Baggage Part II
In part I, we introduced the concept of baggage and how it can potentially affect technique if coaches aren’t aware of the potential impact of technical and training interventions. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of physiological baggage.
As physical training is a required part of the performance improvement process, we’re often focused on the benefits of our training interventions. However, there is often baggage that comes with any intervention. The first source of baggage is fatigue, and while often appreciated by coaches, the specifics of how fatigue can be problematic are often overlooked. In the second case, the impact of a given type of training on OTHER training components is very often unnoticed. We’ll explore both aspects below.
The most obvious source of physiological baggage is fatigue. Hard training produces fatigue, and that fatigue response is critical for stimulating the adaptation processes that ultimately improve physical performance. Any significant training stimulus is going to create fatigue. This is pretty obvious. While fatigue is clearly an important part of the training process, it can be problematic as well. As coaches, we tend to overlook the potential problems with creating inappropriate levels of fatigue, both on an acute and chronic timescale.
Fatigue is going to impair the physical outputs that are possible. Beyond the impact of impaired force possibilities, good technique is dependent on physiologic resources to execute the required skills. As any swimmer or coach can tell you, fatigue alters technique. When pushed to the physiological limit, technique is going to break down.
As demanding training is required to enhance physiological capacities, and technical excellence is required for performance, we have a situation where a given intervention might enhance physiology while compromising mechanics in the short-term. This isn’t necessarily a problem as some technical degradation can be acceptable if it furthers training improvements. At the same time, if technique is consistently breaking down under the pressure of fatigue, that’s exactly what’s going to happen under the stress of racing. Short-term changes are going to become long-term habits.
What’s important is to be aware of the dynamic that all training interventions are affecting technique, for better or for worse. If technique is being compromised, the acceptable amount of degradation is up to coaches to determine for themselves.
While acute fatigue can be problematic, chronic fatigue is even more problematic. Part of the issue is that it is insidious in nature, slowly accumulating over time as opposed to dramatically changing in the short-term. While acute fatigue is easy to see, chronic fatigue is much more difficult to recognize as the onset is very gradual.
Fatigue is required for physiological adaptation, yet too much fatigue is going to impair physiological adaptation. Further, due to the interplay between physical resources and mechanics, chronic fatigue is going to lead to chronic changes in technique, which can ultimately affect performance.
To make this concept concrete, let’s consider a freestyle swimmer who is fatigued due to consistent hard training. The muscles of the upper back and chest are responsible for creating the majority of the propulsive force generated by the arm pull. With fatigue, these muscles are less able to create the forces required by a high elbow catch position. As a result, the elbow begins to drop slightly (or worse!) to reduce the force demands.
When fatigue is eventually removed, the technical change may remain, and performance will be compromised unless this technique change is specifically addressed. Of course, fixing technical issues that arise from training baggage is not nearly as efficient as simply avoiding the creation of the flaw in the first place.
Chronic fatigue can also enhance injury risk, due to both the compromised mechanics and the weakened state of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Using the same example of the dropped elbow above, this position can increase injury risk to the shoulder, and consistent exposure to this position will result in further exposure to injury risk. Thus, injury risk secondary to chronic fatigue is a major source of training-related baggage.
As another example, the short-term impact of strength training interventions can be fatigue and loss of performance. This ‘baggage’ can actually impair training efforts, particularly when performed at inappropriate volumes. However, as explored in Bleeding To Death, strength training can be very valuable over the long-term. As such, coaches need to work to assign strength training loads that allow for strength to be developed, while accounting for and managing any fatigue-related baggage that develops. Determining how much fatigue is appropriate is up to the coach, and awareness of the choice made can help coaches manage the effects of that choice.
Interacting Training Components
Training baggage can also arise from the interaction between the different types of training that are planned throughout a week and throughout a season. Some physiological adaptations are mutually exclusive in that they improvements in one area will necessarily lead to losses in other areas. Beyond a certain point, a bigger muscle will have less endurance capacity, and muscle fibers often downsize in response to high levels of endurance training. Certain metabolic processes favor efficiency while others favor producing a lot of energy quickly. To some extent, these two processes work against each other.
All of these dynamics can be recognized in the observation that are best sprinters often have the least endurance, and the best endurance swimmers often have the least speed. There are no individuals who are the best at everything.
As a result, attempts to improve training or performance in one area can result in losses of performance in other areas. The question then becomes how to create situations where the benefits are maximized and the costs are minimized. Beyond that, coaches must then consider whether the established benefits outweigh the established costs.
Let’s take a look at some of the common dynamics that arise in training, and how they play out in practice.
Speed and Endurance
While speed and endurance can certainly co-exist, particularly in exceptional athletes, eventually choices must be made as to where future improvements are going to be made. Additionally, these processes tend to work against each other more in the short-term (weeks/months), whereas carefully managed training can allow for both to develop over time (years).
Also described in Bleeding to Death, losses in a training element typically arise from NOT performing the required training, rather than due conflicting adaptations. However, at some point swimmers will need to move in one direction. One needs to look at the absence of swimmers who dominate from 50m-1500m for confirmation. Specialization exists for a reason.
Consider the sprinter who constantly falls apart the 2nd 50m of their races. For many coaches, the instinct to resolve this problem would be to focus training on improving endurance. While this approach is logical, it’s potentially problematic as well. If endurance training is performed excessively or inappropriately, any improvements in endurance could be outweighed by losses in speed. The sprinter might finish his race ‘better’ in that the splits are closer, but mostly because they were just slower to start!
One the other side of the spectrum, many a coach has found that too much intense pace work can harm the endurance of their distance swimmers. These swimmers get ‘ready to soon’ in that the pace work improves some aspects of speed, but it can eventually impair endurance qualities if volumes are too high. Getting ready to soon is when the baggage outweighs the benefits by the time you get to the meets that matter.
Strength and Mobility
Inappropriate strength training can shorten muscles and distort joint position. On the other hand, excessive flexibility can negatively impact strength, particularly if no strength training is performed. Coaches are often concerned with strength training making swimmers ‘muscle bound’. In reality, this is only a concern if swimmers are using inappropriate ranges of motion AND failing to include any sort of mobility work. On the other hand, injury can arise when performing a lot of mobility work without the strength work that allow for control throughout these newly acquired ranges of motion.
The point with both examples is to illustrate that any training intervention can have positive and negative impacts, and these effects might not show up right away. By developing awareness of these effects, planning for their occurrence, and observing their impact, we can create better interventions that are adjustable and less likely to result in poor outcomes.
Physiological baggage is typically easy to recognize. You can see fatigue. However, some aspects of physiological baggage are subtler, and being aware of these subtle changes can help us better manage performance. Long-term fatigue can slowly creep up on swimmers and coaches until big problems arise.
Similarly, training is interactive and enhancements in one area can compromise enhancements in another. Having an appreciation of these interactions is critical if we are to avoid designing practices and plans that enhance one aspect of performance, while significantly impairing others.