Evidence-based Strategies for Helping Clients Improve Endurance Performance
Endurance races have never been more popular, and chances are many of your clients have committed to running a half-marathon (or longer race) in the coming year. And they are looking to you for guidance on how to train for their chosen events. Performance in endurance-related activities is dependent on the triad of VO2max, lactate threshold and economy, and a growing body of research is helping pros fine-tune their clients’ training programs to maximize these factors. The purpose of this article is to provide you with the latest evidence-based training strategies for improving these key performance-defining physiological parameters.
The Physiology of Endurance Performance
Endurance exercise can be defined as the ability to perform any type of cardiovascular exercise (e.g., cross-country skiing, cycling, running, hiking, swimming) for an extended period of time (Robergs and Roberts, 1997). The complex integration of multiple physiological functions may limit an individual in the pursuit of these endurance exercises. Yet, despite its multifaceted nature, endurance performance is characterized by one simple requirement—the necessity to sustain repeated skeletal muscle contraction. Whether your client is an elite athlete, recreational runner or currently sedentary individual, the ability to maintain repeated skeletal muscle contraction, and thus his or her overall potential for performance in endurance exercise, can be explained by a similar set of physiological attributes: VO2max, lactate threshold and economy of movement. Ultimately, however, it is the overall capacity and interaction of each of these parameters that determines individual peak endurance performance. A brief primer on the physiology of VO2max, lactate threshold and economy is presented in the sidebar, "Endurance Exercise Performance."
A fundamental appreciation of these three critical performance-defining physiological parameters provides the requisite foundation for designing a comprehensive training program focused on optimizing endurance performance. The following section examines the scientific evidence illustrating the powerful relationships that exist among VO2max, lactate threshold and economy values and endurances performance.
Why Does Increased VO2max-lactate Threshold Economy Equate to Improved Performance?
There is a strong relationship between aerobic performance and VO2max (Costill, 1970), lactate threshold (Kenney, Wilmore and Costill, 2015) and economy (Bassett and Howley, 2000). Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between running economy based on VO2max and lactate threshold values. VO2max sets the upper limit for endurance performance and it has been found for every one-point increase in VO2max, individuals took 10 seconds off a 10-mile run (Costill, 1970).
Lactate threshold represents the percent VO2max at which an abrupt increase in blood lactate levels is seen. There is overwhelming evidence linking lactate threshold with endurance performance, particularly for running events (Faude, Kindermann and Meyer, 2009). Economy could be noted as the most important of the aerobic training triad, as there is a direct relationship between increases or decreases in VO2max and lactate threshold, as well as biomechanical techniques in performance (Robergs and Roberts, 1997).
While it has been well established that VO2max alone has a strong relationship with endurance performance, it is important to understand the interplay between the VO2max, lactate threshold and economy triad and overall endurance performance. For example, Participants A and B both have a VO2max of 45 mL/kg/min. In theory, they should perform relatively similarly in an endurance event (e.g., a half-marathon). However, Participant A has a lactate threshold that occurs at 50 percent of VO2max, while Participant B’s lactate threshold occurs at 75 percent of VO2max. In this situation, near their lactate thresholds, Participant A would have a velocity of 3.9 mph (104.5 m/min), while Participant B would have a velocity of 5.8 mph (155.4 m/min). Therefore, even though the VO2max values are the same for both participants, there is a large variability in performance due to Participant B’s ability to maintain a running velocity that is nearly 2 mph faster (53.6 m/min). Consequently, it is not only important to have a high aerobic capacity, but also to be able to sustain a high relative maximal capacity (lactate threshold at a high percent VO2max) to better enhance economy and performance. Understanding the mechanisms for improving the VO2max, lactate threshold and economy triad and recognizing the interplay between the triad and overall endurance performance is critical to designing an evidence-based training protocol.
Top Training Strategies to Increase VO2max
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