By Carl Valle
Since SimpliFaster has already widely shared articles on testing aerobic capacity online, including the great work by Alan Couzens, I wanted to get more detailed on the use of the VO2 Master App. While most readers of this blog are aware that conditioning matters in sport, because lab testing can be cost-prohibitive or cumbersome, the majority of professionals use field tests and GPS tracking. I personally have been using more physiological testing, and as the market and science reveal enough clues to make better training decisions, I too am making wiser choices.
In this article, I cover both the science and practice of testing athletes with objective direct information rather than only chasing a stopwatch. I am a huge fan of field testing, but I know if you want to maximize an athlete, you need to get your hands dirty a bit. If you are in endurance sport, a high-performance team environment, or just want to get the most out of your program, this article covers a lot that will help you make progress in your training goals.
What We Learned from the Sub Two-Hour Marathon
Coaches, scientists, and pundits have all made good points that the recent world-record marathon run by Eliud Kipchoge in under two hours had more to do with shoe technology than new training methods. Still, we need to value great performances, as they push all performances to new levels. A good example of this is Caleb Dressel’s recent world record in the 100-meter butterfly, where he bested a record set by Michael Phelps back in a time when swimsuit technology created a firestorm of controversy. Now, years later, Dressel beat that time with less technology, likely because he could see what was humanly possible.Like it or not, the sporting world is getting faster and more demanding, and we need to understand extreme outputs of speed, power, and endurance to adjust for the future, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Pacing and other contributions may have increased the odds of a world record, but you still have to do it, and that means leaving no stone unturned. What is important to know is that Kipchoge ran 13.1 miles per hour, or about 6 meters per second. That velocity is staggering, and more impressively, it’s continuous over two hours rather than just a few minutes. This extreme speed over time shows what is possible in absolute environments, thus raising the standard with submaximal situations in team sport. Like it or not, the sporting world is getting faster and more demanding, and we need to understand extreme outputs of speed, power, and endurance to adjust for the future.
If you play team sports, the first counterpoint a coach may make is that VO2 max numbers don’t matter much to winning or the success of a single game. I get that. I am not saying that improving a treadmill test will turn a soccer player into the next Cristiano Ronaldo anytime soon, but we do know that training and preparation for long aerobic games and seasons can’t come from short sprints alone. Preparing for the continuum of physiological requirements gives an athlete their best shot for thriving, not just finishing a game.
Aerobic capacity is linked to human longevity, and a sensible fitness level will not resemble a couch potato. Even a few throwing athletes train outside of their respective explosive modalities, due to the wisdom of preparing the human for long-term success, rather than chasing sport specificity. The demands of a game are not the same as the demands of recovery and resilience from successful seasons of playing, and knowing how our bodies work directly is far more useful than guessing.
Another example is Formula One (F1) racing. The most taxing F1 race is likely the Singapore Grand Prix, as it’s hot and long, and this means drivers can’t show up with a diet of just strength training or repeated sprints. Modern team sport is analogous to F1 because you need to be fast and fit regularly, and that means fresh. If you don’t have the capacity to handle the next play or game, you will be looking for a supplement or recovery modality to handle the discomfort or residual fatigue. Aerobic capacity isn’t sexy or fun, and we see athletes getting scared off of being fit for fear that they will be either tired or slow.Aerobic capacity isn’t sexy, but a fitter athlete can come back and train more speed and power, thus harnessing their talents to be more skilled and perhaps even faster, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The facts are that the opposite is true: A fitter athlete can come back and train more speed and power, thus harnessing their talents to be more skilled and perhaps even faster. I repeat this point over and over, as it’s far easier to believe that a few sprints a few times a week are all you need to do, and I don’t blame coaches for wanting to put their faith in that plan. As an athlete, I hated conditioning, and general preparation isn’t as glamorous as a flying sprint or heavy clean and jerk.
Testing Conditioning – What Is New and What Works
Recently, a few coaches have shared their opinions on what may be useful for evaluating the fitness of team sports. I was pleasantly surprised that American football performance specialists were tinkering with the beep test batteries. It’s extremely difficult to evaluate the fitness of American football because it’s not an international game, so there’s less research on it. While we know that rugby has a lot of excellent science, American football and rugby are still separate sports. Rugby is continuous with athletes playing both ways, and its American counterpart has far more rest periods.
Sports like tennis and baseball are also difficult to evaluate, as the information is more about observations than successful trends with winning. Instead of complaining or hoping for a few peer review studies to tell us what to do, it’s our job to come up with a plan and a way to determine the direction we are going with invasive information (testing).
When designing workouts, I keep my mind on key performance indicators and who is consistently winning or modeling. Those results and how they accumulate are what we should value. Here are a few simple metrics I believe in.
