Cycling, Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Sebastian Sitko, PhD | EP#376

 February 6, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Sebastian Sitko - That Triathlon Show

Sebastian Sitko, PhD, is a professor in sports science at the University of Zaragoza, a cycling and endurance sports coach, and a passionate athlete himself. In this interview we discuss a number of topics spanning a wide range from science and physiology to practical application and training principles.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • FTP: is it useful, and how to test it? How does it correspond to physiological markers?
  • VO2max: is it important to know it, and if you do want to know it, how to go about it?
  • Lab testing: how to get the most out of lab testing and avoid common pitfalls
  • Sebastian's thoughts on the balance of volume and intensity, recovery and microcycle structure, periodisation, torque training, and more

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Sebastian's background

02:27 -

  • I'm currently a lecturer at the University of Zaragoza, in Spain, in the Faculty of Health and Sports Sciences.  
  • I'm also a researcher and have a small coaching business in which I coach mainly road cyclists.  
  • I currently coach some triathletes and trail runners, but most of my coached athletes are cyclists. 

Training prescription

03:53 -

  • Concerning low-intensity work (at the start of the season or after an injury), I use percentages of maximal heart rate because it's easy to see how the power output associated with the same heart rate changes.
  • Testing the first ventilatory threshold with the power output is complicated but easy to do with heart rate. 
  • At the intensities above that, things change a little because it's complicated to measure not only VO2 max intensities but also threshold intensities with heart rate. After all, this is an internal variable that varies a lot between different days, conditions, heat, humidity, etc. 
  • So in these cases, I prefer to use power output.
  • Even in these cases, you must set broad power output ranges.
  • If you use FTP, FTP is not a stable marker.
  • For example, I have tested this with my athletes. If you perform three different FTP tests during the same week, you will see three different power outputs associated with FTP.
  • You cannot say that your FTP is 360W. I have seen 360 on Monday, 380 on Wednesday, and 340 on Saturday.
  • I work around percentages of FTP because it is a good marker of sustainable performance. 
  • If you set up your FTP according to the test suggested by Allen and Coggan, you have a marker of performance that you can sustain for over 40 to 70 minutes until exhaustion. 
  • It is similar to what you would find with the maximal lactate stable state and a little bit below what you would find with the second ventilatory threshold or the respiratory compensation point. 

Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan's protocol

08:10 -

  • In recent years, we have seen many papers mentioning FTP tests performed as suggested by Allen and Coggan.
  • When you look at these papers, they have only done a 20-minute interval. A 20-minute interval will reflect the 60-minute power if you perform the suggested warm-up intervals before the 20-minute interval. You have a five-minute interval which is all out, which generates fatigue that will provide reduced power output during the 20-minute interval, which will correlate better with 60-minute power.
  • It's essential to support that you fix broad ranges when performing threshold training.
  • I will probably take the test result and have a range of 20W up and down where I want you to work.

Prescription of VO2max sessions

10:15 -

  • There are two main types of intervals, To improve VO2max.
  • The first one is like the classical 40/20s, which is 20 seconds almost all out and 40 seconds just under the threshold. 
  • The second type of workout is 5x4min VO2max workouts, which work better, explained as time spent at VO2max intensity.
  • If you spend more time at VO2max intensity, it will not automatically improve your VO2max. (more is not better)
  • For example, we are working with three minutes intervals.
  • First, you try to expand the time spent at this intensity. (for example, longer intervals or the exact duration of the session, but less rest)
  • Once the fatigue that the session generates doesn't allow you to increase the time spent at the VO2max intensity, you test, and typically, you will increase the power output.

Heart rate-based training prescription

12:58 -

  • We have two different theories. Some people set up a heart rate threshold, which varies significantly during the season. 
  • And other people like me prescribe it according to the maximum heart rate, which varies a lot less during the season. 
  • I usually do between 60 to 75% of the maximum heart rate for this work. It varies a lot according to each individual because some live surrounded by a terrain where it is difficult to sustain the same heart rate. 
  • In that case, the range will be broader.
  • Others have perfect terrain for this work so that you can narrow the range.
  • Each prescription is individual because two main factors will determine the kind of training you perform with the athletes.
  • First, what is the objective? For example, training for an Ironman will be different from training for a Criterium race. 
  • The second factor is availability. 
  • If you have 25 hours per week to train, you can perform 80% of your time at zone two. But that's not the case with most amateur athletes.
  • You need to increase the intensity a little if you want results. 

