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Ramp Testing: Yea or Nay?

The ramp test has been regaining popularity for the past couple of years, and for good reason: it takes less time, is slightly less painful, and yields similar results. However, is it a better way predict FTP compared to the 20 minute version? Why do some people have a drastically different ramp test results compared to their 20 minute results? Which one should you use? This blog post will attempt to answer all of those questions, and provide some of the science behind ‘why’ there is a difference.

What is a Ramp Test?

A ramp test is exactly what it sounds like – an athlete starts at a given wattage (typically 100w) and ‘ramps’ up their power every 1 to 3 minutes (typically in 20w increments) until failure is reached. Here is what I do with my athletes:

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes.
  • Having a smart trainer makes life much easier here.
    • I start my athletes off at 60% of their FTP, and increase by 8% every minute or 2 (based on athlete fitness), until failure is reached.
    • Once you settle into a cadence of your choice you must maintain that cadence, or pedal faster, throughout the rest of the test. For instance, if you ride at 90 RPM for the test you can’t then have your cadence fall off to 85, 80 and eventually 75 RPM in the final stages. Once you can’t maintain your cadence the test is over, but you must push to the point of failure and not give up!

You are looking for a heart rate inflection point for this test.  The inflection point signals the anaerobic threshold (FTP) and can be very hard to see in my experience.  Another way is to take the last COMPLETED step of the test, and multiply this by .75.  This test is also called a Conconi Test.

This seems simple enough to get right, but the research around the ramp test is inconclusive. Furthermore, the majority of the “results” are inaccurate with Carey (2002) finding “a rather low correlation coefficient (r = 0.458), high standard error of estimate (SEE = 10.7 b·min-1), and high total error (TE = 16.7 b·min1)” compared to a computer-assessed decoupling point.

So, the ramp test has issues in terms of validation, and overall accuracy for some athletes, but why is that?

A Crash Course in Energy Systems

The 2 main energy systems at work during an FTP test are the aerobic and anaerobic – also called oxidative and glycolytic. Well-trained endurance athletes have a very high VO2 max (aerobic system), which enables them to ‘oxidize’ fat at a very high percentage of their FTP. There is always a flip side to the coin though – having a well developed aerobic system results in a down regulation of the anaerobic system. This anaerobic system, or the maximum rate of energy production by the ‘glycolytic’ system is sometimes designated by the term VLamax, or maximum production of lactate. In reality this is the maximum rate of production of pyruvate and lactate but since lactate is what is measured “La” has been used for this term. Clear as mud, right?

You’ll remember from a recent article about the Sweet Spot vs. Zone 2 debate in which I detail the change in lactate production from aerobic to anaerobic energy production:

In exercise where lots of oxygen is present (aerobic) your body will produce more pyruvate and less lactate. When you continue to push yourself into the higher power zones and above your lactate threshold, oxygen levels in the cells will decrease and you will go into anaerobic energy production, thus producing increased lactate and decreased pyruvate.  Continue to push harder and the levels of lactate produced will continue to increase while pyruvate levels decrease. I.e. the fuel ‘mixture’ (substrate) of fat (pyruvate) to carbohydrate (lactate) changes as an athlete works closer to their individual lactate threshold.

This down-regulation of the anaerobic system means an aerobically dominant athlete will not be able to sustain supra-threshold work for long, but can sustain around FTP for upwards of 60 minutes. In comparison, an anaerobically dominant athlete will be able to push much further over FTP, and not crumble due to their ability to produce a ton more ATP (energy) via glycolysis. Think of a Tour de France climber compared to a track sprinter – they both ride bikes, yes, BUT are completely different ‘under the hood’.

Fortunately, we now have an ability to closely model the amount of work an athlete can perform above their FTP via WKO4. This is called FRC, or functional reserve capacity.

What is FRC?

FRC can be defined as:


The total amount of work that can be done during continuous exercise above FTP before fatigue occurs.

Dr. Andrew Coggan

We measure this ‘work’ in kilojoules (kJ), or J/kg. Below, are the approximate standards for FRC.

Credit: Dr. Andrew Coggan
Credit: Dr. Andrew Coggan

As you can see from above, the range of ability to perform work above FTP is massive from one athlete to another. With the range in males being 9.0 kJ-35.1 kJ, and females being 6.2 kJ-24.2 kJ. Also, this range can change over the course of a season, which is why it is important to track it, as well as manipulate your training to up-regulate or down-regulate it based on the demands of your target event. You want a relatively low FRC for more aerobically demanding events, and vice versa for more and anaerobically demanding events.

Putting it Together

Hopefully you can see why some athletes ramp tests are extremely low compared to their 20 minute FTP tests, and also why some athletes 20 minute FTP tests are much lower compared to their ramp test. Let’s create an example athlete to drive this point home, but first let’s talk energy conversions:

The energy E in kilojoules (kJ) is equal to the power P in watts (W), times the time period tin seconds (s):

E(kJ) = P(W)× t(s) / 1000

So, kilojoules = watts × seconds / 1000

or, kJ = W × s / 1000

Our athlete, Manny Watts (get it?!), has an FRC of 20 kJ with an FTP of 260w. This means once he breaks the 260w barrier, he has 20 kJ of work he can do before fatigue sets in, OR once he surpasses 260w on a ramp test, he will feel fatigued after performing 20 kJ of work. To make things simple, let’s have the ramp test increase by 20w increments every 1 minute, and let’s come into the test at 270w right after he bumps up from 250w:

270w x 1 minute = 270 x 60s /1000 = 16.2 kJ

So, Manny will feel fatigued around 18 seconds into the 290w step. This doesn’t necessarily mean total failure, just fatigue. At what point total failure will occur is hard to predict as there are a lot of factors at play, especially psychological, but this shows the size of the glycoloytic engine makes a huge difference for the ramp test results.

Utilize the Correct Test

If you have absolutely no clue what your FTP is, or are returning from injury or a long hiatus off the bike, you can use the ramp test results to predict a sustainable pace for the 20 minute FTP test. If you are testing what your Maximum Aerobic Power (MAP) is – which is beneficial to predict how well you would perform during a lead out, long sprint, or short ‘power’ climb – then the ramp test is also beneficial. Knowing what your MAP is, you will be able to better predict how hard you can push at the end of a race (when to start your sprint, and what power to target based on time til the line), how much power you can lay down and for approximately how long to create a breakaway, and if you can utilize the short and steep climbs during a race to your advantage.

However, if you are looking to see what your anaerobic threshold is (FTP) then the ramp test isn’t the way to go as it doesn’t take into account the individuality of what an athletes power is at their VO2 Max, and as discussed above, can overestimate FTP for the anaerobically strong cyclist, and underestimate FTP for the aerobically strong cyclist. Said another way, why would you use a test to predict your short duration power and try to extrapolate that out to what you can sustain for a longer duration?

The best testing protocol would be to incorporate all of the energy systems, test them individually, and create training zones based off the results – which is possible with a skilled Coach and using software like WKO4. The ‘perfect’ test has been attempted by many physiologists and coaches, but has not been perfected yet. However, I must give credit to Apex Coaching for their Sufferfest ‘4DP Test’ as that test is, in my opinion, the closest protocol yet to being able to get a look under an athletes ‘hood’ in less than an hour. Just like anything though, individualization of training, and testing protocols, makes the difference. So, I will test my sprinter-phenotype athlete’s short power more frequently, and my TT-phenotype athlete’s long duration power more frequently to ensure the training zones are correct based upon their individual metabolic system strengths. And, if I am brand new to an athlete with minimal data (which is rare these days) I will use a multi-day testing protocol to ensure they can perform each test at their maximal effort – but even this has conditional caveats like sleep, nutrition, stress, etc. from one day to the next.

Conclusion

The ramp test has its place, but in my opinion, it is not the best way to predict what your FTP is due to the myriad of factors discussed above, but mainly because of the individual variation for shorter duration power outputs. Besides that, the ramp test was designed to see what an athlete’s Maximum Aerobic Power (MAP) is. However, as discussed above there is no ‘perfect’ test, even in a laboratory, as everyone is different and can change by the day, week, month, and year. The best testing protocol is the one that provides the most accurate representation of the metabolic system you’re looking at, and the ramp test isn’t the best option for predicting anaerobic threshold – in my humble opinion of course.

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A Go-to Guide on How to Nourish Your Body as a Cyclist

As a cyclist, and endurance athlete, your nutritional demands are going to be fairly significant. It’s essential to fuel your body before, during, and after training to ensure you are giving your body what it needs for sustained energy and recovery.

Whether you are a seasoned cyclist, or are just dipping your toes into the world of endurance training, nutrition is key and plays just as an important role in your training program as the actual training itself.

