Ask an Expert: Sports science insights for athletes

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It can be difficult for athletes, coaches and parents to sort out fact, fiction and fads in the evolving field of sports science.

The Sanford Sports Science Institute is here to help. Through its role as the official research partner of the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation, SSSI experts are going to your questions in this ongoing segment: Ask an Expert.

If you have a question you’d like to be answered here, send an email to sanfordsportsci@sanfordhealth.org.

Question: How can I monitor my hydration status throughout training and before competition?

Answer: A simple way for athletes to monitor hydration is by looking at the color of their urine.  If an athlete’s urine is dark yellow, that is a sign of dehydration and means the athlete should drink some fluids (water or a sports drink are often the best options). Dehydration usually happens over an extended period of time, so it may take several hours for an athlete to fully rehydrate. Moderate and consistent fluid intake is the best strategy for preventing dehydration and rehydrating after activity. If an athlete’s urine is light yellow it means he/she has probably been doing a good job of staying hydrated. Well-hydrated athletes should continue regular consumption of fluids to maintain a proper hydration status.

Dan Poel, MS, CSCS Sports Science Institute

Question: What sort of diet should a 100-meter sprinter follow?

Answer: Good nutrition can help sprinters get the most out of their training to build muscle, become stronger and faster, and gain the energy they need to perform at a high level. During training, the majority of a sprinter’s calories (at least 55 percent) should be coming from carbohydrates in the form of bread, pasta, rice, cereal, fruits, vegetables, dairy and legumes/beans. Although the sprint race itself is short and will not necessarily require carbohydrate loading, adequate carbohydrate intake during training is essential for providing the muscles with energy and for recovery after training sessions/practice. Another key nutrient is protein – sprint athletes have high protein needs (at least 1.2 grams per kg body weight) to promote muscle recovery and growth. Having a serving of protein-rich foods, including meat, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish at all meals, snacks, and post-workout helps athletes meet their protein needs to build muscle and aid in recovery. In addition to meals, drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated is essential for performance, especially for longer or intense workouts or exercise in a hot/humid environment.

A sample day of meals for an athlete might look like this:

Breakfast: 2 pieces of whole grain toast with 2 Tablespoons of peanut butter and sliced banana, 2-3 eggs with shredded cheese

Snack: Trail mix made with nuts, raisins or other dried fruit and whole grain cereal

Lunch: Grilled chicken sandwich on a whole grain bun with 1-2 slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, 1 piece of fruit and 8-16 oz. milk

Pre-Workout Snack – a few options: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a date and nut bar or a granola bar or a piece of fruit

Dinner: 4-6 oz. meat, poultry or fish, 2 cups of cooked vegetables, 2 cups of cooked grains/starches (pasta, rice, quinoa, corn, beans, peas, sweet potato or potato), optional side salad with vinaigrette dressing and 8-16 oz. milk

Optional bedtime snack: 1 cup of Greek yogurt with berries and granola

Nutrition is highly individualized, so although all athletes should be focusing on consistency with nutrition (starting the day off with breakfast, eating every few hours, packing snacks to have pre-practice and making sure post-workout recovery nutrition is occurring within an hour post-workout), nutrition needs vary between individuals. Additionally, there are other considerations such as when and what to eat before a competition, travel nutrition, and individual goals of athletes that may change nutrition recommendations for different athletes, so working with a Sports Dietitian can help you determine what your nutrition plan should look like on workout and competition days.

Lizzie Kasparek, MS, RD, CSSD, LN
Sports Dietitian
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Question: What causes muscle cramps and how do you treat them?

Answer: Muscle Cramps are sudden, involuntary muscle contractions that can occur during or after exercise. They can be caused by muscle fatigue or from an excessive loss of water and electrolytes due to heavy sweating. Muscle cramps are more likely to occur during intense and/or prolonged exercise in hot, humid conditions.

