veronique billat | exercise research:

Veronique Billat - Exercise Research

The funky Paris neighborhood just north of the Place de la Republique has been known for its canals, crowded streets, excellent African restaurants, and teeming marketplaces, but definitely not for its exercise research..

That's all changed now, because in a small neighbourhood laboratory just a short stroll from the the Jacques Bonsergent Metro stop, a diminutive French scientist named VERONIQUE BILLAT has carried out innovative research which will change the way you train and compete. If you're a runner, chances are good that Billat's recommended training programme will shave at least a minute from your IO-K clocking and several minutes from your half-marathon PBs. Endurance cyclists and swimmers can expect similar benefits.

From her small lab at the 'Centre of Sports Medicine for Electricians and Gas Workers,' located on the unexpectedly quiet Avenue Richerand, the amiable Veronique has emerged as a rising star in the field of endurance-training research. A competitive athlete herself with a 1:18 PB for the half-marathon, Veronique carries out research which identifies high-quality workouts and optimal long-term training programmes. Above all else, Veronique's work is always extremely practical: you can literally take her research and run with it. Or cycle. Or swim.

In the past year, Veronique has published a blizzard of new studies on endurance training, but for now we'll focus on her most recent effort. In that study, Veronique worked with a group of accomplished male runners who were faring pretty well in competitions (running half-marathons in PBs of 70-85 minutes) even though they had been training in a fairly nonsystematic manner. Veronique's first task was to measure each athlete's running velocity at V02max, which we'll call vV02max.

What exactly is it?
Knowing exactly what vV02max represents can be confusing to some runners, so let's discuss it for a moment. When you run at your marathon pace, you use oxygen at roughly 80 per cent of your maximal possible rate (80% V02max). When you step up to 10-K tempo, you use oxygen at about 90 per cent of your maximal possible rate (90% V02max). At 5-K speed, you're at 95% V02max. As you accelerate above 5-K velocity, you soon reach a speed at which you're using oxygen at your maximal possible rate (100% V02max). This speed is your vV02max.

Despite what some runners think, vV02max is in fact not your top speed. To reach your highest velocity during an effort which lasts more than a couple of minutes, you have to use oxygen at your maximal possible rate and produce as much energy anaerobically as you possibly can. This highest speed will be well above vV02max. vV02max is simply the first running speed above 5-K pace which corresponds with your maximal rate of oxygen use (V02max).

As we explained in the November issue of PEAK PERFORMANCE, V02max can be a pretty lousy predictor of performance potential when you try to compare various runners. However, vV02max is an outstanding predictor, mainly because it combines aerobic capacity (the total amount of oxygen a runner can use) and running economy (how efficiently oxygen is used). Looking at vV02max is rather like examining how big a runner's 'petrol tank' is and how efficiently he/she uses what's in the tank. vV02max doesn't apply only to runners, however. There's also a cycling vV02max (the cycling speed at which a cyclist reaches V02max), a swimming vV02max, a stair-machine vV02max, and so on.

If you're a runner, you can determine your own vV02max on your friendly neighborhood track. In fact, you must work out your vV02max to train according to Veronique Billat's new system. We provided full details on calculating your velocity at V02max in the November issue; for a short summary of that technique, please see the accompanying box.

Calculating your TvV02max
The next step Veronique took in her research will be your next step, too. You must figure out how long you can actually run at your vV02max. Don't do this on the same day that you determine your vV02max, however. In fact, to get an accurate reading, you should rest - training lightly or not at all - for a couple of days first. You must also obtain your doctor's permission before trying the following test.

To find out how long you can actually run at vV02max, warm up by jogging easily on a track for 10 minutes, and then begin running at your precise vV02max. If your vV02max corresponds with six-minute per mile pace, for example, you should be running each 400-metre lap in about 90 seconds. Have a friend call out splits to you every 100-200 metres or so to make sure that you're at exactly the right tempo. Time yourself over your total effort (not counting the warm-up), and keep running as long as you can. When you can no longer continue running at vV02max, stop the watch and determine the total time you were able to run at vV02max (be honest; you know you're not really running at vV02max any longer if you're more than five-metres short on a 200-metre lap or 10-metres shy over 400 metres). The total time you're able to run at vV02max is your TvVO2max.

In the old days, exercise physiologists used to say that your vV02max was the fastest pace you could sustain continuously for about 11-12 minutes. In other words, TvVO2max was considered to be an mlmutable 11-12 minutes, but Veronique's work has changed that outdated thinking. The ingenious Billat has shown that in fact some runners, cyclists, and swimmers can sizzle along at vV02max for no more than about three minutes or so, while others have a TvVO2max of 13 minutes! It's an individual thing, but the bottom line is that you must know both your vV02max and TvVO2max if you want to train according to the principles of Billat's programme.

Here's the schedule to follow
Once you know your vV02max and TvVO2max, you're ready to begin Veronique's schedule. Fortunately, it is easy to carry out, and it pays big dividends. Even though they were already accomplished runners when they began to work with Veronique, individuals who trained according to her system were able to trim their half-marathon times by 5-7 per cent (four to six minutes) over a seven-month time period! Here's Veronique's actual schedule:
MONDAY Run for about one hour at 70% vV02max. What could be simpler? Let's say you've discovered that your vV02max is six-minute per mile pace. That's a velocity of 1609 metres per mile divided by six minutes per mile = 268 metres per minute. 70 per cent of that is 188 metres per minute. 1609/188 = 8.56 minutes per mile, or 8:34 tempo. You would run for one hour at 8:34 per mile.

