Use the force… but what if you can’t?

The key to using sports science testing to assess and to monitor progress, is to keep it simple, avoid the smoke and mirrors bullshit and pick out the important bits. The most important bit is then applying that to the training plan, in a simple manner. Completing a VO2 test can give you some simple and practical measurements such as aerobic & anaerobic threshold (or whatever we’re calling them these days), fuel use and oxygen economy. As part of the triathlon coaching plan, we regularly complete a simple VO2 testing protocol which involves a maximal step/ramp test on the watt bike. Following this, we complete a 10 second maximal test sprint to measure maximal force.

The VO2 maximal step/ramp test is very simple. Ride the watt bike and start at 150 watts. Then every minute increase by 20 watts, whilst maintaining 85rpm. Do this until failure and the last full minute is the ‘maximal aerobic power’ score. We then divide this by body weight to give a power to weight score (watts/kg). For example, if a 70kg person manages to reach 350 watts and complete a full minute, but is unable to increase to 370, then they score 350 watts or 5 watts per kilo (350/70=5). If you do this wearing a mask and measuring oxygen use, we can also calculate thresholds, fuel and oxygen usage.

We also do a 10 second maximal sprint test, although we’re not actually measuring it for 10 seconds. We’re only interested in the peak you can hit within the 10 seconds. Most people hit a peak within a few seconds then fade before they reach 10 seconds, the peak is the score we record, so we’re looking for absolute maximal force. From experience, 13 watts per kilo is an average / decent score, but this obviously varies widely depending upon the person. For example, our 70kg person would need to hit a peak of 910 watts to score 13 (910/70=13).

They’re 2 different tests, but they’re still related

What’s shown below is the tests completed by coached triathletes in the last month (42 total). It shows the correlation between maximal sprint power (the highest peak reached in a 10 second sprint) and the VO2 / aerobic ramp test score. What’s important to understand here is that the sprint test is measuring the absolute maximal force you can generate, the VO2 / aerobic ramp test is measuring your aerobic capacity. So ‘physiologically’ these are 2 very different things and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re not related.

I wrote a very long winded blog last week and within that blog, outlined that swimming, cycling and running are all ‘aerobic endurance sports’ but they also have their own specific elements. I’d stated that cycling is different to running, as the ‘force production’ element (in it’s simplest form… strength) is important for performance.

So to explain what we’re looking at below, on the Y / left vertical axis is VO2 / aerobic ramp test, power to weight score (watts / kg). On the X / bottom axis is the maximal force/power scored within the 10 second sprint test (watts / kg). Remember above, I said that 13 watts per kilo is an average / decent score for the maximal sprint and I’d estimate that 4.5 would be a similar standard for the VO2 / aerobic ramp.

So, first of all, if we ran a statistical test, the correlation wouldn’t be significant as you can see the scores are pretty widespread, but there is a pattern, which can be seen from the best fit line and that suggests that your maximal force in a sprint test, may influence how you will perform in a VO2 / aerobic ramp test. Whilst the 2 things are physiologically poles apart, we have said that force production is part of cycling performance, so it’s fair to assume there may be a relationship.

Look at high performers in red, who scored above 5 watts per kilo on the VO2 / aerobic ramp test. They all have high sprint power, above 15 watts per kilo. Everyone who scored above 5 watts per kilo on the VO2 / aerobic ramp test, had a maximal force / sprint score of 14.5 or higher, well above the average. It’s fair to assume that your maximal force / power will therefore in some way, impact your score on the VO2 / aerobic ramp test.

Who are the other people?

Using these 2 simple measurements, we can quickly build a picture of people. Look at those circled in green, they would be what we refer to as coaching pathway A. Their VO2 / aerobic ramp test scores are low to average, but performance is most likely limited by simple lack of force production. Their maximal sprint power is just too low. These people may well be experienced athletes, they may have even completed several Ironman events, but whilst they may be able to ride long distance, the pace will not be fast. When they complete a VO2 / aerobic ramp test, they often fail early and say “my heart and lungs feel ok, but my legs have given up”. That’s because the legs simply can’t generate the force required to push the increasing wattage required. Runners who come to cycling can often fall into this category.

Blue circled people would be what we refer to as coaching pathway B. They are scoring up to 16 watts per kilo for the maximal sprint, but only just getting above 4 watts per kilo on VO2 / aerobic ramp test. The test results will often show higher oxygen consumption (poor aerobic economy) and failure on the aerobic ramp test comes far too soon. There’s really no point in these people focusing on high intensity / maximal work, they’re already way above average and it’s not their limiting factor. Their legs are strong enough, they’re just not aerobically economical.

There are of course those people in the middle, who are balanced in both aspects and would therefore benefit from both approaches. We should also put this into context by stating that whilst you need to be able to generate a high maximal force to score highly on the VO2 / aerobic ramp test, the ramp test is still only a 10 minute maximal test. If you’re racing longer distances, a 10 minute VO2 / aerobic ramp test whilst being a part of the jig-saw, does not mean you can ride 112 miles at a strong and consistent pace.

You can probably build a picture of yourself by looking at 4 basic things such as maximal force, peak score in a VO2 / aerobic test, what you can sustain for a decent period (such as 25 mile TT performance) and how you handle longer rides at moderate speeds, such as Ironman bike distance. Those 4 things give you a really good start point and an honest view of your strengths and weaknesses. The solution to any one of those things is then far more simple than it’s often made out to be.

One downside of current coaching methods is that there’s a lot of ‘fluff’. Coaching can be a great help, but the constant data, analysis and excessively complicated session plans don’t add value if you’ve not actually taken the time to do a simple self analysis and understand your strengths and weaknesses. Too often, the ‘fluff’ become the main focus and we become all absorbed in the stuff which actually doesn’t impact performance. We also make the mistake of following ‘trends’ and following a pathway simply because it look attractive and everyone else is doing it.

Here’s the 4 key things to consider:

  1. What are you training for?
  2. What’s your basic strengths & weaknesses?
  3. What do you need to do more of to solve it?
  4. Apply the simplest method to solve the problem
  5. Don’t over complicate it or make it too technical

The process is not complicated, neither are the answers….

Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 23 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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