The Basics Of Endurance Performance by George Evans
It’s easy for us all to get caught up in the intricacies of what makes us faster, whether that’s on a bike or running. To add to this confusion, it seems like every month there’s a new training method, device or guru claiming X, Y & Z will make you faster because… They then proceed to cite some complex sounding pseudo-science aiming to deceive you into thinking they know what they’re talking about, ultimately to sell you something.
Therefore, sometimes it’s good to strip it back to basics and look at what really underpins endurance performance. Here goes…There are two aspects to consider, internal/physiological factors and external/environmental factors; both play an important role in determining endurance performance.
In most endurance events, it’s about getting from A → B as quickly as possible; what physiological mechanisms underpin this? Bear with me for a moment whilst we dive into some science… It’ll all come together nicely at the end… hopefully.
In general, an athletes V̇O2max sets the athletes upper limit of their performance. However, because most endurance races are performed at intensities below the V̇O2max, it becomes a question of what percentage of their V̇O2max can they sustain for the race; this seems to be related to other physiological thresholds such as the lactate threshold and critical power/speed (Jones et al., 2021; Midgley, McNaughton, & Jones, 2007). The percentage one can sustain for the race distance is called their performance V̇O2. This determines the highest rate of sustainable ATP (cellular energy) re-synthesis. There are also anaerobic pathways of re-synthesising ATP, these are finite but still contribute. The highest rate of ATP re-synthesis combined with the athlete’s economy/efficiency (oxygen cost for a set speed of power) are said to determine an athlete’s performance. These factors are visualised in figure 1, they are genetically influenced but research has shown that they are all trainable (Midgley et al., 2007).
There are also external factors that influence performance, the main ones are shown in figure 2. Some of these can be controlled by the athlete (nutrition, equipment, aerodynamics, clothing, pacing & tactics) but some are fixed, meaning everyone must deal with them on race day (weather, altitude, wind speed, course profile). Some of these factors also interact with each other, for example certain course profiles will suit certain anthropometric characteristics. Factors like the temperature, altitude and nutrition can also affect the physiological factors in figure 1.
Putting it all together
Of course, there are other factors such as athlete psychology that come into play. However, the majority of differences in performance can be attributed to their physiology (roughly 70%, depending on the sport). Then, external factors in figure 2 go most of the way to explaining the remaining 30% of performance (Midgley et al., 2007).
So, if you are looking to improve your performance, your primary focus should be to promote physiological adaptations through training. Secondly, you should look to minimise external limitations within your control. There’s no magic to it, just hard work and informed/smart choices.
How to do this:
• Simply put, training should focus on improving the mentioned physiological variables, as they are directly linked to performance. More polarised or pyramidal models of training have shown to be effective at this, but there is still debate as to which is optimal (Kenneally et al., 2018). It is likely to depend on how many hours you can train, an experienced running coach or cycling coach should know how to structure training to get the most out of training availability
• Include resistance training into your plan to improve your economy, especially for running (Blagrove et al., 2018)
• Equipment choices - e.g., Choose the most efficient running shoes, or the most aerodynamic bike within your budget
• Optimise your position on the bike (aerodynamics have a major impact of cycling performance), get a bike fit with a focus on aerodynamics and biomechanics
• Optimise your pre- and in- race nutrition: consuming above 80g of carbohydrates an hour during prolonged races (> 2hours) can improve performance (Burke et al., 2011); however, make sure your try this out prior to your race
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Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S17-S27.
Jeukendrup, A. E., & Martin, J. (2001). Improving cycling performance. Sports Medicine, 31(7), 559-569.
Jones, A. M., Kirby, B. S., Clark, I. E., Rice, H. M., Fulkerson, E., Wylie, L. J., ... & Wilkins, B. W. (2021). Physiological demands of running at 2-hour marathon race pace. Journal of Applied Physiology, 130(2), 369-379.
Kenneally, M., Casado, A., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2018). The effect of periodization and training intensity distribution on middle-and long-distance running performance: a systematic review. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 13(9), 1114-1121.
Midgley, A. W., McNaughton, L. R., & Jones, A. M. (2007). Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance. Sports medicine, 37(10), 857-880.
Phillips, K. E., & Hopkins, W. G. (2020). Determinants of cycling performance: a review of the dimensions and features regulating performance in elite cycling competitions. Sports medicine-open, 6(1), 1-18.