Exclusive Interview: Dr. Max Testa
We recently talked to Dr. Massimo Testa, the famed cycling doctor about his career, love of cycling, and how training methods have evolved over the years. Dr. Testa was involved with the early successes of many American riders, including Andy Hampsten’s Giro victory in 1988, and Lance Armstrong’s World Championship win in 1993. Today he lives in California and works with Dr. Eric Heiden at the UC Davis Sports Performance Lab, and also provides testing, personalized training and a wealth of knowledge to riders of all levels at Bruce Hendler’s AthletiCamps.
1. Dr. Testa, what motivated you to become a doctor and how did you get your start in cycling?
MS – I really enjoy working with people. I grew up playing soccer and skiing and really enjoyed those sports. In 1981, as I was finishing medical school, I was testing cyclists like Giuseppe Sarronni and Moreno Argentin and did my thesis in this area of physiological testing. In 1985, I met Jim Ochowicz and Mike Neel as part of the 7-11 squads. They had come to be the first American team in the Giro and saw an opportunity to become their doctor, as they needed one. I did a lot of things for them, including coaching, team doctor, and nutrition. This is where it all truly began.
2. What do you find most enjoyable about the job?
MS – Initially, in my early career, it was the travel and watching the bike races. Now, I love working with a mix of athletes including beginning bike racers, Masters, triathletes and professionals, all of which we get at the camps. I truly enjoy the physiological and biomechanical testing of the athletes and the opportunity to make them better. Every level offers a different challenge.
3. What transpired that prompted your move from Europe to the US?
MS – Initially I met Eric (Heiden) when he was racing as a professional for 7-11 in Europe. As you now, he is now an orthopedic surgeon. We decided to create a Sports Performance clinic here in Sacramento. The camps allow us to test many athletes. My wife is also American and we like that our two children are here in the States learning English and the American culture.
4. What are your long term goals here?
MS – Our goal is to create one of the top sports performance clinics for endurance athletes in the world and have AthletiCamps become one of the primary vehicles for getting clients thru the sports performance program.
5. What are the major differences between cyclists here and in Europe?
MS – Athletes train harder here in the states and from a physiological standpoint, have a higher Max VO2. In Europe, cyclist have better skills because they usually start earlier in life.
6. A lot of the time, people will take a great rider, like Greg Lemond or Lance Armstrong and describe one characteristic which they think make them great (I.e. he has a high max VO2 or a naturally high hematocrit or testosterone level). Is there really one component that makes a great endurance athlete, and what if an individual does not possess this component?
MT – Of course, there are a lot of factors, too many to discuss. If I had to choose, the minimum qualification would be a rider’s power OUTPUT at THE anaerobic threshold and the Max VO2, the amount of oxygen they can process. But then other factors like focus, training program and motivation come into play.
7. With amateur athletes, what should they pay most attention to for improvement?
MT – That’s difficult to say. Improvement comes from a variety of areas, but in order to improve, getting the testing done is probably the most important, because from a physical standpoint, it is the benchmark or starting point.
8. Can you compare/ contrast popular training methods of 10-20 years ago vs. your methods for today?
MT – Yes, now quality is the focus and periodization, while years ago, riders focused more on quantity and had the same program much of the year. Twenty years ago the training intensity was not a big issue. Cyclists were training focusing on the volume (distance). Training format was not individualized; often they were training in a group, following what the successful athletes were doing. Now we focus more on the individualization of training. What works for me doesn’t necessarily works well for you. Intensities are determined on the basis of a test, not of a general formula. Training loads are modulated.
9. How has physiological and biomechanical testing changed the sport?
MT – It has allowed athletes to customize their training more for themselves. For example, I mentioned intensity. Formulas like 220-age to assess hrmax, for example, only have statistical value, but are not applicable to individuals. Hrmax differences are very big within people of the same age. Using a fixed percentage of the hrmax to assess the different training zones is also inaccurate, since 2 athletes with the same hrmax can have a pretty significant difference of lactate level at the same fraction of their hrmax. The testing helps us determine the best program for improvement. It can also help determine what type of “engine” you have and how to improve your weaknesses.
10. What do you think are the main reasons behind the growing interest in more sophisticated and scientific methods of training? How did these reasons evolve?
MT – I think riders just want to improve. Everyone I have seen at the camps have that common goal. Athletes in the master groups often have busy schedules, so they want to optimize their time. Testing gives each person a snapshot of their fitness, thus allowing improvement.
11. You do a lot of work with Athleticamps, why are the camps so important?
MT – Camps are important for a variety of reasons. There is no one specific thing that helps you make improvement as an athlete. It is a lot of little things. The camps offer this to the riders. First and foremost is the testing, but it does not stop there. It is just as important to take the individual results and apply them to a good solid training program with a good coach. Then add other components like nutrition and sports psychology. The camps give athletes the opportunity to be exposed to these components and to improve based on their personal goals and physiology.
12. There is a belief among many riders that to be successful, on has to start training at a young age, we see many teens racing in Europe as proof. As training methods become more evolved, is it possible to take up a sport like cycling later in life and still reach a level to compete at the top? Is there an ideal age to take up a cycling with the intention of reaching the highest level?
MT – From a skill point of view, starting younger is more advantage, but there are also drawbacks. When starting young of course, you risk burnout and loss of motivation. My suggestion is to expose young athletes to a variety of sports. Maybe a guideline is to get them riding around 8 years old, along with the other activities, then start competition at age 14. But the important thing to remember is if an athlete has motivation, they can improve at any age, no matter when they begin.
13. Perhaps the biggest problem facing cycling and all high level sports today is the use of banned or “unnatural” substances to increase performance. In your experience, is it possible to continue to reach higher levels of output and performance without using such substances?
MT – Yes it is possible, through a disciplined and dedicated training program. Unbelievable amounts of fitness can be attained by training hard and a well focused mind.
14. What else can be done to reduce the temptation of riders, both young and established – from using banned substances?
MT – Like I mentioned before, I believe that a good program and motivation can make a rider great, but we can only preach this so much. In the end it’s up to each athlete and their motivation.
15. What is your most memorable moment in all the years you have been involved in the highest level of the sport?
MT – There are actually two. The first is when Andy Hampsten won the Tour of Italy. It was a small team and I was the only doctor, so I got a lot of satisfaction from them. The second is when Lance Armstrong won the World Championships in 1993. I was there – it was quite the special moment for the team.
PCN – Thanks for talking with us!
If you want to visit and work with Dr. Testa at Athleticamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com