Recently I had an interesting conversation with a coach at the club and I would like to share my thoughts, experiences and what current research suggests on the physical development of athletes, the influence calories have on muscular development and body mass and topics surrounding this matter such as resistance training and genetic factors and what method/s and approaches are best to avoid unwanted body mass.
I would argue all specific improvements in performance, that are accompanied by muscle mass are essential.
There is a point when an athlete can get too heavy and also when they get too light.
These often occur around injuries/ inactivity which is where a caloric imbalance occurs over a period of time.
Obviously, I have to have a disclaimer for the following article as I am not a registered dietitian. I am NOT a doctor or a registered dietitian. … I do not provide medical aid or nutrition advice for the purpose of health or disease nor do I claim to be a doctor or dietitian. Any product recommendation is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
However, if you are interested in hearing from a legit doctor with a history of experience in health and nutrition, please check out this video from my good friend Dr. Jean Phillipe Wahlin on staying fit and healthy during the lockdown
Physical development through resistance training.
The conversation I had earlier this week was around how much mass would an athlete build through resistance training and should we be worried about them getting too big. This is something I’ve heard a lot over the years, clients and some athletes would tell me they avoid lifting weights because they get too big too quickly.
This is a great topic because it has affected me in many ways, personally and having had experience working with athletes in sports with weight classes and clients who have worked to cut weight for performances in bodybuilding, as everything there is an optimal weight range for performance.
Many of my clients would cut weight intentionally, either via fat trying to lose as little muscle a possible and sometimes taking even more drastic measures of cutting water which the body really doesn’t enjoy.
Even when I would pole vault, I had experimented with a long term calorie deficits to reduce my body weight so that the stiffness of the pole would give me a greater height. Needless to say I performed fairly well to begin with. Once I had passed that optimal range, I lost a lot of power and my energy levels were, like my food bill, very low. I had dropped from 84kg, to 78kg where I had jumped a PB and then ended up at 74kg about 4-5 months later where I intentionally stopped lifting weights, only did plyometrics, sprinting and fasted throughout the day.
What I have concluded before moving on, is that as long as the training is correct for the athletes goals and their workload is sufficient and they consume their calories as fuel, rather than overfeeding or fasting, I don’t believe they need to worry about their weight.
Generally top athletes in sprinting and running events are aware of their race weight and as they come into season, their programmes shift from the weight room, which causes a small suppression in their appetites and as a result consume less calories as they sharpen up.
The issue of gaining ineffective mass in sprinting, running or jumping comes in two ways. Either the resistance programme happens to have too much volume (sessions, reps, sets) happens to be too great, usually an athlete ends up indirectly bodybuilding causing sarcoplastic hypertrophy and secondly eating too much, which I mentioned before can come from an increased appetite from greater exposure to resistance training or from reduced workload, usually unintentionally via injury, where appetite levels are generally the same, often higher due to the short term stress and depression which causes a calorie surplus, which causes excessive weight gain, which I will explain later, with suggestions for athletes to keep exercises through their injury.
So with that being said if an athlete trains appropriately with evidence based resistance training methods that have rep ranges and sets to promote power and speed along side their track sessions and eats sensibly, the differences in the amount of muscle mass gained from athlete to athlete will vary based on their genetic potential and I wouldn’t attempt to control this factor but rather, control the controllable.
Some athletes are big cats and others are small cats, the big cats will find it easier to grow and be able to move effectively with that mass.
Finally, as distances progress further athletes are collectively lighter and the further or higher an athlete needs to jump, it becomes harder to achieve those distances with additional mass, which is why athlete profiling works very well.
I have known very heavy plyometric track athlete transfer from track and field to bobsleigh with great success.
Fuel/Calories, creating a surplus and deficits.
Our body composition is primarily influenced by the exercise and activity levels we are exposed to throughout our lives and our relationship with calories be it through a source of fuel or storage. Our genetics do play a factor however we can influence our genetics to a degree through these two factors but our underlying genetic code is pretty much set.
Without going into too much detail, because it gets really complicated and I’ve forgotten more than I can remember, calories act as fuel, if the fuel is not burned up by the body, it will be stored as adipose tissue or fat. These calories come in the roles of macronutrients, fats have the highest calories if 9 per gram, then carbohydrates and protein are both 4 calories per gram, but bare in mind this isn’t a reason to avoid fats all together.
So now I have defined calories and the macronutrients that provide fuel for the body, this covers, very briefly the energy intake, now I will breakdown the energy expenditure from the body, which has more categories, but still, to the core just as complex.
Though I studied a module on nutrition and it covered calorie expenditure, my experience in measuring what would be our Total Daily Energy Expenditure really came from taking part in a study that my friend, JP (referenced above) was researching, I have taken part in two of studies he has been involved with and both were feeding studies, one where I was at rest in a bed for 36 hours, having muscle biopsys taken from my quads and another which was an overfeeding study where I was to consume 50% extra calories over my TDEE, everyday for a week.
I had previously been in a calorie deficit so my TDEE at the time was nearly 4500kcals, I didn’t drive and I would train for 3 hours most days. This meant I had to consume an extra 2250 calories each day for that week, putting me at 6750 calories. However, I couldn’t fill this super calorie dense foods Coca-Cola or chocolate, it had to be what my normal diet was, but with 50% extra on the plate.
Our Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the total amount of calories we burn everyday. This is made up of Physical activity, our BMR (basal metabolic rate), measured through gas analysis, or you can use the RMR (resting metabolic rate) which uses an equation of height age, sex and weight to predict the calories you would burn if you were to lay in all day at rest to maintain basic bodily functions and finally, DIT (dietary induced thermogenisis), which is the amount of calories burned via digestion, this is not to be confused by the number of calories per gram mentioned above.
If you’re interested in calculated an estimated TDEE out of curiosity here is a pretty good source. https://goodcalculators.com/tdee-bmr-calculator/
Counteracting a calorie surplus
As I mentioned above, if an athlete cannot perform regular exercise/ training, their calorie expenditure drops significantly. Which can cause less than desirable effects for their sport when they return.If you’re interested in reading the study I was a participant in , it was a follow up study funded by a disability research group at the University of Bath, which measured the effects of inactivity in patients with spinal cord injuries to further understand the relationship to weight gain and if there were any successful methods to counteract this problem.
Calorie deficits and negative effects on performance
As for creating a calorie deficit and the negative effects on performance, I would like to invite you to the story of Mary Cain, if you’re not already familiar with her, she was one of the fastest female runners in America and when she joined Project Oregon, coached under the infamous Alberto Salazar, she was encouraged to lose more and more weight, entering a calorie deficit and as she kept losing weight, her performance significantly deteriorated.
When it comes to developing athletes and getting them stronger, I recommend benchmarks for strength to body weight ratios, which can found in previous article, Strength & Conditioning, what is strong enough? http://www.bristolandwestac.org/2020/04/06/strength-conditioning-part-4-what-is-strong-enough/
If an athletes track/running sessions are progressive and consistent and they consume their calories sensibly, I wouldn’t worry about excessive weight gain, these ‘controllable’ measures of keeping calorie expenditure high would mean that any mass built should be efficient to their event and their sport.
Restricting calories for athletes who are already performing well will very likely end badly and might perhaps give them an unhealthy relationship with food.
As for athlete who are injured, frequent, intense exercise avoiding damage to the injured site will combat the possible negative effects on body composition and will help them return to their previous state of fitness/ performance faster.
As the majority of injuries in sprinting, jumping occur within the lower extremities, could include stationary bike sessions, isometric holds, core circuits and upper body, but would need to be performed daily at high intensities to burn a decent amount of calories.