August 19, 2017

Highlights from the NSCA Endurance Symposium

Earlier this year I attended the NSCA Endurance Symposium at the NSCA headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO.  I have long-held a respect for the NSCA and have been a member since beginning my training career (I am also a candidate for the CSCS certification and expect to take the exam sometime of the course of the coming months).  I received notice of the two-day endurance-specific symposium from the USAT and jumped at the chance to attend.  Continuing education is frequently a mixed bag, i.e. some are great, some are o.k., while still others are nearly a complete waste of time.  The NSCA event fell solidly in the first category—it was great!  What follows are some of the takeaways that I found noteworthy:

Note: If you ever get a chance to visit the NSCA’s headquarters, do so—it is a beautiful training facility that is appointed to train athletes at the highest level.

The symposium featured four primary presenters: Benjamin Reuter, PhD, CSCS, *D, ATC; Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D; Robert Seebohar, CSCS; and Randall Wilber, PhD, FACSM, with Sam Callan providing only a short presentation on the current state of technology used to monitor training (e.g. HR, GPS, Smartphones, and power meters) along with the attendant issues surrounding data transfer and management.   You can view the complete bios of the presenters here.  In addition, participants were provided with an opportunity for basic instruction on a few of the fundamental, compound Olympic lifting moves, namely the barbell squat and power clean.

Benjamin “Ben” Reuter, PhD, CSCS, *D, ATC, presented “Introduction to Endurance Training,” and “Injuries and the Endurance Athlete.”  A couple of my takeaways:  First, Reuter correctly defined endurance sports as “specialized movement” that places specific demands an athlete’s structural and metabolic systems.  These structural demands are fairly easy to conceptualize, as specific modes of activity (e.g. swim, bike, and run) place unique demands on the athlete’s body.  Metabolic specificity is a bit more removed from the mind of the typical multisport athlete; however,  it should frequently be at the forefront of an athlete’s mind when training.  Specifically, Ben emphasized that while three different energy systems function to meet the energy demands (by way of review: phoshagen, glycolytic, and oxidative systems) and all these systems are functioning all the time, each contributes a different portion of the energy necessary required depending on the stress placed on the body.  I frequently reference this concept with my clients and attempt to have them visualize the three energy systems distributed along a sliding scale.  Each contributes a different proportion of the energy required depending on the specific stress/activity the athlete is engaged in during a particular movement or training period (e.g. the phosphagen system primarily contributes to a single resistance training repetition; cf. the oxidative system primarily contributes to the energy demands of a multi-hour run or bike).  An understanding of the roles these separate but interdependent energy systems play and then training with metabolic specificity can lead to training breakthroughs.   Second, Dr. Reuter reviewed the common contributing factors to movement impairment and injury: muscle length, as well as muscle performance capability at different lengths (that is, a muscle can be weak or strong at specific lengths), joint mobility/flexibility (or lack thereof), anatomical impairments, psychological impairments, developmental factors, and environmental factors.  Frequently an athlete faces one or more of these issues on an ongoing basis and, as a result, one or more of these factors often degrade the endurance athletes training and racing experience and outcomes.  In combating these issues, either singularly or collectively, one can improve his or her “endurance performance.”  Note: There is a difference in “endurance training” and “endurance performance” training.  I frequently explain the difference between the two to my clients by means of the analogy of comparing what the posture and running technique of a marathon runner typically looks like at mile 1 of a marathon versus what his or her posture and running technique look at mile 26 of a marathon—in most cases these two pictures are very different.  The marathoner who completes the marathon has arguably completed sufficient “endurance” training; however, if posture and technique are severely degraded from the start to the finish then perhaps the athlete did not complete sufficient “endurance performance” training.  The elements of “endurance performance” training typically include resistance, flexibility, and balance training (there are certainly others that I incorporate into the endurance performance training mix).  As Dr. Reuter correctly highlighted, a typical endurance athlete overemphasizes cardiovascular, pulmonary, and metabolic training and underemphasizes underlying biomechanics of the modes of activity that they participate in (e.g., the skeletal, muscular, and nervous system components of movement).

In my opinion, Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D was the star of the weekend.  Although each of the presenters made significant contributions, Rhea zeroed in on the benefits of rational, programmed, and functional strength training for the endurance athlete (an area of particular interest to me).  As with each of the other presenters, Dr. Rhea managed to illuminate some key points.  First, stress is stress—meaning that when designing any training plan, it is important to consider all of the program variables (i.e., resistance training can’t simply be added “on top of” an existing periodized endurance training program).  Ultimately, the reasoned application of stress provides the basis for any training prescription.  Second, Rhea exposed the longstanding fact that most studies that relate strength training and endurance performance go the opposite way from what might reveal a benefit to the endurance athlete.  Specifically, “most studies have merely looked at the interference of aerobic training on anaerobic properties [e.g., strength, power, and hypertrophy], fewer have examined the potential positive effect of these anaerobic modalities on endurance performance.”  Rhea, is a serious student of the literature, and he synthesized various research studies into a type of meta-analysis that revealed that among highly trained runners “strength training” (i.e., explosive and heavy load weight training) improves long-distance  running economy 3-8% (with a mean of 4.6%).   Note: similar efficiencies have been shown with cyclists and nordic skiers (where both specific biomechanic economy and muscular power improved).  Accepting the positive relationship between increased muscular strength and improved muscular endurance, the question becomes when to add the resistance training?  Base, build, and peak phases all provide opportunities to apply resistance training to the endurance athlete and, while the addition of resistance training may open the door to overtraining (this is most common in highly-trained athletes), additional research has shown that there is a corresponding decrease in common overuse injuries!  The application of any strength training program must be rational and tailored to the fitness and recovery capacity of the individual athlete.