With that being said, let’s talk about why nutrition plays such an important role in endurance training, and then look at a go-to guide on how to nourish your body as a cyclist.


Why is Optimal Nutrition so Important?

We all know that a healthy diet is an essential part of supporting overall health, but nutrition can play such a vital role in the health of an endurance athlete for so many additional reasons. When you are exercising for long periods of time, not only are you expending a tremendous amount of energy, but you are also putting some wear and tear on your muscles and joints. It’s essential to replenish your body with calories and nutrients to restore depleted glycogen stores and to refuel those tired muscles with adequate amounts of high-quality protein.

More specifically, here are some of the main reasons nutrition plays a key role in supporting the health of a cyclist.

Your body will require additional calories when cycling:

Any form of exercise is going to burn some of the calories you take in, but when you are training for an extended period of time, you may burn through quite a bit which increases your daily calorie requirement.

For cyclists, you can determine roughly how many additional calories you may need to add to your diet by taking the miles you traveled and multiplying this by 40-50 calories. You can also use an online calorie burning calculator like this one to more precisely determine how many calories you burn (on average) each ride which can give you a better idea in terms of how many extra calories you need to be adding back into your diet. Remember though, Calories are a good guide, but not terribly accurate to determine an energy surplus or deficit.

Your Body Needs Fuel For Exercise Performance:

Your body is going to require additional energy in order to power through a long ride, and you have to fuel your body with the right foods. Carbohydrates serve as an endurance athletes primary fuel source. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal, and a huge portion of carbs right before training may give you a burst of energy, but leave you feeling lethargic shortly after. You will want to focus on getting low-glycemic carbs into your diet that won’t cause a sudden spike in blood sugar. Stick to things like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eating a balanced diet with a complex carbohydrate-rich snack before a ride is a great way to maintain balanced energy levels, and prevent sudden energy plummets. It is also recommended that you consume complex carbohydrates throughout training as well to help provide the body with additional fuel to get through your ride. Snacking on a piece of fruit during training or a whole-grain, low-sugar, and whole foods based sports bar can be a great way to support energy levels.

In addition to carbohydrates, adequate protein and fats are also needed to support exercise performance. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that athletes get about 1.2-2 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day, spaced out throughout meals and snacks. Getting enough protein in your diet is key for muscle repair as well as muscle growth.

While the majority of the focus is often on carbs and protein, cyclists also require a certain amount of healthy fat in their diet. Fats can help support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and they can also provide a stable source of energy. Fat has also been found to provide a protective benefit for endurance athletes by supporting adequate calorie intake. This was studied by The University of Buffalo that found that female runners who consumed 30% of their calories from fat, were far less likely to get injured than fellow athletes that did not eat as much fat. The thought behind this has to do with the athletes meeting their caloric goals. Since fats are nutrient-dense and provide an excellent source of energy, they also provide a good amount of calories.

So what does this tell us? This tells us that cyclists and other endurance athletes should be adding a decent amount of healthy fat to their diet. Things like avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, and wild-caught fish are all excellent sources of healthy dietary fat.

Your Body will Require Important Vitamins & Minerals:

For endurance athletes, it’s important to stay on top of your vitamin and mineral reserves. Not only can they help fuel your body for better fitness performance, but they can help keep your immune system strong. Endurance athletes may be more likely to develop deficiencies if they don’t eat a well-balanced diet full of whole and nutrient-dense foods. Be sure to get a complex carbohydrate, a healthy fat, and a clean protein source in at each meal, and try to make snacks in between training sessions as balanced as possible too. A high-quality multivitamin or greens powder to add to your daily smoothie or shake can also give your body an added boost.

Make Hydration a Priority:

While optimal nutrition is extremely important, we can’t forget about hydration. Hydration often gets overlooked, but without it, dehydration can set it. Dehydration is not only detrimental for overall health, but it can also sabotage a training session. Studies have found that a 2% drop in body weight from sweating can negatively affect your ride. Not only is it important to stay hydrated throughout the day, but it is recommended that you take 2-3 decent sized gulps of water every 10-15 minutes while on the bike. And, if you are cycling for 60-minutes or less, plain water is just fine, but anything over that, you will need to replenish your electrolytes. Coconut water is an excellent all natural source of electrolytes, or you can find natural electrolyte tablets or an electrolyte powder like Catalyte by the company Thorne that dissolve in water that doesn’t contain the added artificial coloring and ingredients many commercial sports drinks do.

The Best Foods For Cyclists

As a way to help you improve your nutrition starting today, here are some of the best foods for cyclists that you can add to your diet. Keep in mind that these foods should be enjoyed as part of a well-balanced diet. Enjoying these foods regularly is a great way to ensure that you are fueling your body with what it needs to perform, recover, and sustain the energy requirements for cycling and endurance training.

Complex Carbs: Rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, high fiber fruits like raspberries, pears, and apples, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, dates, figs.

Healthy Fats: Avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, wild-caught fatty fish, whole eggs.

Clean Protein: Grass-fed animal products, whole eggs, wild-caught fish, full-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils.

The Takeaway

Now that you know everything you need to know about nourishing your body as a cyclist, let’s break this down. Here are the key points you need to know to help you kick your nutrition into high gear to help support your body for optimal training and recovery as a cyclist.

  • Stay on top of your increased calorie demands,
  • Enjoy complex low-glycemic carbohydrates as part of your regular diet and prior to exercise to help support energy levels.
  • Make sure you are getting enough protein to support muscle recovery by getting 1.2-2 grams of protein/kg of body weight per day.
  • Eat a wide variety of foods to support vitamin and mineral reserves. Take a high-quality multivitamin if necessary.
  • Stay on top of hydration by staying hydrated throughout the day, and sipping on water with electrolytes (like Skratch) every 10-15 minutes during your ride.

Make nutrition a priority during endurance cycling training. With the right fuel and adequate hydration, you would be surprised at how much better you feel both during your ride and after. Don’t cheat yourself. Do yourself and your health the favor of making healthy food choices to fuel your body for optimal health and fitness performance.

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Intermittent Fasting: Useful for Endurance Athletes?

Intermittent fasting

I’m sure you’ve heard this diet being thrown around in the health and fitness world as being a “fat-loss miracle” and other similar buzzwords and phrases. It’s quite trendy right now and has been for the past few years.  

Intermittent fasting (IF) has several variations, but it what it comes down to is fasting a for a predetermined amount of time, followed by a “feeding window” in which you are “allowed” to eat your allotted calories and macronutrients for the day. Probably the most common type of this diet is called the 16/8; most often implemented by those in physique sports such as bodybuilding. This is where your fasting window is 16 hours long, and your feeding window is 8 hours long. 

However, have you ever thought of how this diet could possibly help your performance both in competition and in practice? As more and more research has been released on the diet, scientists are examining the ways in which it not only affects performance directly but also how its metabolic effects play a role on your performance indirectly as well.  

Effects on General Health and Well-Being 

Before we can begin to understand how it affects our performance, let’s dive into how this diet works on our bodies.  

Both human and animal model research has shown that following IF has the ability to reduce the risks of obesity and other metabolic disorders due to its effects on metabolism and biomarkers such as insulin and glucose control [1]. Plus, the great thing about IF is that it poses no additional risk when compared to traditional calorie restriction.  

Probably why this diet works well for so many people has to do with total calorie consumption. When compared to traditional dieting, those who follow IF have been shown to eat fewer calories throughout the day, sometimes eating only one meal a day! [2].  

So for weight loss, it can definitely help those who have trouble with overeating to regulate their calories throughout the day and avoid excessive snacking. But what about for endurance athletes, does any of this play a role and provide us with any tools in improving our performance? Well, it’s a little less clear.  

Effects on Aerobic Performance 

Unfortunately, most of the studies out there on intermittent fasting focus on resistance training and strength sports. Either that or they focus on its general health effects, often in overweight or obese individuals.  

But not to fear! There is hope! We still have data to work with.  

One study that worked with elite judo athletes during Ramadan (a Muslim holiday in which they fast from sunrise to sunset) analyzed maximal aerobic capacity utilizing something called the Multistage Fitness Test [3]. This test, more commonly known as the Beep Test, is utilized by various athletic organizations internationally. It predicts an athletes VO2 max (a staple variable in aerobic/endurance-based activities) by having them run back and forth between two lines before a beep sound is heard. The test becomes more difficult as the beeps get faster. The test ends when the athlete doesn’t reach the line in time before the beep is heard [4].  

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that partaking in intermittent fasting during Ramadan did not cause a detriment to their performance. However, what did occur was a reduction in body weight (an average of 1.8%) and increased levels of perceived fatigue.  

