Performance: Is it just the change?

As Tupac wrote. ‘…things will never be the same’

This blog has been writing itself in my head over the past 4-6 weeks after listening to Derek Evely on the HMMR media podcast. The episode titled ‘Changes’ discusses the use of change as the stimulus in training to elicit the desired outcome. Change is the process by which something transforms or becomes different to before.  As coaches, this is general what we desire. We want positive changes from our athletes, which deliver improved performance outcomes on the field, court or track.

Derek is one of the world’s most experienced track and field coaches having been mentored by Dr Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Without going too deep into Dr B’s training system, it is based upon stimulus, adaptation and then change (systematic in this instance); along with a specific exercise classification (which is another good blog to be written). Derek was discussing the process of when athletes change coach and immediately see an improved performance outcome; and people celebrate the achievement and expertise of the coach as the answer and reason the outcome was achieved. Simplistically, yes it is. However, as he went on to theorise, that perhaps it is just down to the change of stimulus; rather than the coaching. I tend to agree.

As the Einstein quote details about Insanity (doing the same thing and expecting different results…), change is necessary to push the boundaries in all fields. Specific to performance, the level of change or stimulus required to force an adaptation will be dependent on the years spent training (not level of athlete – elite athletes who are new to the sport will not require huge changes to see performance outcomes). Athletes who have been honing their craft across the better part of the decade will need a new stimulus to see improved performance outcomes; and herein lies the issue… determining what and how much to change. Referring back to earlier, I would theorise that a chaotic change would be required for elite level talent with many training years under their belt. For those who are in the infancy of their career(s), systematic change is all that is required.

Although coaches may be bias to a particular philosophy or principle of training, often a little change of structure, session content or approach to performance may be all that is required to steer the ship back on course. Change needs to sit right next to more commonly used training principles: frequency, intensity, duration, overload and accommodation. Performance coaches need to be creative with how to manipulate the change in the overall scheme of the sport structure of season.

So do not get too carried away when there is a performance spike when an athlete is using a new system. The body has been stressed in a way never experienced previously; and aside from the acute stress response, it has disrupted homeostasis enough to elicit performance gains. In a sense, the process of allostasis is in effect. Whereby, stability in the system has been achieved by way of the physiological stress applied.

The human body is a dynamic system however and will rapidly adapt to the stressors placed upon it; see the SAID principle. But staying with change, a chaotic change will cause much stress to all systems and possibly muscle and connective tissue trauma. A systematic change will be more moderate in comparison but should still be within reach of current capabilities.

So I urge you to make changes… just do not make too many, as then, you will not know the cause of the effect!

The Placebo Workout

A placebo can have a very powerful effect. In a clinical sense, a placebo (the control) and the real drug (intervention) are given to patients to determine the therapeutic effect on an illness or disease. Both patients believe they are receiving drugs which will treat their illness. The health of BOTH patients begins to improve… Why??? The placebo effect. Both patients believe the drug will help them (and one actually is). The psychological state of the other can become the cure.

Some athletes think like this also. Distance athletes believe if only they start using Lydiard’s, Cerutty or Daniel’s distance workouts it will address (cure) their weaknesses. Sprinters want to use the workouts from Francis, Mills or Smith as it will provide the golden elixir to speed they have been missing. The cultural currency which is tied to the name of the workout or the programme is the placebo. Coach X used these workouts or programmes with these athletes and achieved these results; therefore it should work for me too. It might… and also might not.

Results are multifactorial. Many ingredients are thrown in the pot, over a duration of time to achieve the best tasting soup. Cherry picking sessions and adding it to your own pot will deliver a very different tasting soup; and different results.

The power (and success) of a placebo workout/programme can often just come down to change and athlete mentality. The athlete wants it to work! They begin to make wholescale changes in their training and day-to-day lives. They eat better, go to bed earlier, have more frequent therapy. They have completely moved the goal posts. The human body is dynamic; one small change can have an immeasurable effect on homeostasis. The stimulus-stress-adaptation response from the new workout(s) may have been enough to provide a positive outcome; however the acute load may be too high and it may lead to negative results.

Good programmes from great coaches, some listed above, are built upon the foundations of strong training principles and the art of coaching. On top of this, programmes and coaches can be validated by talented athletes. The athlete may be achieving great things in spite of the training; so how much is actually the programme (see here)? As mentioned, a change (placebo) can deliver acute results in performance but these can quite often fade and stagnate. However, over time, continuity of results will be achieved and maintained due to effective manipulation of training principles and solid coaching.

Don’t be fooled by a snake oil salesman selling magical workouts or programmes. There are no quick fixes to high performance in sport. The path to high performance will always remain the same. Commitment and continuity, hard work and smart programming; along with many other factors. New programmes (placebos) are often attractive to those searching for the answers, or those who have underperformed in the previous season. However, time searching is quite often fruitless. The answer lies in the KPIs of the event. Understand what these are and work towards improving them during each session.

In the end, there are no absolutes and a placebo may improve performance. However, just know, snake oil doesn’t work and magical workouts are a fallacy.