The best treatment for muscle cramps is prevention! This includes being well-trained and conditioned for a given bout of exercise, and being properly rested, nourished and hydrated before exercise begins. During and after exercise, it is important to replace fluids and electrolytes that are lost. A cool-down can also be beneficial. If muscle cramping does occur, gentle massage and stretching will help relax the muscle and alleviate the pain.

Jennifer Dalland, MS, ATC 
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Question: I have a goal to reduce the size of my legs.  I do some exercises (more with leg) in the gym and then I run on a treadmill.  I’m scared these workouts will increase the size of my legs. If I do exercises that focus on other parts of the body will my legs get smaller?

Answer: It’s a common misconception that strength training negatively influences runners.  The idea that increasing leg size or muscle mass will slow down a runner is inaccurate. In fact, strength training has many positive factors on improving running performance. Strength training increases running economy by improving the muscle tendon stiffness, increasing the capacity to store energy in the muscles, and by improving muscle contractions. This will help increase speed, power and running endurance. There are also several other factors that influence an increase in muscle mass such as, genetics, age, gender, nutrition, and the type of strengthening program. There are different variations in strengthening that can increase muscle strength without a significant increase in muscle mass.

When we work with our running groups, we focus on heavier lifts in the rep ranges of 2-8.  This helps create neurological connections with type II muscle fibers that are not typically activated in runners.  These type II fibers are the larger and stronger fibers that will help increase speed and power, thus improving running economy and reducing run time. The benefit of this is creating the neurological connections will not add to muscle belly size.  What happens most times when starting to lift heavier sets and reps the muscle belly starts to shrink slightly as fat mass is burned.

Jennifer Dalland MS, ATC
Clinical Biomechanist
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Charley Smook, MS, CSCS
Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach
Sanford POWER

Question: What is the best nutrition strategy to follow when recovering from a strenuous workout?

Answer: Right after a strenuous workout (within 30-60 minutes), you should start your nutrition and hydration plan following the “3 R’s of Recovery.”

Re-hydrate with fluid and electrolytes by drinking water or sports drinks to replenish the fluids lost in sweat during your training session. You can weigh yourself before and after a training session, and drink 16-20 ounces of fluid for every pound of weight lost during that workout.

Refuel your muscle energy by eating a carbohydrate-rich snack. Carbohydrates are your muscles’ preferred fuel source and your body likely uses up a significant amount of those carbohydrates during a strenuous and/or prolonged training session. Get ready for your next workout by having carbohydrates in the form of grains and starches, fruit or dairy.

Rebuild your muscles by eating 15-25 grams of protein to promote muscle growth and recovery.

A good example of a post-workout routine would be to drink water or sports drinks, and have a carbohydrate- and protein-rich snack, such as chocolate milk, a turkey sandwich, Greek yogurt and berries with granola, or a smoothie made with milk, Greek yogurt or whey protein, and fruit, within one hour after a workout. Remember to continue to eat “real meals” throughout the day – your next meal should be 1-2 hours after that recovery snack. In general, a diet that has adequate carbohydrates, protein at each meal and plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats will support recovery during the most strenuous training periods.

Lizzie Kasparek, MS, RD, CSSD, LN
Sports Dietitian
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Question: What exactly is the best time to taper for optimal peaks?

Answer: Leading up to an important competition, the challenge is to find the optimal balance between maintaining maximal fitness and strength levels while resting enough to reduce the fatigue from training.
For a track and field athlete, this means identifying a few key races or competitions during the season to taper for. It is not possible to taper for every meet, as you would not have enough time to make gains by training intensely and with enough volume. Tapering does work, and has been shown to improve performance by up to 3 percent. Most research identifies the greatest benefit from tapering between 7-21 days. This is a large window of time to try and identify what works best.
Much of this depends on the event an athlete is competing in along with the duration and intensity level of their training. It makes sense to err on the side of a longer taper as a well-rested athlete will out-perform one that is fatigued. For a power event such the jumps or the javelin, you may want to experiment with a taper in the 7-14 day range.  This would mean that the duration/repetitions in practice are reduced while maintaining a high level of quality and intensity.
Each athlete is unique and will react differently to the duration of taper that delivers the greatest performance benefits. You should try and experiment early in the track season to see what works best so that you have a set routine leading up to the most important competitions later in the season.

