Training Youth Athletes

A common question that I hear is, “how old do you have to be to start training at your facility?”  To me this is a pretty easy question to answer, but also a loaded answer.

When we talk about athletic development, there are a few windows of opportunity that we can expect to use to enhance performance in athletes.  Just because I have a window of opportunity to advance an athletes potential doesn’t mean I need to get all sport specific with it.  In previous articles I have eluded to spending a great deal of time developing the foundation for youth athletes, or general prep if that is easier to remember.  Just because I have an opportunity to improve athletic ability in a youth athlete doesn’t mean I need to make them proficient in 1RM cleans.  I “can” hold a firecracker in my hand and light it, but it wouldn’t be very intelligent.  Just like I “can” develop maximal cleans in a 10-year-old, but that still isn’t very intelligent.

The lost art of development, playing on the playground.  There are even schools where you aren’t allowed to run!  All because there is a fear of children getting hurt.  I could jump onto my soap box and have a complete rant, but I will stay on point here.  Kids in preschool, elementary, and middle school all are allotted time to go out and play.  They jump, run, bound, throw, play tag, etc.  If that isn’t athletic development I don’t know what is.  I spend the first 30 minutes of training sessions warming up and working on running, jumping, throwing, and agility.  These are the showcase items for my older athletes.

Specializing kids too early is a sure fire way to burn a kid out from ever wanting to play that sport again.  It’s also a great way for a kid to resent their parent.  Allowing a child to participate in a variety of events allows for better athletic development.  Experiencing movements outside of what is normal in their favorite sport will allow them to become more agile and athletic.

What can a child who hasn’t hit puberty expect to do and see?  There is no reason to take a prepubescent child and load them up under the bar.  Develop their ability to perform these exercises that you want to accomplish in the long term development plan.  Squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling are all exercises that can start off with simple body weight.  Once they become proficient in these bodyweight exercises you can consider handling a light weight.  Then slightly heavier.  And heavier.  The point is that these kids will become stronger (mostly through their nervous system adaptation), but not exactly larger.  How could they? They haven’t even hit puberty yet.

Once they hit puberty, the long term plan continues.  Start adding heavier weight and adding new challenges.  They will become more powerful, faster, stronger, insert any synonym.  They now have the hormonal profile to support what you are throwing at them.  But a word of caution: don’t throw the kitchen sink at them.  Allow for normal development.  The newest, coolest thing isn’t the best option.  Often times the new workout it either a fad or a new way of eliciting a response in an athlete who has already developed their foundation.

To sum up, kids can virtually start at any age, however, I wouldn’t really recommend them starting too early.  I have nine and 10 year olds at our facility, but realistically a mentor of mine said 11 years old is a great age to begin.  I’ll stick with that.

Long-Slow Distance Cardio

First off, it has been a little bit since my last check-in.  I have been busy with licensure testing, changing a few details professionally, and jumping right into some continuing education.  All those things, plus I have been coaching a high school lacrosse team in the area.

I was kicking back, sipping on a nice cup of coffee the other morning, reading over some “professional development” type material, when I came across a post along the lines of “why do long slow distance aerobic work?”  That  post of course got some great professional feedback, but it got me thinking too.

Most of what I was reading in terms of feedback was along the lines of: why indeed?  Now, I like bang for the buck type exercise regimens.  I feel as though we do a really good job of accomplishing both anaerobic and aerobic work in a relatively short period of time on a daily basis at our facility.  By using simple concepts like HIIT in our lifts we are able to develop strength and power via resistance training at appropriate, demanding percentages; and, also tax the aerobic system at the same time.  We also incorporate a conditioning portion after the lift that works usually on some type of lactic or alactic interval (think Certified Conditioning Coach)  in the preseason phases.

But where can we fit in the long-slow distance type conditioning???

This is where I reflect back to my magical weekend at IFAST, listening to Joel himself hurl information grenades at all of us innocent Performance Coaches.  In a very organized manner, he managed to explain to us how to use each concept that he has written about in books like “Ultimate MMA Conditioning”.  Long story short, one cannot sustain all out lactic intervals 7 days a week for very long.  This makes sense, right?!