Comparing lactate and ventilatory thresholds to FTP

16:08 -

  • FTP correlates quite well with the second ventilatory threshold and respiratory compensation point, which doesn't mean it is equal. 
  • (if one increases, the other increases also)
  • But both of the thresholds locate above the FTP.
  • FTP is around the same intensities as the MLSS and lactate threshold tested through different methods, such as the modified DMAX test.
  • Research papers that have tested the time to exhaustion at the MLSS found that it is quite similar to what we have found for the FTP. 
  • When you test the time to exhaustion at the respiratory compensation point, you will find that it's like 20 to 25 minutes. (not sustainable performance)

Using VO2max for training prescription

20:05 -

  • VO2max as a marker for the prescription of training is not good practice.
  • If you are testing junior riders, you need to find values of 70 or above in VO2max. 
  • We can estimate the VO2 max with power output quite well during five-minute intervals.
  • The problem with this test was that we wanted to test across all performance levels. (sample size was reduced)
  • We found the formula accurate, but it will be better if you test 200 cyclists.
  • The accuracy was +/- 5mL/kg.
  • The 5-min power output reflected what we found in the incremental test.
  • The problem with ramp and VO2 Max testing is that you almost always don't obtain the actual VO2 Max value.
  • If you perform an incremental lab test, end up in a specific stage, rest, and do a higher step (super maximal verification phase), you will see a value higher than what you obtained in the last incremental stage. 
  • All the previous work you have performed during the incremental test before the last stages generate fatigue that may be a confounding factor in the VO2 slow component, reflecting a lower-than-expected value of VO2 Max. 
  • If you want to test VO2 Max, the shorter the test, the better it will be. 
  • If you want to test thresholds, which I would not recommend with an incremental test, the longer the test, the better.  

What are the tests that Sebastian does?

27:27 -

  • Before starting, I would perform anthropometric tests to see the body composition, which will direct the training for the following months.
  • So carbohydrate and fat oxidation rates give you an intensity at which you can improve those values, which may be necessary for the first months.
  • And the last thing I would test for in the laboratory nowadays would be gross efficiency. (work rate at which you are using an exact amount of oxygen)
  • For those tests, I would use a protocol with long steps. (seven minutes for each stage)
  • Lactate is another internal metric, so it varies according to nutrition. But still, I would test lactate three times per year for an amateur athlete. 
  • The first time would be before starting. The second time will be after the preparation phase to see if everything went as planned.
  • And the last one before the most important competition of the training year. 
  • And, of course, I also do a power test for an entire power curve. You may obtain that with preliminary competitions. 
  • The last one is monitoring fatigue. (the relationship between power output and subjective perception of effort)
  • Tests that are typically under the threshold and you are monitoring with the Borg scale to see whether the athlete has the correct perception of effort.
  • For example, I prescribe a short, sub-threshold interval of 10 minutes after the warm-up. 
  • If the rate of perceived exertion is where it should be, the athlete can perform the rest of the intervals. If not, he does zone two and rests.

Testing for self-coached athletes

31:00 -

  • Most things in the training are not science-based (more concerning experience). 
  • I would keep things simple. Test the most important power outputs:1-min, 5-min, 20-min and 5s, if you are doing crits)
  • You can use the 5-minute test to assess your VO2max and the 20-minute test to assess your FTP. And with that, you can train properly. 