Now, as previously stated body weight reduction most likely has to do with eating fewer meals. The lower the frequency of meals, the more likely the athlete won’t eat as many calories. But the most compelling thing here is the result relating to perceived fatigue. This basically means that the subjects more often than not felt more tired when following this type of eating pattern compared to when they ate a normal diet. However, this happened despite a lack of drop in performance. So we’re honestly quite unsure what aspect of IF causes this phenomenon. 

Here’s where it gets complicated, as other studies have illustrated varying results. In another study examining Ramadan fasting (which is one of the most practical ways to research IF in the scientific literature), professional soccer players had a 16% decrease in the total distance that they could cover during a 12-minute run [5]. Also, another study used a test called the Leger shuttle-run to assess aerobic performance, which is similar to the Beep Test. While performance decreased during the second week of fasting, it returned to normal back during the fourth week [6]. So the early onset of detrimental effects was not that significant when viewed over the grand scheme of things.  

So What Does This All Tell Us? 

From a weight loss perspective, IF appears to have great effects due to the energy deficit created from eating less meals per day. However, there’s still much work to be done with IF and its applications to aerobic and endurance performance. From the data that we have at our disposal right now, it looks like it doesn’t seem to make all that much of a difference which type of diet you follow, as long as it’s sustainable for you and is aligned with the whatever performance goal you have in mind. So experiment on yourself, see if it works, and remember the best diet (and workout plan) is the one an athlete will be most consistent with.


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References 

1. Patterson, R. E., & Sears, D. D. (2017). Metabolic Effects of Intermittent Fasting. Annual Review of Nutrition, 37(1), 371-393. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-071816-064634 

2. Carlson O, Martin B, Stote KS, Golden E, Maudsley S, et al. 2007. Impact of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction on glucose regulation in healthy, normal-weight middle-aged men and women. Metabolism 56:1729–34

3. Chaouachi, A., Coutts, A. J., Chamari, K., Wong, D. P., Chaouachi, M., Chtara, M., . . . Amri, M. (2009). Effect of Ramadan Intermittent Fasting on Aerobic and Anaerobic Performance and Perception of Fatigue in Male Elite Judo Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,23(9), 2702-2709. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181bc17fc 

4. Léger, L.; Lambert, J.; Goulet, A.; Rowan, C.; Dinelle, Y. (June 1984). “[Aerobic capacity of 6 to 17-year-old Quebecois–20 meter shuttle run test with 1 minute stages]”. Journal Canadien des Sciences Appliquées Au Sport. 9 (2): 64–69 

5. Zerguini, Y., Kirkendall, D., Junge, A., & Dvorak, J. (2007). Impact of Ramadan on physical performance in professional soccer players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(6), 398-400. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.032037 

6. Kirkendall, D. T., Leiper, J. B., Bartagi, Z., Dvorak, J., & Zerguini, Y. (2008). The influence of Ramadan on physical performance measures in young Muslim footballers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26(Sup3). doi:10.1080/02640410802422199 

Why Do Electrolytes Matter?

When we think about the word electrolyte, many people think of sports drinks. Sports drinks are marketed towards athletes to help replenish the electrolytes endurance athletes will lose through sweat. However, there is much more to electrolytes and their importance than just refueling with a sports drink after training. Not only that, but there are also some healthy alternatives to traditional sports drinks.

Let’s take a look at what electrolytes are and why they are so important. We will also explore four different ways endurance athletes can replenish the electrolytes they lose during training.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes play essential roles in the human body, and they help to regulate nerve as well as muscle function. They also help hydrate the body and help to balance blood pressure. Scientifically speaking, they are chemicals that when mixed with water, conduct electricity. Our muscles, as well as neurons, rely heavily on proper electrolyte balance.

The following are the electrolytes present in our body:

  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Bicarbonate
  • Phosphate
  • Chloride

How are Electrolytes Balanced in the Body?

Electrolytes are kept in balance by our kidney as well as specific hormones. The kidneys help to filter electrolytes that may be in excess, and certain hormones will work to balance out the levels present in the body. We run into problems when these electrolyte concentrations are just too high for our kidneys and hormones to balance. This is when we can start to experience symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance.

The Importance of Electrolytes for Endurance Athletes

Electrolytes play such an important role when it comes to the health of the endurance athlete. If we go back to talking about how our muscles and neurons rely on electrolyte balance, it makes sense that we would experience muscle cramping if one of these electrolytes become out of balance. Not only that, but an electrolyte imbalance can also cause muscle weakness and issues with blood pressure.

While all electrolytes play an important role in the endurance athletes health, sodium, as well as potassium, happen to be the two that athletes tend to experience imbalances with most often.

Electrolyte Imbalance Symptoms

So, what exactly does an electrolyte imbalance look like? Here are some of the classic symptoms to watch out for.

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Muscle cramping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat

Four Ways to Replenish Your Electrolytes

While we know how important proper electrolyte balance is, it’s important to understand how to balance these electrolytes. Let’s take a look at four ways to do that that doesn’t involve drinking any artificially flavored sports drinks.

#1 Homemade Electrolyte Drink: Skip the artificial sugar-filled sports drink, and make your own electrolyte drink to refuel your body after training to help nourish your body with exactly what it needs. You can whip together a healthy sports drink like this one using one quart of unsweetened coconut water, ⅛ tsp. pink himalayan sea salt, a teaspoon of calcium magnesium powder, ¼ cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, and two tablespoon of a natural sweetener like raw honey.

#2 Coconut Water: Many endurance athletes turn to coconut water instead of sugary sports drinks as it acts as an excellent all-natural electrolyte replacer. Coconut water contains sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. One of the great things about coconut water is that it is super rich in potassium which can help support rehydration after intense exercise. Coconut water makes a great electrolyte replenishing beverage so long as you stick to unsweetened, and choose a natural option that doesn’t contain any added colors or artificial ingredients. Make sure you’re reading the food labels closely!

#3 Diet Counts: While we often think about beverages when it comes to replacing lost electrolytes, you can also replace some of what you lost through the foods you eat as well. Before and after training, strive to consume lots of dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, as well as bananas and avocados. All of these foods are rich in magnesium as well as potassium which can help bring these electrolytes up after intense training. Not only are they a great source of potassium and magnesium, but they are overall very healthy foods to add to a nutrient-dense diet to help support endurance training.

You will also want to make sure you are consuming enough hydrating foods to help prevent dehydration while restoring electrolytes. Some excellent options include cucumbers, celery, watermelon, bell peppers, and kiwis.

#4 Make an Electrolyte Replenishing Post Training Shake: Another way to help replenish your electrolytes after intense training is to blend up an electrolyte-boosting post training shake. Try blending together one cup of unsweetened almond milk, a frozen banana, one handful of dark leafy greens, a tablespoon of raw unsweetened cocoa powder, a tablespoon of chia seeds, and a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt. You will get plenty of potassium and magnesium in this shake, and you can add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to help replenish your sodium levels. You also don’t need to use pink Himalayan sea salt, but it usually contains higher levels of minerals compared to ‘table salt’.

The Takeaway

As a breakdown of everything we talked about when it comes to the importance of electrolytes and endurance athletes, here are some key point to remember.

  • During intense training, the body loses sodium and potassium fairly quickly which means we have to be mindful of how we replenish these electrolytes during and after training.
  • Fatigue, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are all common symptoms of an electrolyte deficiency.
  • Ditch the sports drinks, and try making your own using coconut water as your base.
  • Focus on foods to help boost your electrolytes.
  • Make an electrolyte replenishing post-training shake to help replenish lost electrolytes.

The best way to prevent an electrolyte imbalance is to keep on top of your electrolytes both before, during, and after training. Sip on a homemade sports drink during training, consume an electrolyte-boosting shake after training, and add a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt to things like dark leafy greens, and starchy vegetables. The better you keep up with your electrolyte intake, the better chance you will have at preventing the unwanted symptoms that come along with an electrolyte imbalance and feeling your best throughout your training.

