I recently presented at a prestigious university in Mexico, I think it’s the most expensive in the country to attend. Which probably explains why they went to the trouble of flying me all the way from the UK to talk to the industrial engineer students about high performance. What’s industrial engineering got to do with high performance? Industrial engineering is in fact about systems and process, not actually making something in a factory. It’s the process and structure you have in place to make things happen – so it’s not as random a connection as you might think. Extreme sports athletes don’t like systems, process or being told what to do. Not doing as they’re told is ultimately what makes them good at what they do. So having a system in place for people that don’t like systems is an interesting challenge for me, but the performance team meets it.
After sharing my experiences with the 200 or so eager minds, it was time for questions – which is always a nervous part for any presenter as you’re likely to be put on the spot. One of the questions struck me, what did I think was the limit to performance? I wrote last month about the next frontier in athlete high performance, emotional maturity, how to put on a ‘performance’ in a theatrical sense and artistry. Not easy concepts for people to grasp in my world, which puts me on the fringe. However in terms of ‘performance limiters’ it’s easy to think of things like lack of power, strength, endurance, movements restrictions at a joint on an athlete and technical ability.
For me though it’s slightly more cerebral than that, and whilst it is a good idea to spend time ensuring an athlete has a good squat pattern before loading it, there are other factors involved. Consistency is something we all know, understand and strive for the athlete to achieve – as this can and does lead to results. But what about consistency in the team? The mechanics? The team manager? The other brand partners involved to make things happen? I don’t mean are they doing a good job or not, I mean do they have a job from one year to the next? Are they involved from one year to the next? Which teams have multi-year deals with organisations and a goal driven performance plan to go alongside that multi year deal? Uncertainty seems to be the norm in sport, all sport in fact – not knowing whether you have a job or not from one year to the next seems to go with the territory. It is absolutely no coincidence that the most stable sporting structures are also the most successful.
Environmental issues are also key, and I don’t mean reducing a carbon footprint. What environment is the rider in when they’re not at races? Do they have the support in place to help them, or do they live nowhere near somewhere to practice and surrounded by mates who simply want to reduce lap times around a supermarket car park on a scooter? I think someone once told me you’re the average of the 5 closest people you surround yourself with, so if everyone you know is a dribbler and doesn’t care about your sport then what effect is that having on you?
When it comes to limits to performance, it’s not all about going faster, further and higher. It’s about the obvious things that are right in front of you, but probably hidden in plain sight because it’s the same for everyone. Help is available, I just wish people would ask.
So here we are 10 weeks post op with Dan Atherton – and I think it’s fair to say we’ve had a ‘reasonably’ successful rehab phase! It hasn’t been easy, no injury is easy to deal with and the work that Athy has had to put in has been considerable. He had some significant tears which needed repairing – however it is extremely satisfying as a performance team to have such a positive outcome so far.
It’s worth underlining though some key points as to how we got to this point;
- Telling Athy to put his bike down and immediately fly home for assessment as soon as it was apparent there was a problem
- Prompt diagnosis with clear options on how to move forward from Doug Jones and myself
- Once the decision had been made for surgical intervention, this was carried out within 48 hours
- Surgery was carried out by a top sports surgeon – Mike Walton
- Rehab Started within days of the operation with Doug and myself
- Dan was in excellent physical condition pre-op and was training hard in the gym up to the day before his operation
- A civilian may be in a sling for up to 3-4 weeks, we were easing Dan off the sling after the first week
- Rehab sessions were progressive, aggressive – but under the strictest of control
- The whole programme was built around what Dan ‘could’ do, not what he ‘couldn’t’ do
- Everyone being aligned to the same goal – Return to Sport
- We are roughly 6 to 8 weeks ahead of what you’d expect to see in a civilian recovering from the same operation
- Athy was 100% committed to the process and trusted the team in place implicitly to get him back
Athy training with pro skateboarder Korahn Gayle the day before his op
Team fitness coach Alan Milway has worked alongside me every step of the way with Athy. This meant I was able to simply provide over-arching goals while Alan filled in the detailed sessions. I was able to sign Athy off for the types of movements and work he could do, Alan running with that in the detail. Having a great S&C coach like Alan delivering the weekly sessions with Athy was integral to his fast recovery.
Team fitness coach Alan Milway pushes Athy through the next phase rehab – Return To Sport
Dan had done all the hard yards with therabands, low resistance work and pool work – so returning to some strength work and high intensity was a welcome change in the programme. Pushing things as we do, you have to be careful that you’re not creating compensations elsewhere. His left shoulder constantly wants to ‘hitch up’, which if left unchecked turns into neck, back and even more shoulder issues – he’s had enough neck problems in his career! Whenever you work at the margins of your ability, technique and form slip, this is even more important to watch for in this rehabilitation phase. If you allow technique and form slip too much, you’ll be creating problems elsewhere.
Trunk strength is vital for all athletes – you can’t fire canons from a canoe!
It’s easy for the athlete to think they’re a lot further on than they actually are – so unilateral work is vital to ensure both sides are working as they should. With such a significant trauma to the shoulder not only from the dislocations but the operation itself, proprioception work is also vital to the recovery process. Proprioception refers to how well you are aware of where your body is. When you walk upstairs you don’t need to look at your feet to know where they are, you have a ‘sense’ of where your feet are in relation to the stairs. The more highly trained you are, the more developed sense of body awareness you tend to have, however injury can massively affect this – so it’s not just about fitness or strength. Training your body to ‘learn’ where a particular bodypart or parts are without looking at them is integral to not only rehabilitation but any training. In Athy’s case, if his brain isn’t 100% sure where his shoulder is when it’s being moved around by his arm when riding a bike – this causes the muscles to either overwork or not react as they should. Either way, this can lead to further injury and problems.
