VO2 max and Cyclists: Important or Irrelevant

June 16, 2010

VO2 max is one of the most commonly measured physiological variables. Endurance athletes spend countless hours discussing, comparing and worrying about their VO2 max scores. Cyclists are always quoting VO2 max scores for one top rider or another. Is all the attention that this physiological variable gets really worth all the effort?

VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. It is a function of both the body’s ability to deliver oxygen via the heart, lung and blood and the body’s ability to use oxygen in the working muscles and other tissues.  While there are some exceptions, Elite cyclists typically have VO2 max scores in the 70-75 ml/kg/min range, similar to that seen in well trained amateur cyclists and some very fit age group riders. In an aerobic sport oxygen consumption is tightly tied to energy expenditure and generally producing more energy means more power and work. The relationship between power and oxygen consumption is not perfect; efficiency or economy play an important role in determining how strong the relationship is in each person.

Gross efficiency, the ratio of power output to power input, is a key determinant of cycling performance (1).  A higher efficiency allows a cyclist to work at lower percentages of the VO2 max to accomplish the same or more work as a less efficient cyclist. In fact, a high efficiency rating can make up for lower VO2 max scores. Alejandro Lucia and coworkers (2) from the Universidad Europea de Madrid examined the relationship between VO2 max and cycling efficiency and gross efficiency in a group of elite cyclists. The subjects in this study were all world class riders having won at least one major professional race, defined as stage in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana, or finished in the top three at the World Championships. Hemoglobin and hematocrit levels were measured prior to the start of the study to ensure they were within normal physiological ranges.  All subjects performed a VO2 max test following standard protocols.  Later the same day they performed a 20 minute constant load test where they road at 80% of their VO2 max. VO2 max values in the subjects varied from a high of 82.5 ml/kg/min to a low of 65.5 ml/kg/min. Cycling efficiency varied from 97.9 watts/L O2/min to 72.1 watts/L O2/min. There was a significant inverse correlation between VO2 max and cycling efficiency. This means that those with the higher VO2 max scores had the lowest efficiencies and those with lower VO2 max scores had higher efficiency. A similar pattern was seen in gross efficiency. Power to weight ratio at VO2 max was not significantly different between riders, they were all in the 4.9-5.4 W/kg range. Interestingly two of the most accomplished riders, a road race and time trial world champion and climbing specialist who had won five stages in the Tour de France both had VO2 max score under 70 ml/kg/min.

This study clearly shows that VO2 max is less important than efficiency in cycling performance and that a high level of efficiency can make up for a lower VO2 max. This pattern is not unique to cycling it has also been seen in running (3) and rowing. In an upcoming article we will look at the various factors that contribute to efficiency and how to improve your cycling efficiency.

So the next time someone start bragging about their VO2 max score ask them about their efficiency rating. Their high VO2 max may just mean that they are very inefficient riders.

  1. Coyle, E. (1995). Integration of the physiological factors determining endurance performance ability. Exerc Sport Sci rev. 23: 25-64.
  2. Lucia, A.  et al. (2002). Inverse relationship between VO2 max and economy/efficiency in world class cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 34: 2079-2084.
  3. Saltin et al. (1995). Morphology, enzyme activities, and buffer capacity of Kenyan and Scandinavian runners. Scand J. Med Sci Sports. 5: 222-230.

The Power Clean

June 14, 2010

The Olympic style lifts, the snatch, clean and jerk and their variations have become the basis of the strength and power programs for many sports. The primary reason for including these exercises in a program is to train the nervous system to maximally activate the muscles, resulting in greater speed and power while under load. Additionally some coaches feel that the movements used in the clean are similar to those used when the body starts to open during jumps and accelerating out of the athletic ready position. Athletes throughout the world use the Olympic style lifts yet there are many misconceptions and concerns about including them in a training program.