If you want to make life really easy, just use what GC Coaching recommends and show our friends at Skratch Labs some ❤️

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Resources

  1. Nancy Choi, MD. Everything you Need to Know About Electrolytes. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/153188.php  
  2. American Heart Association. How Potassium Can Help Control Blood Pressure. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/changes-you-can-make-to-manage-high-blood-pressure/how-potassium-can-help-control-high-blood-pressure
  3. Kimberly Holland. All About Electrolyte Disorders. https://www.healthline.com/health/electrolyte-disorders#symptoms
  4. Katie Wells. Natural Sports Electrolyte Drink Recipe. https://wellnessmama.com/2575/natural-sports-drink/
  5. Kyle Levers, M.S. CSCS. Nature’s Gatorade: Effectiveness of Coconut Water on Electrolyte and Carbohydrate Replacement. https://www.huffinesinstitute.org/Resources/Articles/ArticleID/413/NATURES-GATORADE-Effectiveness-of-Coconut-Water-on-Electrolyte-and-Carbohydrate-Replacement

8 Optimal Fuel Sources for Increased Sports Performance & Energy

If you’re an endurance athlete, then chances are, you know just how important nutrition is when it comes to supporting your body before, during, and after training. However, did you know that there are some foods that can directly play a role in how well your body recovers and can help give you that boost of energy you need to power through endurance training? Not all fuel sources are created equal, and some foods help to support the body better than others.

We are going to explore eight optimal fuel sources for increased sports performance and energy, and talk about exactly what the studies show and why you may want to consider adding these foods to your diet!

Sports Performance, Cycling, Triathlon, Running

8 Optimal Fuel Sources for Increased Sports Performance & Energy

#1 Quinoa: Complex carbohydrates play an important role in supporting energy levels when it comes to sports performance. Carbohydrates help to replenish glycogen stores in the body after intense exercise. They also provide a quick source of energy before training or before an athletic event. Quinoa makes for an excellent fuel source before or after athletic training as it’s rich in plant-based protein, racking in eight grams per cup. This makes quinoa a delicious post training carbohydrate to not only refuel glycogen stores but to also help support muscle recovery.

#2 Rolled Oats: Oats are another complex carbohydrate option that can make a great addition to your diet when supporting sports performance and energy. Complex carbs that are rich in dietary fiber can help sustain overall energy levels for much longer periods of time than refined carbohydrates with very little fiber. A bowl of oatmeal in the morning with some fiber-rich fruits like berries can be an excellent pre-training meal.

#3 Avocados: Rich in healthy fat, dietary fiber, and magnesium, avocados make an excellent fuel source for supporting optimal sports performance and energy levels. Athletes can enjoy half of an avocado blended into a post-training smoothie or enjoyed as a quick refuel snack between training sessions with some freshly squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkle of sea salt.

#4 Berries: Berries are super rich in antioxidants to help combat inflammation, and are also rich in dietary fiber. Berries can also be a delicious fuel source during training or can be blended into your post-workout shake. A study looked at blueberries and their impact on exercise performance time and inflammatory markers in the body. The outcome was promising, proving that blueberries may help boost exercise performance while also decreasing inflammatory markers. Try enjoying blueberries regularly as a healthy snack or added to smoothies or on top of a bowl of quinoa flakes, yogurt, or oatmeal.

#5 Sweet Potatoes: If you’re a sweet potato fan, keep enjoying them because they are rich in complex carbohydrates to help restore your body’s glycogen stores, and are also rich in electrolytes potassium and magnesium. Sweet potatoes make for a delicious snack or side dish and can be enjoyed with healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado to make them an even better pre or post-training fuel source.

#6 Wild Caught Salmon: Intense training can cause inflammation in the body if you aren’t mindful of the foods you are nourishing your body with. With intense exercise, it’s important to consume a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods to help combat any inflammation put on the body through intense athletic training. Wild-caught salmon happens to be a great anti-inflammatory food option that is also rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein to help support your body’s energy levels before, during, and after training.

#7 Coconut Oil: Coconut oil makes a great addition to your athletic training diet plan for many reasons. Not only does coconut serve as an excellent fat and fuel source, but the medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil travel to the liver and are used as an immediate source of energy to fuel the body. Studies have also found that lauric and capric acid, both of which are found in coconut oil, are two of the primary fatty acid fuel sources for aerobic metabolism and for supporting athletic performance.

Coconut oil also helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. It’s essential for endurance athletes to consume enough healthy fats to help the body absorb and utilize these important vitamins.

Lastly, coconut oil may benefit the endurance athlete due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Since intense athletic training can strain the body’s muscles and joints, you will want to do everything you can to reduce that inflammation. A study also found that virgin coconut oil holds analgesic effects, making it a great natural way to help combat joint and muscle pain that is often associated with endurance athletic training.

Try adding coconut oil to your sports performance diet by adding a tablespoon to your post-training smoothie or shake, or try adding it to your cup of coffee for an added energy boost.

#8 Cherries: This tart fruit can make an ideal fuel source for endurance athletes, and can easily be incorporated into the diet. Cherries can be beneficial for athletes for a couple of different reasons. For one, studies have found that cherries can help support better sleep which is an integral part of recovering from intense exercise. Cherries contain melatonin, one of the hormones that helps support a good night sleep. In addition to supporting better sleep, cherries also hold impressive antioxidant benefits, making them a great food choice to help athletes fight off inflammation. Inflammation can be a big cause of muscle and joint pain in endurance athletes, so adding foods to help combat some of that can be super beneficial. Lastly, cherries can help support the immune system, an important part of supporting your body during intense athletic training. Long-term intense endurance training can put stress on the immune system, so it is important to combat that with optimal nutrition. By supporting your body with powerful immune-boosting foods like cherries, you can help reduce your risk of getting sick after being run down from big athletic events.

Sports Performance, Cycling, Triathlon, Running

The Takeaway

So, let’s sum this up. What foods should you be adding to your diet to increase sports performance and energy, and how can you go about enjoying more of these foods on a regular basis?

Here are some takeaway points to help you get started.

  • Enjoy a bowl of oatmeal with fresh berries and a drizzle of raw honey as a pre-training meal.
  • Enjoy quinoa instead of refined carbohydrates like white pasta and white rice. Add quinoa to salads, or enjoy with some dark leafy greens and a wild-caught salmon filet.
  • Enjoy a sweet potato with a drizzle of coconut oil as a quick refuel option after intense training.
  • Add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet to reduce inflammation and pain and help you train better and longer! Add things like cherries, berries, and coconut oil to your diet.
  • Add a half of a sliced avocado to a post-training shake or smoothie for added fat, fiber, and magnesium to help reduce muscle cramps and support energy levels.

Optimal nutrition is such a key component of athletic training, and can really make a difference in your overall energy and performance levels. Use the power of nutrition to your advantage to fuel your body right and avoid ever feeling depleted. Try adding these foods to your diet to help combat exercise-induced inflammation, support the immune system, and provide your body with foods that will support optimal sources of energy so that you can get the most out of every single training session.

There is, of course, always a caveat with nutrition, and it’s up to the athlete to figure out what works best for them. I advise keeping a food diary and inputting how each food/s make you feel, any adverse effects, etc. You also need to figure out which food/s work best for you in terms of budget, preparation time, ease of eating (don’t eat a burrito in your car!), and of course any potential allergic reactions. Just like anything else, practice = perfect! Over time, and with experimenting with various foods, you’ll find what works best for you, your body, and your athletic performance.

Resources

  1. Quinoa VS Rice: Which Foods has More Nutritional Value? UPMC. https://share.upmc.com/2018/04/quinoa-vs-brown-rice-nutrition/
  2. Park, Kwak, Seo, Kim (2018) NCBI. Assessing the Value of Blueberries Intake on Exercise Performance, TAS, and Inflammatory Factors. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6124147/
  3. Thomas Campbell MD. (2014) T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. How Sweet is a Sweet Potato? Pretty Sweet! https://nutritionstudies.org/how-sweet-is-a-sweet-potato/
  4. Lyudinina, Ivankova, Bojko (2018) Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Priority use of Medium-Chain Fatty Acids During High-Intensity Exercise in Cross-Country Skiers. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0265-4#Sec12
  5. Intahphuak, Khonsung, Panthong (2010) NCBI. Anti-inflammatory, Analgesic, and Antipyretic Activities of Virgin Coconut Oil. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20645831
  6. University Health News Daily. Tart Cherry Juice Sleep Solutions: Beat Insomnia with This Natural Remedy. https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/sleep/the-tart-cherry-juice-sleep-solution-tart-cherry-juice-benefits-include-beating-insomnia/
  7. Linda Wallenfels (2016( The Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice for Endurance Atheletes. https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/the-benefits-of-tart-cherry-juice-for-endurance-athletes/
  8. Karl Riecken (2015) Training for Endurance Sports and Your Immune System. https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/training-for-endurance-sports-and-your-immune-system/

The Ketogenic Diet and Its Effects on Endurance Performance

You often hear about the Ketogenic (keto) diet when people are trying to lose weight; often times a significant amount of it. People will often boast about how they lost 10-15 lbs within the first month on the keto diet. For those who are accustomed to eating high-carbohydrate diets, this is normal and perhaps even expected. This is mostly the result of the release of excess glycogen and water that carbs often hold onto. Without the carbs, less water and glycogen is stored in the skeletal muscle tissue. 

