Athlete Development Model - Physiological Attributes Q&A - English

One of my athletes cannot go to Zone 5 (VO2 max), why? He has very strong endurance, but he never goes to zone 5. How do I solve this problem?

Graph showing 2 bars A and B, A is currently at 16 with a maximum of 22, B is at 18 with a maxium of 19

This is an interesting situation and first thoughts are that this could be a physical issue or possibly even a psychological or perceptual problem. The first question is, has a test of any kind been completed such as a progressive or step test. An additional question is how have the zones been calculated? Perhaps a LT-2 Threshold test such as FTP has been used and then VO2 max has been calculated (e.g. as 105% of FTP). This is a common approach some coaches and athletes use. The problem could be that if they have a really well developed LT-2 Threshold it could be very close to their VO2 max. As an example in the graph below athlete B has a running velocity at LT-2 Threshold of 18km/hr and VO2max velocity of 19km/hr. It might be hard to differentiate between these two zones if this is the situation. Whereas Athlete A has equivalent velocities of 17 and 21km/hr. If your athlete is like Athlete B, then the first question is – is their VO2 max trainable? If they are still young and developing then the answer is most likely yes, but my guess from your question is that this is an older more experienced athlete. You could still try to modify training, reduce volume and add in shorter higher intensity VO2 max focussed sessions for 6-8 weeks and see if this makes any difference to VO2max. If it doesn’t then you may just have to accept that you have a mature athlete who has done a great job of maximising their LT-2 Threshold within their VO2max capability, and they may be better focused at long distance non-drafting events compared with shorter drafting events.

A final aspect to consider with novice or inexperienced athletes is occasionally they don’t have the experience, confidence or perhaps understanding of how to push hard enough to reach VO2max, and this may have to be taught.

Do you measure athletes recovery status?

Many coaches do measure recovery status. This can be done within a session, e.g. measuring resting heart rate between repetitions, some coaches in very high intensity sessions to only allow the next repetition when heart rate has dropped below a certain level. Maybe a more general but important approach would be to measure recovery between sessions. In triathlon with three disciplines to train for, it is always difficult and probably not possible to be full recovered between sessions, and so some element of fatigue is usually present. That said keeping track of recovery is a key aspect. Easy to use and common approaches can be relatively subjective, e.g. getting the athlete to report each morning ‘the quality of sleep’ they had, ‘general feel good factor’, i.e. how positive they feel, ‘muscle soreness etc’. Keeping a track of these over a long period of time can help to identify when things start to go wrong. Other approaches becoming more common are apps that track Heart Rate Variability, or track sleep quality for you. As with all things, the technology can help and make it feel more precise with specific data to review, but using subjective measures can sometimes be just as valid. Many coaches now use both and consider everything in the mix when considering how to modify training back on the athletes adaptation to training and recovery so far. The important things to remember is the body needs recovery to adapt and get fitter, and continued insufficient rest can lead to overtraining, injury and long-term illness.

I want to know how much load volume for age group triathlete?

In terms of this question, we are assuming you are asking specifically about VO2max type training here, rather than a general volume question. To start with as mentioned by Jonathan firstly it’s really important to have good technique, and for good technique your athlete needs a good basic functional strength and good movement and mobility. The better these aspects are then the safer more intense training such as VO2 max will be, with a reduced risk of injury. For a novice age grouper, a lot of gains could be made without doing any of this training, and in many ways from an enjoyment and injury perspective this could be a good suggestion for many, who aren’t seeking to maximise their potential. However for those who are looking to reach their best (e.g. Age group world championships etc) then this training could be a key element. It should be considered the ‘icing on the cake’ or the ‘cherry on the top’ in terms of training. Another way to consider it, is as powerful medicine. As mentioned in the webinar 20 minutes of this intensity training within a session is a hard session, for example 20x 400m run when the athlete is running at 60 seconds per lap, would be a very hard session, for a good standard runner. 

A lot as always depends upon the capabilities of an athlete, but one session of this nature a week, could be the right answer for many athletes. Trying to do one per discipline on top of all the other training is likely to push an athlete too hard and lead to break down. So the coach and athlete may need to decide where they apply this powerful medicine each week, which discipline is the best for them to develop, which is at a reduced risk of injury?