Many athletes and coaches worry about being injured while doing a clean or snatch. When done properly the Olympic style lifts are among the safest lifts. Back injuries in sports like golf, baseball, and football occur about twice as frequently as they do in Olympic lifting. The odds of developing a shoulder injury during the bench press are much greater than injuring your back during a clean, provided they are done properly.

Sets and Reps

The Olympic style lifts need to be explosive; power is the key to successfully using these exercises in your program. It is possible to muscle the weight up but it defeats the purpose of the exercise and increases the chance of injury. In order to keep these movements explosive and powerful sets need to be short. The anaerobic alactic energy system, which uses the ATP-CP stored in the muscles, is the only energy system that provides energy quickly enough to maintain the power output needed to make the Olympic style lifts effective. The anaerobic alactic system can provide energy for 10-12s of all out work, which is about four reps for a power clean or power snatch. There is no need to take these exercises to a failure point, so you should have a little left at the end of a set.

Choosing the Right Lifts

Table 1 shows a list of the Olympic style lifts and some of their variations. There are plenty to choose from, providing the opportunity for lots of variation in your program. The exercises that are chosen will be dependant on equipment and space available and the body structure of the athlete.

Clean Snatch Jerk
Power clean Power snatch Push Press
Hang clean Hang snatch Push Jerk
Clean pull from the floor Snatch pull form the floor Power Jerk
Clean pull from blocks Snatch pull from blocks

During the explosive second pull of the clean or snatch the weight is brought in against the legs high on the thighs, near the hips. This brings the bar close to the athlete’s center of gravity and allows the greatest power production. It also keep the bar moving close to the body, eliminating a swinging action away from the body that could potentially cause injury when the athlete tries to dip under the bar. To effectively perform the technique of either the snatch or clean the athlete must be able to get the bar into the right position. While this will not be a problem for the majority of athletes those with very long arms and short torsos may have difficulty performing the exercise properly. To test whether an athletes should be performing clean movements or snatch movements have the athlete assume the hang clean starting position demonstrated on the video, holding a broom stick in front of their body with an overhand grip. If the broom stick is sitting above the middle of their thigh they can safely perform clean and snatch exercises. If the broom stick is sitting below mid thigh ask the student to move their hands out to a snatch width grip and reexamine the bar placement. If sliding the hands out has moved the bar above mid thigh the student can perform snatch movements but not clean movements. If the bar is still not above mid thigh and the body position is correct the athlete should not be doing either clean movements or snatch movements.

The Jerk and variations can be safely performed by almost all athletes provided they have adequate flexibility through the wrists, shoulders and elbows to get into the correct body positions. Very tall athletes with long limbs may feel unstable during Jerk variations because the bar is so far above their center of gravity. These athletes should spend some time focusing on developing rotator cuff and shoulder strength before attempting these exercises.

If an athlete has physical limitations that prevent them from using the Olympic style lifts in their training this does not mean they cannot train for power development. Various plyometric jumps and jump throw combinations with medicine balls can be used instead.

Squatting Improves Speed

June 10, 2010

Modern strength training programs for athletes spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on using unstable surfaces, single leg exercises and balance training to improve speed, strength and power.  There is currently no research that shows that these types of training improves athletic performance (1) but it has been well established that training on unstable training results in significantly less force development and loads that will limit strength gains (2). All this balance and stability training has come at the cost of building strength in traditional exercises like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean yet these exercise have time and again been shown to be key to athletic performance. A recent study at Applalachian State University examined the relationship between squat strength and sprint speed(3).  The subjects were a group of 17 football players with an average height of 1.78m and an average weight of 85.9 kg.  1RM squat was assessed on the first day of the study. All subjects were required to squat to a 70o knee angle, making it a deeper squat than the 90o knee angle that many people use in training. A deeper squat will normally decrease the amount of weight lifted. The average 1RM squat was 166.5 kg. Later in the week the subjects performed electronically timed 5, 10, and 40m sprints on a standard outdoor track surface. When they analyzed the data they found significant correlations between squat strength to body weight ratio and the 10m and 40m sprints.  When the group was divided into those with a squat to bodyweight ratio of greater than 2.1 and those with a ratio of less than 1.9 those with the higher strength to weight ratio were significantly faster than those with a squat to bodyweight ratio less than 1.9. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that shows the importance of traditional strength training exercises for improving athletic performance.

