Getting the Most Out of Performance Testing
With all things science and performance related, data can be used to show progress and fitness, as well as underperformance or plateau. A runner may track their heart rate, mileage, and intensity of workouts. Whereas a cyclist may look at the power they are producing on the bike, and a triathlete would collect data on swimming, cycling, AND running. All of these metrics are tracked over weeks, months, and years to show the ups and downs of fitness, response to training, and racing performances. Athletes are always looking for validation that their training is paying dividends. If the plan is working, then head down and carry on. But what happens when you plateau or want to take your performance to the next level? Maybe you have been a middle of the pack age grouper, and now you want to challenge for an age group podium. Maybe you want to PR on a local 5k race. How can you determine what needs to change in our training to accomplish these goals?
Over the last 10-20 years, the performance testing once reserved for professionals and Olympians has trickled down to the weekend warriors and aspiring amateurs. If you read any endurance sport magazine or follow any pros on social media, you will have likely stumbled across terms like: VO2 max or lactate threshold. They sound fancy and scientific right? These are just a few of the physiological markers of fitness that can be used to structure training programs to drive performance improvements. So which is the best bang for your buck?
VO2 Max Testing
VO2 max is a gauge of how efficient your body utilizes the oxygen you breathe. The higher the number, the fitter you are. It also will tell you your resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn at rest). For the recreational athlete, having VO2 max testing done is not overly practical. A true VO2 max test is highly stressful to the body as you push yourself to absolute maximal effort. You would also need a rest day or two both before and after the test, which can affect your current training plan. It’s nice to have a baseline number, but is absolutely not necessary to achieve high levels of performance. In some cases it may be beneficial when looking from a weight loss perspective or maintaining ideal weight. It’s similar to finding out the top speed of your car. It may be able to go 150 mph, but we spend most of our time driving around town or on the interstate. Ultimately, this test will not have as much impact on the creation and progression of your daily training program.
Lactate Threshold Testing
During exercise your body will produce lactate. The higher the intensity of exercise the greater amount of lactate will be produced. Now I’m sure you’ve all heard about how lactic acid and lactate are evil and they are the cause of muscle soreness, fatigue, etc. That’s actually not true! Lactate is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of ATP and the production of energy for our muscles. During this process the release of hydrogen ions (H+) also occurs. It is the buildup of these H+ associated with lactate that actually inhibit further ATP breakdown, muscular contraction, and contraction peak force. While lactate may not be responsible for our declining performance, it is an easily measurable marker.
So how does a lactate test make your training better? During the test your blood lactate is measured at increasing levels of exercise intensity. At the end, you are left with a pretty graph showing how your body is managing/recycling the production of lactate (and those pesky H+) and your “threshold” or point where lactate is not recycled fast enough and it starts to build in your muscle tissues. All of this data allows for the determination of training zones based upon your current level of fitness, sport, goal performance, etc. This guide of training zones will help to ensure you are training at the appropriate intensities during your workouts, and will help to avoid pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough. When you are consistently and confidently training at the correct intensities, then you will maximize the potential of your training program leading you to optimal race day performance.
In the end, do you need fancy performance testing to achieve goals and top-level performance? Of course not!! There were Olympians and professionals pushing the limits of performance WAY before all the current technology came into the picture. However, with the access to technology that we have now, recreational athletes can reap the benefits of training principles that used to take decades to formulate and refine through trial and error. If you feel that you have hit a roadblock in performance, some form of performance testing may be the key to unlocking your full athletic potential.