What approaches could you adopt if you only have low technology solutions to testing e.g. just a stopwatch, maybe a heart rate monitor?

Most coaches and athletes would feel they would benefit from all the technology and gadgets available, such as gas analysis, power meters etc, this is often not possible due to access or cost. Testing Physiological attributes is all about working out current strengths and weaknesses and then working out how to train them to remove weaknesses and build strengths, and finally checking that improvements are being made. Being great in a lab still needs to transfer to race day on a specific course against the competition.  

There are some simple tests that can be used that approximate to physiological characteristics, such as the Cooper test. But a coach and athlete can build their own set of tests to give a good indication of current abilities and improvement. If we take a profiling approach, having a range of tests for attributes that are important can help, e.g. on the bike, you could do

    • A 6 min test (approximates to V02max).
    • A test that approximates to LT-2 Threshold (so anywhere between 20-60 minutes will give an approximation).
    • Add in a test of approximately 1 min and another of 6 seconds and this will give a good profile.

Initially, you may not know if the results you get are good, bad or similar to your competition. But now you have a benchmark. Testing again in the future will tell you if you have improved or not, given whatever training you have undertaken. To compare how useful this is for races you may need to do more race analysis. If your athlete always gets dropped coming out of dead-turns on the bike and can’t get back to the pack, maybe more work is done and better results on the 6 sec or 1 minute tests. If the athlete struggles to hold a wheel after 10-15 minutes on a flat consistent course then maybe more threshold work is required. The same ideas can be used for swim and run also. Over time you may get power meters or other tools and be able to add these into the tests, but you also now have tests that still work if the equipment breaks. Some coaches also develop ‘test’ or indicator sessions, for example a set of reps with given rest at an intensity and with experience they know that if the athlete can hold a target pace in that set they are at a required level. A classic example from the Marathon training world is ‘Yasso 800s’.

Run 10x800m on a track with 400m easy jog recovery in between. The time you can average for each 800m (e.g. 2min 50) should equate to your potential Marathon time (e.g. 2 hours 50 minutes). This example is an effective proxy (substitute) for testing and carries some indication of LT-2 Threshold fitness, when you have the experience. 

The point here is to have the experience to know when the substitute is telling you accurate enough information. So remember to keep the data and over time this becomes your scientific approach to coaching.

Are the "estimated VO2 max" from some training software (Training Peaks, Garmin, Polar) reliable? Is it correct to use it as metric to control training?

Following on from the previous questions, this is almost at the other end of the spectrum for the low technology solution.   The first potential issue with any estimated value is that it is likely to be using averages for the general triathlon population. If your athlete is exactly average in all their attributes then maybe this will work well. Equally if you don’t have any other data to start with, again it could be a satisfactory place to start. But the coach and athlete should realise that it may not be accurate, after all how many people do we as coaches work with who are exactly average? However, it may be easy to test, as for the first question. If the athlete cannot even reach the level the estimated value suggested then clearly it is a problem.  The other issue is that it may be too low and they are more comfortable at this intensity than they should be.

The key for coaches and athletes is to understand what the value is representing and how it is calculated. The next step is to test and assess if the value is correct. Over time the athlete and coach should learn better the true nature of the athlete and work with what has proven to be accurate through actual testing or results.

What do you think about the Norwegian guy with the highest VO2 max ever measured, who, after winning junior world champs in cycling, decided not to be an athlete, cause he found it boring? 

A first it seems a shame that someone with some great physiological attributes didn’t choose to make use of them in a sport that relies heavily upon them. However we should really consider the individual and what they want to do here. From a more generic perspective than this exact case, coaches with athletes who deliver exceptional physically tests results can be forgiven for wanting that athlete to compete in the coaches chosen sport. However the athlete may psychologically be more suited to a team sport, or even not to sport specifically and they should be supported if they want to go down a different path, or a different sport. This can be very hard for coaches, especially as many people rate coaches on the performances of their athletes, so to ‘let an athlete go’ seems difficult. However it can be extremely detrimental to an athlete to put pressure on them to compete if this is not really their true desire. Always start with treating each ‘athlete’ as a person first, doing what is in their best long term interests, then consider how to help them become a rounded athlete next and finally a triathlete. Next week’s Webinar will start to address some of these issues in more detail.