Case Study: Applying Sports Science to a Workout

Case Study: Applying Sports Science to a Workout

See how one coach applies sports-science research to keep workouts fresh—and how you can interpret data to do the same with your own.

As coaches, we’re constantly trying to find new ways to keep training interesting and beneficial, avoiding plateaus as well as physical and mental fatigue. This is why, as a coach, I frequently read sports science articles to provide additional benefits to my athletes. 

I once listened to a presentation by Joe Friel in which he suggested that coaches read academic journals every week to learn about the latest advances in training concepts. I have adopted this practice, and it’s given me lots of fresh training stimuli for my athletes—which is helping them become fitter, faster and stronger.

Applying A Study in Practice

For my more advanced athletes, I recently introduced a study called Increasing Oxygen Uptake in Well-Trained Cross-Country Skiers During Work Intervals With a Fast Start by Rønnestad et al., 2020. This article studied skiers, but I have applied a similar approach to the runners I coach.

In this paper, the athletes either completed 5-minute intervals at 90% of maximal aerobic speed, or split the five minutes in 1.5 minutes at 100% maximal aerobic speed and then did the remaining 3.5 minutes of the interval at 85%.

To apply this study to my athletes’ training, I asked some runners to complete repeats where the focus is going harder at the start, and then slowing as fatigue rises. When following this methodology, I’ve found that my athletes then spend more time in the upper pace zones. Using Threshold Speed and Joe Friel for Running (7) zones you can see this variance. (Please note scale differs due to longer cool-down in the second workout)

Workout 1: 6 x 1 km Repeats, 3-minute recovery, even pacing

Workout 2: 6 x 1km Repeats, 3-minute recovery , fast start

The distribution of pace by zone differs noticeably, although in both scenarios, the times per kilometer were nearly identical. The session was completed at the same location, by the same athlete, controlling for other variables, such as shoes, time of day and GPS device. I have also seen this pace zone distribution split replicated across multiple athletes.

By switching up the pacing distribution, runners can spend more time running at a faster speed, while completing the 1km repeats in the same time as when they ran at even pacing. A simple variation of focus (going hard at the start) has essentially created a new workout, based on a fairly standard interval session.

Beyond The Data

I have found this new approach offers not just physiological benefits, but psychological ones as well. The new concepts and ideas have encouraged conversations and feedback from my athletes, while providing a new challenge for them. This keeps the training fresh and engaging.

What to Consider When Applying Science to Your Training

However, just because an article is written by sports scientists and peer-reviewed, it doesn’t mean we can just follow it blindly. Here’s what you need to take into account in order to apply a scientific study successfully to your training. 

Context

Not every human performance study will be directly applicable to your particular sports performance. As you read, consider whether the researchers are looking at opportunities for improved performance or investigating a specific metric that may not be relevant for you or your athletes. Remember, academic research is often completed within a lab environment. So it’s worth reflecting how applicable the findings are in a real-world environment where your athletes train and race. 

To understand how the findings might stack up with existing research or knowledge, see if you can find any articles that contradict or support the research you have been reading. This will help you round out your knowledge and overcome any potential biases.

Sampling

The ‘sample’ of athletes tested in the study is very important. If the participants are all highly-trained male athletes aged 20 to 24,  the results of the study may not be applicable to, say, a novice female athlete in her 50’s. A new training approach may be great for one group of athletes, but completely inappropriate for another, so check whether the sample of a study is representative of you or your athletes. 

Sample size, i.e. the number of subjects investigated, is also highly relevant. If a small group of athletes have been investigated, will the results translate to the wider athlete population? There are lots of reasons why a study may include just a small sample of participants, but bear in mind that studies with a larger sample size have a greater chance of being applicable to wider populations.  

Methodology

The methodology of the study (how the research was conducted) will also provide valuable insights to help assess if this is a suitable approach for you. For example, how long was the research period, how many training sessions took place within the study, how was the data collected? These questions are all worth considering.

If you feel that the research is robust and you or your athletes would benefit from it, then conduct a trial of your own in training and record your own results. Ideally, new research can refresh your training routines and even spark debate, keeping you and your athletes engaged and performing on the cutting edge. 

The study cited above came from the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. To stay up to date with the latest research and training methodologies, you can follow other journals like the American Journal of Sports Medicine, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, or the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. You can follow all of these sources on social media to get the latest studies delivered right to your social feeds. 

References:

Rønnestad, B.R., Rømer, T. and Hansen, J., 2020. Increasing Oxygen Uptake in Well-Trained Cross-Country Skiers During Work Intervals With a Fast Start. International journal of sports physiology and performance15(3), pp.383-389.

Doug Stewart

Doug Stewart is the founder and head coach at TMR Coaching, an IRONMAN Certified Coach accredited with TrainingPeaks, UK Athletics and British Cycling. Having completed races such as Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Trofeo Kima and the Celtman Xtreme Triathlon, Doug uses his extensive experience of trail, ultra running and endurance triathlons to help athletes achieve their goals. When he’s not training or working, he’s studying for his MSc. in Performance Coaching. You can see some of Doug’s training plans here and visit his website here.