Resting Heart Rate: A low resting HR corresponds to patterns of a powerful heart. You will not see high resting heart rates with endurance athletes unless they are ill or stressed. We don’t need to have a cheerleading response to very low scores like 1 rep max tests, but if we did somehow reward the effort, conditioning would get the same respect as strength training.
Repeated Blood Monitoring: Without a well of good body chemistry, heavy workouts could create bigger problems beyond anemia. Due to plasma volume expansion, hemoglobin and other blood parameters may look diluted, but hemoglobin mass tells the full story. If an athlete doesn’t do quality testing, you could lose months of hard training, so test as much as possible.
Pragmatic Field Tests: I employ field tests because I care about running velocity (derivatives and types) and seeing what an athlete can do. A hard field test is a great workout, since it’s not being limited to game tactics or skill. Take the ball or puck away to see what you have been doing outside of the sport and know where an athlete is hiding or excelling.
Physiological Assessment: This is where the VM Pro, Moxy Monitor, and heart rate monitoring come in handy. Some coaches and sport science departments believe in lactate testing, and that is fine if you have willing athletes and are able to actually use that information. Usually, the idea of blood sampling for team sports is the reason coaches favor NIRS devices.
Player Tracking Analysis: Team coaches care about game film, not lab tests or even combines if they don’t transfer to the field. I am a huge fan of the Dartfish Pro S because I can see how teams look when the games are tight and deep into the season. Work with your video department or take matters into your own hands and audit games with footage from them if necessary.
You can find more than enough resources on other websites, such as the Science of Sport, etc. Those articles are good promises, but you need to read both the texts and research in order to completely understand how to interpret test results and what you are attempting to modulate with training. Don’t worship idioms by coaches with good sales pitches; trust your observations and measurements and don’t just stick to what is hot on social media.
Heart Rate, Muscle Oxygenation, and Metabolic Output
I wrote about the Moxy Monitor in isolation, and I touched on heart rate training in old blog posts years ago. Honestly, I need to refresh the heart rate training information because it deserves more than a few mentions, but for now, I want to remind you that this is about covering all the physiological bases, from local adaptations to systemic changes to the entire aerobic engine of the athlete. If you want to read more on those areas in detail, feel free to read my earlier post on mitochondria and using the Moxy Monitor, or why I think it’s wise to assess oxygen transfer.We must embrace the fact that when you train endurance and conditioning, you really challenge the central nervous system, not just the heart and lungs, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
A parting thought on the collection of articles is that we are trying to get the most out of each organelle or organ system, not compromise the ability to express power. Generally, coaches worry that too much aerobic training will turn an explosive athlete into a skinny endurance athlete, but in reality, we really want to make sure we don’t under-condition an athlete, predisposing them to injury and mental burnout. While I love the anatomy of the heart, the brain and the chemicals that support it are part of conditioning. We must embrace the fact that when you train endurance or conditioning, you really challenge the central nervous system, not just the heart and lungs.
Usually, when an athlete trains, all of the specific additions fall into place if they do the sequence and progressions right. I love the notion that good general plans improve an athlete without having to do too much testing, but when training groups or trying to maximize an athlete, you can’t just hope, you eventually need to measure. Opinions on training plans are great, but even the best coaches in the world will strike out, and it’s better to have an educated guess than blind faith in what looks good on paper or has worked in the past. True, athletes seem to be evolving, with each generation being better than the one before, but relying only on genetics defeats the purpose of our jobs. Make the best better, as Henk Kraaijenhof often says.
How to Use the VM Pro App
Now for the part that most readers will skip to and want to learn more about—the VO2 Master smart device app and what you can do with it. I have used the app enough to know it’s stable and very easy to navigate. I had not inserted the term “stable” in my writing before because I didn’t realize how many apps crash due to poor coding until I started using them more. In the past, I was a laptop, watch, or enterprise team customer. Now I use more tablets and smartphone tools than ever, but we still have the same issues with technology: things failing and causing headaches. I believe that if developers made technology perform more consistently and worried less about the bells and whistles, we would see more coaches applying it properly.If developers made technology perform more consistently and worried less about the bells and whistles, we would see more coaches applying it properly, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Anyway, the app is free and available on both the iOS and Android platforms, and it does not require the wearable mask to provide value. You can use it just for heart rate monitoring and, if you are a Moxy fan, measure multiple muscle locations at once.
What makes the app great is that it connects well to devices and uses a stop and start button to record testing sessions. For some strange reason, app developers have lost sight of the reason coaches and regular Joes prefer apps to full software programs: intuitive user experiences. When coaching or testing, we just need record and stop experiences, and not much more than that. Just getting a recording is a win when in a hostile environment; meaning, trying to juggle the actual testing and measuring the event or activity. Nothing makes a coach hate technology more than requesting an athlete to go all out in a test and then not getting a measure. I have yet to have the test fail, and, believe me, I have done more than a few tests over the past year.
