How to train like an athletic world champion

Want to sprint, jump and flex like a pro? A lot of it comes down to your warm up.

With this month’s World Championships in Athletics just around the corner, we speak with sports science expert David Behm about the value of foam rolling, stretching for the win, and why Usain Bolt is more like a Ferrari and less like a Cadillac.

ResearchGate: Your paper on foam rolling was a top trending publication on ResearchGate. What’s the science behind foam rolling and what does it mean for athletes?

David Behm: You move over the foam roll to massage your own soft tissue to relieve pain and recover from exercise quicker. So as an example, we analyzed its effect on athletes’ vertical jump height - a skill needed for various sports. Those who used a foam roller before jumping weren’t affected by sore muscles from their previous workout. This meant they could maintain their jump height and work on improving it. Conversely, muscle soreness impacted the control group who weren’t using a foam roller. This affected their range of motion and muscle activation, which meant they couldn’t reach the same height as their last workout.

RG: If Cuba’s high jump champion Javier Sotomayor asked you how to best use the foam roller, what would you say?  

DB: In this study we had two 60 second sessions of foam rolling on each leg with five different exercises. Three of these five focus on the anterior thigh for 60 seconds each, and then 60 seconds each on the quads and hamstrings as well. While we only imposed this session before a workout in our study, I’d certainly suggest doing it after as well. That would help to dissipate some of the inflammation that might occur. It also may help block some of your pain responses in a neurological sense, and therefore aid in the recovery process.

RG: How does neurology fit into this?

DB: There’s a large neurological aspect to pain and recovery. Everyone (including me and my co-authors) talk about self-myofascial release in foam rolling, so you’d think by that term it’s just about tissue fibers and releasing hyper-irritable tender points. But in one study we had a massage therapist identify tender points in an athlete’s calf, and measure how many kilograms of pressure it took to reach their pain threshold. We then tried different techniques like foam rolling and massage to increase the level of pain they could handle. Interestingly, we found we just needed to roll the opposite leg to decrease the perceived pain. This seems to relate to the 1960s gate control theory whereby a painful sensation is suppressed from travelling to the central nervous system.

RG: I’ve heard you liken Usain Bolt to a Ferrari and others to a Cadillac. How, why, and can you trade one car in for the other?!
Bolt2DB: An elite athlete like Usain Bolt has to explode off the ground really quickly. He’ll typically have less than 100 milliseconds of contact time on the ground, so a stiff suspension is crucial. That’s why I liken him to a Ferrari - or even a spring or tight elastic band: when you pull it, it snaps back really quickly.  But while that’s great for performance it also puts more force on your joints and back, which isn’t great for your health. If you’re more interested in health, you want to be a Cadillac. These cars have a very soft suspension so when they hit a hole in the road they absorb the shock.

It’d be easier going from a Ferrari to a Cadillac, the other way around would be much more difficult because it’s also dependent on genetics.

RG: How much is practice and how much is genetics when it comes to speed?

DB: Speed has a very high genetic component. You’re either born with speed (lots of fast twitch fibers) or not born with speed. But for the most part, to be the best sprinter in the world you need to have a combination of good genetics and then train properly to optimize what you’ve got.

RG: The World Championships in Athletics are coming up. What’s the ideal warm up to train like a pro?

RG: Let’s look at a sprinter’s warm up as an example. You’d want to start jogging around the track for five minutes to get your heart rate up.  That’s the aerobic part of your warm up. Then you’d move onto static stretches, which are less likely to impair subsequent performance if you do less than 60 seconds for each stretch. So you could do four repetitions of 15 seconds’ worth of hamstring stretches before switching legs (and then switching legs again). Then I’d do the same thing for your quads, abductors and adductors. I’d start moving around after that and do dynamic stretches: Hip flexion and extension kicks, and abductor and adductor kicks.  And finally I’d move into a sports specific activity. If I were a hurdler I’d do some running starts then static starts, then jump over low hurdles until I move on to the regular ones. I’d take about 15 minutes to do all of that, at least.

Our latest review on stretching (to be published in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism for the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology) has shown that the few studies using this full warm up do not report performance decrements. Most static stretching studies test their subjects immediately or soon after static stretching and that is when you experience the performance impairments.

RG: Professional athletes use the same muscles, ligaments and joints in the same way, over and over, throughout their career. How can young sports stars avoid injury from overuse?

DB: My advice would be to not use the same muscles every day. Obviously they’ll have to use the same ones when they compete and carry out sport specific training, but their objective should be to use those muscles in different ways. Runners can also train on a bicycle, and resistance training can also be done in a pool. They need to preserve their muscles and not subject them to the same exact forces every day. This takes imagination.

RG: My flexibility is terrible. What’s the best and fastest way to touch my toes?

DB: I would suggest getting a partner and doing some proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. This involves stretching your target muscle by contracting the muscle opposing it, and then contracting your target muscle. If you stretch with a partner they’ll ensure you’re pushing yourself to the full range of motion and are motivated – an individual may slack off a bit on their own.

RG: What got you into this field of study?

DB: I’ve always been interested in what athletes are doing. People often think it’s the scientists who come up with all the good ideas in sports science, but quite often it’s the athletes and coaches who are more unique. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes it’s the scientist’s job to see whether the athlete’s training regime is actually effective.

Feature photo courtesy of Xinhua/Syogoc-Pool/Liao Yujie, photo of Usain Bolt courtesy of Nick Webb.