Supporting Triathletes on Campus – Rosemary Daniel

In this weeks’ blog we give you an insight into some of the fitness tests recently conducted in PESS with the elite triathlon performance squad. As most of you already know triathlon is not a sport for the faint hearted and those that partake in the sport at a high level are only too familiar with the long hard training hours that goes with it.

Triathlon is one of our target sports here in UL where excellent facilities on campus (50m swimming pool, Gym), the beautiful running trail along the riverbank, access to top class coaches and testing services make it the chosen location for many of Munster’s finest triathletes. Lynne Algar has done phenomenal work over the past few years developing Triathlon both regionally and nationally but also has been a fantastic coach and mentor to many of the athletes’ here in UL. The standard of talent coming through the system is testament to her hard work and commitment along with Coach Aaron O’Brien. In January and March the athletes’ show cased their ability in the lab and they did not disappoint! I was amazed at how physically fit and well-conditioned these athletes are and their test scores in some of the individual disciplines were exceptional.

In PESS we offer a number of tests for Triathletes. The standard tests include;

  1. VO2max
  2. Submaximal Run, Bike, Swim Tests (determining aerobic and anaerobic capacity)
  3. FTP (functional threshold power) test on SRM rigs
  4. Bike to Run Test (FTP test followed  by 6min all out run) * specific to racing conditions 

For the purpose of this blog I’m only going to discuss the Submaximal and FTP tests.  _Man running on treadmill_RDBlogSubmaximal run and bike tests typically last approx. 40 mins where the speed of the treadmill increases 1km every 3 mins or 30 Watt increments on the bike at each stage until a blood lactate concentration of 4mmol/L is achieved.  At each stage heart rate and blood lactate is monitored to determine the athlete’s response to the increased demands of exercise.   Plotting the heart rate and lactate on a graph and using the Dmax method enables us to determine the athletes’ lactate threshold.  Knowing your lactate threshold is important training information as you can maintain pace comfortably but if you go above it you start to work anaerobically and lactic acid will start to accumulate.  In triathlon this is important as starting too quick or going out too hard early in the race can have serious knock on effects in the latter stages of a race.  Lactate testing provides the athlete and coach with an indicator of current fitness levels and a starting point for training.   

The submax tests provides training zone guidelines for the athlete to work at during training (based on heart rate / pace or watts) whether it’s aerobic fitness training, speed endurance, power sessions or recovery sessions. However the real power of lactate testing comes from comparing test results over time. Regular lactate testing (every 6-8wks) provides the athlete and coach with assurance that their training program is working or in rare unfortunate cases not working. Improvements in fitness should cause the lactic curve to shift rightwards meaning that at each speed the athlete will have a lower heart rate and will produce less lactate (See Figure 1 below). Athletes’ who exhibit the trend seen below in the graph usually go on to perform well at completion and often PB or perform close to their best. Decrements in performance in a submax tests could be down to a number of factors (1) the training program or stimulus is not effective, (2) the athlete maybe starting to come down with an illness, (3) the athlete maybe overtraining or fatigued, (4) injury. This warning sign may not often be straight forward and needs to be examined carefully by the coach, athlete, physiologist and medical support team.       

Figure 1: 
Typical Lactate Profile Test Result – Denoting Fitness Improvements.

Blue line represents baseline fitness prior to 6 week training. Green line represents post 6wks of training – improved fitness and subsequent performance by the athlete in competition.

Last month we carried out the triathlon specific – bike to run test on the athletes. This test consisted of a FTP test (50min of cycling) followed by a 6min all out run on the riverbank. Whilst highly fatiguing this test is only carried out 3-4 times per year and is a good marker of readiness to perform in competition. Athletes’ need to be well rested coming into the test and trying to schedule that into a triathletes’ training programme is almost impossible because the training hours are so high! The FTP test (Functional Threshold Power) determines the maximum power an athlete can sustain for one hour. Performed on the SRM bike it is a reliable power profiling test recommended by the Australian Institute of Sport and has recently been demonstrated to predict road cycling performance. It assesses the athletes’ maximal power over a 5 second sprint, 15s, 30sprint and average power over 1min, 4min & 10min sustained efforts. Each of the all – out efforts are followed by large amounts of recovery time. This test provides a full spectrum of the athletes’ fitness (neuromuscular power, anaerobic capacity, aerobic power, and functional threshold power. FTP is measured in Watts/kg. Typical FTP scores for different level athletes’ can be seen below…..

Why is the FTP test important?

  1. Well, it gives you an indication of the pace/power an athlete can maintain for one hour which is specific to triathlon as a 40k bike ride takes the best triathletes in the world 55-56min to complete.
  2. The test provides accurate prescriptive training zones for both power and heart rate. This is crucial so that instead of training blindly you have a baseline for specific workouts.
  3. In triathlon inexperienced athletes can go out too fast/hard on the bike and suffer badly in the run as a result. Knowing your FTP gives you an indication of what pace you can maintain on the bike so that you don’t blow up in the 10k run.

Olympic Distance Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k Bike, 10k Run) takes elite triathletes approx. 1h 45min to complete. When segmenting each discipline that equates to just over 17min for the swim, 55-56min on the bike followed by a 30min run, transitions between the swim and bike usually account for 40-50sec with the bike to run transition being a little quicker 30-40seconds (based on British Brownlee Brothers in Rio, 2016).  Many athletes’ train for the three disciplines individually but it is important to practise the transitions too. The bike to run test that we conduct in the lab facilitates this – once the athlete finishes the FTP test on the bike they change into their running shoes and start the 6min all out run down the river bank in UL. During the 6min run they try to cover as much ground as possible. Average heart rate for the 6min run, lactate and distance covered is recorded. This test is very specific to triathlon as it mimics the bike to run transition as they would experience in a race scenario. This gets the athlete used to the initial feeling of running with ‘jelly legs’ once they got off the bike so they adapt and become more resilient over time with practise. With the triathletes now back into another block of hard training their focus will be on the end of the summer where they have their sights set on qualification for European Championships, World Student Games and the European U/23’s Championships in Israel.

Rosemary Daniel is a UL Beo Experimental Officer in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.  Contact Rosemary via email at                    


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