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Lab testing for cyclists

Lab_test_ladyHow can the sport scientist help?

With the emergence of human civilizations came an interest in the importance and benefits of exercise.  Over 2000 years ago, Greek physicians wrote about the importance of proper nutrition on exercise performance.  Indeed, the first known written definition of exercise came from the Greek physician Galen (AD 131-201), who also wrote about the effects of exercise intensity, metabolism, and specificity of training on function. Over the centuries as medical research and technology has developed, so has research into the effects of exercise on the structure and function of the body.  In 1891 the first formal exercise physiology laboratory and accompanying university degree began at Harvard University in the USA. Since then the field of sport science has developed rapidly, with an ever growing number of athletes and their coaches looking to this discipline to unlock performance potential.

It is not uncommon for many athletes under the programme of a sport’s governing body to have both a coach and sport scientist informing preparation. The two roles can have a great deal of overlap, and indeed, some sport scientists hold the responsibility of the coach role too (you only have to look at British Cycling’s staffing to see this in practise). However, if we were to draw a distinction, the sport scientist is responsible for first profiling the athlete, and then, for piecing together what science can be brought to the situation to help maximise performance: whether this be training, nutrition, or performance strategies. The coach on the other hand is likely to be the provider of the training programme, and works with the athlete on a day to day basis. Normally, the sport scientist informs the athlete via the coach, helping with interpretation of training and performance data.

Performance testing

With the advent of power measuring devices, monitoring of progression on a regular basis is more easily done. The sport scientist and coach can look at training rides, tracking changes in heart rate alongside power output on a week by week basis. The field of sport science has been integral in developing performance trials, assessing how robust these measures are in truly tracking endurance fitness. For instance, asking a rider to perform ‘time trial’ efforts out on the road, with either a fixed distance or fixed time goal, provides a power profile, giving the coach parameters such as the ‘Functional Threshold Power’, ‘Critical Power’, and ‘Maximal Minute Power’. We will return to these tests another time, but for now, it is enough to understand that field testing does play an important part in an athlete’s training. Why? Since it allows updating of training intensities and also reassurance that the athlete’s training IS bringing about the desired changes in fitness.

What does laboratory testing bring beyond testing in the field?

Exercise testing in the laboratory brings an added dimension to the athlete’s preparation. Whether an elite athlete looking to shave seconds off a time or an amateur athlete who wants to set a new personal best, laboratory testing provides an in-depth look at how the body is functioning and adapting to the training regime.  Traditional coaching methods can look at performance outcomes such as time, power, distance etc.  However, this information does not explain the WHY behind achieving a certain performance – the science can measure both the input and output of the system.  Using sophisticated equipment and scientific methods, the sport scientist can evaluate the body’s physiological response to different stress levels under controlled conditions.  The ability of the body to perform any work depends on the precise coordination and efficient functioning of many internal (physiological) systems.  The body has the amazing ability to adapt very specifically to the stresses it endures.  As an athlete trains for a specific action or group of actions the body’s physiology will adapt, so that with time, the body can produce the greatest amount of work with the least amount of energy.  Although performance trials can track an athlete’s fitness changes, the only way to fully determine how the body is functioning internally is to conduct certain scientific tests in the laboratory.

Routine measures of physiology include those of oxygen uptake, ventilation, heart rate, blood lactate and glucose concentrations, oxygen saturation, and body temperature. These measures help the sport scientist evaluate the degree of stress the body is under: tracking how they change at set intensities (power in the case of cycling) can help inform the training process.

What are the direct benefits to the athlete and coach?

