Lessons from the Lab

The lab simplifies the path forward for the athlete, showing how the body is responding to training and taking us back to the basics.

When athletes show up at the lab to test lactate threshold or metabolic efficiency, they are often fixated on a goal or data point. Julie Young encourages coaches and athletes to take a broader view, and notice gaps that might exist in fitness.

Before You Send Your Athlete for Lab Testing—Read This!

Clients often walk into our Endurance Lab confused and looking for solutions to the issues they face. From the outside looking in, the solutions are often simple—a matter of going back to the basics, returning to the fundamental principles of fitness and conditioning, and truly understanding more about the numbers that they’ll be leaving the lab with. With that in mind, here are a couple of myth-busting insights for you, the coach.  

Myth: Power is the key to performance

As coaches we know that power meters and are great training tools, but power only tells a sliver of the athlete’s story, the outcome, but not how they got there or what it cost them. Power does not help us understand the internal factors like lactate clearance, buffering, and consumption that we are actually targeting with the training we prescribe. With power we can see the end result of the athlete’s training, but we are not able to understand and quantify the improvements in efficiency that are taking place “under the hood.” 

This is what I love about lab testing—it gives us a glimpse under the hood. An athlete’s power production will eventually hit a ceiling, but even then, lab testing helps us see other improvements that might be under way. For example, the athlete might be more efficient at holding that same power. Testing also helps us more clearly identify areas where we can focus training to continue to improve overall conditioning as well as specific metabolic and physiological factors to ultimately improve performance. 

Unfortunately, among athletes (and even coaches) FTP has become a competition in and of itself, more of an end, than a means to an end. As a result, we run the risk of short-changing our athletes. We have to keep perspective, that the goal with these “tests” is to gather the most accurate data to develop the most accurate training zones. This is how we can ensure our athletes are maximizing valuable training time and achieving training objectives. 

In working with endurance athletes in the lab, it seems for some, the FTP test has so much heaviness, angst, and pressure attached to it, that they are not achieving a true representation of their physical ability because of the mental barriers. When we attempt to work around these mental barriers (e.g., shorten test times or ramp tests), we tend to overestimate thresholds, and produce inaccurate zones. It’s important to remind athletes of the reason and objective of the tests. 

In short, we need to save athletes from placing their entire identity and ability as an athlete in a number achieved in a 20-minute test. There’s so much more happening that will continue their development and potential for performance.  

Myth: If a little is good, a lot is better 

Here are two stories from the lab to illustrate a common mistake athletes make—fixating on one training zone and training almost exclusively in that zone. They are convinced that if a little is good, a lot is better, but the gains made come at the expense of other beneficial adaptations that are necessary for the athlete to realize their full potential. 

Zone 2 or bust: A competitive masters cyclist came into the lab for a follow-up lactate threshold test. Since his first threshold test, he had trained exclusively in Zone 2. When he we tested him on his second visit, he had extended his aerobic power zone by 15 watts, but his threshold had dropped by 25 watts. 

All HIIT, no fat utilization: A woman came into the lab for metabolic efficiency testing. She had been dedicated to high-intensity training six days a week, but felt she was no longer seeing the benefit and her fitness hit a plateau. We did a metabolic efficiency assessment on the treadmill. Running at 2 mph on a 1% grade, she had already reached the “cross-over” point where carbohydrate becomes the primary fuel. At this lower intensity (2 mph, 1% grade) we would expect an athlete to be burning exclusively fats, and then slowly transition to carbohydrates as intensity increased. 

My work in the lab has convinced me that it is important to keep all of the physiological systems maintained throughout the year. There are times of the year, such as the off-season, when it’s fine to place less emphasis on a given system or achieve the work in different ways. For example, you might encourage your athletes to use other modes of exercise like trail running and cross-country skiing to get a dose of sub-threshold to threshold and VO2max work, or you might suggest fast-paced group rides to more spontaneously acquire these types of intensity. In both cases, the athlete does not have to use mental energy and motivation to drive structured interval training. They can save up for when it counts.  

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:04

Julie, I assume you spend quite a bit of time in the lab working with athletes, talking with athletes, talking with coaches who have their athletes there. When you’re doing this, are you trying to convey anything to the athlete about the data that you’re looking at? You’ll try to inform them on what VO2 Max means, or whatever it is you’re talking about, oxygen saturation, or maybe you’re overlooking it. But, are there things that you’re really hoping to achieve with the athlete, besides just getting numbers out of them when they’re in the lab?

Lab Testing Key Takeaways

Julie Young  00:38

I mean, we do a lot of lactate threshold testing, and I think there’s some danger to that. Just because, at a certain point, the athlete is going to be working super hard, but may not be seeing those increases in power. I think, for me, that lab work really helps that athlete understand what’s happening under the hood. While the power may not infinitely increase, they’re improving, they’re becoming more efficient at holding a certain wattage. I think that’s nice to help athletes kind of see that, and understand that. I also think it’s really valuable, and this can happen different ways, but help emphasize the fact, like, they’re doing these different training intensities and zones for reasons. I think the hardest thing is to get endurance athletes to actually ride it endurance, and not go too hard.

Joe Friel  01:33

Which means ride easy.

Julie Young  01:34

Yes, yes.

Joe Friel  01:36

Lower the power output.

Julie Young  01:36

Yes, and understand. I think in any case, really educating the athlete in terms of why they’re doing things to help them be more purposeful, but just really emphasize the importance of that long endurance zone and what’s happening there. Then from their lactate curve, just help them understand in this zone, you want to, you want to train here for this purpose, and here for this purpose. So it’s a nice visual.

Joe Friel  02:02

So, you’ve learned a lot of things in the laboratory from working with athletes, I’m sure. If you could take one lesson there and give it to coaches, one lesson you’ve learned from working with athletes in the lab, and say this is the one thing I would really have you emphasize with your athletes, is there anything like that you could say, this is a key point?

Most Important Points When Working in the Lab with Athletes

Julie Young  02:22

I mean, I guess I would go back to that, and again, I’m using cyclists and using power.

Joe Friel  02:29


Julie Young  02:30

But again, I think if we fixate too much on that, it really cheats the athlete. To help, like, again, create that perspective for the athlete, like it’s not all about that power number. That’s just an outcome in terms of what you’re really trying to train. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t see that, if people don’t have access to a lab. I think that’s what I would really emphasize with the coach is to help the athlete maintain that perspective.