It’s TdF time again. Unfortunately, nowadays, that means everwhere you turn an ear in the circles of endurance sport you’ll hear all kinds of folks, some qualified, most not, postulating on who’s on what.
Most of these opinions will be based on little more than conjecture and the individual’s general world view, however, some have put a little more thought into the implications of today’s performance level on the question of the prevalence of doping. Ross & Jonathon at the Science of Sport website (www.sportsscientists.com) have put a lot of time into looking at what some of the recent TdF stages suggest about today’s top cyclists’ physiology and more specifically, how they compare to yesteryear’s athletes who competed in an era in which doping control was less advanced.
A thumbnail summary shows that today’s top athletes (Wiggins et al.) are putting out somewhere around 6.4W/kg over short climbs (~20min) & <6.0W/kg over the longer climbs (40min+) whereas cyclists from Armstrong’s era & earlier were ~6.8W/kg for the short climbs and ~6.3W/kg for the long. These figures for the fastest tour climbs in history (from w/kg calculations based on the VAM metric of Michele Ferrari, 2009) are shown below.
I’ve added my own calculations of suggested VO2 max of these athletes based on an economy of 78W/L & a fatigue curve of 5% - typical numbers for pro level cyclists that I’ve tested/have data on, though the best cyclists in the world may be even higher. Lab data from Miguel Indurain (Padilla et al., 2000) suggested efficiency of 26% or ~90W/L.
The estimated VO2max of ~90ml/kg/min is marginally lower than the numbers that Ross & Jonathon came up with, presumably because of the differences in the assumption of %VO2max being held for the respective durations. I have good data to suggest that elite level cyclists are holding >95% WVO2max for durations in and around the 20min mark & >90% WVO2max for efforts in and around 40min. Again, these are elite, not world class athletes.
So, the big question becomes, how feasible is it for an athlete to ‘train up to’ a VO2max in the vicinity of 90ml/kg/min? Certainly, lab values in excess of 90ml/kg/min are exceedingly rare though not unheard of. Cross Country Skier Bjorn Dahlie, cyclist Greg Lemond & ultra runner Matt Carpenter have all cited test values of >90ml/kg/min. Several of the cyclists in the above list have been tested in the mid-high 80’s. Were all of these numbers the result of doping? Given the relatively low economic incentive of sports like XC skiing or, especially, ultrarunning, coupled with the fact that a year of EPO use costs in the vicinity of $30,000 (Riis, 2012) I would question the economic reality of that assumption. But without doping, are these numbers even plausible?
This is a tough question to answer, but an important one. It’s dangerous for a physiologist to say that just because the VO2max numbers implied by these performances far exceed what they have measured from athletes in their own lab that they are physiologically ‘implausible’. History is full of athletes with ‘implausible physiology’ who were at their time head and shoulders above the rest of the field. This was true long before doping reared its ugly head. It will be a sad day in sport when any performance that exceeds the norm for the day by a large margin is looked on with suspicion. I hope we are not there yet. I hope that we still at least entertain the possibility that athletes will come along every so often who take the sport to the next level.
So back to the question, how feasible is it for an athlete to ‘train up to’ a VO2max of 90ml/kg/min? I spend a lot of time looking at the training response of various types of athletes. I rigorously monitor the relationship between training load (TSS) & fitness (VO2 score) for a wide array of athletes of all different levels and abilities.
What do these observations suggest for a (non-doped) athlete targeting a VO2max of 90+ml/kg/min?
10+ years of consistent, progressive overload.
While there are individual differences in training response, if we look at the average, a pattern of diminishing returns of a ‘half life’ of 15ml/kg/min per year would be a ‘normal’ training response, i.e. +15ml/kg in the first year of training, + another 15 over the next 2 years, + another 15 over the next 4 years etc. For an athlete starting with an untrained VO2max of 35ml/kg, 10 years of consistent, progressive aerobic training will theoretically yield a gain of ~55ml/kg, i.e. 90ml/kg/min. Of course, lots can happen over 10 years of training & a true consistent progressive build over that time is rare. Though for the truly driven athlete, the type that might go out for training rides in the middle of chemotherapy treatment, say, not impossible.
While an optimist & someone admittedly clinging to the purity of sport, I’m also not naïve to the possibility that the type of athlete who is that driven to be the best, might resort to short cuts and, to be sure, the physiologist in me knows the relative benefit of these short cuts. Even small increases in haematocrit of 10% will yield similar improvements in VO2max, i.e. for a domestique of say 75ml/kg/min, it would be very tempting to skip 3-4 years of development and jump ahead to a VO2max in the mid 80’s and a team leader position (with an extra few hundred grand a year). Before the HcT limit of 50%, the potential for gains was even greater which is why you would see young riders come out of nowhere for a season and then literally drop dead!
However, for athletes who have ‘paid their dues’, it is my position that these levels of performance (consistent with a VO2max of ~90ml/kg/min) are indeed possible. Similar levels of performance have been seen both in sports without the financial draw of cycling & before doping was widespread. As the endurance sport with the highest financial draw, cycling will continue to see those looking for shortcuts however I truly hope that we don’t fall into the pattern of automatically discounting the ever-true performance benefit of devoting a decade or more to developing your craft.
Train Smart (& clean),