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Asking Better Questions...

Every cyclist wants to go faster – that’s a given! The obvious next question is – how do I go faster?

If you ask a group of cyclists, or indeed ask an athlete’s coach, what would make them go faster you will likely get responses such as, train more, get more aero, or improve threshold power.

At this point, athletes and coaches, often go away and try to improve performance by focussing on a single component.


Whilst this may lead to some performance gains, how can we be sure that the time spent improving that one element wouldn’t have been better off working in another area?

Even if the coach or athlete has correctly identified the area in which they can improve performance the most, how do we know when that component has been optimised? Is the same component that was limiting performance 6-months ago still the limiting factor on performance going forward?

Answering these questions is a lot harder and any answers we come to are likely a lot more complicated and caveated.

However, if we are really focussed on optimising performance then coaches and athletes should look to solve the difficult questions - as it is the answers to those difficult questions that give the greatest improvement in performance.

This is why I and the people I work with believe that in order to maximise performance we first need to ask better questions!

“We need to start by asking better questions” Jamie Pringle, 'Boardman Performance Centre'

What performance outcome are we looking for?

Asking better questions starts with asking the most important question...

What performance are we looking for?

Is that an Olympic gold medal or a sub 1hr 25-mile TT?

Answering this question will allow us to start asking the more difficult questions and finding ways in which we can maximise performance.

To highlight this process of asking better questions, I wanted to take you through a real-world example….

Doing this in the real world....

An athlete wants to target the prologue of a prestigious stage race! The prologue is 5km long on a flat course and takes place on 7th August. Their goal is to win the prologue and take the leaders jersey!

The answer to our Performance question is therefore:

Win a 5km Prologue on 7th August

So now we need to expand on that and start asking better (deeper) questions about the key components of that performance?

Event Profiling:

What are the key determinants of performance in that event?

The diagram above represents key determinents of performance in the 5km prologue.

You will note some are quite specific – ‘muscle temperature post warm-up’ and some are quite broad - ‘execution’.

At this point we haven’t ranked any of these components. That is because, although they could be ranked, we are not as interested in the importance of individual components, as we are in where we can improve the athlete's performance to the greatest extent in order to allow them to achieve their goal.

To put it in a different way – we need to know where we can make the biggest gains rather than what is most important on average.

The next step in asking better questions is to look at the athlete.

Athlete Profiling:

What strengths does the athlete currently possess? What are their weaknesses? What is holing back their performance? What aspects can we improve? To what degree can we improve those aspects?

As part of our 'Advanced Profiling' we look at the following:

You will note that although we always keep the goal in mind when looking at the athlete, we take a much broader approach in the questions we ask. For example, we focus heavily on how healthy an athlete is. That is because not only do we as coaches and sport scientists have a duty to put our athlete’s health first, but an unhealthy athlete is not a fast athlete!

I can’t share with you the full report we have on this athlete but, I can share how we put the Event and Athlete Profiling together to form the 'Athlete Centric' Event Profile .

Where do we need to improve to maximise performance?

You will notice in the diagram above that we have split performance up into different ‘disciplines’ and looked at the athlete’s performance or scope for improvement in each.

In each of those area we have asked - what are the key determinants of performance? How close is the athletes current performance? Is there room for improvement? How much impact will improvements in that area have on the day?

In some areas we are more than happy with the athlete's current level of performance (these areas are shaded blue).

However, in other areas we have identified specific improvement goals. For example, we have identified a potential 10w gain in Critical Power (the amount of power he has produce through aerobic pathways).

Now I can hear you thinking ‘Well yes! For a time-trial of course an improvement in threshold will improve performance, we knew that at the start of the blog!’

While here is why asking better questions in important…

We only start getting to point whereby we know how to improve critical power by 10w when we ask what are the key determinants of critical power?

Maximal sustainable power output (critical power) has 3 components:

1) How much oxygen an athlete can take in and process - VO2 max

2) What percentage of that oxygen uptake is sustainable? Sustainable %VO2 max

3) How well is the oxygen taken in converted in to power output at the pedal? Economy

Firstly, this athlete's critical power as a percentage of VO2 max is World Class at 90%.

This athlete's exercise economy however, while excellent, is not quite in the same league (graph truncated to 4000ml/min).

These two graphs tell us that the athlete's engine is as tuned as much as it can be for their current VO2max BUT that their watts out /oxygen in ratio could be improved!

Because we delved deeper and asked better questions we can calculate that the 10w improvement in critical power we are looking for can be achieved through an increase in efficiency of 0.6-0.7%!

How does this tell us how to improve? Threshold still needs to be higher!

Well we know that economy generally responds best to training volume. Sustainable percentage of VO2 max generally responds best to doing efforts at, or just, above threshold.

Therefore, by asking better questions about this athlete's physiology we have been able to develop a strategy to best target the adaptations we want to see. We can with reasonable certainty that to get the most out of this athletes engine we need to increase his training volume NOT the amount of threshold efforts he is doing!

If we hadn't asked better questions and stuck with the original, increase threshold power answer, we may have got about this in completely the wrong way. Not seen the improvements in critical power and performance we are looking for, and ultimately not been able to help this athlete.

Across the board...

In this blog I have given just one example of how we can get to better answers and better recommendations for improving performance through asking better and deeper questions.

However, I want to stress that we need to be asking better questions across the board. We need to look at the performance question, profile both the event and the athlete and ask deep, difficult questions in every one of the areas we identify to get to the answers that are going to maximise performance! If we can do that in every area then, and only then, do we have a chance at optimising performance!

Ask better questions!

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