With all the concepts in strength and conditioning regarding the importance of the nervous system, this should be a no-brainer.  Simply put, sometimes it is just better to let your foot off the gas pedal, slow down, and let your body (and nervous system) relax.  Let’s find that parasympathetic state for once in our training year.

Now that both sides of the continuum are screaming at me, let me elaborate.  First off, no, I do not think that you should be performing long-slow distance aerobic conditioning all year round–unless your sport is running a marathon or the Tour de France in which case you still shouldn’t do it on consecutive days.  Will you see strength and therefore power decrements as a result? Maybe.  Will you be introducing a new variable into your training regimen? Absolutely!  Cooling the jets for a few weeks will not have an absurd impact on strength/power/muscle fiber type.  But, it may afford you the potential to get even better because you let the body experience a new stimulus.

Personally, I don’t like long distance cardio.  I get bored with it, unless I am chasing a ball or object.  Cycling is more doable, but still, the struggle is real.  However, when no one is watching, I will jump on the Assault Bike for about 45-60 minutes and get in a good cardio sesh.

New Year; Back to Basics

We have made it to a new year.  First and foremost, Happy New Year! Let 2017 be the year for everyone.

In this first week, we have already heard all the questions regarding fine-tuning fitness and nutrition (will beet juice be the best option for me to reach my improved endurance–undisclosed baseball pitcher).  This is where I have to inevitably redirect the conversation to the basics.

  • How much water are you consuming daily?
  • How many hours of sleep are you getting?
  • What time are you going to bed at night?
  • How many vegetables do you consume in a day?
  • Why are you still pitching from a mound in November and December?

The misunderstanding is that the athlete’s must think they are rhetorical.  Most times by the second question, the jaw will drop and there is silence.

Sleep is probably the best recovery tool we have in our arsenal and the best part is that it’s free!  Take advantage of this.  Life happens sometimes, we understand, but make it happen.  Get your best attempt at 8 hours daily.  Research has shown that getting less than 6 but more than 9-10 will make you more obese than your counterparts that get 7-8 hours.

Get to sleep before midnight.  Those hours of sleep that you get before midnight are twice as beneficial as those after midnight.  Why?? That is still unclear.  We could speculate that maybe it has to deal with your primitive sleep-wake cycles and how pineal/melatonin intervention plays a role.

Drink water plain and simple.  Even if you “need” some sort of flavor just drink the water. Studies have shown that drinking 100-120 fluid ounces of water daily is beneficial to clearing metabolic waste products and improved metabolism.  Other studies have shown a more complicated method which is essentially your body weight in ounces cut in half (i.e. 200 pound individual converts to 200 fluid ounces cut in half would equal 100 fluid ounces of water daily).

Eat your veggies.  They are packed with micronutrients that will help in the recovery process.  If you want to get better suck it up and eat them.  The more colorful the better.

Stop year-round throwing programs please.  Give your arm a break and allow us as Sports Performance coaches to bring integrity back to that shoulder and elbow.  This is preventative in the sense that tendonitis, tears, synovitus, bursitis, and surgery are at an alarming high in youth sports.  There are probably a number of reasons why, but sometimes we just need to demonstrate common sense.  If I work in a meat packing factory and do the same task over and over what do you think the outcome will be?  Funny thing is they wrote an entire manual about it back in the 1980’s.  I know that pitching isn’t the same as cutting meat repetitively, but the principle is the same.

We could definitely get pretty in depth about different modalities, but this a simple list that we can start with.  Get some consistency here before we start fine-tuning.

Recovery Strategies

In many conversations with clients/athletes it has become clear that once they’re done with the training session, they are done thinking about training in general.  They may be motivated to eat something “healthy” to stay consistent with the day, but that really is the extent of it.  As a performance coach, it would be reckless and lazy if recovery weren’t addressed with the population I am working with.  As such, here are some of the tools that I use generally.