Proprioception work, on both shoulders
Each injury is unique, and individual to that athlete. Athy could injure his right shoulder in exactly the same way and we could follow a very different treatment path and outcome. As I keep mentioning, this massively accelerated recovery process was under the strictest of supervision with a professional athlete who knows their own capabilities. Right now Athy is at the transition phase of being returned to sport/competition. At this point a footballer or rugby player would be looking at some time in a reserve game before playing a full reserve game. Then onto some time in a first team game before playing a full game. With action sports athletes we don’t have that facility, but we can choose certain races and events for them to test themselves out on, if available. The danger is they want to win, they only know how to go flat out – so managing their expectations and enforcing it as part of the rehab process is always difficult!
It’s obviously great to see Dan back on a bike, it’s required a huge amount of hard work and attention to detail. We’re also not finished yet, this process is not over until Dan crosses the finish line with his left shoulder intact – a race will be the ultimate test.
Below is a some amazing GoPro footage of him doing a ‘warm up’ run on his DH bike on the infamous quarry line…
Athy drops in for a ‘warm up run’ 10 weeks post op
In the final part of this story – Dan returns to racing…..
Jonathan Rea post femoral pin insertion
I’ve covered injuries before, a decent piece on ‘what to do if’. Full of lots of sensible and meaningful advice, as you’d expect coming from me. I wanted this to be more personal though, more from the heart – which I do have (a heart that is) although the athletes may think differently.
Taylor Vernon hitting the deck hard, he rode away from this eventually
If you compete in extreme sports professionally you will become injured as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. These can be a series of mishaps which disrupt the smooth flow of the season, competing and training ‘hurt’ soon becomes a fact of life for any professional. However you may be unlucky and have a ‘big one’, the season ender and maybe career threatener. It can happen and it does happen. There’s nothing worse as a coach than to hear one of your athletes is seriously injured. It’s a mixed bag of normal emotions that immediately starts to conflict with the ‘coach’ side of your brain as you start running through an immediate ‘to do’ list to get the athlete back.
Has to be easier ways to get a ride on a private jet that doesn’t involved smashing your leg
You feel bad for the athlete, personally and professionally – maybe they’re in a foreign country trying to decipher what’s being told to them in another language or a hospital that looks more like a butchers shop than a place for delicate career saving surgery. They’re scared, and you know they are, but you have to keep your coach head on and start being the problem solver – the island of dependability in a sea of uncertainty. Where are they, what have they done, what’s been done about it, how do we get them back to UK? The list charges through your mind like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It’s great for the athlete to receive all the ‘get well’ messages and flood of ‘healing vibes’ via social media – it does help. However when everyone else moves onto the next race the real battle begins, as its no longer about internet based ‘healing vibes’ but facing the reality of recovery, physiotherapy and the long road to get back racing.
Watch this video for one of Gee Atherton’s bigger crashes…
The three over-arching goals going through my mind are:
- Return to function
- Return to fitness
- Return to racing
As soon as is physically possible this over-arching plan and what it might look like is immediately discussed with the athlete – no matter how serious the injury. It may seem to the athlete that they are a million miles away from racing when they’re prone on a hospital bed. However talking about how we’re going to get back racing and the steps involved isn’t just blowing smoke up the injured athlete’s arse, it’s a genuine part of breaking down a lengthy process into manageable chunks. It’s not a marathon, its 26 x 1 mile efforts. You can have the best surgeon in the world work on an athlete, but if the plan to get them back is anything but clear, concise, specific and well executed – the surgery may as well have been DIY.
I’ve been through some tough injuries with athletes, and it never gets easier emotionally – you ride the rollercoaster with them albeit yours is internal as you project nothing but ‘matter-of-fact-optimism’. Watching them return to a start line from injury is like winning the world champs for me – that’s a selfish statement as it’s not meant to be about me, coaching is about the athlete. You don’t work in this job for the plaudits as there are none and it’s largely thankless – however the struggle against adversity and the will to come back and win is where the real work is done with an athlete and future champions made.
I’m often asked what training an athlete should and shouldn’t do. Which exercises are best for certain sports or to help improve performance. The thing is, I’m not sure what ‘performance’ means anymore, ironic as I’m supposed to be a high performance manager. A fitness or S&C coach (not sure what the difference is there either) will try and ‘improve’ performance by manipulating adaptations to muscles and energy systems. We make the athlete fitter and stronger through constructing pretty undulating periodised training plans with micro and macro cycles, all coloured coded and everything. By getting the athlete to follow these plans, they follow the undulating wave upwards – riding the supercompensations. As coaches we sit back and marvel at our work as the athlete gets fitter and stronger which is making them a ‘better’ athlete, it’s improving their ‘performance’ isn’t it? Maybe not.
Metaphorically we train athletes today based on information we found out last week, when we really need to be preparing them for tomorrow. Preparing athletes for competition, to ‘perform’ in front of a crowd – with everything and anything ‘riding’ on the performance isn’t something that is achieved through simply increasing 3 rep max on deadlift. An SRM crank isn’t going to help with the split second instinctual reaction an athlete can make at a given moment which may decide whether they’re world champion or not. I’m not talking about sports psychology, or NLP – but a rounded approach which acknowledges the ‘performance’ in the performance, in a theatrical sense.