TUESDAY This is the only time in the week when things get slightly complex. Tuesday is interval-training day, which in Veronique's scheme of things means that on the first week of your training period you run your intervals at exactly vV02max. How long should these work intervals last? 'Exactly half the amount of time you can actually run at vV02max,' says Veronique. In other words, if your TvVO2max is eight minutes, your work intervals will last for four minutes. You complete five of these work intervals per workout, and your recoveries last the same amount of time as the work intervals, but your recovery speed will be 60 per cent of your vV02max (see the description of Monday's workout to find how to calculate 60% vV02max).

All right so far? Fine, because on the second Tuesday of the overall programme, you'll make a slight adjustment. This time, you'll run your work intervals at only 95% vV02max, but they'll each last for 60 per cent of TvVO2max (each interval is slightly longer). Again, carry out five work intervals per workout, let your recoveries last exactly as long as your work intervals, and run the recoveries at 60% vV02max.

On the third Tuesday, there's yet another wrinkle. This time, you uncork a bit of your real leg speed which has been dormant for so long and sizzle through your work intervals at 105% vV02max. If your vV02max is 300 metres per minute for example, you would run these 105%-vVO2max intervals 5-per cent faster - at 315 metres per minute,or 1609/315=5:06 per mile pace. Each work interval lasts for 40 per cent of your TvVO2max, the recovery intervals are just as long, and your recovery speed is again 60% vV02max. Oh yes - you must run a total of five work intervals during the workout.

On the fourth Tuesday, you get a bit of a break. After all, you've been working hard, so it's time to recover a bit. Simply run easily for one hour at 65% vV02max. On the fifth Tuesday, revert back to the first Tuesday of the overall schedule and complete that workout, on the sixth Tuesday do the second Tuesday's session, and so on. The Tuesday workouts, like the Thursday sessions, are on a four-week cycle.

WEDNESDAY Back to an unvarying routine: simply jog for about 75 minutes at 65% vV02max.

THURSDAY Things get slightly more complicated again. On the first Thursday, complete four 10-minute intervals at a new intensity - 80% vV02max, with five-minute jog recoveries in between.

On the second Thursday, carry out three 15-minute intervals at 80% vV02max, again with five-minute jog recoveries.

On the third Thursday, conduct two 20-minute intervals at 80% vV02max, with five minutes of easy jogging in between.

On the fourth Thursday, you have it made: just rest (if 'rest' is a foreign word to you, it means absolutely no running at all!). Obviously, the Thursday sessions (not counting the fourth one) are Veronique's versions of traditional tempo workouts.

FRIDAY Take a rest day, and don't run at all. It's okay to do some stretching and a bit of strength training if you want to, however.

SATURDAY Run for around 90 minutes at 70% vV02max.

SUNDAY Free running. Run for fun, and don't push the pace too much. The important thing is to keep moving for two hours.

To summarize the overall training programme, you first figure your vV02max, then your TvVO2max, and you then begin training a la Veronique, with the schedule outlined above. If you respond to training as Veronique's runners did, your TvVO2max will improve significantly after eight weeks, and your vV02max will be better after no more than 12-16 weeks. Within 8-12 weeks, you should be establishing better race times at distances from 5000 metres up to the half-marathon.

If you're a cyclist or swimmer, how do you estimate your vV02max? Easy! Just cycle or swim as far as you possibly can in 15 minutes, then figure your actual pace in metres per minute (or feet per minute if you're still in the old school of distance measurements). Increase that pace by 5-6 per cent, and you should be very close to vV02max. You can then use the intensities above to construct a training programme.

Evaluate thyself
Since you'll be improving as the programme proceeds, it's important to evaluate yourself every eight weeks. The best way to do this is to reserve a Saturday at the end of each eight-week period to re-calibrate your vV02max (do the vV02max test instead of your normal Saturday workout). On the following Monday, compute your TvV02max instead of the regular Monday workout. After you know your new vV02max and TvV02max, adjust your workout speeds accordingly.

If you're a relatively new runner and can't yet run for one hour at a time, gradually increase the frequency and distance of your training runs until you feel comfortable training six days a week and can run for 7590 minutes in a single workout. Then, begin Veronique's programme. Bear in mind that the overall schedule is not etched in stone; if you feel fatigued on a particular day, it's okay to skip that day's workout. However, it's preferable if the key workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays are not missed.

Veronique's new training programme is straightforward and easy to carry out once you become used to it. It's beautifully constructed, with special Tuesday sessions to heighten vV02max and TvVO2max and Thursday efforts to boost lactate threshold running speed. In line with current research, it also features a very good rest and recovery period every fourth week.

'Carrying out excellent training is not hard to do,' says Veronique. 'You simply have to have reliable reference points around which to structure your workouts.' Those dependable points happen to be your vV02max and TvVO2max. Once you know them, you can train systematically in a way that should trim large chunks of time from your current PBs.

Owen Anderson

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