As athletes and coaches, we spend all of our time preparing to perform at the highest possible level in competitions. But what if we’re leaving some of our training-derived improvements on the table? That was the question posed by two leading sports performance researchers, Dr. Liam Kilduff and Dr. Christian Cook at a recent symposium I attended.
The key problem, as presented by Dr. Kilduff, is that athletes often prepare inadequately at competitions. The idea of the warm-up is to enhance subsequent performance, and there are many mechanisms that achieve this. One is the increase in muscle temperature that improves nerve conduction velocity, which boosts force production.
And yet, quite often after completing the warm-up at many high-level competitions, the athlete undergoes a long perod of inactivity in the call room. At the Olympic Games, I was called up roughly 60 minutes before my races. At the World Youth Championships, I had an even longer 75-minute call room period. Given that this can reduce body temperature (both core and muscular) and that for every 1 degree Celsius reduction in muscular temperature there is a concurrent 3% reduction in the amount of force produced by the leg muscles, it’s clear that an extended cooling period can seriously hamper performance.
During the symposium, Dr. Kilduff presented data from elite team sport players showing that the lowest distances covered by these players occurred within the first 10 minutes of each half. This is puzzling because, at this point, they should be at their freshest. Yet they are underperforming relative to later in the game.
It’s criminal to prepare an athlete for competition, only to waste the last 1%-2% of potential performance on competition day. Following these excellent presentations, I decided to look at the referenced studies, do some of my own research, and put together a guide on how best to enhance performance on the day that it matters most—competition day—through various priming activities. None of these represent an increase in physical capacity; the athlete already gained those improvements through training. All these do is allow the athlete to perform to their potential.
Step 1. Lay the Foundations
Competition represents the ultimate test for athletes, especially high-level competitions. They provide the opportunity to excel but also to fail—in many cases very publically—so athletes are often very nervous before competition. This often harms their sleep the night before. Poor sleep has the potential to negatively influence cognitive, motor, and physiological performance, which is less than ideal for competing.
Indeed, the research indicates that athletes often get less sleep prior to competition, a finding which is often replicated. Note that many of the papers exploring sleep and performance study subjects that are sleep deprived, meaning they haven’t slept at all. This doesn’t necessarily mirror what happens in athletes pre-competition—many get at least some sleep, and some suffer no problems at all—but it does represent the worst case scenario.
I’ve written about sleep numerous times, including sleep and athletes and sleep science. Athletes should already have good sleep hygiene habits in place, meaning this should be a relatively easy box to tick. Also, the first night in a new sleeping environment is often restless, negatively impacting sleep. For big competitions, it might be better to arrive a few days early to reduce the impact.
Some good news in this area comes from caffeine. In athletes who were acutely sleep deprived, both low (1mg/kg) and moderate (5mg/kg) doses of caffeine lessened the loss of skilled performance and physical performance. Caffeine can also enhance mood in sleep-deprived athletes, which in turn may affect motivation. This means that we want to consider using caffeine on competition day, not just for its positive effects on sleep loss but also for its other ergogenic properties. I’ve written extensively about caffeine including its effect on performance and how it does so as well as a journal review on the subject.
To summarize, caffeine enhances performance through a variety of mechanisms. For most people, 3-6mg/kg of body weight of caffeine (for example, 210mg-420mg of caffeine for a 70kg male) consumed roughly one hour before competition is a good starting point. There is significant individual variation for each person’s optimal caffeine strategy, however. To determine what’s best for an athlete, use caffeine in training and lower level competitions and experiment with the dose and timing until you find a strategy that works.
Next, consider priming the athlete’s anabolic hormones, especially testosterone. While many of us typically think of testosterone’s large role in muscle hypertrophy, it’s also acutely linked to motivation. A 2013 study found that there was a strong link between pre-workout testosterone levels and the workloads voluntarily selected by the athletes in their next training session. The athletes with high testosterone levels worked harder, indicating they were more motivated. Increased testosterone levels also increased the chances of a rugby team winning a match.
While optimizing testosterone levels tends to occur in a chronic, long-term setting, there are some things we can do during the pre-competition window to further enhance it. For example, use short video clips. A 2012 study showed different types of videos to a group of male athletes before a squat-based training session. After watching aggressive, motivational, and erotic videos, the athletes’ testosterone levels increased, correlating with an enhanced 3RM in the next squat session. Using aggressive and motivational videos represents a potential method to explore. Before my competitions, I listened to a Vince Lombardi speech, which motivates me even now.
Step 2. Prime Performance With Pre-Performance
Testosterone levels tend to drop during the afternoon and into the evening under normal circadian conditions. The bad news is that most competitions take place during this time. So, what can we do? It turns out that resistance training raises testosterone levels acutely, and levels remain elevated for hours. Could this positively impact performance?