It’s not just about ‘positive self talk’ from a psychological view, or how effectively the muscles can produce and maintain strength, power and endurance, how efficiently the cardio vascular system can transport oxygen to the muscles. It’s putting on a show, rising to the occasion, literally ‘performing’ in front of a crowd with very real consequences to both failure and success, which are also public. When does an athlete stop being a collection of data points, key performance indicators and energy systems to be manipulated and become a person? If coaching is as much an art as it is a science can’t the same be said for athletes? We see artists as creative people, creating something from nothing. Isn’t this what athletes do? Aren’t they creative? Isn’t that creativity and emotional expression key to their performance?
I was at the NIke Performance Summit recently, and humbled to be invited to it again. A question was posed. In percentage terms, how much is that ‘moment’ that deciding moment when a game turns, a decision by an athlete which turns events – is down to the mental x factor, creativity whatever you want to call it?’. 150 of the world’s top practitioners generally agreed it was 60%+. Now that’s an arbitrary number, but the point is we all agreed it was a significant portion of the deciding factor in a competitive environment, in front of a crowd – but does that play a significant part of our preparation? No.
There’s a lot more to high performance than physiological and psychological measures. What can be learned from other people that have to perform at a high level, such as special forces? They don’t know what they’re going to do, or where, with life threatening consequences but still manage. In sport we know when the races are, how long they are and who else is going to be there – in fact there isn’t anything we don’t know about the challenge the athlete will face (apart from possibly weather), so what’s the problem?
Are we making it too complicated for ourselves? Possibly, but the next frontier in athlete performance is not exponentially more complicated ways to gather data to manipulate muscles. The next frontier is in creativity, artistry – exploring and understanding the art of performance. So the key message, is get yourself signed up to your local amateur dramatics society and watch your race times fall!
Building the elite mindset, Tay putting in the hard yards in rehab.
It’s been a busy few weeks for me and the performance team, not just with Tay – we’ve had a few bad injuries to deal with recently, not least of which Jonathan Rea badly breaking his femur. With Tay we’ve all been working hard to get him back as soon as possible, especially Taylor himself. It’s not a cavalier programme of pushing things too far, but we are always on the very edge of what’s possible. Tay has been splitting his time between home in Wales and with me up in Manchester and the specialist team. Team fitness coach Alan Milway has also been down to see Tay in Wales and go through the rehab sessions with him, so the poor lad has been getting it from all sides. It’s not easy for Tay, he was just 4 weeks post fracture when we started taking him in the gym so we were being conservative – for us. I’ve written many many times before how hard this is for professional athletes to take things so steady. One minute you’re operating at the maximum of your ability and the next minute you feel like you’re working at the minimum of what you’re capable of. Athletes only know how to go full gas, not cruise in neutral.
Re-assessment with Doug – it’s a great working relationship and Tay knows we’re all geared to getting him back racing
It might not be something a normal process would tell Taylor at this early stage, but riding his XC bike on a bike path keeps him sane. Yes he could fall off the bike, but he could also fall down the stairs at home. I’d rather he was riding along a flat path at home than on a road bike – of course he’s got things to think about such as position of his pelvis and back. But you can only imagine the ‘feel good’ factor of him being able to spin out on that XC bike for an hour.
Where he wants to be, 8 weeks post fracture and back on a bike
The focus for Tay was this;
- The deep core muscles can suffer after a spinal injury, they act as propriocepters telling the larger trunk muscles what to do – we’ve been working them to prevent problems further down the line when things get more dynamic with larger loads
- With such a large fixation in his thoracic spine, movement can bet transferred to his lumbar (lower back). Putting it under a lot more stress and load, so we’ve been working to ensure he has control of his pelvis and this area of his back
- Increase loads to get Tay into great physical condition to allow the metalwork to be taken out
- Start to look at his upper back muscles which will have been damaged during the surgery (they have to cut through them and/or pull them apart)
Working on the above is tedious and boring, there is no way around that. It’s medicine the athlete needs to take to make them better. Tay isn’t going to explode in a super-compensation wave of strength and lean tissue gains doing the above work. But it’s doing this type of work now that pays off later when we do start to load him up. We’ve been able to step things up slightly – introduce more movements and even use some weights!
Tay working on controlling his pelvis and spine while being pulled off balance using a theraband
The devil’s tricycle doesn’t mind if you have a broken back! I was able to hit some of Tay’s high intensity energy systems using the AirDyne. For no other purpose than to light them up after not being used for 2 months, the result was a whitey and some time alone!
Moving the exercises on, whilst still doing the foundation work
The other key milestone was to attend an appointment with a spinal surgeon who also specialises in young people/athletes. Dr Dashti is based at Spire Manchester, he also completely understands that Tay is a professional athlete and we need to get him back racing. Tay has already had an initial appointment with Dr Stuart James down in Cardiff, this was a private appointment and unfortunately the NHS system doesn’t have Tay down for an appointment until mid October – when Tay is 90 days post injury! The NHS has an incredibly difficult job to do – even so, the NHS first intervention with Tay being 3 months after his accident really is quite staggering. All because the operation was carried out in France, despite being an emergency operation, the NHS system in Wales can’t seem to recognise the urgency of this and it’s being treated like any other specialist referral from a GP. So with Tay due a review at the 8-10 week point and the NHS unable to do this – we of course got him to the right specialist. The initial feedback was the metalwork would need to stay in for 18 months, which was a huge problem as there is no way Tay can race with that level of fixation in his back. Should Tay have a big impact with the metalwork still in, it would cause catastrophic injury his back.
