Sports science: endurance performance and its markers

How do you become an elite endurance athlete? And are there some predictive markers that can help to determine this? Sports scientist Peter Parel delves into the inner workings of endurance performance and what can lead to being successful.

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Endurance training is used to improve your ability to sustain a given amount of power output or force for long periods of time, whereas parts of strength training is to improve your ability to overcome an external force by producing your own (larger) force.

I'm sure you’ve heard the term “aerobic engine”, and how you should not forget about it. Perhaps a coach has said this to you or, if you’re the coach, you’ve been saying this to your athletes. But why is it so important to remember? Well, to get technical, it’s because any physical activity event that lasts longer than about 2 minutes has an endurance aspect to it and the longer it moves past the 2-minute mark, the more important your aerobic endurance (engine) becomes, especially for performance.

For example, most rowing events can last roughly 6 minutes, and competitors will spend the majority of their time training using easy aerobic work with a relatively small amount of their training time focused on high intensity work. Of course, there’s an anaerobic aspect to it but it’s generally done in relatively small amounts to enhance an athlete’s performance before their event. The principal training is aerobic-based.

And of course, as the duration of the event lasts longer, the greater the contribution of your aerobic engine (metabolism) will be.

Now that we understand the aerobic engine, let’s look at some components that could improve your engine:

VO2 max can be used as a representation of how much oxygen your body uses during exercise at a maximum effort. This formula can be used to determine functions of both your central factors (blood, lung, heart), and peripheral (skeletal muscles) factors. In other words, how much oxygen your heart can pump and how much of that oxygen your skeletal muscles can use. Believe it or not but this used to be the gold standard for predicting endurance performance but times have changed and so have our thinking patterns. To put it in perspective, it was believed that if you had a higher VO2 max than another athlete, that would have already made you a “better” endurance athlete. But now if two individuals with an identical weight, height, age, muscle mass etc performed against each other it’s not unheard of for the athlete with a lower VO2 max to outperform someone with a higher VO2 max.

In my opinion, a high VO2 max is required for optimal endurance performance however you do not need the highest VO2 to be the best endurance performer, but in saying that, it’s also unlikely that you’d be an elite endurance athlete with a low VO2 max.


VO2 max can also be expressed in various ways. VO2 can sometimes be calculated in absolute terms, which is the amount of oxygen the body can use.  Therefore, an athlete can end up with a value for VO2 max of 5.8 liters of oxygen per minute (5.8L O2/min).


The better way, in my opinion, to express VO2, is in terms of body weight.  You will be able to see values along the lines of 53 milliliters oxygen per kilogram body weight per minute or 53ml O2/kg/min. Dividing by body weight lets you scale the absolute value to the weight of the athlete which can be used to compare athletes VO2 max values relatively, to their body weight.

From VO2 max, exercise scientists and coaches then saw that the percentage of VO2 max that an athlete could maintain, especially if it could be maintained for an extended period, was a better predictor of endurance performance.

To put it in perspective, let’s take 2 athletes who have the exact same VO2 max of 65ml o2/kg/min. One of the athletes can sustain that level at 65% for 1 hour and the other athlete can sustain that level at 78% for that 1 hour event. Logically, this measurement that an athlete could sustain for extended periods was a much “better” predictor of performance than VO2 max.

Another example of how this could work would be: Again, 2 athletes are going to be compared, one of the athletes has a VO2 max of 75ml 02/kg/min but can sustain that level at 65% and the other athlete has a VO2 max of 60ml O2/kg/min but can sustain that level at 90%, which would mean that the athlete with the lower VO2 max value would be predicted to do better than the athlete with the higher VO2 max due to the ability of sustaining their level of VO2 max for at a higher percentage.

To explain this, we can take 75ml O2/kg/min x 0.65 = 48.75 ml/kg/min for athlete one. 60ml O2/kg/min x 0.90 = 54 ml/kg/min for athlete two. This sort of calculation can be referred to as a threshold of VO2. There are various methods to train your threshold, like OBLA (onset of blood lactate), anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, or ventilatory threshold, etc. They all abide by the same concept, which is the most important aspect to these methods, but they have different definitions of what they result to.

Another “predictor” of performance could come down to the athlete’s biomechanics and efficiency. What I mean by efficiency is how good (or not so good) your body converts energy (from the breakdown of carbohydrate and fat, usually) into usable work (e.g. power production, force). Greater efficiency is that from the energy that is being used, more of it is going into mechanical work. The greater the efficiency, the greater the ability of the athlete to generate a higher force output for less energy expelled/utilised. In performance, this could result to feelings of fatigue later in the race rather than earlier in the race. Efficiency is variable between each athlete as slow vs. fast twitch muscle fibers, and something like angiogenesis can be important, as well as an individual's genetics. Alongside efficiency, biomechanics like body position, foot landing, stride rate and frequency, arm stroke, hip extension, body rhythm, etc.

Those were just a few physiological mechanisms that could be used to “predict” endurance performance, however, please note that endurance performance is not limited to the mechanisms stated above. There are so many other aspects that I have overlooked such as motivation, equipment, facilities, the environment you are in (i.e. team mates, tactics), and, of course, genetics, that all play a massive role in the outcome of who will be a great endurance athlete.

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