So why does improved strength improve speed and acceleration? Think back to your high school physics class and you might remember the formula F=ma; force is equal to mass times acceleration.  Transforming the formula to solve for acceleration we get a=F/m; acceleration is equal to force divided by mass. When we are speaking of running or jumping activities the mass is your body weight. If you increase your strength to body weight ratio you will increase your speed and acceleration; it is simple physics.

Unstable surface, single leg and balance training may be fine during a warm up but they are no replacement for good old fashioned deep squats when it comes to increasing strength and improving speed and power that translates to athletic ability. So if you want to get faster stop using circus tricks and lift some real weights.

  1. Wilardson, J. (2004). The effectiveness of resistance exercise performed on unstable equipment. JSCR. 26(5) 70-74.
  2. Behm et al (2002). Muscle force and activation under stable and unstable conditions. JSCR 16(3) 416-422
  3. McBride et al (2009). Relationship between maximal squat strength and five, ten, and forty yard sprint times. JSCR. 23(6) 1633-1636.

Slushies Improve Performance

June 8, 2010

Heat is a major limiting factor in endurance performances.  It has been quite well established that as temperature increases so does marathon time. Over the past 5-10 years more and more attention has been paid to dealing with heat stress while training and competing. Ice vests have proven to be quite effective when worn for a period of time immediately prior to a race but are often impractical and quite expensive. There is evidence that consuming cold water can improve time to exhaustion and running performance compared to warm water (1). Recently this idea was taken a step further by a group of Australian researchers. Using a group of ten moderately trained recreational runners, they examined the effects of drinking a Slushie right before running compared to cold water. All subjects participated randomly in both trials, running as long as possible at their aerobic threshold in a warm environment of 34oC and 55% humidity. Before each run the subjects ingested 7.5g/kg of either a Slushie or the cold water. The temperature of the Slushie was -1oC and the cold water was 4oC. Both drinks contained a 5% carbohydrate solution. When the subjects consumed the Slushie they ran 19% longer than after consuming water. Both groups were equally hydrated at the start of their runs but the Slushie group had a lower rectal temperature. Interstingly the Slushie group maintained a lower body temperature for the first 30 minutes of their run but ended up with a higher temperature at exhaustion. The authors have suggested that the colder temperature of the Slushie may have decreased brain temperature and delayed the point where a critically high brain temperature causes fatigue, around 42oC.  This study clearly shows that Slushies are performance enhancers when you are exercising in the heat. So next time you head off for a training session run by 7-11 or Mac’s Milk for a quick slushie, it will make those training sessions in the heat more tolerable and even improve your performance.

Lee JK, Shirreffs SM, Maughan RJ. Cold drink ingestion improves exercise endurance capacity in the heat. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(9):1637–44

SIEGEL, R., J. MATE´ , M. B. BREARLEY, G. WATSON, K. NOSAKA, and P. B. LAURSEN. Ice Slurry Ingestion Increases Core Temperature Capacity and Running Time in the Heat. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 717–725, 2010.

Training Volume for Endurance Sports

June 7, 2010

Training volume is the amount of work that is performed. Many coaches and athletes use the number of miles or kilometers covered as the measure of training volume. While this is an acceptable measure it does not always give the full picture of training. For example if athlete A does a 20 km workout in 90 minutes and athlete B covers the same 20 km in 60 minutes they are not doing the same workout and won’t get the same training effect even though the volume as measured by distance is the same. Time is a better measure of training volume as it is allows athletes of varying level to be compared on an equal level.