Dr Dashti reviews the mechano set in Tay’s back
Just as Dr James commented on in his meeting with Tay, Dr Dashti was not impressed with the level of fixation in Tay’s back and offered his opinion on what he would have done. As mentioned previously, the insurance would not fly Tay without the operation and the docs in France said they would fixate just one vertebrae above and below the fracture. However when we got the x-rays, they’d done most of the thoracic spine. It’s a little bit like taking your car to the garage with a puncture, and they decide to replace all the wheels and tyres. I’m sure they had their reasons – and what’s done is done, so it’s what we’re doing now thats important and how to move forward.
The main thing we wanted was of course the opinion where Tay is at now, how we move training forward and of course the million dollar question – when can the rods be removed? I was looking to accelerate the timetable from 18 months to 6 months. Dr Dashti’s opinion on what happens next was this – CT scan Tay at the 5 month point and if everything was still ok, whip everything out at 6 month point! YES! To say Tay was happy is an understatement.
This comes with caveats though;
- Tay needs to be in excellent physical shape
- The fracture needs to have healed properly
- He must keep on all the boring control exercises
In terms of training;
- Tay is going to Hafjell and Leogang with the team, just to get him out of the house and keep him sane! But he can ride his XC bike with him and ride the fire roads with other considerations which have been explained to him
- He will do his rehab with the whole team in the mornings, it’s team mobility every day!
- We can up the intensity of the training including weights, as long as we’re avoiding major flexion and extension of the spine
There’s still a tonne of work that needs to be done, but to be able to have Tay 12 months ahead of schedule is a huge step. As long as we keep paying the attention to detail as we have been, doing the foundation work and directed training – it’s a real goal to have Tay back racing for the 2014 season. As long as Tay doesn’t do anything silly when he’s on his XC bike. I know other racers and riders have had similar injuries and internal fixations – and some have got back on the bike quickly. But there is a huge difference between coming back to riding or coming back to racing AND being competitive. Tay is ‘riding’ his bike now, but that’s not racing at world cup level – an obvious point maybe, but still one worth making. There’s no point in any athlete being on an accelerated return to racing schedule, to get nowhere in the results when they do race. It’s a common mistake I see over and over again, an athlete coming back early from injury into competition to then under perform with all the negative knock on effects that go with that lack of performance.
5 days with me – little Butty was tired out…
I took Tay to see the rest of the team and we all got a gym session in, Rach was struggling with the control exercises!
We finished the week off with a trip to see the whole team, Tay hasn’t seen most of them since the crash – it was a great visit with a ad-hoc team BBQ. Rach might be world champion, but she was on cooking duty.
We’ve now got some firm timescales to work to, which gives us a specific destination rather than some vague outcome in the far distance. I won’t see Tay now until he stops off with me between Norway and Leogang. The plan was to keep this accelerated programme under wraps in terms of timescales, but I didn’t quite explain that to Tay and of course he blasted it all over twitter about how we’re now a year ahead – you can’t blame the lad he was so stoked with the good news. We’re in a good place, and hopefully we’ll stay in this good place and have the little Butty back shredding on the world cups for 2014….
As always, big thanks to all involved and Karl Steadman at RCF3D for letting us use his great facility.
In part 3 – Tay starts to hit higher intensity training and more weights….
I’m kind of a big deal, people know me….
When I first started out as a trainer, I had all the answers and very few questions. There wasn’t a gym I couldn’t walk into and within 5 mins of observing another trainer come to a comprehensive conclusion about everything they were doing wrong. As that’s all the time you need to watch someone else work, just 5 mins and you’ve seen all there is to see, you know exactly what they’re doing and why from that snapshot – right? I’d read magazine articles with some sweeping generalised statements about training and immediately dismiss that trainer is incompetent, as of course they should be able to get across their entire performance paradigm in just 600 words. Even Premiership football teams were not safe from my all knowing and all seeing eye, watching players warm up pitch side doing what I deemed outdated and ineffective drills – as that 10 secs was all I needed to draw my opinion. I was right, everyone else was wrong and I’d seen what I needed to see.
I was 25 years old, and after 9 years serving in the military I assumed I was fairly worldly wise – but looking back now, my total lack of respect for other people’s ‘map of the world’ makes me cringe. We’ve all done it, and even now I find myself slipping back into it. We like to think we don’t judge, but watching someone else work it’s maybe human nature to immediately start judging them, how crap their session is and how much better you’d do it. The plain fact is you have no context, you have no idea ‘why’ they are doing what they’re doing or what series of events lead them to deliver what they are delivering. Back then it wasn’t just hands on training I was critical of, there wasn’t a subject, methodology or rationale that I didn’t have an opinion on. I was willing to wade into anyone and anything whilst operating on my default setting that I knew all I needed to know based on a tiny snapshot of what someone was doing or saying. All the answers, no questions.
The slide is for Taylor
The work market plays it’s part, it’s a point of difference that you know better than someone else and therefore should have the work. Equally training and education providers can also play their part in this process, if you do a course and you’re constantly being told that the education you’re being provided with is THE way – it’s understandable you’ll take that attitude out into the world. You come out of the other end of this process thinking you have an enormous map of the performance world eager to implement your ideas as of course no one has tried before what you’re talking about…apart from just about everyone that has gone before you.
If you want to be successful as a coach, you need to measure yourself by the team you surround yourself with – not by being master of the universe by knowing everything yourself and operating on the default setting everyone else is probably wrong. I’m now (almost…) 41 years old and have been extraordinarily lucky with not only the athlete’s I’ve worked with, but the performance specialists I’ve been exposed to and able to work with. If you don’t know something, then say so – athlete’s and clients are coming to you for a solution and it’s down to you to provide that solution. That doesn’t mean it’s all about you – by seeking out other experts and building your own network, you can ensure you get a positive outcome with whoever you’re working with. By insisting on doing everything yourself, you’re setting yourself up to limit what you’re capable of.