Visiting a sport science laboratory can be seen as a considerable investment, both in time and money. However, a thorough profiling of an athlete can bring greater performance gains compared to expensive equipment, at less than half the price! Here are some of the reasons to visit a sport scientist:

1. Setting training zones

Measuring aspects of an athlete’s physiology (such as oxygen utilization, blood lactate and oxygen saturation) over a range of exercise intensities allows an in-depth profile of the athlete’s fitness and ability. From this, more precise training zones can be deciphered, optimising the training stimulus presented. Setting of training zones relative to known ‘landmarks’ (such as the lactate threshold - LT, maximum oxygen uptake, VO2max) ensure the athlete targets the right physiology and achieves adequate overload. Quantification of training in this way also helps the coach and athlete safeguard against inappropriate loading and risks of overtraining. You can read more in our factsheet entitled the physiological basis of the training zones

2. Profiling of strengths and weaknesses

Analysis from data collected in the lab then allows a more precise and individualized training program to be developed, based on current physiology, and relative strengths / weaknesses. For example, from tests capturing the lactate threshold and VO2max, it is possible to see where these landmarks lie in relation to one another: an LT at a low percentage of VO2max might suggest the athlete needs more time training with quality endurance work.

3. Monitoring progression.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of regular lab testing is that the data collected allows the coach and athlete to monitor progression and accurately time peak race performance during the competitive season.  The physiological landmarks will move with training, so re-evaluation of training zones over time ensures optimal stimulus and adaptation.

4. Performance prediction.

Research in sport science has shown that laboratory testing is accurate in predicting race performance for endurance events1,2. As such, laboratory testing could be utilised to identify the type of event/distance for which an athlete is most suited and will be most successful. For example, a high second-threshold would indicate a good potential in time trialling, while a good maximal oxygen uptake could point more to individual pursuit ability on the track.

5. Develop pacing strategies.

With certain physiological landmarks correlating well to performance of a certain duration (for example, the ‘Maximal Lactate Steady State’ reflects the highest power sustainable for  an hour3), the sport scientist can advise the athlete on the most appropriate use of power output in a race: it isn’t simply about getting to a power and sitting there for an hour! With fluctuations in terrain and environmental factors such as headwind, knowledge of the power outputs sustainable for shorter periods whilst still allowing recovery enable pacing strategies to a very fine level of detail to be developed. Not all Watts are created equal!

6. Motivational aid.

As an athlete, seeing improvement is critical to help reinforce the training process. The job of a coach is made a lot easier if the athlete understands the rationale behind each training session, and that those sessions when joined together, have given an improvement. Certainly, measurement of the physiology in the lab also provides a level of detail that may not be picked up in performance trials out on the road. For example, oxygen cost at a particular power output (cycling efficiency) may change by 1% with a training intervention: only laboratory protocols and measurements are sensitive enough to pick up on this improvement. This tells us the training IS working, and merits continuing.

7. Helping inform nutritional strategies.

Proper nutrition is vital for optimal sports performance.  Lab testing allows analysis of the metabolic rate and accurate monitoring of energy expenditure. Again, taking the example of measuring oxygen uptake: from this data we can calculate not only the rate of energy expenditure, but also what percentage is given from carbohydrates and fats. This information can then be used to develop a nutritional program for optimised performance during training and racing.

Deciding on the test battery

Time in the laboratory is limited, and not every athlete wants to (or can afford to!) taper down for testing. Therefore, some choices might be needed in selecting which tests should be prioritised. The table below gives some indication of what types of tests the sport science laboratory can offer.

Test name What does the test involve? What will it tell me?
Lactate threshold test In order to detect the point at which blood lactate increases above baseline, a series of 3 minute stages at increasing work intensities are performed; each having a small fingertip sample taken at the end. The LT tells us the upper limit of exercise supported entirely by aerobic metabolism: it therefore also helps inform us when the athlete will switch from fat to carbohydrate utilisation.
Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS) This is the definitive test for the second lactate threshold, where blood lactate can no longer be held steady. This is defined in the lab using a series of 30 minute bouts of exercise. MLSS tells us the intensity an athlete could sustain for an hour without fatigue – prediction of 25 mile TT, or criterium race powers is therefore enabled.
Critical Power

A series of tests of either fixed time, or fixed distance during which the athlete does as much work as they can. The power you can sustain for a given time can therefore be determined, over a range of 3 to 30 minutes.