Annual training volume has a direct effect on performance. For many athletes work, school, and family commitments influence their training volume, limiting them to four or five hours of training per week. As in almost every sport you get out of rowing what you put in, your training goals and time commitment need to be compatible; expecting to win an Olympic medal by training six hours per week is unrealistic as is winning a national championship on three hours per week of training. Table 1 shows the desired training volume by competitive level. In order to continue to improve within your competition level or move to a higher level you must increase training volume from year to year. Even at the elite level there has been a steady increase in total training volume over the past 30 years, increasing from and average of 924 hours per year in the 1970’s to 1128 hours per year in the late 1990’s, a 20% increase.

Increasing training volume must be done gradually, rapid increases in training volume can quickly lead to overtraining and injuries; this is very common when an athlete makes the jump from one competitive level to another without having planned for the transition the previous year. High school students who jump to top college programs may experience a doubling of their training volume without being adequately prepared. A college student who makes the jump to a national team often finds himself or herself in the same situation particularly if they make the jump in an Olympic year when training volume tends to be the highest. As a rule of thumb annual increases in training volume should not exceed 5-10% of the previous year’s volume. If you are currently a high school athlete who eventually wants to row at national level it is going to take at least five years of progressive volume increases to get there.

Competitive Level Training Volume for Men (hrs/year) Training Volume for Women (hrs/year) Training

Weeks per year

Hours per week Days per week Sessions per day
Elite International 1000-1200 850-1000 48 21-25 6 1-4
National 800-1000 700-850 48 17-21 6 1-4
Provincial 600-800 600-700 44-46 13-18 5-6 1-3
Club 500-600 500-600 42-44 10-15 4-6 1
High School 300-500 300-500 10-30 2-10 3-4 1
Novice High School 100-300 100-300 2-10 1-4 1-2 1

Eccentric Training

June 6, 2010


You’ve heard it all before, how much can you lift? Just about everyone goes to the gym to “lift” weights, never putting much thought into lowering them. You’ve seen it before: the person doing barbell curls, allowing the barbell to drop rapidly from the top of the lift back to the bottom with no control during the lowering portion. The lowering part of the repetition is just as important if not more than just lifting it, by allowing the weight to drop you are cheating yourself out of half of the lift. Unless you’re training specifically just to “lift” weights, you should be concerned with lowering it as well. The lowering portion contributes to size and strength gains.

In order to understand how Negative Training or Eccentric Training can benefit your current program, we must first classify the various types of muscle contractions. We must also have a fundamental understanding of the anatomy of a repetition. The human body is capable of three types of muscle actions concentric, isometric, and eccentric muscle actions. Lifting a weight is termed the positive portion, or concentric action, of the lift. This is the part of the movement that everyone in the gym seems to put their focus on. Holding a weight at a given point in the range of motion is an isometric action, meaning that no movement is occurring in the body part being trained. This type of muscle action is not typically seen during your usual work out but can become important in some sports training programs. The major muscle action we will be looking at is the lowering of a weight. It is also known as the negative portion or eccentric action.

A Closer Look

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening during an eccentric muscle action.  As you lower the weight, you are typically much stronger than during the lifting phase. There are two main reasons for the increase in strength; first, you are no longer attempting to overcome the force of gravity by lifting upwards and second, eccentric contractions result in greater force developed in the working muscles because the actin and myosin cross bridges that allow a muscle to contract are stretched apart. What this means is that regardless of how much weight you can lift, you will be able to lower much more. In fact, you are 20-40% stronger in the eccentric phase. Therefore, the weight you use to train is too light to tax your eccentric strength. This does not mean you should simply ignore your eccentric strength and continue to drop the weight. Instead, you should lower the weight with control to eliminate momentum and focus on the muscle being trained, by moving slower the tension is increased in the working muscles. By incorporating eccentric training schemes, you can get greater increase in size and strength from your workouts.

