The final day of the 3rd IAAF World Coaches Conference began with a joke.
“We will cover the science of brain endurance today,” said Gunter Lange, Senior Manager for Education at the IAAF Development Department. “If this tires your brains, we apologise.”
Neil Dallaway, a doctoral researcher in brain science at University of Birmingham, began the morning with ‘The brain as performance limiting factor: Practical consequences for science based training’, a presentation based on his research on combining physical and mental training to improve performance.
“Mental fatigue impairs performance,” Dallaway told the 150 international coaches gathered on the final day. “A mind capable of pushing the body past perceived fatigue produces a better athlete.”
He cited a study that compares two methods of athletic training. In one, an athlete simply works at their particular event. In the other, an athlete combines this event with cognitive activity to exert the mind as well.
“The paradigm,” Dallaway said, “has been to remove all mental tasks in order to enhance physical ones. Basically, runners only run.
“However, we wanted to show that performance would increase if you trained with mental tasks, and took them away during testing to lessen the load on the athlete.”
The study involved pre-testing on grip strength and running with a controlled group of physically capable subjects. Next, half the subjects would undergo six weeks of only physical training. The other half engaged their minds with word problems and psychological questions between physical exertion.
After the six weeks, Dallaway’s team measured heart rate, grip strength and force between the two groups.
“We saw a 23 percent improvement for those who combined training,” he said, “and only a five percent increase for those who didn’t.”
Many coaches proceeded to ask how they could apply these methods. Dallaway laid out three options.
“There’s the separate method,” he said, “where an athlete trains cognitively at a separate time from their physical training.
“Next is the concurrent method, where an athlete uses breaks from physical training to exert their brain, all in the same session.
“Lastly, there is the pre-fatigue method. This is where you tire out an athlete with cognitive training right before a workout, making them fight through fatigue.”
He warned that these methods have not been tested for high-intensity training at the moment. They are meant, he said, to be incorporated with low-intensity workouts.
Stefanidi and Krier discuss winning recipe
After the lecture, IAAF Vice President Sergey Bubka, the 1988 Olympic pole vault champion and six-time world champion, took the stage to moderate a panel discussion with Ekaterina Stefanidi of Greece, who added the world pole vault title to her Olympic crown last weekend, and her coach and husband Mitchell Krier.
“We highlight stars,” said Bubka, “but we need to highlight coaches. If athletes are the heroes, coaches are the treasures.”
The panel proceeded to analyse last Sunday’s pole vault final, focusing on the preparation they thought had been needed for success.
“We knew what jumps were needed ahead of time,” Krier said.
“(Eventual silver medallist) Sandi Morris made the jumps we expected, so we were able to conserve energy for higher vaults.”
Stefanidi talked about how she centers herself prior to her jumps.
“I’m chatty right before I go,” she said. “This distracts me from anxiety.
“I also can’t watch other jumpers. If they clear the bar by a lot, I get intimidated. I try to focus on myself.”
Her process led to a 4.91m leap, the second-best winning mark at an IAAF World Championship.
Stefanidi and Krier also compared European and American forms of training.
“I went to Stanford for college,” she said, graduating in 2012 as the NCAA champion. “My coach, Toby Stevenson, made us run 300 metre sprints, power-lift, and run some more. He made me a better athlete, but my body started breaking down.”
Stevenson won the silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“When I became her coach,” said Krier, “I wanted to focus on quality over quantity. We did more vaulting drills to better specific parts of the vault. We wanted her to be a better pole vaulter, not just a better athlete.”
Lange then closed the conference, thanking the hundreds of coaches who attended over the course of four days.
“Hundreds of you showed up,” he said, “which means we get to keep doing it.”
Sam Dodge for the IAAF
NOTE: Conference sessions in full can be viewed below or on IAAF Athletics, the IAAF’s official YouTube channel.