In the (Right) Zone?

Performance Testing For Recreational Athletes

How do you know that you are training at the right intensity? Too often recreational endurance athletes do their long slow sessions too fast and their interval sessions too slow. In other words everything ends up being ‘medium’. Training becomes monotonous, you hit a plateau and performance may even decline from the effects of over-training. With the appliance of sport science it is possible to know exactly the right pace or power output required to drive specific training adaptations, which come race day enable you to perform better.

In the past physiological testing has been the reserve of elite and professional athletes, but in recent years testing has become more accessible for the recreational athlete, and if you are serious about beating your current PB, it’s well worth getting tested.

Physiological testing requires you to perform a step or ramp protocol, usually on a cycle ergometer or treadmill. As the workload (pace/power output) is steadily increased your expired air volume and composition is analysed by specialist apparatus. Usually the protocol requires you to exercise to exhaustion, although ‘sub-max’ protocols are also possible. The data is used to determine VO2max – the maximum amount of oxygen that can be transported and utilised by the muscles, which is a useful indicator of fitness and can be used to predict race performance. This is a headline number, and athletes like to know theirs, if only for bragging rights in the changing room.

More interesting is what can be learned about training zones. The test can determine your ventilatory threshold, which approximates to the anaerobic or lactate threshold and can therefore be used to guide endurance training. The specific training intensity at which the ventilatory threshold occurs is a sweet spot for improving your ability to clear blood lactate – a product of anaerobic metabolism that is a limiting factor in endurance performance. The higher the intensity you can work at before lactate accumulates and the better you are at clearing lactate from the blood, the faster pace you can sustain over a longer period of time – in other words, the quicker you finish on race day!

Fat oxidation rate is another useful piece of data that can be determined from the test. Higher fat oxidation rates are indicative of greater mitochondrial density and increased mitochondrial enzyme activity in the muscles – the metabolic machinery of aerobic energy production. In other words, fat oxidation rate indicates your level of adaptation towards aerobic energy production, which is important for endurance exercise. This would change after a period of base training for example, where the training schedule is geared towards long-slow distance. The data can also be used to determine carbohydrate use at given work rates, which can help guide nutrition strategy in endurance events.

Physiological testing takes the guesswork out of training. Rather than determining generic training zones based on a vague estimate of your maximum heart rate you can have confidence that your training zones are accurate based on your specific metabolic data for your current fitness level. Re-testing periodically ensures that your zones move as your fitness goes up and down. It also enables you to accurately assess your readiness for key races, or monitor the effect of training over specific periods of training.

Whatever your standard, physiological testing can help you reinvigorate your training, make it more enjoyable, help you crash through that plateau and most importantly help you achieve your next PB.

Physiological testing services are available at the ION Performance Centre in Richmond, Surrey.


Tags: VO2max, lactate threshold, physiological testing, performance

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