Science however argues that this isn’t at all possible, we can only do what the physical and mental limitations we work with can allow. Instead of spirit, science tells us, it is judgment that allows us to succeed in sport.
Yet more and more sport is relying on science to try to conquer the odds. Physiological testing isn’t anything new in sport. Testing on athletes was first conducted with a view to better understand human physiology itself, only then later being turned around to better understand how to train the athletes themselves.
The concept of VO2 max, which is the fundamental measurement for athletic ability, has existed since English Physiologist A.V. Hill introduced the concept in the 1920’s. The recognized protocols for measuring Vo2 max have themselves been around since the mid 1950’s.
Since then assessments through performance tests have become an integral component of all sports training programs. They can be used to apply different types and levels of workload to training programs as well as to systematically track physiological changes over a period of time.
Typically, testing protocols and methods are single discipline perspectives of one element of performance. For sports such as team or ball sports, due to their complexity, this can require a detailed analysis of the sport by the coach to asses which physiological or biometric tests to carry out, and how best to view them to offer some perspective of the athletes abilities. In rugby for example you can test a players fitness, how far and how fast he can run, or the action of his passing, but you cannot test all of these together in a realistic competition situation.
However for sports such as running or cycling, the relative simplicity of the sports means testing can accurately mirror the components of the sport in lab conditions. Track cycling in particular, with its balancing act between physiology and technology (as well as having very few external variables- such as the weather or unpredictable road surfaces that you might get in road cycling) is the perfect sport to be influenced by laboratory testing.
The ideal cyclist has a high power to weight ratio as well as the smallest possible frontal surface area. Both of these factors can be accurately assessed using laboratory testing.
The frontal surface area itself is addressed in a laboratory, using Formula 1 wind tunnel testing to allow riders to refine their aerodynamics through bike design and adjustments to the riders racing position. This is something that is closely scrutinized by the sports governing body, the UCI, so as not to allow bicycle design to significantly alter as it did when Greame Obree famously revolutionized riding positions (not once but twice) in the mid-nineties.
Physiological Lab testing also allows the riders themselves, much like the machines they ride, to be finitely adjusted to improve their performance. It is something that has been wholeheartedly endorsed by British Cycling since sports scientist Peter Keen, the man behind the success of another cycling Olympic gold-medalist Chris Boardman, took over the reins of the national team program in 1999.
At the time the concept of lab testing for bike riders caused something of a stir amongst the athletes themselves, many of whom believed that testing in a lab was still too far removed from the realities of racing. Ken Matheson, who was at the time head coach for the Great Britain team, and now runs his own coaching business, explains
“A lot of riders didn’t like the idea of testing, of being put in laboratory conditions with people in white coats, pricking their ears and taking measurements while they pushed themselves to their limit. We found that many riders would try to schedule the tests for their rest day for example, so it didn’t interfere with their training, which isn’t ideal. We then had to turn this on its head and use it as a lesson to show them that they hadn’t recovered from their training as quickly as they imagined. I think the testing had a great value for this and the riders could see the benefit.”
One of the riders who will form a key part of Great Britain’s plans for success in the Olympic velodrome this summer is Rapha Condor Sharp’s Ed Clancy. Clancy, already a gold medalist at Bejing, is undoubtedly one of the world’s best track riders, and he openly welcomes the importance the British team puts on testing.
“Perhaps more than a lot of riders I am quite keen on knowing where I’m at. I like to train with SRM’s and heart rate. I think that is why I enjoy the track so much. Sometimes it gets a bit clinical and regimented, but most of the time I enjoy the fact you can put numbers on everything and you can see where you are.”
But while the process of being tested remains an unnatural affair, a shift in methods between max testing to sub-maximal testing has made the actual process significantly less unpleasant.
The original premise for testing was to establish a riders limits or specifically his peak sustainable power for sixty seconds. This type of testing required riders’ to make an enormous effort in the test, and took several days to prepare for adequately, as Clancy affirms
“If you want to do a really accurate peak power test then you’ve got to have a couple of days off and get up for it mentally and make sure you’re well fuelled. In a race situation it is natural to go flat out, but to do it on a stationary rig is a lot harder on the mind.”
These oft-dreaded Max tests, while ideal for testing the limitations of rider’s capabilities, proved to have little actual relevance to racing. The intensity of the effort required would mean that the rider couldn’t recover significantly to make further efforts and was therefore not ideally suited to an ‘endurance’ event, such as the blue-ribbon event of track cycling the team pursuit.
