By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
• Unfortunately, there is no single best measurement that can predict elite level performance in endurance athletes
• Multiple factors such as VO2 max, running economy, genetics, and training methods likely all play a role
• Almost all elite level endurance athletes will use High Intensity Interval Training for some portion of their training, making it the most effective training method
I’ve recently written a post about the one best predictor of elite level performance in predominantly anaerobic sports such as football (it is power, roughly the ability to produce maximal force in the shortest time). I received a number of questions about predictors of elite performance for endurance sports such as distance running. Do these predictors exist for endurance sports, and are there a small number of predictors that a young athlete can focus on? It turns out that the issue for endurance sports is a bit more complex, as several factors appear to be important and there is no single best predictor. Let’s take a look at what the evidence shows.
For scientists and sophisticated coaches focusing on runners, there are a number of key measures correlated with running success. Maximal oxygen uptake (referred to as VO2 max), running economy, anaerobic threshold, body type, genetics, and training methods have all been studied and seem to have roles. No studies have shown that there is one dominant characteristic.
VO2 max is the maximum rate that oxygen can be taken from the air and taken to the cells in the body during physical activity. VO2 max has been extensively studied in a number of different endurance sports, with differing levels of athletic ability. There is no conclusive “number” correlating to all endurance sport athletes but elite marathon level runners generally have VO2 max values ranging from 70 to 85 ml/kg/minute.
Other sophisticated measurements include running economy, and the amount of time a runner can run at VO2 max. The amount of time an athlete is able to run at VO2 max is a strongly linked with elite level performance but again it turns out not to be completely predictive. Body fat measurements have also been extensively studied. Generally speaking, “elite” female and male runners have body fat around 8%, “good” runners around 10.7%, and “average” runners around 12.1%.
And how about the incredibly high percentage of elite level distance runners from the east African countries? Is that due to genetics, training at altitude, or training methods? It is too difficult to figure out which factor is the most important.
Are you confused yet? I am! There are just too many factors involved in elite performance in endurance sports. These factors are likely different by sport (cycling vs. running, for example), different by distance, and probably different for males vs. females. One thing I did find as far as training methods that seems to be correlated with making any individual athlete the best he/she can be: high intensity interval training.
In high intensity interval training the athlete participates in very short but high intensity training sessions often involving sprinting. When done correctly, high intensity interval training is effective for almost all levels of athletes in just about any type of endurance sport. We’ll cover this further in a future post. For now here’s your take-home message: there’s no single best predictor of elite level performance in endurance sports, but almost all elite endurance athletes will use high intensity interval training during their workouts.