But how does this affect one’s endurance performance? Is this an effective dieting methodology to utilize to prepare for competition? Is it an effective nutritional intervention whatsoever?


It’s Not So Simple

There are several studies out there that support the notion that it doesn’t make a difference where it counts. You’ll figure out what I mean by that in a minute.

In a study that tested ultra-marathoners and triathletes, they found out that after performing both a maximally graded incline treadmill test along with a 180 minute submaximal run at 64% of VO2 max, there were no differences between the high-carbohydrate and low-carbohydrate diet groups in the level of muscle glycogen in the muscle after exercise and even 2 hours post-workout [1]. 

Now, this occurred while the energy utilization completely differed between the two groups. In the low-carb group, fat oxidation (the process of fat being released into the bloodstream to be burned for use) was over 2x higher than in the high-carb group.

Okay, well they may have performed similarly, but the low-carb group lost more fat, right? Well again…

It’s not so simple!

Keto Diet

Effects on Body Composition

You’d probably be surprised to find out that following a low-carb keto diet won’t make you lose fat any faster either! To this date, all studies comparing keto diets to standard moderate carb diets, with protein and calories equal between the groups, have shown no fat loss advantage [2]. Researchers postulate that favorable fat loss advantages are often seen in those who follow the keto diet because they also inadvertently increase their protein intake [3].

However, there does seem to be an advantage that the keto diet has that standard diets don’t; it effects appetite regulation. Study after study has shown that individuals often unconsciously reduce their calorie intake when following a strict keto diet, as dietary fats have a greater effect on hunger than carbohydrates do, independent of protein consumption [4]. Because of this, it may be a smart move to utilize this type of diet if you constantly battle with hunger while dieting.  

Should You Even Bother?

Well. that’s a tough question. Because there’s actually some compelling research out there to prove that utilizing it to an extent may enhance performance. 

Without getting too deep into the physiological mechanisms of keto, basically, keto uses an energy source called ketones (once you’re adapted to the diet) instead of glucose for energy. Glucose, when converted to glycogen, is what is normally used for energy from carbohydrate. However, in its absence, it utilizes the next best thing; ketones, also known as ketone bodies. 

These ketones have become available in many sports supplements in the form of salts; often referred to as exogenous ketones. Researchers believe that while utilizing a moderate carb diet, supplementing with these salts may help to increase glycogen replenishment after exercise and help to promote skeletal muscle recovery [5]. In this scenario, we get the “best of both worlds” and we theoretically have energy coming from multiple sources, increasing our efficiency and output. 

But don’t get too excited just yet. These keto supplements are still relatively in their infancy stages on the supplement market. Therefore, more evidence is needed in order to make this a more definitive claim. 

Keto Diet

It Just Doesn’t Seem Meant To Be…For Now

With the current research we have out right now (which is surprisingly limited in athletes), the general trend seems to fall towards a negative impact in several training variables. These include heart rate, level of perceived effort, and overall training quality [6]. This seems especially evident when performing at higher levels of intensity, as one reaches closer to the muscle glycogen utilization threshold, where carbohydrate loading techniques would often be employed.

On the other side of the coin, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here either. Some researchers have trouble understanding why some people are “high-responders” and “low-responders” to the keto diet. For example, a few of the individuals that were a part of a group of ultramarathoners appeared to perform better while on the keto diet. Researchers believe this to be because ultramarathons are more slowly paced than standard marathons, they rely more on fat stores, therefore, making it the superior fuel source [1]. But again, like with all things in research, this necessitates further examination. 

The Bottom Line

I hate to leave you all like this, but that is what I must do. I must leave you with an inconclusive ending.

There’s still much research to be done in this field. There simply haven’t been enough tests conducted and hypothesis’ tested in order to get an in-depth grasp of keto’s mechanisms on performance. But for now, it seems to be leading in the direction that carbs are still king. 

You may hear even more conflicting evidence in places such as social media, with advocates touting how great it is for performance. But remember, what works for them may not work for you. Hey, some people have actually performed better with it. Sometimes, you must treat yourself as your own test “subject” in order to see how these things affect you personally. Therefore, at least you can give yourself some data to work with!

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References

  1. Volek, J. S., Freidenreich, D. J., Saenz, C., Kunces, L. J., Creighton, B. C., Bartley, J. M., . . . Phinney, S. D. (2016). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism, 65(3), 100-110. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2015.10.028
  2. Aragon, A. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Wildman, R., Kleiner, S., Vandusseldorp, T., Taylor, L., . . . Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: Diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
  3. Soenen, S., Bonomi, A. G., Lemmens, S. G., Scholte, J., Thijssen, M. A., Berkum, F. V., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2012). Relatively high-protein or ‘low-carb’ energy-restricted diets for body weight loss and body weight maintenance? Physiology & Behavior, 107(3), 374-380. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.08.004
  4. Sumithran, P., Prendergast, L. A., Delbridge, E., Purcell, K., Shulkes, A., Kriketos, A., & Proietto, J. (2013). Ketosis and appetite-mediating nutrients and hormones after weight loss. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(7), 759-764. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.90
  5. Evans, M., Cogan, K. E., & Egan, B. (2016). Metabolism of ketone bodies during exercise and training: Physiological basis for exogenous supplementation. The Journal of Physiology, 595(9), 2857-2871. doi:10.1113/jp273185
  6. Burke, L. M., & Hawley, J. A. (2002). Effects of short-term fat adaptation on metabolism and performance of prolonged exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,34(9), 1492-1498. doi:10.1097/00005768-200209000-00015

Understanding FTP: VLa Max vs. Vo2 Max

Realizing your full potential, being the best you can be—it’s something many people strive for. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your career, relationship, or favorite video game. Trying to become the best you can be is universally understood. In sport—it’s the main objective. It doesn’t matter what you play, the number one goal is always the same. To get better. 

Unfortunately, the human body, our physiology, isn’t entirely understood. New theories and methods are endlessly tested to find the ultimate equation to maximize athletic performance. The pieces of the puzzle aren’t all in place—but it’s coming together. The picture is becoming clearer. 

We understand the general principals governing how our bodies work. This allows us to create effective programs and workouts, but we still don’t know enough about individual variability to address the unique training needs of every person. 

The dynamic relationship of our energy systems (anaerobic and aerobic for the sake of this article) is a good example of something we don’t entirely understand. The research is still underway. But, luckily we know enough to move us in the right direction. 

In endurance events, it’s understood that our Vo2max is an indicator of how well you will perform. But, what if someone has the same Vo2max as you – who’s gonna win?

Correct – It depends on other factors. Good job. 

The sections below outline the relationship between the two main contributors to endurance performance—aerobic capacity (Vo2max) and anaerobic capacity (VLamax).

FTP, VLa Max, VO2 Max

What are Vo2max and VLamax?

Vo2max (ml/kg/min): 

This is aerobic capacity. Vo2max, or maximal oxygen consumption, refers to the amount of oxygen someone can use during max effort exercise. This is widely considered the gold standard for evaluating cardiorespiratory fitness.

VLamax (mmol/s/l): 

This is anaerobic capacity, or the maximum rate of energy production by the glycolytic system. It is sometimes designated by the term VLamax or maximum production of lactate. In reality this is the maximum rate of production of pyruvate and lactate but since lactate is what is measured “La” has been used for this term. Clear as mud, right?

You’ll remember from a recent article about the Sweet Spot vs. Zone 2 debate in which I detail the change in lactate production from aerobic to anaerobic energy production:

In exercise where lots of oxygen is present (aerobic) your body will produce more pyruvate and less lactate. When you continue to push yourself into the higher power zones and above your lactate threshold, oxygen levels in the cells will decrease and you will go into anaerobic energy production, thus producing increased lactate and decreased pyruvate.  Continue to push harder and the levels of lactate produced will continue to increase while pyruvate levels decrease. I.e. the fuel ‘mixture’ of fat (pyruvate) to carbohydrate (lactate) changes as an athlete works closer to their individual lactate threshold.

So, we’re always producing pyruvate and lactate, but as the oxygen levels in the cells decrease, i.e. you start to push the pedals harder, the body will convert more pyruvate to lactate and your lactate concentrations will increase. Since we can’t easily measure pyruvate, but can lactate, we have VLa Max… Capeesh?

Why Does it Matter for Performance?

When it comes down to it, Vo2max and VLamax are comparisons of your aerobic and anaerobic systems. The relative strengths of these two systems will determine your performance capabilities.

