The number of amateur competitive athletes is increasing every year in every single endurance sport. In the last decade alone this increase has been in the millions in the US. Many amateur athletes dream of becoming professional athletes someday. Others know that they will never become a pro athlete but love the spirit of the competition. Both groups of amateur athletes thrive to improve every year. Many search for the latest edge in equipment like fastest wheels, aero helmets and position, lightest and most robust running shoes or best recovery “boots”. These tangible gains in performance are called the “marginal gains” and up until here there is no difference between professional and amateur athletes. In fact, because of constrains of sponsorships, sometimes professional athletes don’t have access to the same level of equipment that amateurs (those with money) have.
However, we must not forget that the term “marginal gains” represents just those minimal increases in performance. While these minimal (1, 2 or 3 percent) increases in performance may represent the difference between winning or not, it all can just make sense when the “ABC’s” and the “Major Gains “are achieved. Here is where the main difference between a pro and an amateur athlete resides. Pros know very well that the fastest wheels or shoes or the most aero skinsuit won’t take them anywhere without conquering the major gains in performance which are the result of years of training and hard work. And all top pros know that in order to take major steps towards conquering these major gains a scientific approach is necessary.
Here are top 3 things that Pros do that Amateurs can learn from:
Scientific Approach to Training
When it comes to major gains in performance it all comes down to major improvements in our physiology and metabolism. Lactate clearance capacity, the ability to use fats during the competition to save glycogen stores for the end, the ability to sustain a given power output during the race, increase it or even outsprint the rest at the end of the race are the key elements in athletic performance. These physiological and metabolic adaptations are elicited by training and we know very well that different training intensities, durations and methods result in different adaptations. However, the “one-size-fits-all” training methodology is typical among many amateur athletes and many coaches which with the aid of internet has made possible for coaches to reach athletes throughout the world. However there is a lot of guessing with the one-size-fits-all concept as a same training method and intensities may not be enough stimulus to improve for one athlete and may be too much stimulus leading to overtraining in another athlete. Personalization and individualization is key and something all top coaches know. To achieve this individualization it is very important to get to know each athlete’s individual physiological and metabolic responses to exercise in order to tailor an individual and specific training plan intended to maximize performance. For this, physiological testing is the only manner to accurately be able to obtain the necessary information to tailor and personalize a specific training plan. This is very well known by top athletes and coaches but unfortunately most amateur athletes and their coaches never get to know this necessary information because they never get tested. Athletes and coaches should not be “shy” or intimidated to go to an exercise physiology lab and get tested. Coaches should not be intimidated by all the metabolic and physiological information from these tests as it always represents great information in order to work better with their athletes. Coaches who approach the scientific approach to training set themselves apart from the rest and are the ones with highest retention rate and eventually top prestige and reputation. As an amateur athlete it is key to find these type of coaches and in the shopping around process for a coach it is very important to find out about what is their scientific approach and background to coaching.
Both training and competition generate important energy expenditures and they need to be replenished by proper nutrition. Carbohydrates (CHO) and fats are the most important fuels for muscle metabolism. While fat storage is pretty much unlimited (50,000-100,000Kcal derived from fat), carbohydrate availability in the form of glycogen storage is very limited with only about ~500g/~1Lb of storage capacity. Therefore carbohydrate intake is key for performance as every scientific study for the past 60 years documents. Cyclists during the Tour de France have about 75-80 percent of their calories derived from CHO with about 8-10g/kg per body weight in the form of CHO and about 1,500Kcal derived from simple sugars (yes!, sugar!!). Kenyan runners have about 75 percent of their daily diet derived from CHO and about 20 percent from simple sugars. Tarahumaras, the best ultramarathon runners, have a diet made of approximately 75 percent from CHO as well. Obviously we are talking about “Formula 1” cars and while not necessarily advocating for the same diet it is important to keep in mind that CHO are key for performance. Top pro athletes always make sure they fuel up with plenty of CHO and this is an important difference with many amateur athletes in this “anti-carbohydrate” era.
Beyond “bonking” for endurance events, recent research clearly shows that glycogen content regulates muscle contraction. A decrease in just 25 percent in glycogen content which is far from depletion, already represents a significant decrease in muscle contraction force and velocity interfering significantly with power and speed capacity and therefore with athletic performance. We have developed a methodology to measure skeletal muscle glycogen in a non-invasive way through ultrasound technology and we see glycogen decreases all the time as the result of training and competition, therefore making sure that CHO are present in our diets on a regular base will allow glycogen stores to be adequate for competition.
There is a lot of buzz about high fat diets and adaptation to them over time. However there is not a single research study showing increases in performance with these diets. We are one of the few labs in the world measuring fat and carbohydrate oxidation during exercise in athletes and on a daily base we clearly see that people restricting CHO show higher rates of fat utilization due to lower contribution from CHO for energy purposes. However in about 10 years using this methodology and after hundreds and hundreds of athletes tested, I yet have to see an athlete whose performance actually increased. In fact every time we correct these diets to a normal CHO diet, performance is restored or increased in these athletes. Top pros are also vulnerable to new fads but because of their scientific approach to training, sooner or later they realize these diets are not appropriate.
The “train low, race high” concept proposing a decrease in CHO content during training periods is an interesting concept that although still needs more research it seems that it may increase fat oxidation capacity. However we must keep present that this concept is not about severe CHO restriction or a high fat, low CHO diet. It is also important that those athletes trying “train low, race high” are monitored by qualified and experienced professionals in sports nutrition.
Overtraining is a major player always present in competitive athletes. Pretty much all of us have been overtrained and fatigue at some point. However the majority of amateur athletes don’t have the right sense of perception of what overtraining means. Many still think that being tired all the time is part of the training process. Many amateur athletes still bury themselves down for several months of hard training and then have a month of “tapering” before the big day to super-compensate. This is a big mistake as training too hard for months won’t elicit the right metabolic and physiological adaptations and then tapering for 3 to 4 weeks is too much time where some key metabolic adaptations will be lost. However it seems to “work” for many amateur as this long tapering actually restores “freshness” when actually in many cases is just a deception.
The best ways to prevent this situation and optimize performance is to monitor training with a scientific approach. Training platforms like TrainingPeaks allow coaches to monitor closely what their athletes do on a daily base and provide tons of parameters and daily feedback to coaches so changes in a given training plan can be done. It is possible to compare training load and intensity with a same block or period of time the previous year when form was excellent or horrible and try to replicate or avoid similar situations respectively.
Physiological testing is also a great way to monitor improvements in performance and a great way to test if a specific training plan is working. We can see very well if key metabolic and physiological parameters have improved, have been maintained or even got worse and therefore act accordingly.
We can also do blood analysis to pinpoint possible elements involved in overtraining in order to prevent it and stay ahead of the game or at least diagnose it and be able to correct training. There are many elements in the blood indicative of overtraining and fatigue. We can see if there is muscle damage, anemia, hormonal disturbances or even infections. Many top athletes perform blood analysis a few times a year but the majority of amateur athletes don’t. Blood analysis is a great tool for athletes and coaches to monitor overtraining but it is important to do them through a professional with knowledge and experience.
As a summary, when it comes to “marginal gains” the differences between professional and amateur athletes is minimal or even non-existent. However, when it comes to the “major gains” or “ABC’s”, the gap is huge among amateur and professional athletes and a scientific approach to training is key to close this gap.
Dr. Inigo San Milan is a featured speaker at the Endurance Coaching Summit on July 28-29. Learn more about ECS and the other top coaches and experts that will be presenting.