Time Poor Athletes: A Case Study

Training time poor athletes has challenges different to training full time ones. Work, family and other constraints prohibit volume as a tool for building base fitness for these individuals. Instead the quality of workouts become paramount within the context of a VERY finite training time allotment. In this article we look at a case study of one Mountain Bike (MTB) athlete training on average 6.5hrs a week, mostly on a home trainer, and a targeted interval program based on metabolic data from a Vo2max test.


Many athletes we now work with train at home, on home trainers such as Wahoo Kickr, utilising software similar to what we have at our training facility in West Perth. This enables us to outline specific interval sets based on one’s unique physiology, thus still controlling the training environment for best adaptive purposes. This also saves the client time in travelling to and from the centre. In order to best track individual adaptation rates, we use Vo2max power testing, heart rate variability monitoring, and volume intensity distributions week to week. We will outline a time chart of testing below:

  • 9th January Vo2max power 367w
  • 29th March 399w
  • 3 week holiday with NO training completed
  • 27th April 401w
  • 3rd May 401w
  • 22nd June 402w


Most of the athletes training was based around completing interval work at 80-90% of Vo2max power, so around 2-8min intervals. This yields a large Vo2max response (maximum turnover of oxygen by the body) and is classified as high intensity training.

We utilise Vo2max power as an indices for aerobic fitness as it is one of the best correlates for human performance in endurance events. However, whilst a valid predictive tool, it only tells part of the ‘endurance story’. A recent review of predictive variables in Half marathon running highlighted the following variables of cricital importance to predicting performance: Pace at vo2max, Pace at ventilation breakpoint (threshold), ground contact time, previous training history. As cycling does not have a ground contact time element, we still focus on the other 3 variables of Vo2max pace (power), threshold pace (power) and training history (acute and chronic).

What we discovered is that our athletes’ Vo2max power was really high, around 6.1w/kg, however the threshold power, which usually occurs around 80-85% of this figure, was a lot lower. Threshold power indicates how long an athlete can sustain a maximum speed for (think 20-60minute pace or power). Whereas Vo2max power indicates maximal 3-8min speed or pace. So how to build threshold power specifically? Turning to scientific literature only tells part of the story here as it is difficult to isolate specific endurance variables when training, however we used research findings around time to exhaustion (how long an individual can exercise until exhaustion) to see if we can improve the threshold.

We thus began to focus on longer intervals to improve the threshold endurance. We immediately began to see increases in performance across interval sessions with the introduction of this form of training. Think interval sets of 20-30mins each. It is recognised that threshold training (20-30min efforts) as far as a time component goes is NOT the most efficient means of training for time poor athletes, however we required this training stimulus in order to improve endurance at threshold as this athlete often competes in maximal 2-6hr MTB events: fatiguing in the final stages of these events is not an option.


Alongside this form of training we monitor heart rate variability (HRV). This measures the time span between each contraction of the heart. Ideally, in healthy subjects this should be quite excitable and varied, and in those experiencing a lot of stressors (physical or otherwise) the time between contractions is much more monotonous. A wealth of research outlines where HRV is low in variability than low intensity exercise is recommended for BEST adaptation, with high variability indicating high intensity exercise is best for adaptation.

See below for the time course of HRV monitoring and testing of Vo2max, or MAP, in this athlete. The higher the brown line, the higher the HRV score or variability. The red markers at the bottom of the image indicate the Vo2max power testing values.

HRVd Power Meter

For this individual the training facilitated significant stress for the first 3 months of the training program, as they adapted to the training load and intensity, hence the brown line trends downwards.

The gap at the half way point is a holiday away from all exercise, which then see’s the HRV dip back down before a steady rise upwards. This chart shows when the athlete is best placed to adapt to a training stimulus higher in intensity than at other points along the 6month period: higher intensity when the brown line is higher.

What is also important to note is that HRV itself does not necessarily predict performance. This is evidenced in the scientific literature whereby HRV scores that are higher than baseline indicate the athlete may be ready for harder, more intensive work than when HRV is at lower levels.

Presently the athlete has been working harder than normal and is now yielding significant improvements in time to exhaustion type exercises of around 5% every several weeks. Great news for the events upcoming as Vo2max power still remains high. The HRV score now indicates we are ready for harder work as the body is more adapted to taking on board this intensity than previous and may be better able to build form from intensity. This did not come overnight, but rather over a period of 6months of quality base training. This is again really important to note, the athlete built this platform over a long period of training and now stands to reap rewards. Exercise intensity for adaptation is not equal at all time points across the 6month span.

In concluding, looking at variables associated with Vo2max power, threshold power and others only tells some of the athlete story. Measures of heart rate variability allow for best prescription of exercise intensity alongside the athletes own goals. The combination of testing, training at specific intensities based on testing results, tracking of internal indices such as HRV, allow for a more complete programming picture to be ascertained and delivered to the client. Work, in progress.

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