As with every training method, eccentric emphasized training has advantages and disadvantages. The major advantage of eccentric training is that it allows you to pick up more weight, causing the body to adapt to the increases in weight, which over time will cause increased size and strength. The disadvantage is that the extra weight increases the risk of injury, and depending on the type of eccentric training utilized will require a spotter. There are several types of eccentric emphasized training, using different modalities including free-weights, machines, manual resistance and body weight.

Eccentric Safety and Effectiveness

Before getting into the specifics of eccentrics, safety guidelines must be addressed. The rep speed is of utmost importance when performing eccentric work and will vary depending on the type of method being used. For eccentric training to be effective and maintain safety, you should follow a 3-10 second count per repetition. Any faster and you won’t have control of the weight. Always apply maximal effort throughout the entire eccentric portion of the lift. Proper weight selection must be determined. You are 20-40% stronger on the lowering portion of an exercise than the lifting. However, this does not mean that you add 40% to your max the first time you undertake an eccentric training session, build to this over time by following the eccentric methods below that don’t require added weight.

Eccentric Applications

The most common methods of eccentric training are eccentric only, eccentric finishes, emphasized eccentric, accentuated eccentrics and manual eccentrics.

Eccentric only

This method requires the use of attentive spotters. They allow for the maximum amount of weight to be used safely. The weight used will be approximately 130-140% of the lifters 3RM, the maximum amount of weight you can lift three times. If the load is too heavy risk of injury is increased and the weight will descend too quickly to get a benefit from the movement. You should not push the weight during the concentric portion of the lift; the spotters lift the weight to the starting position and then when you are ready they release the weight. You then push against the weight as it slowly lowers on its own. If the weight selected is correct, you will push be pushing as hard as possible even when the weight continues to descend. If the weight is too heavy, you will not be able to push up against it long enough to provide an effective eccentric overload, an eccentric should take at least two seconds to complete. If you are able to stop the movement at any point during the lowering portion, then the weight is too light.

Eccentric finishes

These require the use of spotters at the end of your set. After you complete the set by taking it to the point of momentary muscular failure, the spotter will then lift the weight back to the top. Then you will lower the weight under control. This will be repeated until you are not able to control the weight. This method will allow you to reach momentary muscular failure not just concentrically but eccentrically as well.

Emphasized eccentrics

This method allows eccentric to be done without the aid of spotters. These are the safest form of eccentrics as they use the lightest weight and are completely controlled by the lifter. The goal of emphasized eccentrics is to increase the length of time it takes to lower the weight. Initially the weight will be lowered to a three second count and gradually increased to a ten second count when the resistance is increased and the weight is again lowered for a three second count. This type of training eliminates momentum from the movement, which keeps tension thru ought the range of motion constant and increases the total time under tension for the muscle.

Accentuated eccentrics

These are typically done on a machine but can be performed with dumbbells as well and without the use of spotters. The machine should have a movement arm that allows you to use one or both limbs. The weight will typically be decreased from your regular concentric-eccentric loads. The concentric portion is performed with both limbs while the eccentric phase is executed with one limb at a slow speed. You perform all eccentric reps on the same limb for a set or alternate between reps. If using dumbbells, use both arms to get the weight into the top position then remove one arm and lower slowly.

Manual eccentrics

Manual eccentrics are my personal favorite to perform. They allow the lifter to perform maximally both concentrically and eccentrically without waiting until the end of a set, or just doing eccentric only sets to tax the eccentric strength. Manual eccentrics require a spotter who applies resistance to the bar or weight stack while you are performing the eccentric portion. The major advantage is that the muscle will fatigue both concentrically and eccentrically at about the same time.

Positive results

These eccentric methods all provide a different challenge and add variety to your current training program. Keep in mind they will all result in some serious soreness if applied properly. The delayed on set muscle soreness (DOMS) produced by eccentric training is much greater than in traditional training. The severity of muscle damage that they induce means that they can only be performed for a week or two at a time and only 3-4 times during the year. You may choose to include a few eccentric sets at the end of your regular sets or for the highly motivated an eccentric emphasized work out session. Regardless of which method you decide to use, the result will be greater development in size and strength.

