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Toolbox: Performance Testing for Effective Training

Assessments are an integral component of a well-designed training program. They can also be used to systematically track physiological changes over a period of time and make comparisons relative to the cyclist’s competitive group. Perhaps the most important purpose of assessments are to prevent overtraining and provide direction for a future training program.

By Corey Hart, M.S.

The Value of Testing
A common dilemma that cyclists face year-round is defining the focus of their training program and the determining the intensity parameters (heart rate, power) that will elicit an improvement in their fitness level. It is not wise to wait until the first race to measure improvements in fitness, nor is it wise to rely solely on subjective judgments about fitness changes on the local group rides.

All athletes need to understand the value of assessing the effectiveness of their training and how a proper analysis can be used to improve training and performance. Should a cyclist focus on more base hours, threshold work, VO2max intervals, sprint, force, or anaerobic endurance? Assessments will answer these important questions. Let’s try to understand and look at the basics of performance testing as it applies to your training program, so you the athlete can benefit from its availability.

Field or Lab Tests?
Assessments can be done in the laboratory or in the field. Laboratory tests assess the metabolic response to exercise, the physiological maturation or metabolic fitness of an individual, and determine genetic capacities. Laboratory tests provide the advantage of a controlled environment that can be standardized and repeated. The disadvantages of lab tests are that they do not predict performance beyond a 40K time trial or one hour effort (Bishop et al., 1998; Coyle et al., 1991; Jeukendrup et al., 2000; Kenefick et al., 2002; Nichols et al., 1997; Padilla et al., 1999), the physiological response is protocol dependent, the results may be affected by the experience of the athlete and clinician, and the interpretation of the results are very dependent upon the knowledge level of the clinician.

Field tests, using a power meter (or power-based variables) and heart rate, assess the functional parameters that are associated with specific distances or time-based measures. The major disadvantage of field tests is that they do not assess the metabolic response beyond heart rate. Also, environmental variables (e.g., temperature, wind) can play a huge influence in the actual numbers obtained in the field. Numerous laboratory protocols have been validated in peer-reviewed research journals over the past 30 years, but relatively little research has been validated for field testing protocols.

VO2max Testing
Until the recent advent of power monitors, one of the main tests every cyclist craved in the lab was their VO2max, or their maximal oxygen uptake. This is typically expressed relative to body mass, or something like 60 ml/kg/min. However, the popularity of VO2max testing has declined somewhat with the ready availability of power monitors and the increased popularity of field tests.

Although VO2max is not a good predictor of performance, it does determine whether a rider is increasing their genetic capacity year to year. This assessment is critical for the development of a rider who may desire to turn pro or for juniors. Once the VO2max begins to plateau from year-to-year, the rider has maximized the genetic ceiling. It’s very rare to see a professional riders in the Pro Tour with a VO2max lower than 72 ml/kg/min (Jeukendrup et al., 2000). Thus, if a rider is hitting no higher than 60 ml/kg/min, they would best aspire for the state time trial championship rather than the world championship.

Lactate Testing
As mentioned previously, the primary advantage of laboratory tests is the ability to understand the metabolic response associated with increasing workloads. The key to this is determining the wattage or power output at the lactate threshold, the point where the production of lactate within the muscles is greater than the body’s ability to dissipate or metabolize it. This results in an increase in blood lactate, typically measured by a prick of blood from the finger or the ear lobe. The two key parameters of interests are:

Lactate Threshold or LT: the wattage at which lactate production becomes greater than lactate removal, resulting in a rise in blood lactate values. This is roughly similar to your “tempo” intensity, when you are gunning it but below your 30 min time trial pace.

Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation or OBLA: the wattage at which lactate production reaches 4.0 mmol/L in the blood. The value of 4.0 is an arbitrary standard adopted by scientists, as this is roughly analogous to your 20-30 min time trial pace.

Lactate tests are primarily done in the lab. However, with portable lactate analyzers now commonplace, it is possible to do this test in the field (or velodrome) by having the athlete ride a set circuit at different speeds or wattages and then take blood samples. Obviously, the goal with endurance sports is to keep raising the wattage at which you hit LT or OBLA, both over the course of a season and over multiple seasons.

Testing protocols for lactate thresholds rely on the body “stabilizing” at each workload, as it takes about 3-4 min for heart rate and blood lactate to level off. Therefore, for somebody with a threshold level of about 250 W, a typical workload progression might start at an easy workload (e.g., 150 W, easy but not complete slacking) through to 300 W or so.


Figure 1: A comparison of an amateur rider (body mass of 75 kg) and a professional US domestic rider (75 kg). The professional rider maintains a lower blood lactate concentrations for higher wattages, which results in an increased functional performance capacity.