I have a huge network of performance practitioners I can tap into, from premiership football, premiership rugby and olympic sports. Medically I have a specialist surgeon per body part, and for physio therapy I use the ubiquitous Doug Jones. Doug isn’t some random physio I found locally working in private practice, he was head physio at Sale Sharks for many years before moving to London Wasps as head of medicine. Doug now works in private practice with Harris & Ross – point being he is massively experienced in dealing with progressive and aggressive methodologies for elite athletes. You have to seek out the experts who can help you achieve positive results with whoever you’re working with. You will gain much more respect as a practitioner if you facilitate expert advice, that athlete or client will go away talking about how ‘you’ sorted them out, you’re the person to go to as you know all the right people.
If you look at all successful coaches they are surrounded by a network of top specialists. In my case particular I ensure that everyone I surround myself with is way better than I am. I measure myself on the quality of my network, not what I know myself. It’s not about me, what I think I know or how clever I think I am – it’s about the person you’re trying to help. It’s about their needs and the outcome they need – not mine. The other key message is respect other people’s map of the world, you don’t know the full details of why a trainer or coach is doing what they’re doing. A basic glute bridge isn’t going to bring about massive glute adaptations in anyone, or basic plank send their trunk strength through the roof. However if that athlete is just 4 weeks post spinal fracture with significant internal fixation, no control over their pelvis and poor trunk control – it’s a start. A picture and 10 word description maybe doesn’t explain the length, breadth and depth of what is happening – so don’t assume it does. Try and be as open minded as possible, as what you’ve read in a book or been on a course about might not actually be THE way things are, but simply ‘a’ way.
- It’s not about you
- Be open minded
- Respect other people’s map of the world
- Build your expert team, you can’t know everything
- Assumption is the mother to all f**k ups, so don’t assume anything
- Accepted paradigm is the way it is now, things change so be prepared to adapt
- Learn, don’t copy
- Seek out subject matter experts and learn directly from them
- Never stop learning
I’m saying this as I’ve made all the mistakes, tried to do everything myself and totally disrespected everyone else’s map of the world. Every athlete I’ve worked with has contradicted what I thought I knew. 16 years on, I’m still learning, still being surprised and now old enough to see methodologies coming around for the second time. Quite often I’m not sure if I even know a good way to do anything anymore! However, by having a great team around me and extraordinarily challenging athletes to work with – I get there in the end…
0.5 seconds – what is it? To the naked eye a reaction time of 0.1 secs is almost instantaneous, it’s in fact the limit of what’s deemed possible in a human reaction. In a 100m sprint race if you leave the blocks less than 0.1 secs after the gun you’re deemed to have false started because it’s just simply impossible to react faster than that.
0.5 secs is similar to my attention span in a sports science heavy presentation. My missus would say it’s the amount of time it takes me to forget what she’s told me. I would say it’s the amount of time a Red Bull athlete remembers what I’ve told them or the time it takes them to do the opposite of what I’ve just said.
In the film ‘Any Given Sunday’ about an NFL team, Al Pacino delivers a genuinely inspiring speech to his players before playing in a deciding game. In it he talks about seconds and inches, half a second too late or half a yard too short and you lose the game – the fight to claw those seconds and inches back to win the game. We’re surrounded by these fractions of seconds, they’re everywhere – just sat there waiting to be lost or gained by whoever they’re important to.
If you’re traveling at 40kph, 0.5 secs is about a DH bike length – just a single bike length. Think about that over a world cup DH run, where would that bike length be found? Every rock, turn, root, pedal stroke, slight slip on the front or back, the slightest hesitation, just thinking about dabbing your foot but not actually doing it. Or is it even wider than that? A turn or two on the suspension set up, tyre choice, pressures? Or wider still – couple of days missed practice, testing, training, hours of missed sleep, not quite ate the right food. The more you look at it 5/10ths of a second seem to be lying around in abundance – waiting to be grabbed.
Half a second was the difference between being 2012 UCI Elite Men World Champion and not. Of course there are events outside of your control, like a brake lever snapping. But still, seems to me there are seconds and inches everywhere I look, add them together and it’s more than 0.5 secs. Add them together and that bike length is closed – the rainbow stripes taken. British Cycling seem to have coined the phrase ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. However some of us in performance have known for a long time that by doing the ordinary extraordinarily well, you’ll scoop up these errant fractions of seconds that no one else wants. Your consistency and attention to detail will hoover them up, leaving none for anyone else. With races and championships now being decided within these fractions, can any elite afford to just leave them lying around anymore?
The wife has just told me something significant and important regarding tonights dinner which I’ve been left in charge of before she went out. This was over 0.5 secs ago. I’m now texting her to ask what she said….
Unlike my peers in the field of nutrition, I don’t have a degree in dietetics – my nutrition knowledge comes from 15 years of working with amazing athletes and practitioners. Sure, I’ve done nutrition courses and qualifications. But my time was spent seeking out science and asking why I was seeing the opposite to what the studies found, I spent a lot of time traveling the world speaking to professors in the field of nutrition. Everything I do as a performance practitioner is under-pinned by science, but it is not dictated by it. You can’t be innovative and breaking performance barriers if everything you do is based on what’s already known, the whole point of innovation is it’s ‘unknown’.
