Science of Performance: Cheap Tools for Elite Performance

By Dr. G. John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS of Swimming Science, Center of Optimal Restoration , and Mullen Physical Therapy, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review Swimming World correspondent

SANTA CLARA, California, August 14. WITHOUT doubt, elite senior athletes receive more extensive treatment than age-group or novice athletes. The effectiveness of all these remedies is uncertain and sometimes completely unfounded, but some of this care has efficacy. Luckily, there are simple tools at the disposal for everyday swimmers, who may not have the resources or budget of an elite athlete at their disposal.

Ditch the Ice Bath … Try Hand Cooling: You may have seen swimmers hopping in ice baths between sessions at World Championships and other meets. The efficacy of ice baths is becoming more prevalent for alleviating sore muscles (Higgins 2013; Stanley 2013). Unfortunately, filling a tub full of ice isn’t always practical or feasible for swimmers (unless you are at a hotel and your room is near the ice machine!). Luckily, preliminary research implies simply cooling the hands may provide the systemic effect necessary to spark recovery (Kwon 2010). More research is necessary on this subject, as palm cooling is mostly studied in fatigue during resistance training, but simply holding some ice seems like a more practical option than hopping in an ice bath.

Full Body Massage: Another modality on the rise at swim meets are massage therapists, physical therapists and chiropractors. Sure, these rehabilitation specialists are highly trained, but they can cost a pretty penny for daily or even weekly care. One of the biggest benefits of massages is improving the existence of myofascial trigger points. Myofascial trigger points are commonly referred to as muscle knots, but specifically there are active (painful) and latent (nonpainful) myofascial trigger points. Trigger points play a decisive role in the muscle imbalance syndrome, as it acts in an inhibitory way to weakened muscles and thus substantially changes the effect of exercise. Trigger points are now being studied and latent and active trigger points fatigue earlier (Ge 2012). Myofascial treatments (massage) are gaining supporting evidence, noted in the neck, as a method to improve trigger points (Munoz-Munoz 2012) [I feel the muscles play the largest role and the easiest to improve]. Self myofascial treatments (tennis balls and foam rolls) are just being studied in the literature, despite frequent use. MacDonald has studied the effects of foam rolls on the quadriceps and found two minutes of foam rolling increased range of motion without reducing strength (MacDonald 2012; MacDonald 2013). These effects are similar to massage, making a full body mobility self myofascial treatment routine on a weekly basis a cheap solution to a rehabilitation specialist. Read more: Self Myofascial Release Should Replace Stretching.

Mental Training: The role of mental training and sports psychologists in elite athletes is extraordinary. These specialists help elite athletes gain the mental edge over their opponents. For this reason, top universities and national teams have these tools at their disposal. Luckily, there are free online tools to help swimmers think and act like a champion. Dr. Brent Rushall is gaining notoriety for his development of ultra-short race pace training, but his work goes far beyond this training theory. For example, he has a complete Think and Act Like a Champion workshop online free for the public.

Ditch The Sports Drinks! This may sound absurd, but what if the only benefits from your sports drinks was simply from the fast-acting carbohydrates (like maltodextrin) providing an euphoric sensation upon hitting the tongue. Performing a carbohydrate mouth rinse may sound absurd and opposite of everything you’ve heard from sporting drink companies, but let’s look at the research:

1. Rollo 2010 et al. found that ingesting a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution significantly improved 1-H running performance in comparison with mouth rinsing the same carbohydrate-electrolyte solution or ingesting the same volume of a placebo solution. The results of this study confirm previous observations that the ingestion of a 6.4 percent carbohydrate-electrolyte solution improved 1-H running performance in fasted runners.

2. Pottier et al. reported that mouth rinsing a 6 percent carbohydrate-electrolyte solution (sucrose = 5.4 g/100 mL, glucose = 0.46 g/100 mL improved cycling performance by 3.7 percent compared with ingesting the same solution mL/kg body mass (BM). The authors suggested that improved performance was due to CHO in the mouth acting on a centrally governed mechanism. However, these results are perplexing, given that the mouth was exposed to the same CHO solution in both the ingestion and rinse trials. The authors speculated that the ergogenic effect of having CHO in the mouth may be lost when ingesting a carbohydrate-electrolyte solution due to the short oral transit time.

3. Gant 2010 found an immediate improvement in carbohydrate consumption and said this immediate ergogenic effect precedes substrate or endocrine signaling from the viscera. The mechanism is most likely neural, and represents a novel form of sensorimotor integration.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal-clear answer about carbohydrate rinses, but simply swishing a carbohydrate blend of sucrose and glucose before a practice seems much more cost-effective than copious sport drinks. For more on carbohydrate rinse, read click here.

