Over the past several years, athletes have continued to defy the odds and break performance barriers once believed to be impossible. In fact, just this past year, Michael Phelps amazed us all by earning eight Olympic Gold Medals in Beijing. Distance runner Haile Gebreselassie dipped under 2:04 and broke his own world record at the Berlin Marathon. Triathlete Chrissie Wellington repeated as Ironman World Champion, winning by 15 minutes despite a flat on the bike leg.
Many wonder what factors contribute to these athletes’ performance peaks. Genetics no doubt plays a role, yet research suggests that genes contribute no more than half of an athlete’s VO2 max (maximal rate of oxygen consumption), which is one key predictor of performance capacity. Both training and nutrition manipulation also help to not only boost an athlete’s VO2 max, but also the lactate threshold and sport economy, two additional pieces to the performance puzzle. This article looks at the training and nutrition techniques that have been proven to enhance these three elements, thereby helping to maximize performance potential.
Essential for: Athletes training for sprint triathlons, criterium racing and 5K/10K running events.
Your VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen that can be consumed per minute while training. The highest VO2 max ever recorded was by cross-country skier Bjorn Daehilie: at 94 ml/kg/dl, which towers over the average athlete’s VO2 max by 30-40 percent. The good news is that by increasing training volume and intensity, research suggests that an athlete, depending on baseline fitness level, can boost his VO2 max by as much as 40 percent. And a 10 percent increase in VO2 max can shave more than a minute off a 5K run time!
Increased training volume is the most common way to improve your VO2 max, but it is important to understand there are diminishing returns at a certain volume: 60-90 run miles/week or 10-12 hours for most athletes. A more efficient way to improve VO2 max, according to French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat, is to do intervals at a speed that elicits your VO2 max – or the fastest effort you can maintain – for about eight minutes (up to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate).
Nutrition Tip: Blood sugars tend to decrease while levels of common inflammation markers increase after finishing high-intensity efforts – making nutrition important for optimal recovery. Try blending the following recovery-focused ingredients after your next workout: tart cherry juice, low-fat vanilla yogurt and a frozen banana.
Essential for: Athletes training for Olympic-distance triathlons, cycling time trials and half marathons.
Your lactate, or anaerobic threshold (LT) pace is defined as the fastest pace you can sustain for an extended period (20+ minutes) before lactate, a by-product of the fuel burned during hard exercise, starts building up in your blood causing muscle fatigue. Your LT pace will evolve (get faster) with proper training. Recreational athletes typically hit their LT at about 65 to 80 percent of their VO2 max, whereas elite and world-class endurance athletes tend to peak at 85-95 percent. This is what allows athletes such as Gebreselassie or Lance Armstrong to hold such a strong pace for longer distances.
Check out this Web site, where you can estimate your LT pace: www.runbayou.com/jackd.htm.
Nutrition Tip: A diet rich in healthy carbohydrates (potatoes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables) is essential for enhancing muscle glycogen stores during LT training.
Essential for: All athletes, but especially marathoners, swimmers, century riders and Ironman triathletes.
Sport economy measures the amount of oxygen you need to train, at any pace. Biomechanics play a huge role in sport economy so enlisting the help of a professional to evaluate your swim stroke, running gait or bike fit and pedal stroke is often very helpful in enhancing sport economy – along with VO2 max and LT workouts. A third workout that helps improve an athlete’s sport economy involves longer efforts, generally 25-50 percent longer in length than LT and VO2 max workouts, yet completed at a more aerobic conversational pace. These longer efforts should be completed once a week.
Nutrition Tip: Losing excess body fat will help yield dramatic improvements in sport economy, as leaner athletes simply require less oxygen to reach that finish line. To aid weight loss in a healthy manner, cut 250-500 calories from your daily nutrition intake or add 25-45 minutes to your regular energy expenditure.
Want more tips to enhance your health and performance? Kim Mueller, owner of Fuel Factor Nutrition (www.Fuel-Factor.com), is a Registered Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist and competitive athlete who provides customized menu planning, nutrition coaching and goal-specific programs to active individuals worldwide. Kim can be contacted at kim@Fuel-Factor.com.