Listen to your heart, not the power meter

by Cory Fagan

After 25 years of testing athletes in our lab, I have a lot of stories of what makes each one of you unique. We have done just over 3000 VO2’s tests and all of them are very interesting which keeps me sharp and always learning.   There have been some great improvements as well as results that defy the “age-predicted” norms.  Many of you reading this have completed a VO2 or blood lactate test with me and have been able to hold your original scores.  It’s fantastic to see that if you keep fit,  your age does not bring down! 

More recently, I have come across some interesting cases on follow-up assessments.  As noted, most of you hold your performance scores regardless of age but sometimes I do see a significant decrease.  The athlete typically presents well, is active and feels good.  However, something is off when they push hard or try to go over their anaerobic threshold (FTP, LT2).  THere is an automatic feedback loop that prevents the athlete from achieving their previous score.  The last 3 min or 10% is not there.  The hard part of working with motivated athletes is that they ignore this sign and keep trying to push through!  This is not the best strategy.  Some athletes simply reduce their FTP number or run pace and contribute it to getting older.  Again, unless you have knee or hip injury, your numbers should not drop off.  

Athletes (you) love to move and do not like to see their numbers drop.  Your internal fire burns too strong!  However, our body sends us signals that we should not ignore regardless of our ego.  If you are experiencing a drop of 20+ watts in your FTP within a year and have not stopped training, it’s time to step back and see what’s going on.   Do you have a periodized training plan?   This means, do you plan out your training or just do the same thing every week?  If you recently had COVID-19, are you fully recovered?  Have you consulted your physician and/or coach that you are training, but not improving?  Going harder often does not improve your fitness long term.

The VO2 data that I read from a test dives into your ventilation, heart rate, carbohydrate usage and oxygen efficiency.  This past week, I had a client, 45 years, who came in for a follow-up test. Her first test was in 2021.  She presented well and was on the course for an even better score.  However, just as we approached her anaerobic threshold, her ventilation started to fall, cycling cadence dropped and heart rate plateaued.  We terminated the test and asked her how she was doing.  Her response was “I am fine, I could have kept going.”  Sound familiar?  Her cardiovascular system prevented her from going to the next level and forced her to shut down.  Something was off which is reason for further investigation by a cardiologist.  Once I showed her the data, she could then see the changes and concurred that she should check this out further.  

When you are an active person who loves to train, you will occasionally have some bad days where you just can’t push.  That’s OK.  Hopefully, you reduce the intensity or cut the workout short.  If you had a poor sleep, a big training week or are on the verge of a cold, these are good reasons.  But, if it is none of the above, STOP.  Has this been happening for a while?  Pushing through will not cure your symptoms.  The overall message to you is be honest with yourself when your training.  Your power meter is not your heart.   If you think you are doing all the right things and still not improving, it’s time to consult and get some data.