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 lisa.macfadden@sanfordhealth.org.

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