Friday, July 29, 2011

Aerobic endurance

Today's post is about endurance. Physiologically, endurance is about energy delivery. In many ways the muscles are machines that can keep up a given amount of work for as long as there is sufficient energy. Chemically, fuel and oxygen is converted to carbon dioxide and water, which releases energy. This is the same thing that happens in a fire, but since we don't want to burn up, the energy release is very closely controlled by the use of the energy currency: adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

New ATP is produced through three basic mechanisms: nonaerobic metabolism, anaerobic metabolism and aerobic metabolism. The mechansims are listed in order of speed, that is the rate at which they can replenish ATP, which corresponds to the maximal level of effort that can be sustained by them.

Nonaerobic metabolism is the conversion adenosine diphosphate (ADP, with two phosphate groups), into ATP using creatine phosphate (CP). This is very fast and provides almost all energy the first 8-10 seconds of any exercise, and can produce around 1200 watt (Guyton & Hall, 10th ed.). It is limited by the intracellular stores of CP, which aren't that large.

Anaerobic metabolism is the breakdown of glucose or glycogen into lactic acid. The process is very fast, producing about 650 watt and can keep going for much longer than the CP-ATP conversion. However, it is limited by the acidity of lactate. All enzymes, including actin and myosin and the metabolic enzymes, have an optimal pH. When the pH varies from this they get less effective, and after about 60 seconds of pure anaerobic exercise the muscle pH will be far enough below the ideal for the process to be severely impaired and the muscle becomes fatigued. In judo, the combination of these first two kinds of metabolism is what provides energy during the intense parts of the workout.

Finally there is aerobic metabolism where glucose/glycogen, proteins, fat or lactate can be used to produce ATP through the Kreb's cycle, which requires oxygen. When burning glycogen, which is the most efficient, aerobic metabolism can produce about 280 watt. In judo this is what allows us to keep going for a full two hour session, and importantly what happens between the short periods of attack and defense to keep fatigue at bay. In the low intensity periods between bouts lactate can be removed from the muscle.

So, the most important part of endurance for judo training, and thus for keeping up with young elite athletes, is the aerobic capacity. The demands aren't as strenuous as for pure endurance sports like running or swimming, but you have to be fit enough to continuously recover from fatigue for a full two hours of training. Going back to our definition of endurance as energy delivery. This means the rate of oxygen consumption, which can be measured in ml/min. In order to be able to make comparisons between different athletes this in often normalised to body weight so that the most commonly used unit is ml/(min*kg).

According to the only english-language, judo-specific book on sports science I know of: "The sport science of elite judo athletes" by Wayland Pulkkinen, the maximal rate of oxygen uptake, or VO2max (that's "V" with a dot over it indicating volume over time, "O" with a "2" subscript as in oxygen, and max, as in max.), of judoka is around 60 ml/(min*kg).

The question then is: How do I measure up? To find out we have to find a way to measure VO2max, but actually measuring VO2max is impractical outside of a physiology laboratory. What remains is estimation from parameters we can easily measure. There are a number of more or less well validated methods to estimate VO2max. You can find them through your friendly, neighbourhood search engine (PubMed, not Google). Uth and co-workers presented their method in 2004 (Eur J Appl Physiol, 91(1), 111-115), so fairly recently, and they used well-trained men aged 21-51 years old by running while measuring their pulse.

The method by Uth et al calls for a resting heart rate, which I found to be about 50/min and a maximal heart rate which I found to be about 200/min. You then divide your maximum heart rate by your minimum heart rate and multiply by 15.3, let's say 15. That gives:
200 / 50 * 15 = 60 ml/(min*kg)
In conclusion, I can not blame my aerobic capacity for any of my shortcomings, but I did find out that I need to work on my running. My calves are killing me.

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