A 2013 study put this to the test. A group of researchers put 14 well-trained throwers, both male and female, through a morning resistance training session to see what effect it would have on an evening power test. The session included 4 sets of 6 reps on the power clean at 35% 1RM, followed by 2 sets of 6 reps of the back squat, one set at 50% 1RM and the other at 85%, all of which counted as a warm-up. Following this, the athletes underwent a protocol of back squats to fatigue and sets of 4 reps on the power clean exercise, with a focus on moving the bar at high speed.
Four to six hours later, the throwers tested their backward overhead shot throws and vertical jumps. Compared to the control group, which did not exercise in the morning, the athletes threw the shot significantly further after their morning resistance training session. This concept was also tested in elite rugby union players with a morning session of 3RM bench presses and squats, which enhanced power and speed performance tests.
Of course, undertaking a morning resistance training bout is not always practical as it requires access to a weight room nor is it necessarily palatable to athletes and coaches, who may well be concerned about excessive fatigue pre-competition. A 2016 study examined the impact of different morning exercise regimes on subsequent afternoon performance. The different interventions were: control with no training; weights with 5 x 10 reps on the bench press at 75% 1RM and 90 seconds recovery; cycling with 6-second maximum sprints followed by 54 seconds recovery, and running 6 x 40m sprints with a full 180-degree turn halfway and 20-second recoveries after each sprint.Morning sprints can enhance sport performance later in the day. Click To Tweet
The sprinting trial enhanced subsequent sprint and vertical jump performance to the greatest extent and had the greatest effect on testosterone. The bench press protocol had similar but smaller results while the cycling protocol only enhanced vertical jump performance. The good news is that in team sport athletes at least, a morning exercise bout of sprinting can enhance later performance without needing access to a weight room.
Step 3. Warm Up Properly
While we all think we know how to warm up, research has consistently found that warm-ups need to have periods of high-intensity exercise to enhance subsequent performance. This concept was tested in Olympic level standard bob-skeleton athletes in a study published in 2013. The athletes did their normal warm-up or a more intense version of their warm-up with more emphasis on sprint drills, sprints, and shorter rest periods. The more intense trials enhanced the athletes’ performance during testing. These athletes won the last three Winter Olympic titles in the women’s events, which shows how important research like this can be.
Intensity can also enhance endurance performance. Another 2013 study recruited 11 well-trained middle distance runners and had them undertake an 800m time trial following two different warm-up protocols. In the first, the runners undertook 6 x 50m strides. In the second, they undertook 2 x 50m strides and a single 200m high-intensity run. Following the 200m sprint, the athletes were approximately 1% faster than the 800m time trial, representing an important marginal gain.
Step 4. Protect What You’ve Got
Once an athlete has warmed up, the key is to maintain these improvements while waiting for the competition to start. The majority of research in this area focuses on maintaining the increased temperature that results from the warm-up. This is important. Research suggests that one can lose two degrees Celsius of heat after 20 minutes of passive rest following the warm-up, which is enough to harm competition performance significantly.
So what can we do to keep what we’ve got? Over the past decade, a lot of research has looked into passive heat maintenance and its effectiveness at maintaining body temperature. If we go back to the bob-skeleton study, the most effective strategy was to have an intense warm-up followed by wearing a jacket lined with a survival blanket (the foil-looking blankets). This approach is also effective for team sport athletes.After the warm-up, put on clothing that will maintain your body heat until you compete. Click To Tweet
The key take home is that, just because you feel warm after the warm-up, does not mean you’ll still be warm when you compete. It’s far easier to keep the heat you have than try to warm yourself up again. After the warm-up is complete, put on clothing that will maintain your body heat.
Keep in mind that in some environments, it’s important that you’re not too hot, especially in prolonged endurance races.
When I competed in bobsleigh (bobsled), my heat maintenance strategy was very different from my strategy when competing in track and field. Even while I was still sprinting, however, it was rare that I was too hot. Most races were in the evening when it’s cooler and, as a result, I tended to overdress for the call room. Usually that meant three t-shirts and tracksuit top along with Lycra tights and jogging bottoms over my race kit. My goal was to continue to sweat throughout.
Step 5. Use PAP
Post-activation potentiation (PAP) acutely enhances a muscle group’s performance following contraction. Most commonly, this is achieved by heavy weight training. It’s perhaps best known from the myth that Ben Johnson warmed up for a World Record 100m run with sets of maximal squats just before his race.
The key to properly harnessing PAP’s performance-enhancing capabilities is ensuring there is enough time for the muscle groups to recover from the activating exercise and not to lose that effect by having too much time pass. In a 2008 study conducted with professional rugby players, researchers lead by Liam Kilduff tested the effect of different recovery periods following a PAP protocol on subsequent countermovement jump height and power. The PAP protocol was 3 x 3 back squats at 87% 1RM.
Unsurprisingly, after a 15-second recovery, vertical jump performance decreased and then recovered significantly by the 8-minute mark. At this point, the players’ vertical jump increased by almost 5%. This improvement wasn’t as prevalent at the 4- and 12-minute marks and almost entirely disappeared by the 16-minute mark, suggesting that the effects of PAP are short-lived. Similar results were reported in elite swimmers.
