Stress and Championship Swim Meets

Championship season brings a whole new environment for swimmers.  One important question is how does the body respond differently to the stress of a championship event and the pressure building up to the event?  Any competitor knows that championships feel different.  Championships even look different with more people in the stands and maybe some TV cameras present.  But what’s really going on inside the body when we step behind the blocks for a championship race?

Alan Goldberg describes what happens when we succumb to mental demons under the pressure of key races…..

First, your level of NERVOUSNESS will INCREASE. Second, when you get nervous, your MUSCLE TENSION will automatically INCREASE. Third, the amount of NEGATIVE THINKING and SELF-DOUBTS bopping around inside your cranium will increase. And Fourth, when you're flooded with negativity and doubts, your SELF-CONFIDENCE will DO A NOSE DIVE!!!! And finally, and a result of all of these above, your RACE PERFORMANCE will go down the proverbial tubes!!!!

Fortunately, with sound mental strategies such as ones taught by Dr. Goldberg, swimmers can overcome the mental demons and have the best chance of swimming to their potentials.  On the other hand, many other swimmers bring the right mindset to championship season but find their bodies betraying them at the worst possible time due to illness or injury.  Far too many swimmers find themselves nursing colds or more serious maladies despite hitting all their practice goal times and having a successful pre-championship season.   Often the trigger into illness or poor performance is a misunderstanding of stress management before and during big competitions. 


Moreira (2013) studied elite male volleyball players and compared various stress markers between a regular season match and a championship match.  Markers included rating of perceived exertion (RPE), salivary cortisol (SC), and salivary immunoglobulin (SIgA).  Results indicated higher stress in the championship match, as indicated by greater RPE, increased SC, and reduced SIgA. In other words, tasks seemed harder, overall stress was elevated, and immunity decreased. Filaire (2001) found similar results with judo athletes, noting that cortisol increased at an interregional competition as compared with a regional competition.  However, immunity was not significantly affected in this study, though many theorize that immunity may be indirectly affected by changes to these other stress markers.

In short, by simply attaching more importance to any result, our stress levels increase.  Added stress also increases vulnerability to illness, injury, and poor performance. These risk factors only multiply for championships when you factor in travel, midterms, and the next phase of life for high school and college seniors and even middle schoolers heading to high school.    

A similar trend emerges in studies comparing simulated competition with actual competition.  Moreira (2012) compared simulated basketball games with actual games and found increased RPE and SC levels in young elite males, but no change in immunity.  Another Moreira (2012) study looked at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters and noted an increase in cortisol levels when comparing interregional competition (a higher level) with regional competition, but again no decrease in immunity.  Unlike other studies, RPE was not part of this analysis. 

CONCLUSION
Let’s not forget that higher stress may be a good thing when managed properly. Stress is part of the body’s fight or flight mechanisms and may stimulate career best performances.  Problems occur when stress lasts too long and when training inputs are incongruent with the body’s needs given the present stress levels. Coaches must recognize that stress is a tangible physiological phenomenon that can be harnessed for peak performance or alternatively trigger athletes into disappointment or breakdown. Though saliva samples are unrealistic for most teams, the research has validated other methods such as RPE that coaches can use to track athlete readiness during a potentially stressful championship season.    

REFERENCES

  1. Moreira ACrewther BFreitas CGArruda AFCosta ECAoki MS.  Session RPE and salivary immune-endocrine responses to simulated and official basketball matches in eliteyoung male athletes.  J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2012 Dec;52(6):682-7.
  2. Filaire ESagnol MFerrand CMaso FLac G.  Psychophysiological stress in judo athletes during competitions.  J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Jun;41(2):263-8.
  3. Moreira AFreitas CGNakamura FYDrago GDrago MAoki MS. Effect of match importance on salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin a responses in elite young volleyball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jan;27(1):202-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825183d9.
  4. Moreira AFranchini Ede Freitas CGSchultz de Arruda AFde Moura NRCosta ECAoki MS. Salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin A responses to simulated and official Jiu-Jitsu matches.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2185-91. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823b8702.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Reliability Rating of Perceived Exertion in Swimming

Athlete monitoring is critical. Swimming Science followers know we stress individualized training, whether in the water or on dryland. Two athletes can do the same workout on the same interval, hit the same times, and lift the same weights, yet have different responses physiologically. Sometimes you need different stressors for different athletes to achieve identical responses.

Modern technology provides tools to quantify effort and athlete response: heart rate monitors, heart rate variability, and lactate meters to name a few. For weights, we have numbers on the sides of the weights to indicate how much is lifted. From these we can create specific training parameters such as heart rate zones or the color system used throughout USA Swimming. Because the most complex technology comes at a price, coaches often rely on subjective measures to augment the stopwatch.