Looks paleo to me
One thing to make clear about sports science, it’s caused as many problems as it’s solved. I might have just pissed off a whole lot of people in the field saying that, but pissed off or not – its a fact. A ‘study’ into something and the result it gets is not definitive as you think. Has that study been replicated multiple times with the same result? How was the study performed? Who were the subjects? Science is looking for something called ‘statistical significance’ in it’s results, which means there is a clear result. Whereas for me at the edge of performance I’m happy with a ‘trend’ rather than some stand out obvious effect. It’s also important to understand the subjects taking part in these studies are either ill, or a student population group. I’ve actually seen an Msc study have it’s resulted skewed negatively because a few of the student footballer subjects got hammered the night before. Having studies done using elite athletes is difficult as there simply aren’t that many of them – the population group is very small, and they tend to be busy being pro sports people so don’t have time to commit to several weeks of being poked and prodded.
Seems like my kind of party
So with that in mind it’s important to balance what you know happens in the field, with what science says happens under a microscope. Balancing that ‘appliance’ and ‘science’ is key with anything and everything to do with performance, including nutrition. My journey for nutrition knowledge involved seeking out the extremes, bodybuilders are the extreme of lean tissue growth and fat burning, ultra runners are the extreme of endurance. NFL players, premiership rugby players, footballers – I saw them all, looked at what they were doing and what effect it had. I don’t mean I read books about it, I physically went to see them and what they were doing. I didn’t just look either, I threw myself into the different training regimes and diet plans of bodybuilders to see how it affected me, ballooning to 100kgs and able to bench press small houses but with the aerobic capacity of a house! Equally on the endurance side, dropping down to 79kgs and doing 5 Ironman triathlons. I was no pro athlete, but someone once told me never to ask someone to do something you’re not prepared to do yourself – and if you look like you need to take you’re own advice, how credible are you? Plenty of porky nutritionists out there who get out of breath walking up stairs (that’s actually me currently!). I’ve always put myself in the athletes position, empathy is key to connecting with an athlete.
I’ve been lucky enough to try my ideas out on premiership footballers and rugby players, including many international players who are household names. When working with elite athletes in premiership football or rugby it’s important to respect their map of the performance nutrition world. Obviously they’ve been receiving advice for many years before I came along, so to dismiss what they’ve been told before is foolish. Every person they’ve seen before I came along has tried to sell them their ideas as ‘the best’ so after several years of this cycle it’s understandable players are sceptical when yet another new practitioner arrives due the staff change circus in sport. They are also prone to the same goals everyone else is, they want to look good on the beach! So they can be more concerned with a diet which is about fat loss than a diet geared towards performance – as they are two very different things.
Just as with training, a programme to look good on the beach isn’t going to benefit performance – form should always be a result of function. So a diet which depresses body fat as much as possible, might not be one that will help when trying to physically perform. My wife competed in figure competitions for a while, and whilst her body fat may have been extremely low she was also the most ‘unfit’ she’d ever been. No energy, totally weak and huge mood swings (more than usual..!). When dealing with collision sports like rugby, players need to be able to tolerate those impacts – so being well under 10% BF might mean they ‘look’ great, but might not be right in terms of performance. This is why the trend of training rugby players like olympic sprinters makes no sense to me. If you make a player as highly strung as a sprinter then don’t be surprised when they break down as often, ferraris aren’t meant to be used like diesel trucks. A discussion for another time maybe.
Amy in 2010 – ripped, tired, unfit and weak.
Below is an extract from information I wrote for a premiership rugby team where I was nutritionist for 2 years – which I think sums up my rationale;
“Nutrition is a highly individualised aspect of performance, not only for each athlete but for the sport its relevant to. What works for a one ‘prop’ does not mean it will work for another, just as with a conditioning programme. Whilst performance nutrition should be highly individualised, there are some fundamentals that provide a foundation to move forward from. Without this foundation, performance nutrition simply fails – and becomes a series off ill advised and ineffective supplement based protocols seeking a short cut to performance which simply doesn’t exist.
After a short time as a professional athlete you should be aware of the basics to get the most out of the adaptations from training, the fuelling for performance and recovery – built on a basic knowledge of what to eat. Unfortunately in the 21st century in sport we exist in a world where someone has to tell you what to eat, which when you step back and look at it seems ridiculous – because it is. The role which should be filled by parents/grandparents has largely be junked in favour of sports scientists and supplements. The problem with this is that we forget what the basic good varied diet is supposed to be.”
My opening gambit with the players was to tell them how stupid my role was! Just to be clear, I’m a huge fan of quality supplementation with athletes and weekend warriors. Supplementation is a vital part of any athletes performance nutrition armoury – but only when it’s built on a very solid base good diet with food from the table.
So what is ‘nutrition’ then? One of the definitions is, “Nutrition is the provision, to cells and organisms, of the materials necessary (in the form of food) to support life.” We will all have our own definition of what it means to us as individuals, and that’s the key – its a totally individual thing. As with anything you need to define your nutrition goal, is it to build or maintain lean mass, burn fat, be healthier or manipulate a performance? It’s usually all of the those goals with most people.
Whether an athlete or weekend warrior here’s some simple ideas to think about;
- Ensure the food on your plate is as colourful as possible – this means the food is nutrient dense – the more colourful the better.
- Eat a varied diet – eating the same plain bland thing over and over is not what we’re designed to do. We’re designed to eat a varied diet, and it’s also good for the soul as well as the body to eat many different foods.