Two key takeaways from Rhea’s “Program Design” and “New Updates on Prescribing Cardiovascular Exercise” that are worth highlighting.  First,  when designing a resistance training program for an endurance athlete, it is important to focus on movement patterns and not muscles—the key is to train specific movements that are most likely to translate to endurance sport activities (this is includes training both the prime movers and the associate stabilizers, thereby gaining both muscular endurance and postural/biomechanic efficiencies).  Rhea’s point translates well into a definition of the often used term “functional fitness.”  With permission, I have reproduced Rhea’s slide below:

Differences between functional and dysfunctional fitness (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

Accepting the distinction and focusing on “functional” training, subsequent program design ultimately should balance the overall training stress applied, include a variety of training stimuli, and the selection of specific resistance exercises should focus on sport-specific movement patterns, core stabilization (as this supports biomechanic efficiency in every mode of activity), as well as dynamic movement patterns.  Finally, the takeaway from Rhea’s “Cardiovascular Exercise” presentation will not make many of my multisport friends very happy.  This is because the conclusion that Rhea has drawn from studying the latest literature, as well as in his personal coaching practice, is that it is necessary to train with a much greater degree of precision when prescribing exercise intensity  than previously thought—simply piling on additional miles is not the answer and will not lead to the desired training/racing breakthroughs! (Note: Rhea is a principal in the development of a testing system, see Race-Rx).  The following two slides (again, reproduced with permission) highlight the essential points:

The all to common "add miles" approach to endurance training (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

The need for precision in prescribing training intensities (courtesy of Dr. Matthew Rhea, PhD, CSCS, *D)

Robert Seebohar, CSCS presented “Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete.”  Although I have a had the pleasure of hearing Bob speak before (he presented at the USAT-Leve I certification that I attended in Seattle, WA), it was good to  hear Bob’s latest thoughts on athlete nutrition.  Note that Bob has an active coaching practice here in Colorado and his book “Nutrition Periodization for Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Level” is a concise and useful guide to customizing nutrition for optimum performance—it is in my library.  Additionally, I frequently refer clients who are struggling with nutrition issues to Bob as he is a valuable and experienced resource.  At it’s essence, Bob presents nutrition periodization as a means to “support the body’s energy needs associated with the different training volume and intensity stressors throughout the year to elicit positive physiological responses.”  In sum, I couldn’t agree more!  To dig deeper into Bob’s methodology purchase his book (add it to your collection) and visit his vibrant website, www.fuel4mance.com.

Along with his notable Qlympic credentials (a veteran advisor for athlete of five Olympic Games), Randall Wilber, PhD, FACSM used both science and “real life” experience to highlight some salient points in his presentations entitled “Overtraining: Causes, Recognition and Prevention,” “Altitude Training in Preparation for the Competition at Sea Level and Altitutde” and “Environmental Factors and Endurance Performance: Heat/Humidity and Jet Lag.”

Overtraining: Undoubtedly overtraining is a significant negative training response; however, there is a fine line between productive training, overreaching, and finally, overtraining.  The distinction between overreaching (the step just before overtraining) and overtraining is dramatic and significant.  Overreaching exhibits over the course of a few days (at most), is reversible with added recovery, and is a generally positive training adaptation necessary to improve performance; however, true overtraining is long term (lasting weeks or even months in severe cases), is irreversible with added recovery, and is a negative training adaptation that results in a performance suffers chronically and will serve to end an athlete’s competitive season.  Athletes that slip across the divide that separates overreaching from overtraining exhibit numerous performance, physiological, immunological, biochemical, and psychological symptoms.  These symptoms range from consistent decreases in performance compared to previous efforts or competitions to a persistent apathy and lethargy.  After reviewing the often complex symptoms and physiological models of overtraining (of which, I might, add Dr. Wilber identifies the endocrine system as the primary driver), he outlined 7 strategies to keep avoid falling into the overtraining trap.  (Dr. Wilber presented 5 models of overtraining: 1) glycogen depletion (chronic), 2) immunosuppression (elevated stress hormones), 3) autonomic nervous system imbalance, 4) central fatigue, and 5) elevated cytokines.)  Here are the strategies: 1) recognize the overtraining risk factors (note that many of the risks factors are associated with the personality type that of individuals that are commonly drawn to multisport/endurance endeavors, e.g., perfectionist, Type-A, or as I like to classify myself, “Type IA—a play on the slow twitch muslce fiber type, and excessive motivation, etc.), 2) rely on a scientifically sound training program (i.e., a periodized program that allows for sufficient recovery), 3) utilize detailed monitoring of training repines[s], 4) nutritional intervention (increase carbohydrates), 5) monitor biomechanical and biological markers, 6) application of specific training guidelines during systemic (providing the answer to the question, “Should I train when I am sick?”), and 7) recovery techniques (including passive rest).