One subjective measure is Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). Formally, the most common RPE measure is the Borg Scale of 6-20, with 20 being a maximal effort and 6 being extremely light activity. Several RPE scales exist but the Borg scale long been accepted scientifically as a reliable means to measure effort, from high level athletes to recovering cardiac patients. However, because water is a foreign environment it begs the question how well does RPE hold up in aquatic sports?



Aside from questioning RPE’s validity, this topic harkens to our constantly evolving understanding of the mind-body connection. This topic is tangentially related to study of the Central Governor hypothesis, which challenges certain notions of whether exertion is limited by physiology or psychology (Check out the Swimming Science Research Review for more analysis of that topic). I don’t have the answer to that question, but the well-established relationship between RPE and actual exertion does underscore the brain-to-body connection. Our goal here is to explore whether this relationship expands into the water with competitive swimmers.

Early studies from the 1990s found correlations for swimmers using the 1-10 scale, though a 6-20 offers more detail. Ueda (1995) had seven male and ten female subjects swam at five submaximal intensities while tethered. Authors observed a linear correlation between tether resistance, VO2, heart rate, and RPE for both males and females. Conclusion: “RPE is effective as a measure of exercise intensity and can be used for exercise prescription in practical swimming.” Clearly, there was early support for the reliability of RPE in the water, but does it extend to normal, non-tethered swimming?

Wallace (2006) found significant correlations between RPE, HR, and distance covered in a series of twenty swim training sessions among twelve highly trained swimmers (6 male, 6 female). Before testing, authors mapped training zones based on blood lactate profiles and heart rate. They found significant correlations between objective measures and RPE. Interestingly, they also had coaches estimate RPE for the swimmers and found that the coaches’ RPE estimates were lower than athletes for low intensity swimming, but higher than athletes for high intensity swimming.

Psyhcarakis (2011) studied seventeen elite swimmers doing 7 x 200 test four times over six months. They found significant correlations of RPE with percentage of max heart rate (maxHR) and blood lactate levels, though the RPE to maxHR was the stronger correlation of the two. Authors confirmed that maxHR and lactate remained linked during the six months, so as not to distort any possible relationship with RPE.


Although RPE is most commonly used as a general measure, you could also apply it to specific body systems. Ueda (1993) studied ten female swimmers and asked them to assess RPE for their arms, legs, breathing and cardiac frequency at various intensities. Authors found that “RPE-cardiac frequency” was found to be the main contributing factor from 20% to 45% VO2max, but ceased to contribute beyond 50% VO2max. Above 45% VO2max, “RPE-arm” was the major influence, and “RPE-respiratory” was the secondary influence from 66% to 96% VO2max. “RPE-leg” was the secondary contributing factor only from 27% to 35% VO2max. One limitation of this study is the low intensities are inapplicable to competitive swimming, but the findings do raise interesting issues for additional exploration.

An inherent weakness of RPE is not accuracy but instead communication. Peer pressure, wanting to give the coach the answer the answer he/she is looking for, and ego may distort truthfulness. This isn’t a measurement issue; instead it’s a matter of learning how to coax the truth out of the athlete. Nonetheless, it doesn’t change the inherent reliability or unreliability of the actual number. Athlete knows the truth…whether you get it from them is a different matter…

Conclusion
None of this information should suggest we get rid of technology. Instead, given the common logistical constraints of technology, we should recognize the benefits and limitations of subjective measures even if they sometimes require interpretation. RPE remains a trusted means to assess athlete readiness, even for quantitative thinkers. Understanding individual athlete adaptation and readiness is most important for selecting current stressors for driving future adaptations.

Resources
  1. Wallace LK, Slattery KM, Coutts AJ. The ecological validity and application of the session-RPE method for quantifying training loads in swimming. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):33-8. 
  2. Psycharakis SG. A longitudinal analysis on the validity and reliability of ratings of perceived exertion for elite swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Feb;25(2):420-6. 
  3. Ueda T, Kurokawa T, Kikkawa K, Choi TH. Contribution of differentiated ratings of perceived exertion to 
  4. overall exertion in women while swimming. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1993;66(3):196-201. 
  5. Ueda T, Kurokawa T. Relationships between perceived exertion and physiological variables during swimming. Int J Sports Med. 1995 Aug;16(6):385-9. 
  6. Rushall, B. S. (1998). Better coaching from better information: Tools to increase coaching effectiveness. 
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.