Breathing

For most of my adult client groups, I will use different breathing strategies towards the beginning of the workout.  This will allow them to leave the workday at work and not bring it into the gym.  For the general population you can start to program different tempos for breathing, but that may be a little overkill for someone who doesn’t know how to engage their respiratory diaphragm in the first place.  Belly breathing is quite simply done by lying down on your back, placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, then trying to fill only the hand on your belly without letting the hand on your chest rise.  This is a little bit of isolation type movement, but it is pretty effective at getting people out of their overly sympathetic tone from work or life.  If someone is having trouble doing this, their is a pretty cool trick that I learned in PT school that is called the “sniff” test.  Simply ask the individual to sniff as if they were sniffing like a dog.  You will get raised eyebrows and questions, but once they get what it does it becomes rhetoric.  You can progress the belly breathing series by rolling over and doing “crocodile” breathing or play around with tempos to get different reactions.

Breathing can and should also be done at the end of a training session.  Recovery happens in a parasympathetic state.  All this means is that if you’re stressed, high-strung, ready to go postal, you will not recover very well.  If after a training session we sprinkle in some breathing techniques, it should help to facilitate that relaxed, parasympathetic tone.

Nutrition

This is such a basic tool that everyone can use, and yet, most don’t or at least don’t do it well.  There are a number of supplements on the shelf that come with a varying amount of integrity attached to each brand.  These are just as the name implies: supplements.  This means if you’re not getting enough in your diet then use it.  You can usually find out what the recommended daily intake (RDI) is for each micro/macro nutrient by simply going on the internet machine and searching.

That being said, depending on who you are you can time your nutrition appropriately with the right content to get the result you want.  For recovery purposes, usually getting in some protein after a workout is a pretty simple start. If you dive into different resources, they will tell you that you need a certain amount of grams of protein per kilogram of body mass every certain amount of hours, but let’s get real.  Just eat some protein or take some sort of protein supplement to aid the recovery process along.  You can also add in any other micronutrient source that you may require (vitamins, minerals, creatine, etc.).  It also can’t be stressed enough, eat veggies!  If you refuse to eat veggies then you refuse to reach your goals.  Kind of a blunt truth, but it is the truth.  When asked I usually recommend the more colorful types of vegetables.

Based on some of the above reading, we know that the real recovery happens when in that relaxed state.  So nutritionally, how can you influence relaxation?  Simple.  There are a number of different things that can be done to aid the recovery process.  My favorite is to have some sort of chamomile based tea at the end of the day.  This helps to relax the system and also has been shown to bring individuals to a deeper sleep which is the ultimate relaxation.  Melatonin also helps to achieve that deeper sleep in individuals, and can be purchased at virtually any health store.

Water may be one of the most paramount nutritional ideas to recovery out there.  When you’re dehydrated you run the risk of increased inflammation, decreased blood volume (carries all those important nutrients), increased cramping, decreased affect (mood), decreased nerve conduction velocity, decreased short term memory, etc.  These are all pretty important for the athlete or the professional adult.

Sleep

This is probably the number 1 recovery tool and the easiest/cheapest.  There are so many mechanisms at work when you sleep.  As mentioned previously, this is the ultimate relaxation tool, again, where we recover.  Hormonally, we see a surge in anabolic hormones (the ones that make you recover).  Interestingly too, there are some mechanisms at play that weren’t all that known previously.  The fluid that encases the spinal cord and brain, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), normally is produced and recycled at a constant rate, however, when you’re sleeping the process actually speeds up helping to clear the system of toxic metabolites.  What does this mean?  Well the nervous system (brain and spinal cord being mega players) is what sends messages to the muscles to move.  When those metabolites build up they create a toxic environment for the system and can create a whole host of issues.  The resulting inflammation has been correlated with many chronic diseases which ironically are also usually stress related too.  The magic number of sleep hours appears to be about 8.  That means eight hours of sleep, not 8 hours lying in bed, so watching the television while in bed doesn’t count.  Also, there is some new research coming out saying that obesity is associated with greater than 10 hours of sleep per night.  I don’t even understand how you can have that amount of time to sleep and am completely envious of whomever has that kind of time.

