laboratory tests for athletes
Credit: The Secret Studio
Training

Sports science: 3 laboratory tests designed to help you improve your performance

Triathletes love nothing more than the latest gadget to propel their performance to a new level. From blood and DNA testing to HRV, here we focus on the latest innovations and laboratory tests, and assess their triathlon improving potential

Session complete, time for that much-needed warm-down via the Red Lion. With red wine to hand – it’s all about the antioxidants these days – you and your tri crew, in unison, download your last 120 minutes of riding to your smartphone for a series of graphs and numbers that tell you just how strong or not you are. Stress score, average power, average speed – this is the sort of tech that’s easily understood by most and, more importantly, can result in the necessary training tweaks for improved performance.

How valuable are physiological performance tests for predicting your Ironman potential?

    

Because ultimately that’s what technology and its integration – or infiltration, depending on your viewpoint – into your triathlon training and racing is all about. The problem is, our sport’s awash with so-called innovations that, once the shine’s worn off, don’t add anything to your swim, bike and run sessions. Your latest £500 outlay’s soon collecting dust with that sit-up machine you bought from the Sunday supplement.

Analysing every ‘innovation’ to hit the market would require an issue that matched War and Peace for length. That’s why we’ve pinpointed the ones we feel have credence behind them – whether scientific or anecdotal – and really hone in on those to help you not only better understand these products, but also make you think a little more deeply about other potentially ground-breaking training tools. Knowledge is power – and power can save you a small fortune! 

BLOOD TESTING FOR TRIATHLETES 

The Brownlees brothers’ respective careers have seen them jointly or individually rack up Olympic medals, be nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year and have a post box painted gold in their honour. From March this year, added to that list was a blood test, the boys working in collaboration with Swedish company Werlabs. “To get through the mental and physical wear and tear of our training it’s vital that we’re in peak condition, both physically and mentally,” Alistair commented at launch. “That’s why together with Werlabs we created this test that looks at over 30 blood values.”

An endurance athlete’s association with blood is nothing new, yet it’s tended to have nefarious associations. The Brownlee test, similar to those from established outfits like Forth Edge, is purely legal, of course, and focuses on biomarkers related to optimum endurance performance like creatine, C-reactive protein and haemoglobin. The test measures the level of each. Take the latter, whose primary role is to transport oxygen around the body. Low levels can signify anaemia, requiring an iron supplement; too high could be dehydration, requiring fluid.

More boxes ticked

The Brownlee test is comprehensive yet, unlike Forth Edge’s Endurance Plus, it doesn’t measure testosterone levels. Arguably that’s a significant omission, especially for athletes training in three disciplines. Over to Dr Will Manger, an expert on the subject. “Low testosterone levels result in a drop in power output and are a sign of overtraining,” he says. “So we’d advise active recovery (e.g. a gentle bike) and relaxation techniques, like deep breathing. And as testosterone’s made up of cholesterol, we’d recommend good-quality fats from olive oil and fish.” Still, with 34 blood markers analysed, the Brownlees’ blood test ticks more athletic boxes than Forth Edge’s dozen or so. 

Choice then comes down to convenience and cost. The Brownlees’ test requires a home visit by a nurse with results accessible within 24hrs via a secure online journal; Forth Edge deliver a finger-prick sample kit that, once you’ve taken your blood, you send back for analysis. You then get the results via an app within days.

As for cost, the Brownlees’ (werlabs.co.uk) comes in at £139 whereas the Endurance Plus (forthedge.co.uk) is £99. While relatively affordable, they’re both meaningless if you don’t repeat the tests, with Forth Edge recommending every three, four or six months. 

Also be aware that blood testing provides only a ‘snapshot’ and that certain factors, such as recent meals, hard training and minor illness, may skew results.

HRV TRAINING FOR TRIATHLETES

Another innovative training tool, although one that’s flirted with the masses for a while, is heart-rate variability (HRV). HRV is essentially the time interval between heart beats and is a gauge of your nervous system. It can be measured via a chest strap from Omegawave or credible apps, like HRV4 training, that detect changes in blood volume by placing your finger on your smartphone.