General thoughts around volume and intensity

32:54 -

  • Now, we are talking more about volume than intensity on the internet. It will depend on your availability and your goals. 
  • If you plan to do an Ironman, your training should focus more on volume than intensity because you will perform many hours at very low intensities.
  • But if you are doing short road races or criteriums in these cases, investing in intensity will be more interesting than volume. 
  • For example, a road cyclist could be close to 80-20. (80% low-intensity work). But that's because they perform many hours weekly. Out of these 30 hours, if 40% were intensity, it would be impossible to recover from that.
  • I have amateur athletes who have 7-8 hours per week to train. And in those cases, we are talking about 50-50.
  • If I could choose the disposition of these eight hours, I would prefer to have two sessions weekly, for example, Tuesday and Thursday, with lots of intervals and then leave a four-hour ride for the weekend with easy spinning. 


35:59 -

  • Yeah, periodisation comes from Russia, which took this concept from sociology studies.
  • We don't have any scientific evidence to support that any periodisation nowadays works better than the other. 
  • There have been many studies regarding training intensity distributions.
  • In general, if you prefer volume or intensity, the results are similar.
  • We don't have any studies to rely on for periodisation. So it's a matter of experience.
  • I prefer to think in a shorter term because you will always find injuries or the athlete gets sick.
  • Planning in the very long term has zero sense.
  • You need to know what your objective is and what you need to perform well.

Recovery within the training program

38:09 -

  • For amateur athletes, the most crucial factor affecting recovery and the training program outcome will be what they are doing outside training. So if you have a very physical job, you are in trouble. 
  • You are performing like the training load of a pro athlete, but what will transfer to your performance will be half of that. 
  • The rest is fatigue that accumulates doing your job.
  • I don't have any specific structure because it depends on the job amateurs have, and in pro athletes, it also depends on their specific goals. So I have athletes who perform three hard weeks and then one rest week, but I also have athletes who perform almost six high-intensity sessions per week. 
  • For example, I have an athlete who races in criteriums, who has like six hours per week for training, one hour each day in the turbo trainer. 
  • It's 80% of intensity for him with no rest days. If we start training six hours per week with one hour each day and want to incorporate full rest days, we will not improve. 
  • I like to test at the start of each important session whether the RPE and power output are where they should be. 
  • For example, if you are going to do like VO2max intervals, imagine that you have four. I will incorporate, after the warm-up, one interval of 1min at this intensity and test whether the RPE should be (7-8/10). 
  • Concerning the athlete with only 6 hours per week to train, this is a particular case because we are talking about an athlete who races in criteriums. (neuromuscular intervals)
  • In the end, it's reasonable to recover from one day to the other. 
  • For example, you need to do two things. First, increase your neuromuscular power. (acceleration after corners, for example)
  • And then the work you can perform after fatigue.
  • The one who wins the criterium is different from the one who has the fastest sprint but who has the fastest sprint after one hour of sprinting. 

Incorporating rest days for a higher volume athlete

43:20 -

  • If we are talking about 15 hours per week, he will have at least one or two rest days per week. 
  • If you are planning to race a Cycling Sportive, looking for muscular adaptations after fatigue is essential. 
  • So, for example, you will have a hard interval session on Saturday and then a four-hour zone to ride on Sunday. 
  • It's essential to perform this session under fatigue from the previous day. 

Differences between road cycling and triathlon

44:34 -

  • There are two main differences between these sports. 
  • In trail running, you have an eccentric component that generates lots of fatigue and impact loads. 
  • It means you will have higher rates of injuries, so be very careful about the volume you can perform while running. 
  • For example, these athletes need to add cycling to their 
  • Workouts because you can perform lots of low-intensity work on the bike. And if you reduce the time you spend running with lots of downhills, it will reduce the risk of injury. 
  • For triathlon, there's the swimming part, which is counterproductive to the other two sports. 
  • When working in the swimming pool, you sometimes produce adaptations against what you expect to perform better while running or on the bike. 
  • In swimming, compared to the other two activities, you execute the muscular force under no gravity conditions. It is entirely different to what you find in the muscular contractions that are part of cycling or running. And especially, you are training your upper body in a nonsensical way for running or cycling. 

Balancing swimming with running and cycling

46:39 -

  • I'm not the most experienced guy here regarding swimming. 
  • I like to look at the bigger picture. During an Ironman, for example, 
  • You spend the most time running and cycling. 
  • So we will have the best increments in performance there. 
  • So I will always tell you about the bike and running against swimming.
  • The time you spend at the swimming pool will not reflect in time improvements or time invested while cycling or running. 

