Keeping Athletes on Track in the Fast Lane! – Rosemary Daniel

 

The University of Limerick is home to many of Ireland greatest athletes across an array of sports. My job as an Applied Sports Experimental Officer with ULBEO means I’m fortunate enough to get to work with some of these elite athletes on a weekly basis providing sports science support. As a former track and field athlete it’s safe to say I gained a lot of experience and technical knowledge in the sport that I competed in for over 20+ years and this is something I try to integrate into my work. Here at the University of Limerick I deliver the athletics high performance monitoring programme. I use a revolving four week microcyle, where athletes’ perform a series of tests in the latter part of the 4th week of their training cycle (recovery week) ensuring optimal recovery and training adaptations have occurred. The battery of tests we use with our high performance track and field athletes include the following;

  1. Overhead Reverse Medball Toss
  2. Forward Medball Toss
  3. Quintuplet Bound from Standing Start (5 Bounds for Distance)
  4. 3 Hops for Distance from Standing Start (Right & Left Leg)
  5. 40m Sprint

Although the tests appear simplistic in nature (and they are) these key performance indicators are used internationally by some of the best known track and field coaches in the world. These tests are very much speed and power oriented and specific to the nature of sprinting and jumping events. Determining the athletes’ acceleration abilities, top end speed parameters and jump specific metrics are main drivers for this process and selection of our performance tests. The use of speed gates and Optojump system allows us to profile the athletes’ across a wide range of variables. Timing of athletes’ 5m splits over the 40m speed test helps us map out the acceleration profile for each athlete and also determine the time taken by the athlete to reach max velocity. This type of information helps identify strength and weaknesses in the athletes’ performance and helps tailor training programmes to address any such deficits. The Optojump system is mainly used for our plyometric tests as it provides information re: contact times, flight time, stride length and distance jumped, all of which are important technical components of elite sprinting and jumping.

This will be our third year of performance profiling and what we’ve established is the plyometric tests are most sensitive to training adaptations. Those who score well on these tests tend to have better acceleration profiles, higher maximum sprinting velocities and better jumping performances in competition. This is not surprising as the generation of propulsive forces in the horizontal plane with short ground contacts have been shown to be positively correlated with sprinting performance particularly in the acceleration phase. The selection of the quintuplet jump and hopping tests are slightly biased on my behalf.  From experience I believe these jumps are superior to counter movement jumps (CMJ) and drop jumps (DJ) as they incorporate faster ground contact times & stretch shortening cycles, assess the athletes’ reactive strength/leg stiffness and unilateral leg strength capacities while moving at high velocities which is more specific to sprinting and jumping movements. To detect true meaningful performance increments in the hopping and bounding tests requires refined technique and lots of practise to eliminate the learning effect. Very often the best sprinters and jumpers don’t have the highest CMJ or DJ tests scores but are exceptional when larger movements have to be repeated at higher velocities – like that seen in horizontal plyometric tests. The hopping tests also assess leg strength symmetry. As with all tasks athletes will have a dominant leg or arm and score better on the dominant side. However if hop distance differentials between right and left leg is outside the norm (>10% difference), this is an indication that overloading maybe occurring on one side which predisposes athletes to injury. Such observations allow timely interventions before problems present themselves.

How does our performance profiling work?

On average we test the athletes three times before Christmas (Oct – Dec period), four times between Jan – April and then very sparingly over the outdoor competition period. In an ideal world, increments in performance should occur each month as the athlete becomes better conditioned. Decrements in the performance tests can be related to insufficient recovery, athletes’ not responding to the training programme or sometimes injury/poor technical execution of the tests. Last year we were able to predict and identify three athletes two weeks out from competition who were ready to deliver big performances – all of whom secured qualifying standards for major international competitions. The information gathered to date has been a valuable tool for the coaches and athletes in terms of monitoring progress but also keeping athletes motivated particularly over the winter months when competitions are scarce. This applied work provides opportunities for our Sport and Exercise Science undergraduate and MSc students to gain experience working in the high performance sport sector. In PESS we have some exceptional PhD students who also support this work – Robin Healy (Biomechanics PhD Candidate) is one of the main collaborators on this project.

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Rosemary Daniel is the Applied Sports Experimental Officer in the department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. Rosemary can be contacted at Rosemary.Daniel@ul.ie. View Rosemary’s twitter profile @Rosie_Daniel82

 

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