Altitude Training: I can only hit the “highest” (ha) of highlights here, as the application of altitude training is an exceeding complex training prescription.  Dr. Wilber’s most fundamental point: everyone can benefit/achieve a positive training response from altitude training if it is carried out correctly.  Although I won’t go into the physiological details here, three important nutrients may likely need to be supplemented prior to and during altitude training; specifically: 1) water, 2) iron, and 3) carbohydrates, as each support energy production as the lower partial pressure of O2 results in the body’s hemoglobin molecules to be less saturated with O2.  Hydration is critical as respiratory H2O loss is magnified at altitude (cool dry air) along with urinary H2O loss (the byproduct of increased energy expenditure).  Sufficient iron levels are critical when training at altitude, as iron plays a critical role in energy production that is amplified at higher elevations.  Also, relative to training with metabolic specificity, carbohydrates must be increased when training at altitude to meet increased energy demands (they should be the preferred substrate when training at altitude).  Finally, Dr. Wilber provided the following answers to the four “million dollar questions” surrounding training at altitude: 1) What is the optimal altitude at which to live/sleep/train?  Answer: 6560 – 8200 ft.  2) How long does the exposure need to be?  Answer: 3-4 weeks at > 22 hrs. per day.  3) How long does the training effect last after returning to sea level?  Answer: 3-4 weeks, but the training response is highly dependent on the individual.  And, 4) Is simulated altitude (hypoxic tent/or other training aid) effective?  Answer: Evidence suggests so, but the necessary “hypoxic dose” must be obtained (it appears that this beneficial effect can be obtained in fewer hours per day, 12-16 hrs., but a higher simulated altitude must be used, e.g., 8200-9840 ft.

Environmental Factors: Heat/Humidity and Jet Lag:  Dr. Wilber again did not disappoint in bringing the science to two common training issue: 1) racing/competing in a hot and humid environment, and 2) racing/competing after a long flight.  Interestingly, the battle to racing at a hot and humid venue can be won even if you don’t live in a rainforest!  Dr. Wilber presented four strategies: 1) natural acclimatization (i.e., go to the hot and humid race venue and train there in advance), 2) pre-acclimitization (simulate conditions in advance of arriving at the race venue), 3) euhydration and thermoregulation (whereby fluid is preloaded, pre-competition and replaced, post-competition to keep the athlete’s body in a normal state of hydration), and  4) pre-cooling and cooling (use of ice vests, whole body COLD water immersion, ice packs, etc.).  Although it requires careful planning, an athlete can acclimatize  to these foreign conditions by following a relatively short program where both the training duration (up to 90 minutes) and training intensity (up to race pace) are gradually increased while simulating the race venue environment (note this is typically achieved by wearing additional layers of cotton clothing—cotton, not the pricey technical stuff that we typically train in, is in order here).  The goal of each of these strategies is to maximize performance while minimizing performance degradation or producing any of the specific types of heat illness (e.g., heat cramp, heat syncope, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, or hyponatremia).  Our Olympic athletes, under Dr. Wilber’s care, follow a complex schedule to “align their bodies with their destination” (utilizing a sliding schedule of gradually adjusting the sleep-wake cycles and is supplemented by the use of artificial bright light exposure).  Of three variables that can be managed by the traveling athlete: 1) the time leading up to departure (e.g., the week prior), 2) in flight activity, and 3) post-arrival (the 1-3 days, or more, before competition begins; the “in flight” and “upon arrival” are the most critical.  Dr. Wilber reviewed the use of several ergogenic aids for the in flight leg, including compression hose/suits, nasal air filters (he personally recommended the use of the “Breathe Pure” brand), nasal saline spray, anti-bacterial hand gel, melatonin, prescription sleep sids (e.g., Ambien), the use of caffeine, as well as the timing and composition of in-flight nutrition—each can be used by an athlete to mitigate the negative effects of lengthy air travel.  The “upon arrival” time must also be managed to ensure solid performance.  As a general rule, Dr. Wilber suggested that high intensity training should be avoided for the first few days, while bright light exposure (assuming a substantial time in the air) should be administered.  Apparently, an athlete who has been exposed to potential jet lag may exhibit reduced fine motor skills and impaired coordination, thereby opening up an increased risk of injury.

At the end of each day’s presentations, attendees were treated to some hands-on experience in the beautifully equipped NSCA training center.  Technique and modes of teaching proper technique for plyometrics, physioball exercises, dumbbell resistance exercises, and barbell Olympic lifts to endurance athletes were presented and practiced.  These techniques and exercises were presented as a means to improve performance and injury prevention as it applies to endurance athletes.

One view of this extremely well-equipped exercise facility where the practical sessions took place.

I want to extend a special thanks to each of the presenters who shared their expertise and knowledge on these fascinating endurance sport topics.  For more information, please contact the NSCA.

A second view.