These findings, however, are likely specific to the subjects and protocols, as other studies have reported different optimal time frames. For example, Gilbert and colleagues used 5 x 1 at 100% 1RM back squats and found that it took 15 minutes before the rate of force development (RFD) was enhanced. Until the 15-minute mark was reached, RFD was actually harmed. Conversely, Gullich and Schmidtbleicher used an isometric leg press as a PAP stimulus, finding that RFD was enhanced after 3 minutes.
Just how practical is all of this? We run into the same problems seen with morning priming sessions—it can be impractical to carry out heavy back squats very close to a race, especially 8 minutes before the race. And I’ve never been in a call room that had a squat rack. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a heavy resistance exercise. A plyometric stimulus (3 x 10 alternate leg bounds) was effective compared to no PAP stimulus after 4 minutes, although this effect was lost by the 8-minute point.
The effects of PAP can be transient and difficult to judge correctly, which means they can negatively impact performance. Many methods are also impractical. Anecdotally, however, I know a lot of sprinters who do some explosive jumping activity in the call room. I also know that many bobsleigh athletes use band-resisted vertical jumps before competition. Whether these exercises have any physiological effect, or whether it’s psychological, is open to speculation. There is perhaps enough research to suggest trying out some form of plyometrics during training to see if it affects sprint performance before attempting it during competition.
The Role of the Coach
Many of the recommendations I’ve made in this article address the athletes because after all, they are the ones who have to go out and perform. However, the behavior of the coach and the setting of the environment in which athletes find themselves can also impact competition performance.
Returning briefly to testosterone, you’ll recall that watching motivational video clips can increase testosterone and hence performance. The environment in which an athlete views these clips can also impact the testosterone response. If positive coach feedback follows the clips, the hormonal response is more favorable than when the coach gives negative feedback (or when athletes motivate themselves).Positive feedback enhances testosterone far greater than negative feedback. Click To Tweet
This is also true for post-game coach feedback, which can set the hormonal scene for subsequent competition performance. Again, positive feedback enhances testosterone to a far greater extent than negative feedback as does watching post-match videos with friends as opposed to strangers. I suggest the athletes feel less threatened in these situations.
While the advantages of pre-competition priming, heat maintenance, and PAP are well established and replicated, some unanswered questions remain. For individual, short-duration sport athletes whose competition is often continuous, the effects are clear and obvious—a loss of heat in the period between warm-up and competition can harm physical and hence competition performance. The steps outlined in this article will doubtlessly be beneficial.
When it comes to intermittent team sport activities, however, or more prolonged activities, the impact is less clear. Although elite team sport players may exhibit reduced workloads in the first 10 minutes of each half of a match, it isn’t clear what effect offsetting this reduction would have. For example, if priming and heat maintenance enhances player performance in the first 10 minutes of the match, what is the subsequent cost? Does the player use more energy and fatigue quicker, and does this reduce total distance covered later in the match? Or do priming and heat maintenance enhance match performance in the first 10 minutes without any subsequent loss of performance?
We just don’t know, but it’s important to consider. We don’t necessarily want to put a lot of effort into enhancing performance early in the match if it harms performance later in the match. If subsequent performance reduction does occur, coaches could plan for it. They might select the three players who they plan on substituting within the match and prime them pre-match, so their subsequent workload is higher, allowing them to “leave more on the pitch.”
Pulling This All Together
The key takeaway from all of this research is that we can enhance our performance on competition day by making small changes. It’s also important to be highly pragmatic in these circumstances. For example, if an athlete gets stressed out because they are unable to find facilities to do their morning priming session, the overall effect is negative. That said, we can make some suggestions for competition day that may well enhance performance:
- About 6 hours before the competition, consider undertaking some form of priming exercise. For throwers and team sport, some heavy resistance training may be appropriate if facilities are available. For sprinters and runners, a warm-up that includes some form of intense exercise should work. Be sure to practice this outside of the big competitions before you use it.
- Roughly 2-3 hours before competition, have the athletes watch a motivational video. If they load this on a portable device like a smartphone, it can be watched immediately before entering the call room.
- If the athlete hasn’t slept well (and even if they have), consider using caffeine. For most people, a dose of caffeine 60 minutes before the competition starts is ideal, although there will be considerable individual variation. For prolonged events, take the caffeine dose closer to or during the competition.
- Make sure your warm-up follows a progressive intensity model, and include some very high-intensity efforts at the end.
- Use passive heat maintenance techniques to maintain muscle temperature between the end of the warm-up and the start of the competition.
- Consider utilizing PAP as a sharpener very close (~10 minutes) to competition. For athletes in a call room, this may be a series of vertical jumps. Don’t do this too close to the race, and experiment in training first.
By heeding this advice, athletes hopefully will be able to unlock the final 1-2% of their performance that’s often left on the table following an inadequate pre-race preparation. As always, experiment, find out what works for you, and then unleash it on the world.