Environment

There are also some pretty cool tricks that you can do to influence your environment to aid in the recovery process.  Different scents and oils can be used to get a better night sleep or even just relax.  Lavender oil appears to have the ability to do this and if you don’t want to invest in essential oils you can simply buy the airwick with lavender oil.

Also, as mentioned above, watching T.V. in bed doesn’t count as sleep.  How can we eliminate this potential distraction?  Remove the television from the bedroom if possible.  Seems like a simple answer, but when you confront people on this it is amazing how much resistance you run in to.  Television, tablets, computers, and especially smart phones display via blue light.  Blue light stimulates the wake cycle in the old noggin and has negative consequences for sleep quality.  If it is a must to use these things before going to bed, invest in some cool orange safety glasses at your local hardware store.  This is a neato trick that I learned at a conference a year ago from a pretty smart individual.

Take a nice warm shower roughly 10 minutes before bed.  This has also had a very positive influence on achieving deeper sleep in individuals.  If you are one of the sick and twisted individuals who enjoy cold showers, disregard this information.

Some recent research also correlates cleanliness with getting better sleep.  Having a clean environment, specifically your bedroom, you have less to think about.  Because you have less to think about, you fall asleep quicker which enables you to get a longer, deeper sleep.

Wrap up

These are just a few options that you can use or pass along, but they’re extremely cheap and efficient.  Most people just need to fulfill one or a few of these steps to see almost immediate results.  Feel free to comment anything else that is simple and works well.

Why a Minimalist Solution for an Active Population?

There has been a popular movement as of late regarding the minimalist-type shoe for cross-training, sports performance, and general public use.  Like many products released for consumer use, it falls under the “shoot, ready, aim” category where the shoe brand will say that they have done numerous research studies (totally unbiased) and claim wonders for the near future—remember sketcher shape-ups??
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Personally, I like to have my athletes choose a minimalist type footwear for their performance training, depending on the structure of their foot.  Mostly, I prefer to have them use the minimalist footwear with single-leg work, mobility/stability drills, and for movement prep.  The impact is lower on the system, and it also enhances the individual’s proprioception through the lower extremity.  I’ve written a previous article about this here.
In a recent research article released this June (2015), researchers were studying the acute effects of footwear on jumping performance.  There was a difference in the peak propulsion, horizontal ground reaction force, average muscle activity, propulsive duration, and duration of muscle activity during countermovement.  But, participants reported feeling more comfortable in cushioned shoes…shocking (1).
In August 2014, a study was done looking at mechanics of running on the foot using barefoot or shod conduits.  Bottom line of this research, when barefoot, individuals demonstrated more range of motion.  Not only did they demonstrate greater range of motion, it was range of motion in ideal ranges.  At foot strike, it is optimal for the foot to be pronated so that it is flexible and can absorb the impact forces (2).
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May 2015, a study looking at loading response in barefoot vs. shod running found that there is less hip adduction, internal rotation, and opposite hip drop at impact and at a later point.  Increased adduction, internal rotation, and opposite hip drop is associated with knee injury giving another great reason to introduce barefoot style training to our athletes (3).
Many of the studies written about barefoot/minimalist training versus supported training/running are weak at best, in violation of some sort of error typically.  The studies I’ve cited here have a fair number of participants, however, it doesn’t fix the many extraneous variables that may have an impact.
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Even with all of this information presented, I am not an extremist and don’t believe that it is all or none.  For instance, if you work on your feet all the time, maybe wearing some sort of support on your feet is a great idea.  If you’re a competing powerlifter or Olympic lifter, wearing appropriate shoes for your sport is necessary (outside the movement prep).  If your feet ache, wear some sort of support to relieve the soreness, just don’t come to rely on the support as the potential for the small muscles of the feet weakening, therefore, increasing the potential for injury.