As an endurance athlete, the %Vo2 you can maintain is directly related to how strong your anaerobic energy system is. The stronger your anaerobic system is, the more it will contribute at any given intensity. This makes you reach threshold faster—reducing your endurance capacity. “Shayne, this is the most confusing article EVER, dude”. Hang on a sec, here’s are example…

Example – Think about two cyclists with the same aerobic capacity; Let’s say 55ml/kg/min, and identical lactate buffering abilities. Cyclist 1 has a VLa of .7 mmol/s/l and cyclist 2 has a VLa of .2mmol/s/l. During exercise, cyclist 1 will experience blood lactate accumulation faster than cyclist 2 because of their higher VLa. As a result cyclist 1 will fatigue at a lower percentage of their Vo2max than cyclist 2. HOWEVER, cyclist 1 will crush cyclist 2 in a sprint, or short steep hill climb.

So, to K.I.S.S. – IF you need to produce lots of power for a short duration, THEN having a higher VLa is desired, BUT IF you need to go long and keep power down forever, THEN having a lower VLa is desired.

How you train will have a significant impact on how your energy systems adapt and interact. Obviously the way your systems function can be improved—that’s why you train. 

But what’s the right balance of training to optimize your adaptation?

No matter what event you’re training for—you will rely on all of your energy systems. 

“Designing a workout to induce just one specific biological adaptation is impossible. Most of the time there is a major effect (class effect) coupled with minor effects whether desired or not.” 


– Olbrecht, “The science of winning”
FTP, VLa Max, VO2 Max.

What Does it Mean for Training?

A basic principle of physiology that’s important to understand when considering how to improve your performance is the dimmer switch effect. A dimmer switch allows you to adjust it across a spectrum of levels based on your needs. The energy systems of your body operate in a similar way. 

See, your body uses three different systems to get energy (yes, I am combining the 2 CP systems, nerd!). All three are always on but the amount each contributes depends on the energy demands of activity. Each one supplies energy at a different rate and a different quantity. The fastest system supplies the least amount of energy; while the slowest system produces the most- this is your aerobic system. Your anaerobic system is somewhere in the middle.

Example:

Let’s use fireworks…so, your Creatine Phosphate (CP) system is like a firecracker producing a lot of energy, but for a very short amount of time. Next up is your anaerobic system (VLa) which is more like a sparkler producing a fair amount of energy, but for just a few minutes. Lastly is your aerobic system (VO2) which is like a lighter, producing enough energy to get the job done, and will continue to burn low and slow as long as there is fuel in the tank.

Huh, huh, huh huh FIRE! FIRE!

Sorry, I had to… Back on topic, Shayne! C’mon, man!

Low intensity exercise requires less energy allowing us to use our slowest, most efficient energy system with only small contributions from the other two. As your exercise intensity changes, the contribution ratio of each energy system also changes.  More intensity means more energy in less time. Your aerobic system will start to contribute less as your anaerobic system turns up. 

The dominant system or systems, the ones that are “stressed”, will experience training adaptation. Any system that isn’t needed will not be trained and will experience a decrease in functional capacity. 

How you train changes the amount each system will adapt. By emphasizing endurance training you’re going to up regulate aerobic contributions and down regulate anaerobic contributions—and vice versa. Focusing on speed and intensity will improve anaerobic functioning but limit your aerobic system. 

To find the right balance, you need to strategically vary your training sessions. Identify your training goals to help you determine the types of sessions to emphasize in your programming. 

If you’re training for endurance events the vast majority of your training should emphasize your aerobic energy system—around 80% of all training. The results of this are two-fold—your anaerobic system gets weaker and your aerobic system gets stronger.

Nutritional Suggestions

As an athlete with a higher anaerobic contribution, you should consume more carbohydrate before and during exercise. If you rely more on carbs and glycolysis, your blood sugar levels are going to decrease more quickly. During competition using a carbohydrate supplement will help maintain your blood sugar.

Another word of advice, if you have a very high intensity workout planned for the day, make sure you’re eating a carbohydrate-rich meal before and after your workout. This will ensure you have enough glucose to get through the workout, as well as replenish glycogen stores afterwards.

Regular dietary habits can also impact substrate use during exercise. If you have a high-fat diet, your body promotes systems that use fat more than carbohydrate. During exercise this translates to less glucose use and longer workouts. So, if you are trying to improve your aerobic capacity, eating more fat and less carbohydrate throughout the day, as well as doing some workouts fasted is a way to ‘bio-hack’ the system and get you greater results in less time.

FTP, VLa Max, VO2 Max

Conclusion

Properly adjusting training intensities to fit your overall training goals will result in an overall more effective program. While there are some nutritional suggestions, our performance abilities will be reflected largely by our choice in training. Make sure you’re applying Specificity and Progressive Overload to whatever system/s you’re trying to improve. Lastly, as one system becomes up-regulated (improves), the other will become down-regulated (worsen), and there are just a few genetic ‘freaks’ that are good at everything. If you are struggling with moving up in the ranks, you may want to adjust your training to further improve your strengths, and change what events / races you want to ‘peak’ for… Or maybe you want to try and improve your weaknesses instead… We can’t lose the art of coaching in all this ‘sciencey’ stuff after all!

Improving Anaerobic Threshold (AT) / FTP

Athletes reach anaerobic threshold (AT) due to their muscles inability to keep pace with the energy demands of activity. When our muscles can no longer meet these demands hydrogen ions begin to accumulate, increasing the acidity within the muscles, and impairing the muscles’ ability to perform, i.e. you get DROPPED. This can happen due to either a lack of available oxygen, or a lack of mitochondrial ability. Through increases in our ability to deliver oxygen and mitochondrial activity, we can increase the muscle’s ability to produce energy. This can be accomplished through the improvement of at least two different physiological variables—increased mitochondrial density and angiogenesis.

Increases in Mitochondrial Density

Our mitochondria, as you probably know from high school biology, are known as:

The powerhouse of the cell.

-Every biology teacher, EVER.
Anaerobic Threshold, FTP.

This means they’re responsible for producing a vast majority of the energy (ATP) we need. This is accomplished through our electron transport chain or ETC. The ETC is located along the walls of the mitochondria and uses hydrogen ions (H) to synthesize ATP. After creating ATP, the H ions need to be removed from the mitochondria—this is where oxygen comes into play. Oxygen combines with two hydrogen ions to form water.

Now these same hydrogen ions can also play a role in the buildup of lactate if the ETC gets “backed up”. The ETC gets backed up when oxygen isn’t present to accept hydrogen ions at the end of the process, i.e. your body enters anaerobic metabolism. When hydrogen ions can’t be moved through the ETC, they combine with pyruvate to form lactate. This lactate formation helps slow the increase of acidity in the muscles. The lactate is shipped off to other parts of the body to be re-purposed. To increase the capacity of a muscle, it must be able to process more hydrogen. This electron transport system respiratory state increases (by 25%) much more in response to HIIT training, whereas typical endurance training shows much less improvement, i.e. a non-significant 9% increase (2). So, if you struggle with repeated hard surges, or struggle with recovering quickly after a very hard effort, your ETC is becoming “backed up” too quickly… More HIIT training for you!

Promoting Angiogenesis

Angiogenesis is the formation of new vasculature due to hormonal and mechanical related signaling.

The mechanisms by which this process occurs are not entirely understood but have been observed after exercise training. As previously mentioned, oxygen delivery is a key component in mitochondrial functioning due to it’s role in the electron transport chain. Without oxygen the ETC can’t function. Oxygen is delivered to working muscle, and subsequently the ETC, through our vasculature. When we breathe, oxygen defuses from our lungs into our bloodstream and makes its way through the body. As it travels through the bloodstream oxygen diffuses into working muscle, allowing it to be used for hydrogen acceptance. Theoretically, if more oxygen can be delivered to the working muscles, then the ETC can function at a greater capacity, delaying the onset of anaerobic threshold. So if the capillary surface area interacting with muscles increases more oxygen will be able to enter the cells.

Research shows that exercise can induce angiogenesis in the capillary beds around skeletal muscles. An increased capillarization has been observed in training studies performed at 70–80% of VO2 Max whereas training at an intensity of 45% of VO2 max has been shown to have no effect on capillarization(1). This suggests that engaging in exercise at or just below threshold will promote angiogenesis. This is one of the many reasons we have our athletes utilize Sweet Spot focused training throughout the course of their season, but especially during their base phase.

Anaerobic threshold, FTP.

Improving Anaerobic Threshold 

Based on the information above it seems as though 2 main specific types of training will promote the adaptations needed in order to improve anaerobic threshold.