I don’t need to make a full tutorial on how to use the VM Pro system, as its purpose is to be like wireless headphones. It’s like your Beats by Dre, so you don’t need a blog piece to teach you how to turn it on and connect to the app. What you should know is that you must respect the product like a laboratory device and know how to properly conduct a test by controlling variables that matter, such as time of day testing and how the athlete feels. If they have dead legs, they may not be able to elicit a good effort, so just make sure you know how to perform a conventional test. Here are a few tips to make things easier:
- Read the directions and make sure you have everything that should be included. My grandfather raised me and instilled this basic concept, but for some reason, nobody reads the directions these days.
- Make sure to charge the other devices and update the firmware. A 60-second trial without the mask is useful to get started, then add the VM Pro when you’re ready.
- Use gloves and handle the device with care so the athlete knows you are giving them a clean mask. Be sure to go latex- and powder-free and try to recycle the discarded gloves.
- The VM Pro system starts reading when breathing is heavy, and the event you are recording is taxing. I have no real experience in resting conditioning, but the detection is fine with low-intensity activities. Practice saving and sending data a few times, so you know how to do a recording.
- The system is comfortable and ergonomic. Try it first so athletes know it won’t be an unpleasant experience. Make it fun and exciting, not a punishment.
- When done testing, clean all the components and store the system in a responsible manner. Wash what is reusable and toss the coin-sized filter.
Exporting the results is easy, and you can opt for the PDF report or raw file data. I sometimes just send a screenshot to a coach or athlete, so they know the test was successful, but for most purposes, I look to see how tissues are trending with effort. From there, you can send the file to an athlete management system or break down the data with Excel-compatible statistical products for deeper analysis. I am personally curious about the peak heart rate, spirometry, muscle oxygenation, and gas values that the system can collect. Again, I am screening out the lazy and identifying the very talented, not trying to do research or medical evaluations.
Making the Real World Your Personal Laboratory
Now that you know how to use both the hardware and software, it’s time to employ the system in the real world. I have used the system for field tests in soccer, medicine ball training for conditioning, and even personal fitness curiosity. Recently, I experimented with cycling, ranging from fitness spin classes to NHL testing. The results are clear: If you want something practical and convenient, wireless and tubeless testing is everything.
I was curious about PNOE years ago, but user reports on data quality left me suspicious of the product, and the backpack was too annoying for ecologically rich testing. I was just as skeptical with VM Pro until I actually tested athletes who had historically consistent measurements. With a high reliability, my needs were simple: How did athletes trend over time? I still use combinations of data to make a decision, but it’s easier with physiological testing. I ditched the carts and relied on repeated measures to identify athletes who need interventions.
In theory, coaches have four options for testing athletes, and those are mainly limited to boosting the Bluetooth connection so it has more range than a shuttle test. In my experience, you can do the following testing scenarios that make a difference:
Classic Laboratory Testing: Sometimes, just keeping things conventional is valuable, as the traditional assessment on a bike or treadmill. I have mixed feelings, but I do think it’s worth getting on a bike and just seeing how interventions may show up in games or competitions. You can use VM Pro for laboratory testing so you can control the variables and produce cleaner data.
Boosted Field Testing: A simple field test can increase the value when adding direct objective measures. I am not saying a shuttle test is useless without physiological evaluation, but it still doesn’t tell the full story, and this is why I love mobile metabolic testing.
Pilot Studies: Light experiments are not necessarily research worthy of publication, but a short sample of activities is very useful for a better strategy later. You don’t need perfect data to see feasibility; you just need to see the logistics for what you need to polish later.
Simulated Game or Events: Not all sports can safely and effectively add the VM Pro, but it will surprise you what you can do with an ultraportable solution. Light controlled scrimmaging or practices are possible, but it’s up to the coach and athlete to decide about risks of contact from a ball or athlete.
As you can see above, the level of purity ranges from the most controlled of settings to something more ecologically enriched, but chaotic. It’s up to you and your staff to decide what is realistic and what is truly useful.
Download to Upgrade Your Conditioning Game
The VO2 Master app is free, simple to use, and very valuable for coaches and sport scientists. Having a centralized app to test athletes is very practical, due to its portability and the intuitive environment of the app market.You don’t need to be an expert in physiology to get value out of the VM Pro; you just need to be dedicated to following directions and being consistent in observing changes over time. Click To Tweet
You don’t need to be an expert in physiology to get value out of the system, you just need to be dedicated to following directions and being consistent in observing changes over time. Just doing basic testing and training with the app using heart rates enables anyone with a sense of curiosity and commitment to using the best available science to get an advantage in sport. I am a huge fan of both the app and VM Pro hardware, and performance coaches who need to win tomorrow should invest in a system today.