Field Tests
In the past, anaerobic capacity or anaerobic power was measured in the lab with a Wingate test. However, the wide-spread availability of power meters such as the SRM or Power Tap have permitted measures of more functional power outputs associated with the anaerobic capacity and performance sprint capability. Andy Coggan and his collaborators have developed a “power profile”, which allows a relative comparison of mean maximal power (MMP) outputs for durations of five seconds, one minute, 10 minutes, and the functional threshold (20 minutes). However, the profile is limited by the inability to determine the metabolic characteristics associated with each MMP, which can be very useful in determining why any single MMP may not show improvements after a training or racing phase.

Assessments of power above the LT and OBLA are best measured in the field with the use of a power meter, as this more closely matches the intensity of critical points in racing. A field measurement can also determine the time to fatigue for the power output or heart rate associated with the metabolic threshold. Power meters can also describe the intensity characteristics of racing (Ebert et al, 2005, Vogt et al., 2006).

When to Test?
The key to testing for long term benefits is that the tests themselves are as similar as possible in terms of tapering, time of season, etc. This is made more complex with field tests throughout the season due to different weather conditions. If done in a lab, ideally it is with the same test protocol done on the same equipment by the same technician.

The number one time of the year for a full slate of tests (including not just physiological and performance tests, but also medical, body composition, etc.) is at the end of the competition season before you spend significant down-time from the bike and regular training. You want to see what you are like at the peak of your abilities!

Beyond that peak test, ideally a rider should be tested in the lab at the beginning of their training after coming off their seasonal break as a measure of the year-to-year residual fitness. The assessment should consist of a VO2max test and a blood lactate assessment, preferably in combination with metabolic gas measurements. The combination of testing at your peak and then following the off-season rest gives you an indication of your potential growth for the coming year.

Throughout the season, periodic lactate and field testing can be done to give you understanding of how your body is responding to training loads. Lactate threshold should be reassessed after 8-12 weeks, or roughly the latter phase of your base training, to determine whether they are on the right track with your training program. Another lactate test might be useful during your race preparation phase, to ensure that your aerobic capacity is not dropping due to the heavy focus on high intensity work. At the same time, field tests should be implemented every 4-6 weeks throughout the season to assess progression and to complement the lab tests.

Summary
The take-home message is that assessments are necessary to train effectively. Protocol design and a proper diagnostic analysis are critical to apply the results to appropriate training. Lab assessments provide the most controlled environment to assess aerobic fitness, while field assessments determine the functional use of the metabolic response measured in the lab. A combination of lab and field tests should be implemented into every cyclists training program, regardless of ability or competitive level.

References:

Bishop, D., Jenkins, D.G. and Mackinnon, L.T. (1998). The relationship between plasma lactate parameters, Wpeak and 1-h cycling performance in women. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Vol. 30, pgs. 1270-1275.

Brooks, G.A. (2000). Intra- and extra-cellular lactate shuttles. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 32(4):790-9.

Coyle, E.F., Coggan, A.R., Hopper, M.K. and Walters, T.J. (1988). Determinants of endurance in well-trained cyclists. J Appl Physiol. Vol. 64, pgs. 2622-2630.

Coyle, E.F., Feltner, M.E., Kautz, S.A., Hamilton, M.T., Montain, S.J., Baylor, A.M., Abraham, L.D. and Petrek, G.W. (1991). Physiological and biomechanical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Vol. 23, pgs. 93-107.

Ebert, T.R., Martin, D.T., McDonald, W., Victor, J., Plummer, J. and Withers, R.T. (2005). Power output during women’s World Cup road cycle racing. Eur J Appl Physiol. Vol. 95, pgs. 529-536.

Gladden, L.B. (2001). Lactic acid: New roles in a new millennium. PNAS. 9(2)395-397

Jeukendrup, A.E., Craig, N.P. and Hawley, J.A. (2000). The bioenergetics of world class cycling. J of Sci and Med in Sport. Vol. 3, pgs. 414-433.

Kenefick, R.W., Mattern, C.O., Mahood, N.V. and Quinn, T.J. (2002). Physiological variables at lactate threshold under-represent cycling time-trial intensity. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. Vol. 42, pgs. 396-402.

Nichols, J.F.J., Phares, S.L. and Buono, M.J. (1997). Relationship between blood lactate response to exercise and endurance performance in competitive female master cyclists. Int J Sports Med. Vol. 18, pgs. 458-463.

Padilla, S., Mujika, I., Orbananos, J. and Angulo, F. (2000). Exercise intensity during competition time trials in professional road cycling. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Vol. 32, pgs. 850-856.

Stockhausen et al.(1997). Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 76(4):295-301.

Vogt et al. (2006). Med Sci Sports Exercise. 38(1):147-51.


About Corey
Corey Hart M.S. is an AthletiCamps Senior Level Coach and Exercise Physiologist. To contact Corey, visit the AthletiCamps website at www.athleticamps.com.

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