How relevant are studies on elite athletes to the rest of us

A lot of the discussions on this forum are about which training plan or recovery shake or carb ratios or recovery regimen are optimal. It seems that a lot of the research into all this stuff is done on/with professional athletes seeking to squeeze out every last bit of performance from their athletically gifted mutant bodies. Sometimes there will be mention of studies involving “well-trained” athletes or similar, which sounds closer to a a lot of us here doing club rides or trying to get upgrade points.

Last week I watched a couple of Seiler talks on YouTube where he talked about his work with world-class athletes. A lot of coaches plug their plan on the basis that it worked for this amazing athlete or was used by a TdF team. A lot of endurance sports podcasts, etc. interview pros to learn how to replicate their success.

That’s all very interesting–I read a lot of blog posts and listen to a lot of podcasts–but what about all us who are working on getting through the last set of Palisade, never mind winning olympic medals? How much does all the fancy science apply to us? Like, does it really matter if polarized training will get me to 4 W/kg if I’m sitting here at 2.5 (rounding up)?

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My own meaningless opinion—although echoed in the recent fascat podcast—is that the research in this space is way behind the knowledge of experienced coaches. If you buy that then you should more or less ignore most research in this space (I’m looking at you polarized vs sweet spot thread) and instead focus on some general consensus between high level coaches.

I wonder if any others agree or disagree with my thoughts here?

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Consistency is key to most of us amateurs IMO. I’m not gifted, I don’t eat well, or maintain other healthy habits. I don’t lift or track my sleep. But I manage to stay at the upper end of locals just because they lose motivation in the winter or whatnot and I don’t

What I do is when I have a program to follow I follow it and don’t skip, and aim for 6+ hours outdoors in the warm months when not on a plan. If I have a busy week, I find time, even if it means a 6am start before humidity or whatever.

Just be consistent, knowing what to do helps too but just putting in time consistently is also going to hell tremendously

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The manufactured debates are with the concept of optimization as you wrote. Nutrition, rest/recovery and broad training concepts are universal between joes and pros. Do too much or too little and you leave fitness on the table. This scares people and why the endless debates.

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Most research studies are more relevant to average male athletes than they are to truly elite male athletes.

It’s highly unlikely most research institutions can enroll enough individuals at the edges of the bell curve for the findings not to be useful to wide cross sections of the population.

No pro who gets paid to win is going to compromise their training to test something that may not work in the sake of pushing science forward.

Fortunately also, you are a human and the participants are human, so that helps. Better than the studies being on mice.

The more important issue is study design. Many studies are not designed well which makes interpreting them and applying the learnings more difficult.

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This seems like the most sensible approach for sure. Well, for me anyway. It’s just that, like @Landis says right below, I think a lot of people are looking for the answer that will even out some of the uncertainty between what’s too much/little.

I think the TR crew does a pretty good job of hitting the consistency and the basics (eat right, sleep well, listen to your body) which are fundamental for everybody.

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This is a really good point. Maybe I just don’t see enough of the actual studies, but instead listen to all the guys who mention that some intervention worked for some elite cohort. Or when they use some elite/pro as a case study.

Anyway, I’ll keep in mind study design. I’m a scientist by training, but I work with rocks. It’s hard, but way, way easier to study than biological systems.

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“Elite” has a pretty nebulous definition, as does “well trained”. Each study defines it differently unfortunately.

“Elite” usually means 60-70 VO2max where as “well trained” could mean barely off the couch to 60 VO2max

Seems like if you like what the “research” says, you’re into it no matter how spurious.

I watched a few posters demand “math” and “science and research” for a method of determining/testing FTP. And turn around three posts later say that they’ll stick with FTP=1 Hour of Power. Not bothering to answer the question on the “math” and “science and research” that shows what they support.

There’s a pantload of generally agreed on bro-sciency stuff that some agree with but one person doesn’t and all of the sudden they’re like “Wheres the research!?”

Best of all is when you agree with the research hook line and sinker. Any contrary research and all of the sudden these guys are inspector Cluseau’ing the study methodology, controls, and participants and holding up any single factor as a way to discount that “other guys” evidence.

Awesome.

My take? We’re all just kind of guessing.

I’m honestly overwhelmed by it all. Don’t know which way is up which zone is where what physiological “adaptation” I’m chasing, need, or benefit from and which way of 17 to get there.

Yet here I am reading through all this mountain of contradictory flapdoodle…looking for something. Don’t know what but I’m goddamn sure I’ll know when I see it. Perhaps.

Maybe.

Depends.

signed/overwhelmed and frustrated

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That podcast/rant is dead on.

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I entirely agree with what you are saying. Too many folks develop very strong opinions on this or that training program based on a handful of studies that were short term, done on incredibly small numbers of participants, and did not take into consideration variables such as sleep, nutrition, or past training history. I thought the latest FasCat podcast really did a good job of putting it all in perspective. There are a lot of coaches that have coached hundreds if not thousands of people of a wide range of physical abilities over a period of 20 years or more. There is little doubt, at least in my mind, that what they have to say is far more valuable than a “scientific” study done on 12 well trained athletes can provide us.