Guidelines for incorporating Eccentric Training into your program:

An eccentric training program is not advisable for the beginner that has less than 6 months of proper progressive training under their belt.

Use a spotter for all exercises; the exceptions would be with accentuated eccentrics. Remember you will be using more weight than you can lift therefore proper spotting is required. Not all exercises allow for eccentric training such as squats, leg presses and few others. Make safety paramount!

Do not go beyond failure during your eccentric sets. An eccentric set should be terminated when you can no longer resist the lowering of the weight for at least a two second lowering phase. If you go beyond this point you are now allowing the bar to free fall due to gravity and not focusing on the muscles being worked.

Progression is key. Determined the appropriate weight for each eccentric exercise then strive for increases as you would with any other training technique. Whenever you find that you’re able to resist a weight load for more than five to six seconds on the first of rep then it would be time to increase weight.

Recovery is paramount. Since, eccentric training causes more muscle breakdown than other types of lifting, it often requires more recovery time. So when you begin doing eccentric workouts, you may well need to alter your weekly schedule consequently. For example, instead of working the biceps muscle group three a week, you’ll probably only work it only once every seven to ten days, depending on the level of muscle soreness.

Muscle soreness is a good sign that you may require more recovery. However do not train a muscle group if too much soreness is still present, a little soreness is ok but use common sense and stay injury free.

Eccentric training should be performed after a base level of strength has    been established; proper progression working up to eccentrics is important.

Can Eating Meat Cause a Positive Drug Test ?

March 24, 2009

Ed McNeely

 In recent years drugs in sport have received a lot of attention thanks to major league baseball and the Tour de France. One of the first claims by many who have tested positive is that they took a contaminated supplement and while there is evidence that many supplements do contain traces of substances that may cause a positive test athletes are well aware of the risks and can make informed choices about the supplements they use. Not as commonly known are the potential risks in the foods we eat and in particular meat consumption.

 The administration of steroid to animals to “fatten” them up before consumption is controversial but common in many countries. The consumption of steroid laden meats can increase blood levels of steroid metabolites high enough to cause a positive drug test.  A study by Kicman (1994) found that 50% of their subjects tested positive as long as 24 hour after consuming chicken that had received a steroid injection eight days earlier. Several other studies have found positive tests following the consumption of ground beef and veal.

 Interestingly it is not just meats that animals that are injected with steroids that can pose a drug testing risk. Some animals, in particular boar are naturally high in nandrolone and norandrostenedione. Traces of the metabolites of these substances have been found in the blood up to 24 hours after consuming boar meat in concentrations high enough to result in a positive test.

 So what does this all mean? Is it something that we should be worried about or is it really a sign of the problems in the drug testing system? The amounts of steroids that are resulting in the positive tests from consuming meat are not enough to have a physiological effect or improve performance but are enough to get you banned from your sport. I guess the lesson here is if you are subject to drug testing be careful of the meats you eat when traveling to foreign countries.

 Debruyckere, G., de Sagher, R., & Van Peteghem, C. (1992). Clostebol-positive urine after consumption of contaminated meat. Clinical Chemistry, 38, 1869-1873.

 Debruyckere, G., Van Peteghem, C., & de Sagher, R. (1993). Influence of the consumptionof meat contaminated with anabolic steroids on doping tests. Analytica Chimica Acta, 275, 49-56.

 Kicman, A.T., Cowan, D.A., Myhre, L., Nilsson, S., Tomten, S., & Oftebro, H. (1994). Effect on sports drug tests of ingesting meat from steroid (methenolone)-treated livestock. Clinical Chemistry, 40, 2084-2087.

 Sterk, S., Linders, S.H., von Ginkel, L.A., & Stephany, R.W. (2002, June) Liverwurst, a possible source of a positive doping test? Poster session at the 4th International Symposium on Hormone and Veterinary Drug Residue Analysis, Antwerp, Belgium.