- Traditional food is good – whichever country your from, the traditional meals are actually good for you. It’s how we cook and prepare them that causes the problems. Traditional English cooked breakfast (which I encourage all athletes and anyone to eat) is a great meal to start the day. Might sound crazy, but just think about what it actually is – meat, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, a great colourful meal full of protein. It’s how we prepare it that causes problems when we fry it. Traditional English Sunday dinner is meat and lots of vegetables – seems like a nutrient dense varied meal to me.
- Don’t buy food that lasts longer than you – anything a bacteria doesn’t want to eat probably isn’t good for you. So any food which appears immortal should be avoided.
- Have protein with every meal – we tend to eat a very carb dominant diet in the west, when really we need to go the ‘meat and two veg’ route as my gran used to say. You can get the carbs you need in vegetables without having to have a plate full of pasta or rice. I’m not saying you should never eat those foods, and we all enjoy a good pasta dish. But moderation is key
- Have a day off – just as with training you need to give yourself a break. We don’t just eat food for fuel, it’s something to be enjoyed, its a social occasion or special occasions. Going to the Cheesecake Factory or In ‘n Out Burger might not be good for the body, but it’s good for the soul on a ‘treat’ day. Those two establishments have always been my only motivation to go to California training with athletes.
- It’s a lifestyle choice - whatever you do and however you do it, it’s not about restrictive systems or the latest ‘hollywood’ diet – it will be a lifestyle choice. Locking yourself into a super strict diet is fine if that’s how you want to live, but whatever you do it can’t be just about the next 5 day juice cleanse. You have to fit your diet into your lifestyle and vice versa. Make informed, sensible decisions which you can stick with day in day out as consistency with what you do will be a key to success.
Eating a balanced, varied and nutrient dense diet will get 90% of people and athletes to 90% of where they need to get to in health and body composition. Clearly and obviously there are some products and methods that can help athletes and people alike recover faster to get maximum adaptation to the training they’re doing and demands of competition. However as mentioned, this needs to be done on a solid base of nutrient dense varied diet.
I’ve got my daughter to understand the importance of nutrition
It’s all about ‘paleo’ among a lot of people I know at the moment, i.e eating a Paleolithic diet, awakening your inner caveman (or woman) as our digestive systems are essentially 20,000 years old. Ultimately you do whatever works for you, but eating a balanced healthy colourful diet with plenty of lean meat and vegetables seems like common sense and not just something we did 20,000 years ago.
The subject is massive, controversial and highly individual. There are no secrets or shortcuts, it’s fairly straightforward – we just love to make it complicated. Now, it’s time for an In ‘n Out double double burger. With bacon.
Dan starts his rehab – in the days before the operation.
If at all possible, you want to manage an injury conservatively – this means non surgically. No operation is completely without risk, and as soon as a surgeon puts a scalpel to an athlete there is no going back. Of course we mitigate against those risks by using the best surgeons with the best facilities, this reduces the risk to almost nothing. With Dan, surgery was unavoidable – the tears were not going to fix themselves. Another dislocation was going to result in more catastrophic damage along with a much more comprehensive surgical repair and the extended recovery time that goes with it.
Knowing this, Athy’s rehab started before he’d even had the operation. The goal is to ensure you head into theatre as strong and as fit as possible. Quite often athletes detrain for a period through inactivity because of injury – until the decision is made as to how to move forward. This means they are operated on in an already detrained state, meaning that post op they’re even more detrained which simply creates more work in the return to sport process. For Dan, he was smashed in the gym in the days before the operation.
Dan trains with me and pro skateboarder Korahn Gayle the day before his operation
A standard protocol for rehab from a Bankarts repair might look something like this;
- 3 weeks – In a sling, keep wounds clean, active assisted movement in safe zone
- 3-6 weeks – Wean off sling, progress active assisted range of movement, scapular stabilisation exercises
- 6-12 weeks – Regain scapular control, increase ROM, strengthen, increase proprioception with open and closes chain exercises, sports specific training
- 12-18 weeks – Staged return to sport
The plans of course are much more detailed than that – but broadly it will look something as described above. Dan is currently just 3 weeks post op, but he’s at week 6 on his rehab plan.
Clearly this is a massively accelerated programme – however that is what we’re experts in and what we’re here to do. Dan wants to return to fitness as soon as possible and that’s what we’re doing, but not unduly so. Something to explain now is ‘staged return to sport’, for athletes in teams sports like football & rugby this means playing in the reserves building match fitness. Then coming on for ‘x’ minutes in a first team game. For Athy, there is no reserve team or simply turning up to an enduro and only doing part of it. So myself and Alan Milway will have to be creative when it comes to the RTS part. End stage rehab and RTS is very tricky due to the volume and intensity – of course more on that when we get there.
At 2 1/2 weeks post op, Dan has a review with surgeon Dr Mike Walton and of course physio Doug Jones. We are pushing the limit of what’s possible in terms of timescales with Dan’s shoulder – but it’s being done under the strictest of supervision. Anyone trying to do this accelerated programme themselves would end up back in hospital
Getting Dan’s shoulder back under control and ensuring the muscles around his scapular are working
Receiving manipulation from Doug – pain!
Challenging Dan’s shoulder using an FKPro
Obviously there’s only so much you can do in a gym with rubber bands, which is why we also use things like an FKPro to challenge movement and build strength. There’s also another vital tool in the performance tool box to ensure Dan doesn’t detrain whilst working his shoulder – the pool. The pool is an underused and vital tool – it may seem like it’s a nice session to go and have a splash about. But it soon becomes a performance playground of pain and misery for the athlete!