4. Continuous Feedback: As we all know, swimming is a highly skilled sport, requiring precise movements. In fact, swimming biomechanics are undoubtedly the largest contributor for swimming success, potentially contributing up to 79 percent of 100-meter performance (Lott 2010; Wantanabe 2005). Unfortunately, swimming is at a large disadvantage, as it is difficult to give feedback during a motor skill. Continuous feedback is the ability to provide reinforcers to improve a motor task during the task. Swim coaches are forced to provide contingent (feedback directly at the end of a motor task) or terminal feedback (feedback at the end of a motor task), both more beneficial than no feedback on swimming tasks (De la Fuente 2010). Sadly, these gaps in feedback likely result in impaired motor learning, elongating this already arduous process. Many coaches already know the importance of continuous feedback and provide feedback during a swim, typically by a specific yell or “OK” sign. Unfortunately, this can cause altered stroke biomechanics and is difficult in breast and fly. To help this, companies like AvidaSports have created great systems for coaches to talk with their swimmers, like race car drivers. Unfortunately the costs is too much for many programs. Luckily, there are cheaper options:

1. Laser pointer: As long as an adult has this device (for safety reasons), it can be used as an excellent teaching tool. Simply, point the laser in front of the swimmer (on the floor of the pool) whenever the swimmer does the desired task. This simple reinforcer provides continuous feedback, without disrupting the stroke, allowing the swimmer to learn one thing at a time (likely the most they can learn).

2. Waterproof microphones: This is a little more expensive, but feasible for almost any team (about $400). This bone conduction gadget is a much less expensive version than AvidaSports, allowing coaches to communicate with their swimmers. However, some would argue continuous elongated verbal feedback is far too extensive for an athlete to comprehend during strenuous exercise.

Elite swimming budgets aren’t possible for everyone. However, there are a few cheaper ways to obtain similar results. Be creative, innovative and educationally drive for elite performance on a budget!

* Hand cooling may be as effective as ice baths for recovery.
* Self myofascial release points are effective for increasing range of motion.
* There are free, excellent mental training courses online.
* Simply swishing a carbohydrate beverage in your mouth before a race is likely as beneficial as a sports drink.
* Cheap swimming telemetry systems are available!

1. Higgins TR, Climstein M, Cameron M. Evaluation of hydrotherapy, using passive tests and power tests, for recovery across a cyclic week of competitive rugby union. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr;27(4):954-65. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318260ed9b.
2. Kwon YS, Robergs RA, Kravitz LR, Gurney BA, Mermier CM, Schneider SM. Palm cooling delays fatigue during high-intensity bench press exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Aug;42(8):1557-65.
3. Munoz-Munoz S, Munoz-Garcia MT, Alburquerque-Sendin F, Arroyo-Morales M, Fernandez-de-Las-Penas C. Myofascial trigger points, pain, disability, and sleep quality in individuals with mechanical neck pain. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012 Oct;35(8):608-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2012.09.003.
4. Ge H, Arendt-Nielsen L, Madeleine P. Accelerated muscle fatigability of latent myofascial trigger points in humans. Pain Medicine. 2012
5. Macdonald G, Penney M, Mullaley M, Cuconato A, Drake C, Behm DG, Button DC. An Acute Bout of Self Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. J Strength Cond Res. 2012; May 10.
6. Macdonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CD, Behm DG, Button DC. An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-821
7. Shah JP, Phillips TM, Danoff JV, Gerber LH. An in vivo microanalytical technique for measuring the local biochemical milieu of human skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol. 2005 Nov;99(5):1977-84. Epub 2005 Jul 21.
8. Stanley J, Peake JM, Buchheit M. Consecutive days of cold water immersion: effects on cycling performance and heart rate variability.Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Feb;113(2):371-84. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2445-2. Epub 2012 Jul 3.
9. Pottier A, Bouckaert J, Gilis W, Roels T, Derave W. Mouth rinsebut not ingestion of a carbohydrate solution improves 1-h cycletime trial performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2008;20:105–11.29.
10. Rollo I, Cole M, Miller R, Williams C. The influence of mouth-rinsing a carbohydrate solution on 1-h running performance. MedSci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(4):798–804.30.
11. Gant N, Ali A, Foskett A.The influence of caffeine and carbohydrate coingestion on simulated soccer performance.Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Jun;20(3):191-7.
12. Lott, E., Jerimee, J., Miestu, J., Purge, P., Rimson, R., Keskinen, K. L., Haljaste, K., & Jerimee, T. Biomechanics and bioenergetics of 100-m front crawl swimming in young male swimmers. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16–19, 2010.
13. De la Fuente, B., & Arellano, REffect of specific training on swimming start performance. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16–19, 2010.
14. Watanabe, M., & Takai, S. (2005). Analysis of factors on development of performance in young swimmers. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2005; 37(5), Supplement abstract 416.

Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the founder of the Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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