Things road cyclists could learn from triathletes

47:49 -

  • Road cycling is an older sport. So we have more specific training programs here because, with the apparition of power meters, it's easy to monitor performance in road cycling, which is not the case in triathlon, specifically with swimming. 
  • We have seen power meters for running like Stryde. I am still waiting to see whether they are reliable or not because we have seen some reported figures of 3% reliability for Stride, but that's not independent testing. 
  • Runners should learn to rest more from the other sports because the rates of injuries are high.
  • Triathletes tend to do too much intense work. They should prioritise much more volume against intensity.
  • Cyclists could learn improvision improvisation. 
  • We have everything controlled in road cycling. When you go trail running and want to perform an interval, some days, you will find that the terrain doesn't allow you to do it.
  • If a cyclist doesn't perform the interval at the power output requested, it's terrible for the athlete.

Torque training

50:47 -

  • During the last two to three years, several relevant sports scientists discussed the supposed benefits of this training. 
  • I am still waiting to see solid scientific evidence to support this fact. I have not seen it. 
  • In my experience, you must be very careful with these intervals because they can produce several kinds of injuries, such as Osgood–Schlatter disease or patellar problems. 
  • I have seen minimal benefits in general. (some improvements in gross efficiency, especially in pro-cyclists).
  • It's complicated to say that this is due to torque work because an athlete might improve more than last year, but this might be because of other factors. 
  • They are very fatiguing from a muscular point of view. 
  • If you perform these intervals, you will be exhausted the next day. 
  • The authors that mention the benefits are the performance managers from the UAE team. 

1-3 areas within sports science that need more research

54:12 -

  • First, it would be female elite performance because most studies focus on men.
  • We do not have evidence supporting how training works for them.
  • Second, doping is a topic that we should address more in scientific studies. You have an ethical committee that won't allow you to perform doping programs on volunteers to see the effects of doping.
  • We have some about EPO, but for example, for testosterone, the evidence is lacking. 
  • The third is transgender sports and whether we are talking about the amount of testosterone (allowing a transgender person to participate in female sport just because of the testosterone levels) 

Applying science into practice

57:01 -

  • Science usually needs a controlled environment. 
  • Imagine that you perform a study on volunteers, and you know that during the eight weeks of the study, these volunteers are doing nothing but training. 
  • The athlete will be rested and well-prepared for the training, but this differs from what you find in the real world. 
  • The athlete will have a lot of work going on Tuesday, and he will be tired and unable to complete the intervals you have programmed for Wednesday. 
  • We have issues translating the scientific results to the practice field because you can perform scientific studies, but you also need people who can interpret them and, you know, translate these results to the coaching field. 
  • Several platforms have started publishing the results of studies in the last months on Instagram and Twitter.
  • Knowledgeiswatt is one of them because they share scientific knowledge without the complication of interpreting all the statistical results in the studies. 
  • They will release a short monthly journal in which six to seven experts will comment on the studies.
  • I'm one of the editors for this job, and it will be easy to understand for the reader and easy to implement. 

Advice to athletes and coaches that are interested in sports science

1:00:48 -

  • The best investment you can make in your coaching business is learning how to interpret scientific studies. So learn about statistics and science because you can access, understand and implement that information into your training practice before any other person. 
  • For example, several exciting channels on YouTube show you how PubMed works or basic statistics.
  • In the last few years, many people have seen that coaching is a very lucrative business if you coach many athletes. And we have many people who are coaching who still need formal education. 
  • Even if you have knowledge and experience, showing a formal basis for all of this is essential because you are playing with people's health. 
  • If you have already worked in this field for ten years, you have earned sufficient money to pay for a university degree and do it. 

Rapid-fire questions

1:04:50 -

What is your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports? 

Sports Nutrition: From Lab to Kitchenby Asker Jeukendrup

What is an important habit that you have benefited from athletically, professionally or personally? 

Waking up early

And who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you? 

Louis Passfield


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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