Scott Hettenbach, MS, CSCS
Director
Sanford POWER

Question: I am a male athlete who is carrying around few extra pounds. What is the best way for me to lose weight through my diet without losing muscle mass?

Answer: Athletes who want to lose weight or decrease their body fat should be aware that large decreases in calories, eliminating entire food groups, or skipping meals inappropriately can lead to fatigue, decreased focus and mood state, poor performance during training and competitions and could lead to a decrease in hard-earned muscle mass. Ideally, athletes trying to lose weight and/or decrease body fat would continue to eat three meals a day, while decreasing overall portion sizes and intake of fast food/fried foods, convenience, packaged snacks and sugary beverages. To maintain muscle mass while decreasing body fat percentage, there should be an emphasis on loading up the plate with non-starchy vegetables and fruits, lean protein sources such as grilled chicken, and decreasing carbohydrate portions (1/3 to 1/4 of the plate instead of 1/2 to 1/3 of the plate) at meals. Overall, these adjustments will result in a lower calorie intake, and a smaller percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates/starchy foods (though this is not a LOW carb diet), so athletes should make these nutritional changes in the off-season to limit any undesirable effects on performance. Working with a dietitian to help you determine your energy needs and a more detailed nutrition plan will help take the guesswork out of meeting your goals.

Lizzie Kasparek, MS, RD, LN
Sports Dietitian
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Question: Is warming up really that important?

Answer: Yes! A dynamic warm-up is vital, and should be tailored towards the activity you are about to perform. For example, you should do shoulder mobility work before throwing or overhead lifting, or coordination and light plyometrics (jumps, hops) before running- or jumping-based workouts. These types of warm-ups prepare the neuromuscular system (nerves and muscles) for the activity it’s about to undergo, increasing performance and reducing the risk of injury. Before any form of exercise or sport, it’s recommended to perform an appropriate dynamic warm-up.

Zadok Isaacs, MS
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Question: Most endurance athletes are well-rooted in the concept of cooling down (or warming down) after a race or hard-workout – easing the body back to a normal, relaxed level with at least several minutes of very light jogging (or cycling or swimming, say). But what about events that involve explosive power, like jumping, vaulting or throwing field events? Or even something like weight lifting or football. Does the same principle apply, even if the heart rate has not been elevated like in a longer race?

Answer: The primary purpose of cooling down after exercise is to gradually transition the body to a state of rest (i.e., homeostasis) after a period of exertion. Light activity (e.g., walking, jogging) after a difficult workout or competition supports the cardiovascular system’s transition to rest by helping circulate blood throughout the body and reducing the demands on the heart. Cooling down also helps the body dissipate heat over a period of time, so that there is less thermoregulatory strain on the body.

For explosive or power-based activities, the need and usefulness of a cool down depends on the total duration and/or volume of work performed. If an athlete performs a couple of throws or jumps without greatly elevating his or her heart rate or body temperature, the body will return to homeostasis rather quickly without a deliberate cool down – though a warm up would still be recommended beforehand.

For an athlete performing a series or throws or jumps, or going through an entire weightlifting workout, it’s likely that his/her heart rate, body temperature and neuroendocrine system would be up-regulated in response to the workload, and therefore a cool down would be warranted. Even if there are periods of recovery in between attempts or sets of high intensity activity, the cumulative workload will create disturbances in one’s physiology that are best reversed with a cool down period rather than abruptly stopping the activity.