So what are you looking for? Over to Simon Wegerif, founder of HRV training tool ithlete, who we spoke to at the recent Science & Cycling Conference in Nantes, France. “The idea is that small variations in the beat-to-beat timing of the heart reflect the body’s level of stress. Each person has a characteristic amount of variation when they’re well recovered, and the variation decreases when they’re stressed. A daily morning reading is compared to their own baseline and used to determine how recovered they are.”

So if you wake up one morning and your HRV is very low – a sign of stress and potential overtraining – and you planned a high-intensity run session, you may decide to do an active recovery swim session instead. And vice versa. “The great thing about HRV training is that it considers numerous factors that affect stress,” continues Wegerif. “This includes sleep quality, fuelling status and even jetlag.”

OBJECTIVE MEASUREMENT

To maximise HRV training, you need to measure HRV as soon as you awake (and certainly before coffee), and you must take daily readings. The more readings, the more data, the better the results. Also, HRV training works best when used with other ‘ready-to-train’ tools, like the popular Training Peaks and their stress score. 

That’s the theory, but what about in the coalface of triathlon? “I’ve used the ithlete app and finger sensor to measure HRV mostly daily for a number of years,” says age-group triathlete Ian Waters. “This gives you the HRV value as a number and the number is green, amber or red. Green means all is good and carry on as normal; amber means you should lower intensity; and red means you should rest. I started using ithlete because I wanted to push myself as far as possible and have an objective measure to whether I was pushing too hard.”

Waters feels it’s a useful tool, though we question whether not knowing exactly what you’re going to do that day can result in a seemingly arbitrary training plan? “Not at all,” he replies. “On days I get a red I’ll rest, and usually by the next day it’s back into green.” 

Ithlete, Omegawave and HRV Training offer numerous packages with the ithlete app starting from £6.99.  

DNA TESTING

Many triathletes delve even deeper by undertaking a DNA test. Muhdo is one of a growing band of companies, including arguably the most well-known DNAFit, offering DNA profiling to maximise your performance via ‘bespoke’ training and nutrition advice. Its potential for ‘customised’ advice holds great appeal with researchers believing the global market for such kits could be worth more than £8billion by 2022.

The idea’s simple. The DNA testing company send you a kit where you take a swab of your mouth, pop it into a test tube and send it back to, say, Muhdo who’ll ‘perform a detailed analysis of your DNA to provide you with personalised fitness recommendations’.

“We test for the nucleobase pairs within a SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) of a gene,” explains Muhdo’s Chris Collins. “We then examine certain base characteristics that are collated into categories such as stamina, power, VO2 max, etc. We also look at dietary markers.”

These SNPs are the heart of Muhdo and their competitors’ offerings. For every gene there are three possible combinations of SNPs. E.g. with the ACE gene (see below) you can either have II, DD or ID, with each expressing a certain physical and mental characteristic. In the case of the ACE gene, II is linked with endurance capabilities while DD is associated with power.

The ace gene

The likes of Muhdo and DNAFit have isolated genes that, they say, have enough research behind them to influence different parameters of performance, of which they’ll then offer training or nutrition advice. For instance, the gene ACTN3 is associated with power; PPARA regulates fat; and VEGF, blood vessel growth and so endurance. And then there’s that ACE gene, which is involved in blood pressure control and, subsequently, power and endurance.

ACE first came to prominence in 1998 when Professor Hugh Montgomery studied army recruits undergoing basic training. Montgomery showed that subjects with the II combination enjoyed the greatest endurance increases; those with DD the least. So, by virtue, II was linked to endurance performance.

Simple? No. Noted geneticist Yannis Pitsiladis took DNA samples from 221 national Kenyan athletes, 70 international Kenyan athletes and 85 members of the general population. The results showed that the II genotype of the ACE gene wasn’t strongly linked with elite endurance status. “Their success isn’t down to favourable genetic characteristics,” argues Pitsiladis. “It’s more tied in with chronic exposure to altitude in combination with moderate-volume, high-intensity training, plus a strong psychological motivation to succeed for economic and social advancement.”

More research required

Pitsiladis feels the field is too immature for commercialisation and more research is required. Then again, there’s recent research like this that adds support to DNA companies: the University of Trieste found that those following dietary advice based on genetic analysis lost 33% more weight than a controlled group.

