Thanks to a few research grants, we were able to purchase about 24 WHOOP devices (http://whoop.com) to use for research. The first goal was to examine data during summer conditioning for football. Unlike most research, the goal was not to manipulate anything in particular, but just to examine the results that came with normal wear, sleep, recovery, strain (exercise effort), heart rate (resting and exercise), heart rate variability, calories burned and the answers to some subjective questions. Because the athletes got some feedback on the app, I was curious to see what they were learning about their need for sleep as a recovery tool.
College students are typically sleep deprived. They don’t always have a consistent schedule, their social lives typically involve later nights and for student athletes, training is many times in the early mornings. For these athletes, four days a week they had conditioning that began promptly at 6am. The first week with the devices I asked one of the guys what time the WHOOP App “suggested” that he head to sleep… 7:30pm (he typically beat me to the field at 5:30am). When I asked if he listened, he just laughed. Of course that wasn’t a reasonable suggestion, but it did give some insight into how important an early bedtime becomes when you are training hard.
Why is sleep so important for athletes? You grow in your sleep (no, sorry, vertically challenged folks and gnomes, you won’t get taller). During sleep we release growth hormone… yeah, that stuff that has made its way through the bad list for pro athletes. When you are conditioning, especially weight training, the muscles are breaking down and in order to complete the process, building them back up, you need the human growth hormone that is secreted during the sleep cycle. So, yeah, if you sleep, you will grow big and strong.
Sleep also helps with recovery from the tough workouts. The device gives a recovery score, but most athletes also just know when they aren’t recovered. One of the athletes remarked that when he didn’t feel recovered, he started checking his sleep. When he added more sleep he felt more like himself and up to the challenge of summer conditioning.
As student athletes, they were taking summer classes and still needed to focus on learning. Sleep helps with that as well. When you are sleep deprived you are less likely to understand and retain the information learned. Summer classes come fast and furious (for us instructors as well as the students), so sleep is important for the student part as well as the athlete part. And while I don’t know individual grades, the team summer GPA was a 3.0, so my 20+ guys obviously held their own.
Sleep also slows reaction time, which was one of many things the coaches train during the summer. The guys need to learn to react as part of their sport… and then follow-through in games. This may not have been the best time to gauge reaction time (no missed tackles, no dropped passes), but it should be noted.
There were Mondays when some of the guys would report in to me about how much they had slept over the weekend. “I got like 11 hours on Saturday… wait until you see it!” “Man, I had such a good night’s sleep last night, you will be impressed.” By the end of the 6 weeks, even if they weren’t getting more sleep every night they were more aware of how they responded when they did get enough rest. In fact, when we took the average hours slept, it was under 5 hours a night, with a maximum of 10 and a minimum of less than an hour (for all you stats nerds, the standard deviation was 1.75 hours). That is still not what they need, but considering the early morning wake-ups I’ll take it.
Some “lab rats” are probably cringing at the fact that I let my participants make changes while I am collecting data, but that is part of what happens when using real time data. And that is okay with me because ultimately the goal is to get better performance, which sometimes means changing things up during training.
We gave the guys about a week break from the devices before practices started in August. When I went to hand the charged devices back, a few of the guys remarked (when asked), that they really missed having their stats ready for them. There were a few who didn’t want to be bothered anymore and that’s okay… I needed a break, too, from having technology at my fingertips. But I am excited to finally see what the season looks like from the physiology perspective.
I am not one of those technology people who spend a ton of time and money on the latest gadgets. For a few years I ran “naked,” no watch, no GPS, no phone… just a glance at the clock on my way out the door and an idea of about how long it would take me to run a specific route. When I did get my first GPS watch it was the most basic model on the market and for months I didn’t even upload my mileage online. Then I started studying recovery, including tracking daily heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in time between heartbeats, and sleep. Next thing I knew I had an app on my phone to track HRV and a new blue tooth enabled Garmin GPS watch with wrist-based heart rate technology. And then I got WHOOP’d.
I first heard of the WHOOP device from a colleague who was looking into a way to track HRV during activity. Next thing I knew I was wearing my Garmin on one wrist and a WHOOP on the other. For the record, the WHOOP doesn’t have a face with the time and date so while it may look a bit silly to wear both there is a good reason.
The Garmin needs to be told when you are run and then you must wait for the GPS signal to connect to the watch. The WHOOP had a feature through the corresponding App that will allow you to set the device to recognize an event, which included anything that increased heart rate for more than 15 minutes being recognized as exercise and anything that resulted in a slow down in heart rate recognized as sleep. Both the Garmin and the WHOOP tracked heart rate and they were pretty consistent especially for average resting levels. Only the Garmin was able to use GPS technology to track the distance of a run, so while the WHOOP could gage effort, calling it Strain, as a runner it failed to tell me how far I had gone. The WHOOP was able to better calculate my sleep than the Garmin, except the one night when it claimed I slept for about 90 minutes and then later “napped” for 3 hours between 2 and 5am. Luckily it has a feature allowing for a readjust to reflect the true timing of the event without disrupting the heart rate data that had been collected.