Thayne Munce, PhD, FACSM; Manager, Exercise Physiology
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Q:  What is the best brand or type of running shoes to train in to reduce injury risk? 

A: Sports medicine professionals, athletic coaches, and retailers frequently advertise or recommend certain brands or models of running shoes as the “best” or editor’s choice, with the aim of preventing running related injuries or improving performance. With the numerous features of today’s running shoes, such as motion control or stability devices, the heel-toe offset, and degree of cushioning, it can be difficult for the consumer to identify what features they might need in a pair of running shoes.

What might be best for one runner’s muscle strength, range of motion, running technique, and even previous injuries, may not be the best for another runner’s. Contrary to popular belief, clear evidence to support an all-encompassing prescription of certain styles of running shoe just isn’t there.  In fact, prescribing someone running shoes most likely starts with the running shoes they are currently wearing. For example, if a runner is accustomed to wearing a pair of shoes with a 10-mm heel-toe offset with a moderate about of cushioning and pronation control, their next pair of shoes shouldn’t be too much different. Switching from one style of running shoe to a completely new style may not allow this runner’s body enough time to adapt, possibly leading to pain or injury similar to what they might experience if they increase their training intensity or volume too rapidly.

If this runner eventually wants to transition to a more minimal shoe with a 0-mm heel-toe offset, their next pair could pair could possibly have an 8-mm heel-toe offset while keeping the other characteristics similar.  While running shoes may slightly alter running technique, no runner should expect a new pair of running shoes to completely resolve a nagging injury.  After all, the majority of running related injuries can be traced back to training error, inadequate muscle strength or joint range of motion, or running technique faults.

Colin Bond, MS
Sanford Sports Science Institute 

Q: I tend to sweat a lot when I train, is that normal?

A: An individual athlete’s sweat rate is unique to them. Sweating is the body’s natural way of cooling itself, via evaporation of sweat on the skin’s surface. Your sweat rate is dependent on environmental conditions (temperature and humidity), intensity of the training session and current fitness level. As you become acclimatized to a hot environment you tend to start to sweat sooner as your body recognizes the environment you are training in. You will also tend to hold onto key electrolytes (eg. sodium) more efficiently.

Jason Dorman, MS, CSCS
Sanford Sports Science Institute

Q: How can I stay safe when training in the heat?

A: Training in hot, humid conditions can be challenging for any athlete. Heat illness is more likely to occur and performance can often be limited, particularly in sports and events that take place over a long period of time. It is important to allow your body a chance to adapt to the heat and humidity by slowly increasing the length and intensity of your workouts in these conditions.

This adjustment (acclimatization) period normally takes one or two weeks, and should also include a gradual introduction of protective gear in sports that require it (e.g., football).

During your practices/workouts, you should take longer rest periods and adjust the length and/or intensity of your sessions based on the temperature and humidity. If possible, work out during cooler times of the day (early morning or late evening) and wear lightweight, light-colored, breathable clothing. Begin every session well-rested, well-nourished and well-hydrated. Start drinking fluids (water, sports drink) well before your training session begins, drink regularly throughout your workouts and remember to drink extra fluids afterwards to replace what you lost from sweating. Rehydrating after a training session will make your body more prepared for subsequent workouts in the heat.

Finally, be aware of the symptoms of mild and severe heat illness. Symptoms of mild heat illness include fatigue, weakness, and feeling overheated. More severe heat illness may cause you to experience headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or confusion. Recognize these symptoms early and take action to prevent your condition from becoming more severe.

If you suspect that you may be getting ill, stop your workout, go to a cool place, lie down and elevate your feet, drink fluids and notify someone who can help you. If you train SMART, you can perform safely in the heat and may even get an edge on your competition.

S – Seek shade

M – Modify activity

A – Adjust gradually to conditions

R – Rest frequently

T – Take in fluids

Thayne Munce, PhD, FACSM; Manager, Exercise Physiology
Sanford Sports Science Institute