Once a year some of the greatest minds in cycling performance training come together to share and discuss the latest research into the the science of the sport and athlete performance. South African John Wakefield, who is coach to the UAE Emirates cycling team and a coach at Science to Sport, is one of these great minds who has a wealth of knowledge and experience in elite level cycling as well as other sports such as Motocross. You can hear more about John in our podcast we recorded with him a while back. We reached out to John to learn about some of the exciting and notable research presented at this year’s conference. Enjoy!
WA: John you recently attended the annual Science and Cycling conference in Copenhagen, you yourself a well regarded contributor to the pool of knowledge on elite-level cycling training and performance. How would you describe the experience of the conference from your perspective and how regularly have you managed to attend the event over the years?
John: I try to attend as often as possible but sometimes with my travel schedule it isn’t the easiest. However, we have been lucky enough to have our colleague and business partner Ass. Professor Jeroen Swart attend and present at almost every one if I am correct, he always gives us the ins and outs upon his return and as a company we will discuss and direct it all and pass on to our associate coaches. This year’s conference however I feel is the best one I have attended to date. Utrecht was good but this one had a lot of smart brains presenting. I always say if you leave the conference learning one thing new you can apply to your performance knowledge it is worth the attendance and time.
WA: You were involved in 3 of the research papers presented, The Compound Score In Elite Cycling, Return to Play From Severe Injury and Torque Behaviour During Different Cycling Sprints From Different Cycling Frequencies. Could you give us a brief overview of the thought behind these papers and the topline of their findings? I’m sure that is easier said than done and if they are available for deeper reading let us know where we can find them!
John: Torque behaviour came about from a working relationship that has turned into a good friendship with the team at SRM and Felix Imbery in particular. Last year SRM were in the process of updating their software for the new PM9 and I was lucky enough to add in some information on what I wanted to see and why. They are really open and went even better and added more but it was great to be a small part of that upgrade!
The study came about from that, Felix reached out and Peter Leo also came on board. The idea was about sprint power output > 1 200 W and the importance of optimising the torque-cadence relationship. The aim of the study is to investigate the torque-cadence-power relationship.
Earlier research into the torque-cadence-power relationship has been done in the lab and in static environments. Now it is able to be done in a realistic scenario outside so that a rider’s weaknesses can be found. What we found is with a higher cadence, power usually drops as torque production cannot be supplied by the muscles as in lower pedalling speeds. Thus it is better to push a heavier gear in a sprint!
Jeroen Swart and I had used this for about 10 years already, we were constantly analysing why a small climber who should do well on a climbing race does not perform or why a robust TT type rider on the same side does not perform on the other end of the scale ie. a rider who has a high absolute power, but struggles to perform uphill because of his average power to mass ratio.
A calculation was created to score each athlete, being fairly simple it was the absolute power output multiplied by relative power output ( [W] x [W/kg] = [W^2/kg] ), however, no one had done it. It sat on the shelf so to speak for Jeroen and I; then Peter Leo got a bee in his bonnet and was adamant to analyse and do a study on it! We incorporated many variables like race results, graded races (ie UCI Category 2.1 or 1.2 or 1.Pro etc) to get a more accurate interpretation of the scores per rider.
We had used 30 U23 riders over the course of two full seasons during the study. As you could imagine, there are many factors influencing a certain power output during racing such as the environment (flat vs. uphill), team strategy and rider role but the Compound Score which accounts for absolute power and relative power is proving to be very effective at predicting performance.
Return to Play From Severe Injury: How Long Does it Take to Return to Play at the Highest Level, Unique Physiological Insights From Twins in a World Tour Team:
We don’t have a lot of data from when an athlete gets injured and returns to play; this is also a very complex process to study overall. Jeroen Swart and I were lucky enough to be in an environment where we had 2 identical twins at World Tour level and were testing them pre-season.
The twins presented basically the same data values after the one was returning from serious injury. This allowed us to assess that the injured twin had recovered to previous level and was really encouraging to see. What we did then was work back to analyse how long it took and what training was done and prescribed in order to affect this data. Jeroen being one of the best medical Sports Physicians in the World benefitted this study and presentation from the medical contribution.
Ultimately it took the rider 5 months to return back after sustaining a fractured femur. Interestingly we found that one twin was leaner upon his return from injury and while they both are very similar physiologically, the injured twin had a higher fatmax value (better at using fat as a fuel) which was due to the lower intensity training prescription post injury.