After the first week, what did I learn? My left arm, where the Garmin resides, burns more calories than my right where the WHOOP has settled.
The one feature that had the most disagreement between the two was the calorie expenditure. During a phone conference with the company they mentioned that the calorie count could be a bit high, especially for more interval training (high intensity for short bursts with lots of breaks). I do more steady state exercise (heart rate elevated to one level for a longer period of time or in my case distance), so I was curious to see my numbers. Compared to the Garmin, the WHOOP declared that I was burning 400+ less calories per day. To put things in perspective that could be an entire meal’s worth of calories. My colleague, on the other hand, had a day where he did not exercise and the WHOOP told him he could eat about 4000 calories… more than twice the “normal” resting limit for a male his size. He dismissed this as a glitch in the system.
I had been figuring the Garmin was correct within 100-200 calories to my real calorie expenditure, so I hadn’t been tracking my diet too closely but had been putting on a bit of weight. Since under-fueling can also lead to a metabolic shut down (and gaining weight), I was even concerned I was my own worst enemy NOT eating to the estimated calorie count. Now what was I to do? What information was I to take as the “truth?”
I decided to listen the WHOOP and eat a bit less. My weight miraculously adjusted to the change in eating habits. Of course for someone like me it is always a balance between eating enough to fuel myself for each run while also cutting some calories when I am trying to drop weight.
After about a month I gave up my WHOOP as it was time to use it for research and went back to just my Garmin numbers. I was thankful for the break-up, as I was getting a bit too reliant on technology and less reliant on listening to my own body. Some days I know I am not recovered and I am okay with that. Training is a balance between working when you aren’t at your peak in order to get your body to adapt and recovering/resting during your program to allow your body to have the time and energy to rebuild.
Stay tuned for my follow-up on how I WHOOP’d up on my athletes!
One of the most riveting statistics I came across when scouring the research for my dissertation topic is that the difference between first and fourth place at the Olympic Games is approximately 0.5%. They compared the times and scores for a variety of events and came up with the difference being one half of one percent. That is it! Not even a full percentage point.
Take out a stopwatch and hit start and then stop as quickly as possible. If you can do that in 0.13 second then you have covered the time it took the first 5 men to cross the finish line in the 100 meters in the 2016 Olympic games. The fourth and fifth place guys are elite but they don’t get medals.
Let’s look at this from another direction; National Geographic posted an article about technology pushing the limits of training (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/07/building-a-better-athlete/) where they compared Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt. Jesse’s best time is 10.2 seconds while Usain’s is 9.77 seconds. This is less than half a second. In 77 years the world’s fastest man has “only” gotten 0.43 seconds faster despite changes in training, technology, gear, running surface, etc. And they compared the races side by side, taking into account the track surface Jesse would have been within one stride of Usain!
These are elite athletes, the best of the best, the perfect combination of work ethic, genetics, training and let's face it, a little bit of luck. What about us pedestrians, the mere mortals among us? What can we expect?
Notice the first item on my list of what makes elite athletes special is work ethic. That is something us non-elites can control first. While there are gifted athletes who can just “show up” without putting in the work and be better than average, most of us non-elites cannot do that. We need to show up and work hard if we want to improve.
And about that improvement thing, our “gains” can be even larger. Let’s say you average a 10-minute mile (because it makes for easier math). By dropping 1 minute per mile off of your pace, you can go from a 2:11:03 half marathon to a 1:57:57 or a 4:22:05 marathon to a 3:55:53 (assuming a lot more than just consistency). What about a more realistic 20 seconds per mile? That puts you at a 2:06:41 half and a 4:13:21 full. That is a lot more than just 0.5% improvement! And while you may not be on the medal stand, you are getting better every day within your own genetics and training (and not to mention life… not all of us get paid to workout all day, every day).
In a conversation with a colleague in athletics, we talked about how the non-elite athletes can gain back more ground on their elite counterparts by just doing the little things… getting enough sleep, fueling correctly, hydrating, putting in one more training session or recovery session in the ice tubs, with the foam rollers or stretching. They may not have all the bells and whistles at their disposal or be blessed with the same genetics, but they have the ability to work hard and surround themselves with people who can give them the training tools to get better.
Next time you see a lower ranked team upset a team with better facilities and more resources, think about how hard that lower ranked team worked to get there. It wasn’t by accident but by hard work; one more rep, one more run or some more recovery time. And next time you improve by just one half of one percent, consider yourself in elite company.
Well, it is that time of year, folks. Long hours of daylight, swimming pools, and the kids off from school… vacations? No, the time of year when our complaints about the weather turn to asking who turned up the heat and my “what the forecast” app comes up with new places where sweat will accumulate.
Now, unless there is some change to the pattern, in half a year we will be back to complaining about the cold. But until then, us runners will run because fall races were built on summer training.
After spending 5 years in Hawaii with the best weather on the planet, my move to Oklahoma has provided a little extra stress on my body as my physiology adjusts for the different weather conditions including temperature and humidity. Because of the extra work the body has to do to keep us warm in the cold temperatures and cool in the hot temperatures, running pace is going to decrease once the weather blows past ideal conditions. I won’t define ideal conditions, because while research can give us numbers, most runners will have their own definition of what ideal is for their own body.