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The great, great, great majority of all sports physiology research is on untrained, recreationally and moderately trained subjects. A few on well trained and only a handful on elites. Actually, hardly any are on elites. Especially not many intervention studies.

Adding that adaptions occur over many years, small sample sizes and high individual variability, I’d say deducing anything from sports science research is challenging.

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And to pros too!
I would say that where a lot of amateurs go wrong is a lack of consistency with recovery. This is often due to ‘life’ getting in the way!

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Don’t know about the science, but I think most of what athletes do, isn’t really applicable to us normalos. Arguments like “Athletes X does this, therefore we should do it to” is just not very valuable IMO. Like, how do you deduce a 6 h/week training plan from a pro who trains 25 h/week?! Better if a experienced coach builds a plan from scratch fitting the needs of the “left end of the bell curve” athlete.
What concern me sometimes is… uhm lets call it “cutting edge supplements”. Things like ketones and whathaveyou that may or may not work, but more importantly, possible have adverse (longterm)side-effects. Athletes would do just about anything to gain the slightest bit of performance and health often takes a backseat. For us, it should be the opposite. Health comes first and gobbling down questionable supplements in the hope to gain small percentage points on top of mediocre performance is really something we should leave to the pros.

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This is the big one for me. Lots of studies showing that approach x yielded better results than approach y over 4-6 weeks. But getting good at cycling takes a few years, not a few weeks or even months. The thing that makes you better in 6 weeks might burn you out in 6 months. Or may be unsustainable because it requires too much pain/sacrifice/discipline. Or might lead to a plateau or a decline because you’re only training adaptations that respond quickly and neglecting ones that take a long time to build but underpin longer term growth.

I get why most controlled studies are by necessity relatively short term and with a small number of subjects. It doesn’t make them pointless. But it does mean you need to take their findings with a pinch of salt and put them into context of your overall approach. As somebody said above, I think in the long term consistency trumps pretty much everything else. Finding a good balance of volume, intensity, recovery, nutrition that keeps you healthy and enjoying your cycling year in, year out, should really be the end goal for all of us.

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Have you considered studying sandstone?

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Yes - and this subject population is also known as undergraduate students. They are the captive guinea pigs of university researchers.

Occasionally they get the college athletes. You can usually call the college athletes “well trained” but is it applicable if you put a rower or basketball player on a bike? And most college athletes are not “elite”.

In terms of basic training approaches, no elite athletes ever going to volunteer for a study where there’s a chance they’d be stuck in the control group while someone else is getting the cutting edge training that is being studied. So, at best, when you see a study dealing with elite athletes what you’re getting is essentially a scientist looking at it trying to identify what coaches are already doing. Thus, rather than waiting to read the paper, you’re better off just hiring the elite coach and getting the good stuff now.

As for applying elite training ideas to amateurs, the basics obviously carryover but most people tend to forget that elite athletes are not just faster but they are actually training for something different than what amateurs are training for. For example, a world tour cyclist is training for 20 minute power after four hours of effort. That’s something that just doesn’t apply to almost any amateur.

IMO, the most important thing to understand are some underlying principles of what makes you “fit”. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get caught up in the complexities, specifics and nuances of different research studies.

Here’s a few fundamentals that I’ve taken away from a lot of reading and listening on what drives endurance performance. When I listen to research studies, I try allocate what I’m hearing into these buckets. It helps me keep things straight.

This is a mix of what I’ve picked up from the likes of Stephen Seiler, Sebastian Weber, Inigo San Millan, Steve Neal.

  1. Genetics are a huge driver. If you have the right genes it makes things a lot easier. If you have the wrong genes, don’t beat your head against the wall that you didn’t get to 4.5 W/kg in a season like your friend, and it’s possible that no training plan can get you there.

  2. Slow twitch muscles and mitochondria are really, really important. Maybe the most important driver of endurance fitness. Train them. Endurance paced rides and volume.

  3. VO2max is important. Train it, but don’t do too much. Don’t get too caught up on if long or short intervals are better. Just ride the bike hard.

  4. Fast twitch muscles are great for surges and sprints. But preferentially burn carbs and produce lactate (and resulting acidosis) that causes fatigue. Improve fatigue resistance (reduce lactate production and/or improve lactate clearance) of these muscles by doing Tempo/Sweet Spot intervals, including some at low cadence.

  5. Recovery is as important as training. Don’t overdo the intensity or volume. Eat and sleep well. Be mindful that if you are older, you probably need more recovery (and / or less intensity and volume).

What did I miss or get wrong? I know there’s a few critics out there :grin:

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Endurance paced rides will also train your fast twitch fibers if they’re long enough (or if you do them when you’re tired).

Tempo/Sweet Spot/VO2max efforts will also train your slow twitch fibers.

Low cadence training doesn’t actually target your fast twitch fibers any better than pedaling at a normal cadence.