Metabolic Testing to Enhance Athletic Performance

Athletes, especially those participating in endurance sports such as running, often strive to improve their performance. At the Tisch Sports Performance Center at HSS, we work with individuals seeking to gain a better understanding of how their body works so they can be at their best in their sport or gain a competitive edge.

We see endurance athletes at all levels: runners, cyclists, rowers and climbers, as well as athletes preparing for a long distance race or a triathlon. With advanced testing equipment and the expertise of our exercise physiologists, we help individuals maximize their performance, from those training for their first marathon to elite professional athletes.

What is Metabolic Testing?

Metabolic testing measures an individual’s physiological response to exercise. At HSS, the testing is customized to meet the goals and interests of each athlete. Once we evaluate his or her current fitness level based on various parameters, we can create a targeted, effective training plan to improve performance.

At HSS, we use the Parvo TrueOne metabolic cart, the same system used in Olympic Training Centers. To determine an individual’s current fitness level and areas for improvement, our exercise physiologists measure one or more of the following indicators:

  • Maximum aerobic capacity during intense exercise: This is the maximum amount of oxygen the body is capable of using for energy, known in technical terms as VO2 Max. This is a marker of physical fitness and a key indicator of one’s potential as an endurance athlete.

The test entails breathing into a mouthpiece to measure oxygen levels during exercise that increases in intensity until the person is unable to continue. The test provides information to determine target heart rates during training to improve sports performance.

  • Energy economy at race pace: The amount of oxygen consumed at this pace can be compared to the amount consumed by elite athletes. If poor form is affecting performance, we can offer training tips to help athletes become more efficient in the mechanics of their sport.
  • Metabolic efficiency: We look at the total number of calories burned at a given exercise intensity and the percentage coming from an athlete’s stores of fat versus carbohydrates. This information is useful for planning both training and nutrition needs for endurance events.Athletes can be trained to burn more fat (instead of carbohydrates) during their sport.  If they can tap into their stored fat and fewer carbs are needed for fuel, they wouldn’t have to carry as much food. This could be significant for mountain climbers who could reduce the amount of weight in their back pack.
  • Lactate threshold: This is the point during exercise of increasing intensity at which blood lactate levels begin to rise rapidly and fatigue ensues. The test entails a finger prick to obtain a drop of blood while exercising on the treadmill or exercise bicycle.

The lactate threshold indicates one’s maximum sustainable pace and has been found to be the most reliable predictor of long distance/endurance race performance. The lactate threshold can be increased significantly with targeted training.

Incorporating Metabolic Testing Results into Training

Once information is collected, the metabolic profile can serve as a basis for a targeted plan to train smarter and more efficiently. Athletes receive a report that identifies areas where performance gains are possible so they can set target heart rate zones for training, develop nutritional strategies to burn fewer carbohydrates and improve metabolic efficiency, and improve their running or cycling mechanics to conserve energy.

Those interested in testing should plan to spend an hour or so at the center, although the actual testing generally takes 20 to 30 minutes. People receive preliminary results on the spot and later receive a complete detailed report. We find that the athletes are very happy to gain insight into their own physiology so they can fine tune their training, improve their performance and enjoy the satisfaction of personal achievement.

Polly de Mille is the coordinator of performance services at the Tisch Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. In addition to being a registered nurse, she holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a registered clinical exercise physiologist, exercise specialist and exercise test technologist. She is also a certified USAT Level 1 triathlon coach.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.