the IQ test and averaged these results for groups too. In fact they were the fathers of applied statistics, or the science of static numbers.
Those days were the days that the use of averages and generalizations was born.

Nowadays we realize that science has evolved in many fields, but somehow one of the biggest factors between success and failure in many fields, is based on something that looks so obvious that most of us don’t even recognize it: we are unique organisms in many aspects.

This possibly has been the most important basic pillar in my work as a coach and educator.
In an early stage of my work (it wouldn’t call it “career”), I realized that group programs or writing one training program for all of the athletes in my group did not bring satisfactory results. One-size fits all doesn’t go anywhere, because your favorite exercise might be the cause of my injury, my body is different from yours. Your superfood might be my poison, because the way your body handles food might be different from mine: think about peanuts being of high nutritional value but in some individuals causes a life threatening allergy.
The perfect dose of medication that takes your pain away without a problem, might be my overdose. Your reward might be my punishment. Your passion might be my biggest fear e.g. bungee-jumping. And in sports: your “easy” workout might be my exhaustive workout. If we do the same workout, you might recover in a few hours, but it might cost me more than a day to recover to the same level. We can also find it in the saying: “somewhere there is a little girl, just warming up with you 1 RM”.
Still, in medicine one only recently “discovered” that women respond differently to the same medication than man. And it was only 10 years ago that the idea of gender-specific medicine became an issue.

Overall, “averagarianism” still prevails in many fields, assuming that we are all pretty much the same and that we will respond in the same way to the same stimuli, e.g. training. In other words: that all of us are average.

One of the most interesting findings about the unique individual was done by Daniels, who was responsible for developing cockpits for fighter pilots.(4) He measured the proportions of many pilots and averaged the results. He however discovered, that there isn’t such a thing as “the average pilot”. The body dimensions of pilots differed in such a way that the cockpit design based on the average pilot did not fit any pilot! He took ten dimensions of pilots and measured 4063 pilots. And as it turned out: not a single pilot fitted the average of all ten dimensions! And less than 3.5% of the pilots fitted the average on only three dimensions. The message is clear: we all differ!

Also in other branches of science slowly the idea arose that averaging might be of statistic value, but not of any practical value. One of the proponents of the value of the individual in scientific sense was professor Peter Molenaar, who studied this issue thoroughly and stated: “Using a group average to evaluate individuals would only be valid if human beings were frozen clones, identical and unchanging”. (5) A pretty strong statement considering the fact that we as coaches often use group averages when deriving information for scientific journals and articles….

We can say that in Taylor’s days, the average men represented the ideal and the individual represented the error. But with the rise of “personalized medicine”, “personalized nutrition”, the time has come that we spend more timing focusing on serious personalized training. Especially when it concerns elite athletes whose main goal is to escape the average in the first place, and becoming “outliers”. Until now we adapted our athletes to our training programs and we adapted our training programs, our training methods, our exercises, our periodization models from averages. I bet you have heard it: “it takes 48 hours to recover from a heavy anaerobic workout”, or “one needs to squat 2 .5 times his/her bodyweight in order to be able to handle drop jumps properly”, “this is the best exercise …”(for whom?). Yes, averages, averages, averages.

Fortunately more and more research is done to show the inter-individual responses and differences to training (6, 7, 8, 9,10) Especially when working with elite athletes, keep in mind that the elite athlete is trying to get away from the average level, he/she is trying to become an outlier. And so should elite coaches do too, average coaches create average athletes, who perform average.

Bottom line: Kick the average elephant out of your room for improvement.

Literature:
1. Taylor, F.W: The Principles of Scientific Management; Harper & Brothers, New York, 1911.

2. Mosselmans, B: Adolphe Quetelet, the average man and the development of economic methodology; The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Vol.12, No.4, 2005, pg. 565-582.

3. Galton, F: Inquiries into Human Faculties and its Development; J.M. Dent & Co. London, 1883.

4. Daniels, G.S: “The Average Man”;Aero Medical Center, Wright Air Development Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH 45433, 1952.

5. Molenaar, P.C.M: A Manifesto on Psychology as Idiographic Science: Bringing the Person Back Into Scientific Psychology, This Time Forever; Measurement vol.2, No.4, 2004, pg.201-218.

6. Tschiene, P: Die Individualisierung des Trainings: eine vernachlässigte Leistungsreserve; Leistungssport, No.4, 2012 pg. 11-12.(German)

7. Mori, M; Higuchi, K, et al.: Genetic basis of inter-individual variability in the effects of exercise on the alleviation of lifestyle-related diseases; J. Physiol. Vol.587, No.23 (2009) pg. 5577–5584.

8.Mann, T.N; Lamberts, R.P; Lambert, M.I: High Responders and Low Responders: Factors Associated with Individual Variation in Response to Standardized Training; Sport Medicine, DOI 10.1007/s40279-014-0197-3

9. Erskine, R.M; Jones, D.A; et al.: Inter-individual variability in the adaptation of human muscle specific tension to progressive resistance training; Eur.J.Appl. Physiol. Vol.10, 2010, pg.1117-1125.

10. Hautala, A.J; Kiviniemi, A.M et al.: Individual differences in the responses to endurance and resistance training; Eur.J.Appl.Physiol.Vol.96, 2006, pg.535-542.