The focus instead is now on discovering and monitoring riders Functional Threshold Power (FTP). The functional threshold test is a sub-maximal test that determines the limit the rider can hold without going into the ‘red’. It is this level, which stays just within the riders aerobic limit, that a rider has to be able to sustain for endurance competition.
“While we might do one max test a year our focus is more on threshold tests. This is done, like the max test, on a stationery bike with an electronic brake to increase resistance. We go up in 30 watt stages every few minutes, so you’d start for example at 200 watts and go up to 230, 260 290 and perhaps go up to 410 watts, all the while the sports scientists are taking our heart rate and blood lactate (that is the one they are really interested in) as well as measuring how much CO2 we are blowing out so they can see what sort of fuel sources we are burning – carbohydrates or fat. What they are essentially looking at is where our threshold is where we get lactic acid and go beyond that point of no return”.
This change in the type of test has been a major benefit for the riders, as the previous testing methods meant that riders had to lose several precious days of training for a test (which although useful had no training effect). Instead, explained Clancy, the threshold test can be undertaken without the same build up required for max testing.
“For the threshold test you don’t have to prepare specifically for. Your threshold doesn’t really change that much dependent on whether you are super fresh or not, so in terms of tapering down or getting ready you don’t have to do much for a test now.”
While lab testing at a sub-maximal level is certainly more agreeable for the riders mentally, and does produce more useful results, a lab is still an expensive and unnatural environment and it can be distracting and time consuming for the rider to have to go there. The key it seems is to keep the testing to a limited numbers of times under lab conditions, but at the same time continually monitoring the riders progress.
Clancy reckons he “only did 4 or 5 tests in the lab last year”. However he also explained that the technology that has put individual powermeters on bikes (in cranks, hubs or pedals), now means that each and every ride becomes a test of sorts.
“When you are on SRM cranks, essentially every session you do, every day is a little test, with guys looking at your SRM data and looking at your lap splits. If you look at it like that it is like we have a little mini-test everyday.”
The problem with lab based testing on a regular basis according to another Rapha Condor Sharp rider, and member of the Great Britain Olympic track team, Andy Tennant is that a rider can simply get good at doing tests.
“If you test too often you can just get good at doing the tests, your body will adapt to the effort of the test and you don’t really get a true result.”
He also goes on to explain that there are ways to effectively cheat a test, “There used to be a guy on the MTB squad who would hardly eat anything in the days running up to the test, so his weight would drop very low and then he’d just fuel up on Coca-cola and caffeine and he’d whack out good wattage compared to his weight.”
Many riders in the past have indeed struggled with the concept of testing, regarding the test is a result in itself, whereas, as Matheson explains the crucial point is that “there is no such thing as a bad result, but there is a result that needs to be interpreted, and that is the role of the sports scientist or coach.”
The riders themselves though have come to accept testing as a part of their sport, so the psychological risk that riders could lose their self-confidence if they scored poorly on a test has been eradicated.
Clancy told us, “The thing is when you are younger you sort of stress about the test and think ‘oh god what if I do a shit test’ or but these days you can see its not a win or lose thing, its just a case of seeing where you’re at. Perhaps you need a bit of work or maybe you are in a good place, or you need to spend a bit of time in a different area (of training-Ed). It is just looking for information and from a blunt sort of cold hearted point of view saying ‘this is where I am at’ and then going from there.”
By testing only a limited number of times in the lab and on an almost daily basis with the riders on the track, British Cycling have the perfect balance between the science and sport- or heart and head if you will. They are maximizing their use of technology to put the ideal model for training in place. The reliability, accuracy and quality of the lab test results are backed up by the easy and immediate nature of the tests on the track. When interpreted by coaches the riders can be brought to their peak performance at the perfect time.
In 2000 the German four-man team pursuit team took the world record for the first time in history to below four minutes for the four kilometer test, recording a time of 3.59.710. By 2008, when Clancy and his British team mates had applied science effectively to their training, the record dropped to a staggering 3.53.314, a time that would have been almost unthinkable only eight years previously.
Professional sport (which for the last 16 years has included the Olympics) is now big business, and winning or not winning has huge financial implications. It is no wonder then that nothing can be left to chance and that sportsmen are turning from faith to science to find the means to succeed. It might be more practical than romantic, but the results speak for themselves.