And, as it stands, nutrition advice based on DNA is arguably more valid than training advice. That’s certainly the experience of age-grouper Waters. “The results from the DNAFit test kit showed low VO2 max potential, high injury risk and slow recovery. None of this matched my experience. I train twice a day, log 15hrs per week and have rarely missed training because of failure to recover. So I ignored the advice.

“When it came to nutrition, however, it showed carb sensitivity so advised a low-carb diet. It also mentioned an increased need for antioxidants, B and D vitamins and omega-3. I followed the advice, lost a lot of weight, and felt fuelled and ready for each training session.”

Some experts agree there’s more validity in nutrition than training recommendations, with the genetic variations behind a condition like lactose intolerance well-understood. But then there’s unpicking how much impact derives from genes or simple behavioural changes. “I hadn’t struggled to lose weight in the past,” Waters continues, “so I’d no way of knowing whether this was a help or not.”

Advice like increasing omega-3 also feels generic but, argues Collins, this and Pitsiladis’ comments are an easy stick to beat DNA companies with. “Research is building in what’s a fast-moving industry; within just a year, one company could collect 1,000 samples and conduct studies that move the field on.” 

As for cost, DNAFit’s Diet & Fitness (dnafit.com) is £249; Muhdo’s (mudho.com) £249.99.  

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

Blood testing, DNA analysis and HRV training are a snapshot of the tools that triathletes around the world are using in search of a new personal best. But what of the future? It’s a question we posed to triathlon coach and
author Matt Fitzgerald, but first, elite triathlon coach Tom Bennett.

“Keep an eye out for the emergence of ketones for fuelling endurance performance,” says Bennett. “There’s research that these are superior to carbohydrates in fuelling triathletes.” Ketones differ to ketosis, which
is essentially a high-fat, low-carb diet with the aim of utilising more fat and sparing precious glycogen reserves. Studies show this approach is limiting at higher intensities of exercise. Instead, ketones are a supplement, significantly reducing the time to achieve dietary ketosis – favourable when exercising. Currently, there are two downsides, with cost reported at £2,000 a litre and a very bitter taste.

“In-dwelling sensors beyond heart rate and GPS are also not far away,” Bennett continues, meaning tools that non-invasively measure important determinants of endurance performance like muscle glycogen and lactate levels.

As for Fitzgerald, well, his recommendations and concurrent concerns provide the perfect conclusion to our look at integrating tech into your triathlon training. “I recommend specific products and tools to athletes in certain situations, but these are just as likely to be low-tech (e.g. the Sacro-Wedgy for [buttock pain-causing] piriformis syndrome) as high-tech (e.g. the Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill for training through impact-related injuries). 

“I like to see a certain degree of penetration within the elite echelon before I support a particular tool,” believes Fitzgerald. “Yet this happens more often with methodologies, like glycogen-depleted sessions, than with technologies. In fact, I spend more time steering athletes away from high-tech gadgets and gimmicks and tamping down the ‘magic-bullet mentality’ that underlies their draw. I’m not anti-technology but most triathletes stand to gain more from focusing on the basics, such as building pain tolerance and body awareness – processes that some technologies directly thwart.”

OTHER CUTTING EDGE TECH TO TRY

Three more innovative ways to refine your tri training and racing

 GOLDEN CHEETAH

An impressive piece of software built by people who believe that the data should be freed from manufacturers like Garmin and Polar. As such, you have to download it to your PC or Mac. You’re then given a complete set of power metrics including ‘W Prime’, which essentially quantifies how many matches you’ve burned and was developed by Exeter University’s Dr Phil Skiba. It’s also free.

 INSCYD

An extremely smart piece of software that provides a multitude of data including, uniquely, a breakdown of how much energy you get from carbohydrate and fat metabolism. Also records useful measures of performance like anaerobic capacity and economy of movement. Used by Jan Frodeno’s coach Dan Lorang, though currently only of use and availability to coaches and sports scientists. 

 ATHOS CLOTHING

For the past couple of years, San Francisco start-up Athos has designed and created fitness clothing that features sensors to reveal extensive muscle and heart-rate data. The data’s then wirelessly transferred to an app on your smartphone. 


 
 

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