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Sport scientists: can we do without them?

The first question that you should ask is: who are … “we” in the title of this post?
To make it easy for you; in this context, “we” are coaches, the people working with athletes on a daily basis.
A modern trend is to involve sport scientists for almost any aspect of the training process: exercise physiologists, biomechanics specialists, biochemists, nutritional experts, sport psychologists. Often in a kind of kneejerk reflex, at least when one has the money to spend, sport scientists are hired for a task within a federation, a team or for individual athletes.

And I’ll tell you, I just love science, and sport science. My colleagues know it is hard to come up with a book, an article, or even the name of a sports scientist whose work I haven’t read. (It’s not always easy to be obsessive-compulsive) I try to do my job and I try to do my homework. Yes, I absolutely love sport science.

Related to the question in the title: are sport scientists making a significant difference in sports? My bet is: NO, if it was only in team sports like soccer, maybe if sports scientists were employed by one team only, but nowadays most teams, in this case both teams, have sport scientists in their staff, so the advantage is equaled out.
In individual sports there are multiple factors contributing to success, I doubt if the addition of sport scientists would make a significant difference.

Of course it makes no sense to ask a sports scientist himself, they will naturally say their work significantly contributes to increased performances, even if there is, using a term often used by sport scientist themselves, not even the slightest trace evidence-based research to confirm this.

Now you ask the manager, who hires the sports scientist as part of their staff, of course also they will state the sport scientists do contribute, but realize that if they would say otherwise, they would have been wasting money and look stupid. Why would you pay somebody who does not contribute?

For the longest time, coaches athletes and teams have been performing well without the support of sport scientists.
So here is the rhetoric question: what would happen to the level of sports if all sports scientists would be fired?
A general complaint of sports scientists is the lack of academic education of coaches. (in other words: coaches are just too dumb to understand what I mean). And here is the catch: maybe there is no need for any academic level thinking in coaching. Coaching elite athletes or teams is not rocket science (otherwise we would all be working at NASA).

Yes, coaches often read too little, not because they would not like too, but coaching athletes is an often full time engagement, not a nine-to-five office job.
One of the important factors in this issue is that coaching and science are fundamentally different fields.
Sport science is mainly concerned about specialisms, about rational analytical thinking, about generalization and averages, about groups and about a job.

Coaching is mainly concerned about generalizing and holism, about creative problem-solving and managing emotions, about unique individuals and about personalized coaching and training, and it’s a craft.
Even if you copy another coach’s training program, the results will not be the same, because your specific personality, and your approach will always interfere with the results ( I call this the placebo-effect of the coach)

Sports science is not a fundamental condition for performance improvement and there is no guarantee that consulting a sports scientist will help you to become a better coach or athlete. It might even be that sports scientists may actually decrease your performance e.g. by focusing on their own specialism and neglecting other important fields. Sometimes they are plain wrong or their findings are redundant after time. Not to speak of the lack of consensus about many issues. Science is never a panacea of magic wand.

Some well-known examples: a famous sport scientist stated that we had to drink a lot during exercise to prevent dehydration and performance decreases. The message: drink more. Now he says we are waterlogged by drinking during exercise. The message: drink less. Another scientist once promoted special footwear or orthotics to counteract pronation of the foot, now he thinks the opposite and says it works counterproductive.

The more we see coaching as an craft or even an art, the less the need for sport sciences.
Michael Jackson did not need an movement scientist to learn his dances. Van Gogh did not need a chemist to know the composition of his pigments to paint. Some of the best musicians even don’t read notes.

Coaching might not be an art, since the objective of most artist is to express themselves through their art, independent of the results, the success or the acknowledgement of the client.

Coaches are not independent of their results and successes, they need it. An d they certainly do have the responsibility for performance and the health of their athletes, towards the athlete themselves, their parents, or the club or their employers.

Innovation isn’t one of the strong points of sport scientists, at least, I haven’t seen it. Most of the time sport scientists use old or already well-established tool, e.g. from the medical field (often expensive too), and introduce these into sports as being an innovation. Scientists (and coaches) are not as innovative as they want you to believe.

Sometimes sport scientists promote commercial products overtly or by nudging.
Think about Gatorade Sports Institute, Red Bull research, or Nike research e.g. for the sub-2.00 marathon. Quite a few chemical companies even have a sports research department. Sport science just becomes an more acceptable marketing tool. A great way to promote the sales shoes and or sports drinks. No problem here, but so far for independent scientific research. Sports scientists are not immune to financial reward nor to bias, even if it is unconscious.

My main concern is however that in my job I noticed that the young generating of sports scientist are young and eager, which is great, but at the same time sometimes suffer from a very limited theoretical background, an inadequate understanding of the complexity of sport and too often, a misplaced sense of intellectual superiority, because they have an academic degree, whereas most coaches have not. Their theoretical background is often limited to PubMed, if it is not older than 5 years ago, reading or writing reviews. In a practical sense they mostly limit themselves to data collection with expensive toys, just filling spreadsheets creating data diarrhea.

Now don’t get me wrong: I still think that sports scientist are able to contribute to improve performances, but only if guided by the mentoring of a good coach. If you are a sports scientist don’t take the above personally. Just think about it critically and if you find any truth in there, no matter how hard it is to admit, do something about it.

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