  1. Working CLOSE to threshold for extended periods of time, i.e. 2x20s.
  2. Performing HIIT WELL OVER threshold with brief rests, i.e. 30/30s, Tabata sets, etc.

Research has demonstrated that training at higher intensities is more effective than low-moderate training at improving mitochondrial function and the formation of new vessels through angiogenesis. Try to incorporate the following training methods into your program in order to improve your aerobic capacity and delay the onset of anaerobic threshold. 

Working CLOSE to Threshold

One method of improving your anaerobic threshold will come from training at or near your threshold. This level of intensity is also referred to as maximum lactate steady state (MLSS), and should be CLOSE to your FTP.
At this intensity, you’re putting a significant amount of stress on the system without going over the lactate tipping point. Depending on your training status, you can estimate the heart rate range, or power output, right around your threshold. Typically, this is equivalent to 70-80% of your VO2 Max.

REMEMBER, a 20 minute FTP test is an ESTIMATE of your anaerobic threshold, and you may need to modulate the % FTP you’re working at to ensure you’re working close your MLSS. In my opinion, most FTP tests OVER-estimate anaerobic threshold, and the Sweet Spot range (88-95% FTP) is actually closer to MLSS.

If you want a more accurate method of establishing your anaerobic threshold, I recommend utilizing software like INSCYD, or getting a true lactate threshold test at a lab.

HIIT

Interval workouts comprise of alternating short, high-intensity bouts followed by periods of active recovery. Typically, the high-intensity portion of the workout is performed at levels above lactate threshold. For well-trained individuals, this level will be close to their max effort. For untrained people, intervals should typically be performed between 120-150% of your FTP. This method of training is well documented to improve the lactate thresholds of both trained and untrained individuals.

A word of caution though, if you are relatively untrained, err on the side of caution with HIIT training as the power output required can lead to injuries and burnout if overdone.

However, if you are VERY well trained, taking a polarized approach can help you get to that ‘next level’. This typically entails an ’80/20′ approach where 80% of your training is performed at very low intensities (Zone 1/2) and the remaining 20% is performed at an all out intensity (Zone 6+). You also need to have a ton of training time available to squeeze the most out of this approach.

Conclusion

Hopefully this helps to shed some light on what is happening at a physiological level when you’re training, and what a good training program should be composed of that is focused at improving FTP. However, just like anything, every athlete is different and will respond better or worse to training stimuli. It’s up to the athlete, and coach, to utilize historical data and make educated decision on what works best for them. The more individualized you can make your training, the further you’ll progress in less time.

References

  1. Jensen, L et al. “Effect of high intensity training on capillarization and presence of angiogenic factors in human skeletal muscle” Journal of physiology vol. 557,Pt 2 (2004): 571-82.
  2. Lundby, C et al. “Adaptations of skeletal muscle mitochondria to exercise training” Journal of Experimental Physiology 101.1 (2016) pp 17–22

Triathlon: Swim, Bike, Run… and Eat?

As an endurance athlete myself, and working with triathletes, I always say that the fourth part of a triathlon is optimal nutrition. Without fueling your body with what it needs, your body may not perform as well as it could, and you run the risk of burning yourself out, both mentally and physically.

While many athletes are incredibly driven when it comes to their athletic training schedules, getting serious about the foods you put in your body is just as important.

In this article, we are going to talk about why fueling your body right is just as important as the training aspect of getting your body in peak shape for a triathlon.

Triathlon, Nutrition

The Importance of Nutrition for Endurance Athletes

When it comes to fueling your body for a triathlon, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Nutrition for endurance athletes really encompasses what you will eat before, during, and after training. For triathletes, this is super important simply because of how rigorous training for a triathlon can be.

When you train for a triathlon, you are training for multiple different athletic events such as swimming, cycling, or running that will all occur during the triathlon. As you can imagine, your body is going to need some additional fuel to power through these athletic events. Not only will nourishing your body with the right foods help to support exercise endurance, but a healthy and balanced diet can help keep you healthy and reduce the risk of becoming depleted in certain nutrients.

Nutrition for athletes training for a triathlon is also very important for recovery. Since training can be hard on the muscles and joints, it’s important to fuel the body with clean protein sources to help nourish those tired muscles and promote optimal recovery. The body will also require adequate amounts of carbohydrates to help restore depleted glycogen stores.

Nutritional Guidelines for Triathletes

To help support energy reserves, it’s important for endurance athletes to get enough carbohydrates to support energy demands, protein to help repair worked muscles, and healthy fats to support energy and satiety. Adding a variety of fruits and vegetables to the diet can also help ensure that athletes are getting a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to help them stay in tip-top shape.

Here are some general macronutrient requirements to keep in mind when training for a triathlon.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are essential for the endurance athlete, and they will serve as an immediate fuel source both during training and during the actual triathlon. It’s important to make sure that you are consuming enough complex carbohydrates as carbohydrate depletion can lead to things like fatigue, poor concentration, and poor athletic performance. It’s important to nourish your body with enough carbohydrates to help restore those glycogen stores that may have been depleted during athletic training. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 6-10 grams of carbs per kg of body weight per day. The actual amount you will want to get will depend on your physical fitness level and how long you train. Your body will require closer to the higher end of that range the longer you train and the more active you are each day.

Quality is also super important as you don’t want to consume just any type of carbohydrate. Strive to enjoy complex carbohydrates from things like fruits, veggies, and other fiber-rich options like rolled oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, or brown rice.

Protein: Protein is going to play an essential role in supporting muscle recovery throughout training and even before, during, and after the triathlon. The general guideline for low to moderate endurance athletic training is about 1.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. For very intense endurance training, that recommendation goes up to 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.

Fats: It’s important to get enough healthy fat in the diet for a couple of reasons. For one, fats serve as another great energy source. Although the primary and immediate fuel source for athletes is carbohydrates, the carbohydrate stores in the body are limited to approximately 2,000 calories. During an intense athletic event like a triathlon, your body is going to need fat to help prevent the body from completely burning through and using up those carbohydrate stores. Since there are plenty of fat stores in the body, consuming enough healthy fats during training and as a regular part of a healthy diet can help ensure that your body is going to have the nutrient stores it needs throughout a triathlon. 

Triathlon, Nutrition

What About Nutrition DURING a Triathlon?

Since a triathlon involves three different endurance training events, it’s important to know that as you progress through each stage of the triathlon, your body requires different energy as well as nutritional needs.

One of the most important things to remember is to stay adequately hydrated and to replace those lost electrolytes you will be excreting through sweat. Staying hydrated can also help prevent cramps as you go through each event.

In addition to hydration, you also want to make sure that you are fueling your body with the right foods before the triathlon begins. You will want to enjoy your pre-event meal about 2-2.5 hours before the race starts, and aim for 1-2 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight. It is also recommended that you stick to foods you have enjoyed in the past to avoid introducing anything new that could potentially cause stomach upset. Stick to something fairly bland like oatmeal and fruit. NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY!

During the triathlon, you will also need to continue to fuel your body to support energy demands. It is recommended that athletes consume 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Consuming healthy sources of carbohydrates throughout training is essential since carbohydrate stores in the body are limited. To make sure the body doesn’t run out, you can snack on things like sports granola bars or fruit. Just be sure to choose a food source that is free from any artificial ingredients and avoid anything with artificial sweeteners to avoid potential stomach distress.

After the triathlon is over, it’s time to support your body and replenish glycogen stores and nourish your tired muscles with the right foods. You will also want to rehydrate right away. Strive to consume a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal after the event with about 20-25 grams of protein.

The Best Foods to Fuel Your Body Right

So, we know that fueling your body right is an essential part of training and participating in a triathlon, but there is more to eating enough carbs, protein, and fat. Quality also matters, as quality is king when it comes to how well your body will perform.

Here are some great options when it comes to fueling your body with the right foods.

Healthy Carbohydrate Options

  • Rolled oats
  • Brown rice & brown rice pasta
  • Sports bars that are free from artificial ingredients
  • Fruits
  • Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes

Healthy Protein Options

  • Grass-fed meat
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Eggs
  • Unsweetened Greek yogurt
  • Nuts & Seeds

Healthy Fat Options

  • Avocados
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts & Seeds
Triathlon, Nutrition

The Takeaway

To help break this all down, here’s a reference on how you can fuel your body right when training for a triathlon.

  • Support your body with enough complex carbohydrates getting 6-10 grams of carbs per kg of body weight per day.
  • Aim to get 1-1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day.
  • Consume enough healthy fats each day to help support energy levels and prevent burning through your carbohydrate stores too quickly.
  • Enjoy a carbohydrate-rich meal about 2-2.5 hours before the triathlon with 1-2 grams of carbs per kg of body weight.
  • Consume about 30 grams of carbohydrates per hour during the triathlon.
  • Enjoy 20-25 grams of protein with some complex carbohydrates after the event to help support muscle recovery and to replenish glycogen stores.

