Testing to the Max

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.8, September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1208/bbtesting.htm

It’s the information age—in commerce, in education, and in athletics. Information is everywhere, but how you use it makes all the difference.

That’s the theme of the cross country program of Pennsylvania’s Council Rock North High School, where by happy coincidence, Head Coach Dave Marrington has a neighbor who’s building a fitness company. Stephen Van Schoyck, who lives two doors from Marrington, wanted test subjects for his work with a company that sells customized weight-loss and exercise plans. He offered the use of new equipment that can test for max VO2 at a relatively low cost, about $40 per person.

Marrington took him up on it, paying for athletes’ pre- and in-season lab visits with funds raised at the school’s annual indoor and outdoor invitationals. Council Rock North runners now use lab-established parameters to modify their training regimens, using techniques that until recently were only available to elite athletes and well-funded college programs.

The results mostly confirmed Marrington’s existing methods, which are largely drawn on the race result-based tables of coach and physiologist Jack Daniels of the State University of New York College at Cortland. Validation is a benefit in itself, but the VO2 information also allowed for some tweaking in certain athletes’ cases and, perhaps most useful, motivation in others.

"This gives me a more accurate picture, because I’m getting actual data from these machines," Marrington says. "It gives me the exact heart rate these kids are at when they hit the various thresholds, and it’s incredibly close to what Daniels had predicted."

The information helps fine-tune workout plans, Marrington says. "We had a couple kids this past year who had a bigger gap than they should have between their VO2 and their lactic threshold.
They went to more tempo runs to elevate that lactic threshold. It made them more efficient as runners. It doesn’t raise their top end. It just helps them run close to their top end longer, which is what cross country racing is—it’s not the fastest guy who wins, but the guy who can stay close to his fastest the longest."

Marrington says the numbers, in print-outs that go to the coach and athletes, serve as benchmarks and motivational tools. For example, last year a freshman runner’s eyes lit up when he saw how high his VO2 max tests were. It told him he needed to run harder in his sessions.

"He was only a ninth-grader but he had a VO2 that was right up there with our best seniors," Marrington says. "When he realized how good he could be, he started coming to practice with a whole new attitude. By the end of this past spring, he ran something like a 4:48 mile, when he wasn’t even breaking 5:20 earlier in the year. Seeing those test results opened his eyes to what he could do."

At the other end of the spectrum, senior Peter Heweins scored an efficiency rating of about 97 percent, one of the highest Marrington has seen, but one suggesting little room for improvement. So instead they focused on speed.

"With Pete we worked on mechanics, speed drills, and 30-meter runs up a pretty steep hill near our campus," Marrington says. "We also did a drill on the baseball field where we timed everyone from home to first. It made it feel like a game, and they kept wanting to beat each other. That helped Pete a lot because he never had a whole lot of speed, but as he got a little faster, it translated into 10 seconds over a two-mile run."

The lab-based data also can help young runners approach their training more realistically, Marrington says. He uses a few heart-rate monitors, primarily early in the year to help teach self-pacing, but the lab data can show athletes that overtraining or pushing themselves beyond a productive and safe intensity does no good.

"The way I look at it, more information can never hurt us," says Marrington, "and it can really help some kids. The only drawback is sometimes they see that they don’t have very much potential. But even that’s not a bad thing. They have to be realistic about their goals, and on occasion, these tests can help kids be a little more realistic."

Marrington was surprised that his athletes had the ability to actually raise max VO2. Based on research he’d read, largely drawn on elite athletes, he had believed that the trait was strictly dictated by genetics, but he found the number could be raised quite a bit through training over a year or two.

Two seniors even did their graduation project on the testing. "They looked up the VO2s of elite athletes like Lance Armstrong and Frank Shorter and a lot of swimmers, wrestlers, and tennis players," Marrington says. "These are kids who I think are going to continue running in college, going in with what I think is a greater knowledge base than most high school runners have. They have a pretty good idea of what workouts will make them better runners. They know the chemistry and the physiology involved."