When the body is exercising, muscles contracting producing heat as a byproduct of energy production. Think about it this way, when you are cold and want to warm-up, you will often move around. That movement is a result of muscle contractions, which produce extra energy in the form of heat, not only warming you up but also the air around you. On a summer day, the temperature outside is already elevated making it harder for the body to rid itself of the extra heat into the environment. Throw in high levels of humidity and sweat evaporation becomes more difficult, taking away another mechanism in which the body gives off its excess heat.
So what exactly is going on? And why are your runs suffering when the temperature goes up? Energy metabolism, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) function and fluid levels are altered. Plus the nervous system, which controls the thermostat in the body, is working to fine tune the other body processes to reach optimal temperature.
In a basic continual loop: the more we sweat, the more fluid we lose, the more fluid we lose the less blood volume we have, the less blood volume we have, the more the body tries to keep the blood in our organs (heart, lungs and brain being the big 3) and working muscles. The lower the blood volume, the lower the amount of blood that can be pumped with each beat of the heart.
This pulls blood away from the surface (the skin)… but: blood at the surface is how we pull heat out of the body, so the less blood at the surface, the more heat is contained inside the body at the core and the common element in fatigue with exercise is a critically high core temperature.
Got all that? Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to reread it again and process.
Ok, now you have it! So let’s move on from there.
Monitoring all of this is our brain, serving as the central command center. It is believed that regardless of what we might try- hydration, electrolytes, gear, fuel- in the end the brain will just slow us down when we get too hot. Have you ever had your phone just decide that it is too hot to continue working? Yeah, kinda like that, but for the entire body.
So… how do you beat the heat? The best thing to do is try to keep your core temperature down. Increased fluid intake and even running through the sprinklers (come on, admit you run through the neighbors’ sprinklers on a hot run…) or jumping in the pool can help. Rescheduling your run to a cooler part of the day, early morning or in the evening, when the sun is dipping low in the sky is another trick. And, of course, get your body used to the heat by acclimatizing, repeated exercise bouts in the heat to train your physiology to adapt to the stress of the heat, although for some heat you just can’t prepare!
But, have no fear, training through the summer can help your body become efficient and maybe, just maybe, your fall race times will dip along with the temperature!
Anyone who has been around growing teenage boys can attest to the need for a fully stocked fridge. That gallon of milk you just bought… it is half gone before the day is out. Seconds are a normal part of dinner and those leftovers make a great pre-bed snack. Girls with large appetites, on the other hand, well… should girls really eat that much?
In a previous blog I addressed two of the three components for recovery from exercise, hydration and sleep. The third, which can be a touchy subject, is fuel (aka food). And while I don’t want to debate different types of diets, I do want to address the need for proper fueling in a society of excess where for females thin is in and for males bigger is better.
One of my favorite commercials exaggerates the effects of high calorie beverages such as soda, sports drinks and sugared coffee concoctions by serving them up with a side of excess fat and diabetes. While it is true that most of us consume more than enough calories in food rendering this as excess, in some cases the pubescent athletes just cannot consume enough food to offset the caloric deficit of high training volume, growth and normal daily body processes. Yes, if you sit at a desk all day, do a 10-minute low volume workout and then sit on the couch watching Netflix all night you do not need the extra calories of a sports drink. But what if you are a growing teenager (male or female) practicing two or more hours a day? Some kids just cannot eat enough to cover the calorie deficit and while they may be able to perform in high school, what happens later on in life?
As an experienced athletic trainer who has worked with female athletes from high school to professional sports I have witnessed athletes on every end of the spectrum. I have seen girls shy away from certain foods because they have a negative stigma and college freshman go all day without food because they could make it through high school practice without eating lunch.
The other week I came across an article about how female distance runners who dominate from freshman to senior year in high school often fail to be as successful in college and beyond. The author made many comparisons to male athletes (see the full article here https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/08/sports/katelyn-tuohy.html). The response on twitter was not what I think even the author was expecting. Experienced distance runner Lauren Fleshman and a team physician from Missouri, Dr. Aaron Gray, explained numerous reasons why the lack of success in female athletes cannot be compared to the success of their male counterparts. They reminded us that girls are meant to become woman, which involves a greater percentage of body fat, development of breasts and hips. If the girls cannot eat enough to sustain the energy needed for workouts, the body goes into hibernation mode shutting down some normal body functions including menstruation, as the body would not be able to handle a pregnancy at current energy consumption.
Other areas of sacrifice include bone building, which takes place up until age 25 for females. Without dense bones, these athletes are at risk for stress fractures. Lack of energy for muscle building puts them at risk for other injuries of the muscles and bones. Formerly successful careers risk getting derailed by chronic injury. And with injury comes a reduction in training. Without the ability to progress in their training, these athletes get left in the dust of their healthy teammates.
Gone are the days of our grandmothers when women participated in “quiet” games and were forbidden from running marathons because the distance was deemed too taxing. But while females are capable of doing the same things as their male counterparts, the female body does not have the same responsibilities as the male and therefore needs its own set of rules. We need to let girls be girls.
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