The water allows Dan to use his whole body, without putting his whole bodyweight through his shoulder
We film as much as we can, to feedback to the athlete and also provide reference points to look back on and compare
Explosive plyometric jumps and simple leg kicks – try these yourself in a pool, they are not pleasant
Challenging the shoulders and trunk by maintaing a position in the water
As mentioned – this is an incredibly accelerated programme, due to the strictest of supervision and of course Dan’s peak physical condition pre-op. It may seem like we’re being overly aggressive, however we’re taking the utmost care not to overstep the mark and Dan’s feedback is vital in this. Dan is an incredibly experienced athlete, he knows his own body extremely well. He knows the difference between pain, muscles soreness or something else – so his feedback is absolutely vital. With a young and inexperienced athlete there is the danger of ‘under reporting’ – they’re in pain but don’t say anything or simply tell themselves to get on with it. Or they mistake the discomfort of healing and rehab as something else, so the training is backed off needlessly. Would we push so hard with a younger less experienced athlete? Maybe not, but we’d still be way ahead of the curve of a normal recovery time. Dan also has the perfect mindset for this type of thing, you tell him what to do and he follows it to the letter. Some athletes fall into the trap of doing a combination of what they like and what they think they should do – then wonder why they’re not improving. So with Athy we have a perfect storm of an athlete in excellent pre op physical condition, massive experience to feedback accurately, mindset of steel and of course a team around him to execute the accelerated rehab plan.
2 1/2 weeks post op – You’d be pushed to tell which is the op scar and which is a zit! The skill of surgeon Mike Walton
Every athlete is different, and every injury is unique to that athlete. However when an athlete commits to the process as Dan has, great things are possible. I’ve asked Team fitness coach Alan Milway to write up Dan’s training programme as if nothing is wrong with his shoulder. It’s better to write a normal training programme, which will need some tweaks than try and build a new programme from the ground up constantly thinking about his shoulder. With a normal training programme written, you’ll probably find 90% of it will remain unchanged. As I’m sat typing this at almost exactly the 3 week post op point, I know Athy is smashing himself on the turbo. From this point on, it doesn’t get easier – Athy just works harder and gets stronger….
In part III Dan gets on the pain train to Struggletown as more intense strength training kicks in….
There was a time, in a lot of action sports, when training for it was not ‘cool’. That time was not that long ago either. Simply turning up on the start line after a particularly heavy night and with very little sleep was encouraged, it was normal. However like any sport, as they progress the level of competition gets greater each year. The events and competitions get bigger, as do the performances and tricks – everything gets faster and ultimately becomes professional. Which by default means the athletes themselves become professional, and prepare physically and mentally as professional athletes.
Inevitably this leaks down to the weekend warrior, just as with equipment the pro’s use – the training they do is something people want to emulate. So now the question isn’t whether you should or shouldn’t prepare for your sport – but what preparation you should do to maximise your performance.
Clearly the training a professional extreme sports athlete needs to do and the training someone who shreds with friends at the weekend differs – but not as much as you think. There’s also a lot of conflicting information out there about what to do, from straight up copying what an elite does to internet forum based received wisdom. The fact is no one really knows exactly what training an extreme sports athlete needs to do and no one (despite what they might say) is an expert – me included. We’re all making what is in effect extremely educated guesses based on a number of factors.
The obvious and most important thing is that you can actually do your chosen action sport, on a DH bike a technical inability to rail a berm confidently or clear a jump without casing it is not going to be solved purely in the gym. 2/3rds of our performance goal setting and planning process with an athlete is technical and competition based, with the remainder about physical and mental aspects.
As I see it, the main areas to concentrate on to help maximise your performance as an action sports athlete are;
To be able to act and react not just with big movements, but with fine motor (muscular) control. The more randomised this training is the better, which should always try and incorporate some sort of accuracy like catching a ball or landing on a specific spot. Reaction balls, and game based activities are the best – essentially all the things we did as children but have either had it coached out of us or stopped doing it as we grew up. This also helps with the mind body connection, your vision, perception, general overall body awareness and decision making ability. All vital to help you ‘perform’ in the dynamic reaction based environment you find yourself in.
You need to be able to throw you’re own bodyweight around and control it. Your using your body weight as a dynamic moving part, so you need to be able to control your own body weight! There are lots of different types of strength – max strength, strength endurance etc. Ultimately the more reps you can do with your own body weight through full range of movement at the joints, using complex movements i.e more than one joint moving – the better. This is also obviously ‘global’ meaning front to back and top to bottom on your body. However this is something you need help with, moving your body weight around is something you should do under supervision to technically complete it. Strength is the foundation all athleticism is built on, you wouldn’t bet on a ‘weak’ horse would you?
This is a posh word for fitness – it’s about your ‘engine’ and the better your engine, the better your able to tolerate the world around you whether that’s a world championship race schedule with all the traveling, or the stress of your day job. My preferred method for this is metabolic conditioning, it puts the central nervous system under a huge amount of stress and as importantly there is a large mental strength element to it. Ultimately the mind gives in before the body, and it’s the mind that tells the body what to do – so any opportunity to incorporate mental strength into preparation is seized upon.
It’s simply about applying common sense to what you’re doing away from your sport. If at any point you find yourself stood on a swiss ball waving a kettle-bell around, ask yourself if you are preparing for the circus or to get better at your sport – does it make sense? Obviously you need to recover properly in between sessions physically, mentally and nutritionally – however that is an entire series of books on their own and we’re not covering that here just yet. Constantly challenging yourself brings about an adaptation, doing the same thing over again and something you can already do, will not. Move to improve people!