Balancing High Volume: Building Blocks of Performance

Guest editorial by Jim Miller, MD FAAFP/Sports Medicine

RICHMOND, Virginia, May 21. TRAINING is more than the hours in the pool. Sophisticated training cycles are designed to optimize an athlete's potential, taking into account the events and distances to be contested. Successful performance demands attention to the building blocks of success.

Proper preparation has to take nutrition, hydration, and sleep into account. Without these, the athlete is set up for injury (overuse or otherwise) and illness, which will undercut the best training plans. Moreover, the more demanding the training program, the less margin for error the athlete has in paying attention to these basics. Thus, high performance and high distance leave nothing to chance.

Over-Training or Failure to Attend to Basics?
Consider for a moment some of the symptoms of chronic sleep deficiencies: poor attention span, loss of energy, depression, poor motivation, poor recovery, increased risk of illness. Compare this with chronic dehydration: decline in renal function, increased thirst, poor muscle tone, loss of energy. Finally, take into consideration some of the symptoms of poor nutrition (whether imbalanced or insufficient to the performance demands): muscle aching, poor performance, poor recovery, muscle loss, poor attention span, depression, and decline in the immune system. These lists are not all encompassing but they make the point. Almost all of these symptoms are in common with what is often considered “over-training”.

So, query whether an athlete suffering from these symptoms is faced with “over training”, underutilization of the basics considered here, or a combination of all. One thing is clear, when training load increases, sleep, hydration, and nutrition must be conscious parts of the training program and they certainly cannot be neglected.

A Proactive Approach
How do you measure what is enough? We'll start with the easiest — hydration. Measuring hydration state is relatively easy. The darker the urine is, the more dehydrated the athlete is. Everyone awakens with concentrated urine. By mid-day the athlete should be able to get their urine so that it is colorless, like water. There are a few problems here. Most swimmers have an early AM training session. Believe it or not, the athlete has to get up early enough (at least 45 minutes early) to start hydrating before practice…………and continue to work on hydration throughout practice. It is a lot easier to satisfy this requirement in the afternoon/evening practice.

While it varies greatly between athletes, nutrition is another topic that involves time requirements. The athlete has to come to practice with nutrition in place, continue to work on nutrition during training, and quickly replenish burned stores as soon after practice as possible. Weight loss, muscle aching and poor recovery are hallmarks of nutritional depletion. As with hydration, morning practice is a problem, since many swimmers do not have time to really eat before that 5 AM workout. If an athlete is serious about his or her performances, reviewing one's schedule with a sports nutritionist is recommended.

When determining what is the best for each athlete, look into carbohydrate mixes to consume during the practice. These carbohydrate based mixes do not have to be fancy or expensive. Fruit juices cut in half with water will work fine for most people when taken in sips between sets. Sports gels do work but be careful not to use those with added caffeine or other additives which may be listed using complex chemical names. Fancy gels and mixes with multiple added ingredients are not guaranteed to be safe and without banned additives in them, so stay basic. Once again, consider working with a sports nutritionist. The high performance racing car does not perform on low grade fuel.

Sleep is also variable from person to person. First, the individual has to have an understanding of what his or her basic sleep needs are for optimal performance. One guide to this understanding involves using an experiment. You go to your favorite beach, mountain, or whatever is your favorite getaway. You do not set your alarm to wake you. How many hours will you naturally sleep before awakening on your own…………not just one night but a series of at least 3-4 nights? The answer should reveal your actual sleep need. Given this revelation, there should be a plan for how to you train, work, go to school, AND satisfy this need. This actual sleep need also has to be built into a training plan.

Many things can interfere with the ability to sleep. Smart phones, laptops, and methods for continuous social networking have to stay out of the bedroom. One can use a cell phone as an alarm, but if it is going off all night logging in messages and calls, GET IT OUT OF THERE! As a reference, there is a series of documents on the USA Swimming website addressing sleep and the difficulties of getting it right.
More information on these topics appears in the January issue of FINA Aquatics World Magazine 2010/1 Maintaining Health — “The Best Prevention of Chronic Injuries”, as well as on the USA Swimming website.

If there is doubt, go to a professional who knows your sport for individual advice. Suggestions here are guidelines. Every athlete is very different. Also, remember that medications and underlying acute or chronic medical conditions will have dramatic impacts on your hydration status, nutritional needs and sleep needs. If there is a change in your basic needs, address it. Do not delay. As the training demand increases, the room for error decreases quickly.

Perhaps it is best to conclude with a great example that came to me several years ago. A university athlete who had done very well in his conference and nationally came to me with a sudden decline in performance. After ruling out infections, metabolic problems and other issues, I took the time to look at his basics. He was generally following all the rules……sleeping, hydrating and a great diet. However, one weekend his friends convinced him to party with them. Sleep was ignored, as well as hydration and quality nutrition. After three days of enjoying the “university life” it took him two months to regain his balance and performances.

Sleep, nutrition and hydration are keys to a successful training plan. How these elements are handled, especially in conjunction with increased training demands, can either contribute to optimal performance or be an obstacle to realizing performance goals.

About the Author: Dr. Miller is boarded in Family Practice and in Sports Medicine with a private practice in Richmond, Virginia. He is a national team physician for USA Swimming and is a member of the FINA Sports Medicine Committee. He chairs the USA Swimming Sports Medicine Task Force. He holds Associate Professor of Medicine positions at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a Past President of United States Masters Swimming.