TRACKING PERFORMANCE PROGRESS
BEx.Sc (Hons), Exercise Scientist – Bodyology
WHY? For all the money, time and energy we spend in our pursuit to improve, I’m surprised at how few people effectively stop and check whether their efforts are actually paying off. I’m not talking about simply collecting data, but actually analysing and reflecting upon it to see if you’re improving. There’s no shortage of people wearing heart rate monitors, collecting GPS data, checking speedometers and keeping food diaries, but what are they doing with that information, if anything at all?
Now I love a new gadget as much as the next guy or girl. In fact I’ve built a world class sports science centre out of collecting cool ‘toys’ (check out www.bodyologypps.com.au). But we need to remember that the general idea behind training is to get better, and measuring, analysing and testing are perfect ways to gauge improvement; provided we’re testing regularly, comparing results and drawing some conclusions as to whether our training (and lifestyle / nutrition) strategies are working, or whether we need to change our approach.
Below are a number of areas I think are important to monitor for any athlete. I’ve referenced some gold standard testing methods, alongside some simple tactics and cautions. Remember to choose health / fitness / performance parameters specific to your sport that you (or other professionals) have determined will ultimately lead to performance improvements.
Changes in body fat and muscle mass occur as a direct result of lifestyle, training and nutrition and can tell us so much about how someone is coping with their training load, and adapting to their training stresses (positively or negatively).
My preferred method of measuring body composition (lean mass vs body fat etc.) for speed, safety, accuracy and repeatability is the Bod Pod, which uses Air Displacement technology. Other gold standard methods include hydrostatic weighing and DXA scanning.
Weight scales, tape measure, skin fold callipers and BMI.
We still use skin fold calliper testing at the top level, however common standards are to do the ‘sum of 7 sites’ and record in mm, but no longer translate into a % body fat reading. Only ever use a qualified tester, and use the same tester every time. (Don’t test yourself!) For the cost of having a qualified tester you could most likely have a bodpod or DXA scan completed.
Weight scales and BMI will not identify any changes in muscle and fat, and so do not give a lot of useful information unless you need to lose a significant amount of body fat.
Bioelectrical Impedance is the technology utilised in body fat scales and more advanced systems, and there is often large variability in results. This method has never been fully accepted in elite sports settings, and has been questioned by many academics as to its repeatability.
Aerobic fitness will play an obvious roll in many sports / pursuits, but it’s important to try to be as specific as possible to your own requirements. Eg. Ironman distances vs Olympic or sprint triathlon fitness parameters may be very different. If you’re a rower, your performance rowing is a lot more significant than a bike fitness test.
VO2 Max Testing. Most commonly done in lab settings on treadmills or bikes, can be adapted somewhat to other activities such as rowing. This test involved subjects wearing a mask and being hooked up to a Metabolic Cart which analyses many physiological parameters including VO2 (volume of Oxygen consumed) and VCO2 (Volume of carbon dioxide expelled). Not only is your absolute VO2 max found, but also your anaerobic and aerobic thresholds, calorie consumption and fuel choice at different work rates and the ability to track these real physical and physiological adaptations over time.
In group testing situations, and particularly for field sports the beep test and yo-yo test still provide a great reference point for improvement, but obviously rely on slightly different fitness than a standard time trial, and endurance based run that is not ‘stop-start’ in nature. If choosing a time trial distance try to select a distance pertinent to your event. There are often reference standards available for 1.5km, 2.4km and 3.2km runs due to them being used in a number of fitness batteries, and military and emergency service standards of testing.
If using performance based tests (time trials / beep test etc.) I personally caution against translating the result to a specific VO2 value. Similarly results from a VO2 Max test do not necessarily always translate to the whole performance picture and so still doing some sports specific aerobic tests are worthwhile for monitoring. Also field tests can be completed with great frequency every week if you want) as opposed to VO2 Max lab testing. Other factors such as pacing, local muscular endurance and fuelling may affect aerobic performance and stamina.
STRENGTH & POWER:
Muscular strength and power are linked, but are different parameters to monitor. Whether you’re looking at power-to-weight ratios, or absolute power outputs we’re often talking about maximal outputs in a short period of time. Strength often applies to being able to repeat the task, and not just one all-out effort.
There are some advanced equipment options such as the ‘gymaware’ device that allows athletes to monitor their power outputs of different movements in gym settings (watt outputs whilst lifting barbells). Watt meters will allow athletes to measure their maximal (and sustainable) watt outputs, and particularly some advanced watt bikes will allow the comparison of left and ride side power outputs for symmetry.
The use of force transducers (often found in sports science labs) will allow for measurements of movements such as the force of a punch or kick.
1RM (1 repetition max.) – Still commonly used and very effective tracking method for Power. 6-8RM often utilised for strength output.
Vertical and horizontal leap test, medicine ball chest throw, Push up. Chin-up. Squats, sit-ups in a minute.
Remember power-to-weight can be improved by increasing power outputs and also decreasing no force producing body weight (ie. body fat). Again choose specific tasks and equipment relevant to your sport. Using tests such as max push ups, sit-ups in a minute etc., these can often be good for beginners but advanced trainers will get to a high level and not see any further improvement. Eg. There are only so many good form push ups you can get in a minute right?
FLEXIBILITY / RANGE OF MOTION (ROM)/ STABILITY
Whilst the above parameters are all slightly different, they are closely linked, and it is my opinion that the whilst practitioners and coaches may use different tests and tools to evaluate, these parameters are often neglected.
Not only will sufficient range of motion and flexibility and symmetrical stability and functionality help avoid injury (and therefore allow you to train and get better) but it will also help preserve energy that can be wasted through poor form.
A Functional Movement Screening (FMS) is a battery of tests used by Exercise Physiologists, Physiotherapists and Coaches to determine all of the above paramters, identify weaknesses, imbalances and issues perttaining to less than ideal movement. Eg. Poor chest flexibility may lead to the inability to squat full range, or left hip instability may lead to stride length differences whilst running and ITB or lower back tightness.
The measurement of flexibility and stability can be very subjective and often coaches, trainers and people such as Pilates and yoga instrcutors have a very keen eye for movement issues and I recommend listening to them.
There are also some tools such as the ‘DorsaV’ which are being used by fitness and rehabilitation professionals alike that help quanitfy objectively what we often make judgements about just using our eyes.
- Identify the important fitness and performance parameters that are pertinent to your sport and goals.
- Investigate what tools (people / facilities) are within reach to measure those parameters. You may be surprised at how affordable and accessible top level testing and advice is nowadays.
- Understand the limitations of your testing methods in order to choose wisely and troubleshoot.
- Start measuring frequently.
- Set targets.
- Track your results frequently.
- Make modifications to your training and nutrition strategies as required