Additionally to those research projects I was on a Talent Development Panel to discuss the pathways of young athletes to Elite and Pro level. I have done a lot of work in the development field of athletes over the years with positive success, whether that is with a young athlete in long term development, or a professional in a high pressure environment. It also involved in making an informed decision about whether carrying on with this athlete’s path was going to have the athlete being successful as a pro or having to go find another job and call it a day. I enjoyed this panel a lot as there are so many factors that influence an athlete’s development from early specialisation to early peak development to the other end of late development and longevity in a career.
WA: That is some fascinating work! Of the other various research projects presented over the course of the conference, which piqued your interest in particular with regard to the development of the performance training programs that you manage and your athletes?
John: There were a handful that I was really interested in:
1 – Preparing for the TDF – Go High or Go Hot by Lars Nybo. I have a large interest in altitude and training and Lars is a leader in this field.
2 – Profiling Riders and Races to Inform Training Practice by Dajo Sanders. Great presentation that affirmed training is specific to the rider and their profile. It’s not cut and paste.
3 – Polarised or Pyramidal Approach to Training Prescription: What Is The Evidence And What Do We See In Practice. This was by my colleague Ass Prof Jeroen Swart.
4 – Breathing Problems in Cycling – Get It Right The 1st Time by James Hull. He is a world leader in this field and this is a common issue in cyclists so was insightful just to get actual knowledge to understand these issues and variables.
WA: While a lot of the content is focussed on performance at the pinnacle of human ability, were there any particular findings you can recall that are easily applicable to the average cyclist looking to train more efficiently and effectively?
John: This is correct but a lot of the principals and findings can easily be used by the average cyclist to improve their ability. What I find with many age groupers and early elite cyclists is that they think at this level there are all these magic tricks and bullets that makes it all special, when in fact it’s the basics being done correctly and applied at the correct time. Sure, there is more resources and data available but implementation is there. These are some interesting takeaways from those studies:
Go High or Go Hot? – It is time dependent, so if you have 16-21 days available for altitude exposure at 2000m+ then go to altitude, if not, heat acclimation is best. Though, without the proper monitoring of plasma volume in the blood, heat training can be risky. With altitude, you get diminishing returns if you train there too regularly. Once or twice per season for 16-21 days is best. Each method has its pros and cons.
Polarised or Pyramidal Approach to Training – Which is better depends on the goals and the type of cycling (road races, ultra races, triathlon, etc.). It was found that polarised training is good for road cyclists but on the other hand, runners benefit from a shift to pyramidal as their racing speed gets more towards a certain threshold. [ Pyramidal training distributes training load across Zones 1 and 2 quite heavily with some time in Zone 3 while Polarised training focuses on Zones 1 and 3 with very little time in Zone 2 ]
Breathing Problems in Cycling – Hull argues that breathing problems during cycling are not always indicative of asthma. There is a valve in front of the larynx/respiratory tract that is commonly found to swell up and make it difficult to breathe while exercising. There are also examples of mucous membranes swelling and having a similar effect. These symptoms often get misdiagnosed as induced asthma. It is wise to consult a doctor if you have any issues with breathing while exercising.
WA: Did you attend either of the masterclasses “Before the Bike: Understanding Individual Biomechanics” and “Muscular Adaptation to Cycling Training” and if so what were some of practical takeaways from them?
John: I unfortunately did not but I know Wendy Holiday really well as she works closely with us at Science to Sport (she had done her PHD with Jeroen) so this talk would have been really insightful. I did attend her presentation “Bike Fit: Applying Research to the Clinic” which once again when you think you know a lot about biomechanics, Wendy will tell you otherwise!
She explained how hamstring flexibility has a huge impact on how you can sit on a bike. High flexibility allows you to stretch the leg more easily and helps your pelvis tilt forward (anterior rotation). This helps prevent injury and lets you go faster and be more comfy on the bike for free! When you are comfortable and more economical you’ll naturally be able to ride longer and faster.
WA: Thank you for your time and sharing your insights with us John! Let us know where readers can follow along with your work and feel free to share any parting thoughts.
John: It’s only a pleasure, the Science to Sport website has a good few insightful articles and once these studies are published and completed, I will gladly share with you guys for your readers.
You can follow John on Instagram @pelotrain