Optimal nutrition is such a key piece to athletic training. Getting the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat is a critical part of making sure your body is nourished and can make a massive difference in how well you train. Strive to make nutrition a key part of your training plan, and use it as a tool to help you get the most out of your training, be at your best on race day, and recover more efficiently!


If you’re looking to learn more about sports nutrition, create flexible, sustainable, and indefinite habits when it comes to healthy food choices, and have a knowledgable Coach in your corner throughout the process, check out our Nutrition Coaching program.

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Sweet Spot vs. Zone 2 for ⬆️ Aerobic Capacity

Base training is a traditional phase of cycling periodization and is utilized by coaches and athletes alike to prepare their bodies for the greater physiological demands the build and peak phases bring, increase aerobic capacity while ideally maintaining anaerobic capacity, increase sport specific strength, and improve pedaling technique if needed; essentially you are training for the sake of training and improving, not for a specific race or goal. There has always been much debate over what ‘camp’ an athlete should choose – Traditional or Sweet Spot. This article will hopefully serve to make your choice a little easier, and if not, feel free to scathe me in the comments 😉


Why ‘Base’ Train?

Base training is all about bettering your aerobic capacity, improving your body’s ability to use fat versus carbohydrate to meet the energy demands of the muscle, and increase the percentage of VO2 Max at which you burn primarily fat (this can be lower than 50% for untrained athletes, and 90% for highly trained).

The key here is to stimulate and progressively overload your aerobic system WITHOUT having a huge accumulation of lactate (i.e. going above your ‘lactate threshold’). If you continually go above your lactate threshold and sustain it for a length of time, your body will prefer carbohydrate over fat to meet energy demands of the muscle due to carbohydrate being a more efficient supplier of energy (with caveats of course).

Zone 2 for 1 hour

Sweet Spot, Zone 2
Image Credit – TrainingPeaks

1 hour at Zone 2 steady state (.65 IF) will provide approximately 42 TSS/hour.

Sweet Spot 2×20 Minute Intervals

Sweet Spot, Zone 2
Image Credit – TrainingPeaks

A 1 hour Sweet Spot focused workout (.9 IF intervals) produces 69 TSS, or roughly 30 TSS/hour more compared to Zone 2. Said another way, Sweet Spot training can produce roughly 40% more training stress per hour compared to Zone 2 with similar physiological changes and benefits! This is why GC Coaching uses it so frequently with our athletes that are on a time budget.

Planning your training off TSS is a great way to truly know if your training density is enough to create a positive return on your training time investment, and something I highly recommend you doing. Plus, it removes the guesswork from training and actually simplifies things once you understand it.

Now, let’s talk about the 2 methods of base training relevant to this article a little more…

What is the ‘Traditional’ way to Base Train?

Traditional base training involves doing A LOT of long duration riding at low to moderate intensity (i.e. Zone 2) with the goals of increasing capillary density, mitochondrial density, muscular endurance, and mental strength (pain tolerance). This sounds great in theory, but is it just an archaic way of thinking and training? Yes and no…Yes for the athlete who does not have 20+ hours per week to train and needs to get a better return on their training time, and no for the athlete who has oodles of time to dedicate to their training (remember training density). Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water though…

I utilize zone 2 training with my athletes when they are coming out of their race season and into their off-season to give them a mental break and remind them that they can just ride their bikes for enjoyment. Then again during their transition phase to prepare their bodies for the higher volume and intensities to come. Zone 2 is also where you spend a lot of time when you are cruising in the peloton during a race, so you need to be used to spending hours in this zone before race season starts. Most importantly though, Zone 2 is more than appropriate for the athlete who can spend enough time in it to achieve the required training density (TSS) for progress. This just happens to occur VERY rarely in my experience as most athletes work full time, have families, and other obligations aside from pedaling their bikes… Being an adult is hard sometimes.

So, if you don’t have hours and hours to train like a professional athlete, what should you do to increase your aerobic capacity? That, my friends, is where Sweet Spot training comes in.

What is the Sweet Spot Zone?

The Sweet Spot zone is between 84-95% (make it simple, and call it 90%) of your FTP, think high zone 3 and low zone 4…

This is called the Sweet Spot zone because it is smack dab in the middle of where you get the best bang for your buck in terms of return on training time invested. You can spend a lot of quality time here without building up undue fatigue which allows for greater repeatability and increased training density over the course of a training block.

Let me say that again and really drive that thought home… You can spend a lot of quality time here without building up undue fatigue which allows for greater repeatability and increased training density over the course of a training block. The absolute KEY with sweet spot training is the time you spend working in it, and the frequency at which you repeat it per week. Remember, training density, is what matters for fitness progress. If you can’t make more time in your schedule, the only other way to increase density is through intensity (i.e. Zone 2 versus Sweet Spot).

Most importantly though, you can spend a lot less time in Sweet Spot compared to zone 2 training and get similar physiological improvements. Thought of another way, espresso and coffee have a similar caffeine content, but you need a lot less espresso to achieve the same caffeine buzz.

Another Consideration

I’ve seen thousands of FTP tests and analyzed data from hundreds of athletes over the years, and it is my opinion that the non-lab FTP tests (those without a lactate analyzer) over-estimate FTP. I say this because the definition of FTP is:

The power output that a well trained, fresh, and motivated athlete can hold in a quasi steady state for 1 hour.

This is definitely possible with very highly trained athletes, BUT in my experience, most athlete’s time to exhaustion (TTE) is in the 30-45 minute range at FTP, NOT 1 hour. So, I would argue that the Sweet Spot range is actually closer, and more accurate, to an athlete’s true FTP (as defined above) and is a better approximation of lactate threshold which is what an FTP test is trying to estimate, in essence.

Benefits of Sweet Spot Training

The above table helps to really hammer the training density point home. As you can see, zone 2 training does help to improve a myriad of aerobic factors, but you need to spend ample amounts of time working in this zone to reap the benefits. Now, look at the Sweet Spot zone, you can achieve the same increases in aerobic factors, but in half the time needed compared to zone 2.

This does not mean to go absolutely bananas and do every single workout at Sweet Spot zone. Figure out, or ask a coach :-), what your races for the season will need to be done at in terms of length and intensity. Then, match the amount of Sweet Spot training to this with a goal of being able to maintain Sweet Spot for the longest climb in the race, your longest TT, or criterium/cross race length. For example, if you are a Cat 5 road racer, you don’t need to be spending 2 hours working at Sweet Spot when your longest race of the season will be 60 minutes.

“This all sounds awesome, Shayne!  You are telling me I can can workout for half the time and get the same benefits!?”

Not so fast my friends…

Drawbacks of Sweet Spot Training

Refer back up to the physiological adaptations table, notice that Sweet Spot training does jack squat for your anaerobic system, neuromuscular power, and fast twitch muscle fibers? This is a huge issue because athletes who specialize in road races, criteriums, cyclocross events, and track races rely heavily upon their anaerobic systems and fast twitch muscle fibers to generate breakaway power, power up a short and steep incline, accelerate after a sharp turn, and get off the blocks as quickly as possible. So, make sure you are using the later stages of your off-season effectively and not just increasing your aerobic capacity if you plan on competing in any of these events! There will be another article regarding the ‘Build’ phase of a periodized plan which will be more appropriate to speak about that.

Another drawback of Sweet Spot training is the ride lengths usually aren’t long enough for certain athletes. For example, an athlete who specializes in road racing will typically spend 3 hours+ riding their bike during a typical road race, but if they are only spending 90 minutes on their bike at a time, even if they are working at a respectable intensity, chances are they will not have the muscular endurance or, pain tolerance, to last for 3+ hours and be able to produce a decent enough kick at the end to win. So, make sure you are still getting out for those longer rides at least a couple times a month in the winter to maintain your muscular endurance and mental fortitude!

Wrap it up Already!

As the winter closes in and your training time invariably decreases, don’t waste your time spinning aimlessly at zone 2 if you can’t achieve enough training density doing so!  Instead, include some Sweet Spot work into your routine and continue to watch your FTP and fitness rise steadily throughout the winter.  Remember to not just spin at Sweet Spot though as you will indubitably lose your anaerobic and neuromuscular power. Finally, zone 2 still has it’s purpose! It is beneficial for those athletes who have a ton of training time available, are burnt out from a long season of racing, coming back after injury, or preparing their bodies for the high volumes and intensity of the build phase. Whatever camp you choose, just keep pedaling 🙂

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