Determining CP can be very helpful for setting pacing strategies: as the protocol can assess both aerobic (CP) and anaerobic function in one testing protocol.
Maximum Oxygen Uptake (VO2max test) The definitive measure of aerobic function, at least in the traditional sense. The athlete is taken from a low intensity to their maximal over a ‘ramp’ lasting between 10 and 15 minutes (often, 25W per minute or 5W per 12s rates are used). The test also gives ‘Maximal Minute Power’. Although sub-maximal measures are in some ways more useful, the VO2max enables the ‘upper ceiling’ to be measured.
Efficiency In a constant power output test, oxygen uptake is measured in a ‘steady state’: normally done below LT to ensure no fatigue is taking place. The test takes no more than 10 minutes, and can precede a VO2max ramp test. Two athletes may have the same LT, MLSS and VO2max, but their performance could be different – why? Because they may each have a different ability to convert the oxygen to power – the so called “efficiency”. Useful information about fuel use can also come from this test.
All-out sprint test Several versions exist, but traditionally, 30s is used (the so called ‘Wingate’ test). The athlete is directed to go as hard as possible for the entire test. This short test enables peak power to be measured (within the first 5 pedal revolutions), and also the utilisation of the anaerobic work capacity over the entire 30s period.
Optimal cadence A series of all-out sprints, 5s in duration, at different cadences e.g. 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 110, 120, 130, 140 and 150rpm Drawing a graph of peak power against cadence gives a curve similar in shape to an “inverted U”. The peak in this “U” tells us the optimal cadence – very useful for track riders looking for the best gear selection.

Of course, it is possible to do a whole host of tests, the ones above are the more common available, and will probably form the core test battery for endurance athletes. It is possible to measure two or three of the parameters in one test visit.

Will I understand the results?

Initially the lab equipment and environment may seem a little intimidating and confusing.  However, the athlete is not expected to understand everything that is being done.  All the data will be analyzed by a professional sport scientist, and then compiled in an easy-to-understand report explaining what the results mean with regards to the current fitness levels and internal physiological status.  The coach would then be guided as to the type of training recommended based on the test data, helping them produce a training program based on the results and tailored to meet the athlete’s specific goals.  If the coach and sport scientist is one and the same, this is a very quick process! Those athletes without power measuring devices need not be concerned.  This equipment can be costly and is not always an option for many amateur athletes.  The training zones and program can be presented based on the equipment you have available.  A heart rate monitor is a low cost option for many athletes and training zones can be determined using heart rate as well as with power output data/running4.

How often do I need to be tested?

Testing needs to be carried out at regular intervals, as fitness levels and goals change throughout the competitive, pre-, and post-season.  Depending on the athlete’s goals, the coach and sport scientist would decide the most appropriate times to arrange the laboratory tests.  Regular analysis will allow progress and changes in physiology to be carefully monitored, allowing the training program to be adapted accordingly. This gives the best opportunity to achieve optimal performance. In an ideal world, an athlete might visit the lab 3 times per year:

  • At the beginning of winter training (to set training zones and a performance benchmark)
  • At the end of winter training, and 4 to 6 weeks pre-season (to assess the improvement in sub-maximal fitness and to evaluate how well the endurance base development has gone)
  • Mid season, perhaps during a lull in the race programme (and before a second peak is required late season)

Summary

  • The sport scientist and coach can work together to give the athlete the best chance of reaching their personal potential.
  • Laboratory testing is the most accurate way to monitor the internal and external workings of the entire body.
  • The learning experience gained from testing is invaluable in giving the ‘why’ to each training session. This can benefit athletes of all levels.
  • The testing identifies strengths and weaknesses in the physiology allowing the development of a comprehensive training program to meet specific needs and goals, allowing an individual to obtain his/her optimal performance.
  • Energy expenditure can be determined through lab testing allowing the development of an individual nutrition program to optimise race and training performance.
  • Laboratory testing can accurately predict race performance allowing athletes to monitor their progress and accurately time their peak performance.
  • Laboratory testing can determine the type of event and distance that an athlete is most suited for and at which he/she will be most successful.

REFERENCES

1. Schabort et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998, 30, 1744-1750.
2. Roecker et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998,  30, 1552-1557.
3. Coyle et al. J Appl Physiol. 1988, 64, 2622-30.
4. Lucia et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000, 32, 1777-1782.