On Monday Kris will fly out to Utah for a very quick (he flies back Tuesday) testing camp at the USST sports science facility in Park City. He may do a handful of tests, but the reason he’s flying out is for the treadmill rollerski MaxVO2 test.
Physiological testing often seems to raise as many questions as it answers. I’ve been present for many, many MaxVO2 tests, and have files full of raw data and protocol sheets from the years when I was the NENSA program director and we ran testing camps with Dr Ken Rundell at the OTC in Lake Placid. While it was an interesting process to look at the physiological makeup of many of the best skiers from the New England region (including Kris, as a Junior) it didn’t often give us much to work with in terms of optimizing any given athlete’s training, or helping anybody reach their potential. It did allow us to learn a lot about what fitness measures correlate with success at the junior level (and VO2 wasn’t high on the list). And when we were able to compile test results for a given athlete over time we gained some valuable insight.
There has been a lot of hype about MaxVO2 and the importance of developing a high MaxVO2. It’s indisputable that the best athletes have high MaxVO2 values. However, it’s not at all clear that path to success is to raise your VO2 as high as possible. As”Doc” Rundell said just about every time a good skier put up a mediocre test (or a mediocre skier put up a big number), “VO2 ain’t everything!” It’s interesting to note that in October ‘05 Kris tested at 6.21 L/min - his best ever VO2 value on that equipment at that elevation. That winter was a major disappointment- while he had an 18th and a 20th at the Canadian World Cups, and he pulled-out a 21st at the Olympics, he was not at the level he expected. Last year, in October of ‘06, Kris tested (on the same equipment) at 5.36L/min - almost 14% off his best score. But his results were an improvement over the previous year. If you take these two data-points from Kris, and add the fortunes of the much vaunted “VO2Max King“, Espen Harald Bjerke, you might start to think that high numbers are something you want to avoid. You’d be wrong, of course. A high VO2 is part of the equation, but there are other parts. I would contend that VO2 is not a building block - not part of the foundation of success. It’s more of a symptom of success.
Having just trashed the value of a VO2 number, I’ll go on record as saying that the testing is very valuable. If it wasn’t, Kris wouldn’t be taking two days in late October to fly two time-zones to run a test. So how can we make use of the test?
There’s one really good way to tell if your training is making you faster - go in a race. And since you can’t control the competition, you might as well race yourself. You can compare your measured work-loads to the work-loads you’ve been able to sustain in the past. This is what Kris is after with all those Sunapee time trials. This is also what Kris is after with the VO2 test. Leaving aside the VO2 numbers, if Kris can go further - stay on the machine longer - then he’s gained capacity. And the best reason to travel all the way to Utah is that we can look at the data at all levels of output and chart the metabolic cost of the effort. Maybe he can’t go much further than he did last time, but if his sustainable pace is higher then he’s made applicable gains. By looking at respiratory exchange ratios we can chart substrate utilization - see what fuel he’s burning - and chart what factor all those OD sessions are in any gains or losses (and chart how that changes with a seasonal change in training focus and load). By looking at the size of the gap between a “threshold” workload and a maximal workload we can chart the contribution of the intensity efforts to his overall capacity. We can basically take the whole pie and see how big each slice is. And if we look closely we can see the ingredients in the crust. Seeing the ingredients doesn’t give us the recipe, but if we kept track of what went in, then the testing allows us to examine how the ingredients express themselves as part of the whole. Wow - what a metaphor.
One trick to making VO2 testing useful is consistency. Workload on a treadmill is a product of speed and incline, and there’s no really clean way to factor out those variables. For instance, it’s impossible to say whether a 20mph pace at a 2% grade is more or less work than a 12mph pace at a 9% grade. In fact, the relative loads may vary based on whether you’ve been training high speed on the flat, or steep climbing at lower speeds. In order to compare tests and chart progress it’s totally critical to keep the test protocols consistent within certain parameters. I’ve seen and heard of physiologists who like to try to tweak the protocol to generate “clean” data - maybe by setting the speed of the max stage according to a calculated workload at a fixed lactate concentration. The idea is to come up with just the right protocol to get the best effort out of the athlete, and if all you care about is the metabolic data from the one test then maybe this makes all kinds of sense. But in my opinion the most valuable thing about a test is to be able to compare the “cost” of a given workload across time.
It’s also important to test realistic and applicable workloads. It’s great to be able to test on rollerskis, because this gets a skier much closer to a sport-specific task than running. But if your skier is at a very low incline and a pace of 2 min/K then you’re not testing that skier at the task where they’ll be asked to put forth their hardest effort - climbing a hill.
This Spring the USST coaches and sports science staff put their heads together and came up with a new testing protocol to take all of this into consideration. So Kris is heading out to Utah knowing that there is something to learn. But what is it? What can we learn? As Pete said in a recent e-mail, this is a “test of the test”. We are pretty sure that Kris is in good shape. He’s gone faster than he did last year on Sunapee, and he’s been feeling really good in training. Nobody is planning to cancel the air ticket to Beitostolen if the test isn’t good. Pete, once again: “the machine doesn’t get the final word.”
In a recent e-mail exchange Pete and I compared notes on expectations for this test, and projected reactions to different scenarios. Here’s what I wrote:
If all numbers are up - better lactate/workrate relationship, better threshold workload, longer time to exhaustion and higher peak VO2 - then I’ll be impressed. I’m not expecting this. If it happens, then I think we stand back and play it fairly conservatively - just manage the response by holding him down with some training load.
If all numbers are down we just hope like hell that ski racing is different than treadmill racing. There’s relatively little time to respond at this point. I’m not expecting this either - he’s had some good benchmarks lately and I’d be shocked if the testing says he’s in “worse” shape than last time.
If VO2 is up and economy measures (lactate/workload relationship) are down, we may have taken him too far too soon. In this case I’d be inclined to maintain a somewhat higher volume through period 1 and hold non-race intensity to something below level 4. If we see a similar scenario but an increase in maximal workload capacity and maximal lactate concentration without an increase in VO2 then he’s one tough bugger, but is probably tapped out in terms of capacity.
If economy measures are up and VO2 and time to exhaustion are similar, then there’s probably some ground to be gained. This is what I’m hoping for, and what I expect based on the load - increased sustainable workload, but not increased maximal workload. I wouldn’t bet my house on this scenario, but I’ll be plenty happy if this is how it plays out. I don’t think we’d need to respond very differently than we would to scenario 1 - but we’d have the confidence that there is probably another gear to be grabbed with some tough intensity training after period 1.
Reprinted with permission from the Kris Freeman website at http://www.krisfreeman.net/. Copyright © Zach Caldwell and Kris Freeman