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  • Writer's pictureSteve Cronshaw

Believable performance? Dr Iñigo San-Millán on 2021 Tour De France winner Tadej Pogačar

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Tadej Pogačar on the winner's podium at the 2021 Tour de France who also went on to win a bronze medal in the Toyko Olympics.

There was an interesting interview with UAE team coach Dr Iñigo San-Millán in the Tour de France highlights on ITV4 on 9th July at 7 pm asking him a few interesting questions. You can view this interview on ITV4 catch-up hub @ 1.5mins from the start at:-

I’m sure, like me, you have been watching the Tour de France this year 2021 and seen Tadej Pogačar so far ahead of his opposition and asking yourself many questions. Number one, is he taking, or has he taken illegal performance-enhancing products to enhance his training or completion performance?

He was so dominant in the tour this year: and with cycling’s Tour background, we are always asking ourselves that question, “can we believe it”?

If you don’t have the time then, some of the key take-home messages of the interview and the UAE team coach are:-

· That the UAE team are using metabolomics research for their riders. This research area is not new and has been around for decades. This increased knowledge of lactate-associated metabolic traits could improve multiple aspects of individualised training, nutrition, overtraining, injury prevention, and rehabilitation. More below.

· Iñigo San-Millán suggests that maybe other riders have not got the form of previous years as the measured power outputs of Tadej Pogačar have not increased exceptionally. He suggests that It’s a case that the performance level of the opposition is poor this year, hence the large gap between first and other podium places.

· UAE team use simple established blood lactate testing to target training gains and obtain performance benefits; see more information and a podcast as below.

UAE team coach Iñigo San-Millán, who has been Pogacar coach for a few years now. I have been following Iñigo San-Millán research areas over the last five years as his research, is closely aligned with my research interests on my MSc. Sports Nutrition course.

Just a little background on the Iñigo San-Millán, back in his day he was a Spanish professional cyclist from the Basque area. In his own words, he “was not successful enough to make a good living in cycling” and decided to get out to follow his passion for sports science and went into academia. He is now a world-renowned research scientist into mitochondria for cancer prevention, treatment, type-1 and type-2 diabetes, but also endurance performance.

Consequently, For many of these reasons, I respect him and REALLY hope he has no associations with illegal performance-enhancing products. Consequently, I think he may have too much at stake with his academic reputation to dabble into the dark side of the sport.

Iñigo San-Millán is a massive advocate of zone-2 rides; at each riders correct intensity; found by blood lactate testing. He has written many research articles on this very subject of mitochondrial and blood capillary density building for performance improvements using blood lactate markers.

UAE team are using metabolomics for performance improvements in their riders

Various studies into Metabolomics and metabolic adaptations to exercise training in humans have been ongoing for decades. While early studies observed elevated activities and levels of glycolytic and electron transport chain proteins in response to endurance training (Gollnick et al., 1973; Holloszy et al., 1977)

So this is nothing new, but more recent work has explained the molecular mechanisms of such adaptations [reviewed in Hawley et al. (2018), Hackney (2019)]

The area of metabolomics has developed enormously in the last decade in many areas of scientific research as a sports training aid to precisely measure metabolic pathways at the cellular and systematic level (D’Alessandro, 2019). Furthermore, understanding of physiological responses to exercise has led to significant advancements in the field of sports physiology over the past decade(Sakaguchi et al., 2019).

This increased knowledge of lactate-associated metabolic traits could improve multiple aspects of individualised training, nutrition, overtraining, injury prevention, and rehabilitation.

Metabolomics Research Paper

You can read this full research paper on “Metabolomics of Endurance Capacity in World Tour Professional Cyclists.”

The UAE, team coach Iñigo San-Millán research paper on Pro tour cyclists who took 21-international-level World Tour professional male cyclists and performed a graded exercise test. The results separated the riders into two groups on either side of a performance cutoff value based on the blood lactate concentration at an exercise intensity of 5.0 W kg–1. Using the performance cutoff lactate levels below the group average of 5 mmol L–1 were classified as the Gold group, while cyclists above the average were organised in the Silver group

The top 50 significant metabolites were identified and investigated further. The 2020 World-Tour cycling season started two weeks after Iñigo San-Millán testing was performed. Many cyclists in the Gold group ended up winning or reaching the podium in the first few races of the season, while riders in the Silver group did not show a significant level of performance at the beginning of the year. These results highlight the use of the metabolomics platform by the UAE, team as a powerful tool to monitor training status and predict athletic performance.

The training status of an individual cyclist can be determined in large part based on the power output (measured in watts per kilogram, W kg–1) at which lactate is produced more rapidly than it is consumed and begins to accumulate, also referred to as the lactate threshold (Brooks, 1985).

Lactate clearance capacity is enhanced through increased mitochondrial biogenesis (Little et al., 2010)

These investigations have explored the effects of exercise intensity and workout duration on metabolism and metabolic adaptations to chronic training in male and female populations over a range of training statuses (though female populations have been underrepresented in studies to date).

The use of whole blood lactate measurements taken during the graded exercise test allowed Iñigo San-Millán to analyse metabolic states of individuals respective to lactate levels at the Performance Cutoff. One advantage of this approach is that it highlighted unique metabolic characteristics between two distinct groups classified based on the amount of lactate produced at a specific power output.

As the measurements of blood lactate accumulation during a short, graded exercise test can discriminate performance in different groups of cyclists(San-Millán et al., 2009)

These results indicate that metabolomic measurements at baseline and during graded exercise testing may serve to expand the predictive qualities of lactate measurement alone.

Glycolysis has long been known as a principal energy-generating pathway in tissues due to its high rates of ATP generation under anaerobic conditions. Increased glycolytic markers have also been identified in plasma during exercise (Jacobs et al., 2014). While lactate production as a function of output has been shown to discriminate cyclists of differing training status (San-Millán et al., 2009)all cyclists reached a point of exhaustion just prior to whole blood sampling for metabolomics.

These measurements complemented and expanded upon the utility of lactate clearance capacity, which has served as a gold standard to monitor athletic training status. While this study design focused on differences in cyclist oxidative capacity, additional studies can be designed to emphasise the contribution of alternative purely anaerobic energy systems that are needed for very high-intensity cycling and sprinting.

UAE team are using established blood lactate testing to target training gains and obtain performance benefits,

What is Blood Lactate testing?

Blood lactate testing gives an understanding of your body’s physiology, which in turn allows for the training prescription to be scientifically focused on achieving your goals and objectives faster and more effectively. Furthermore, this is a technique I use on my own coached riders to prescribe their training more effectively. For more information, see this other blog article on my site Lab Testing Service

For cyclists, this involves various testing protocols that are carried out on a turbo trainer or out on the roads, in conjunction with testing a series of pinpricks of blood from the rider’s finger or earlobe. Lactate levels in these drops of blood are measured using a portable blood lactate tester to give instant results, which can then be plotted against power and heart rate to provide a deep understanding of how an athlete is fuelling their effort at different intensities. A chart of mine below illustrates how different cyclists behave under testing.

A great podcast on this subject and how it relates to Zone-2 training.

For a detailed dive into this subject, listen to how Dr. Iñigo San Millán describes this testing and the whole subject about maximising the aerobic energy system for performance improvements and greatly enhancing the anaerobic high-speed glycolytic energy system.

Try to make time to listen to this podcast, 23rd December 2019, it’s a long one, and you may need to listen over a couple of sessions.

In this episode, Dr. Iñigo San Millán, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, explains the crucial role of mitochondrial function in everything from metabolic health to elite exercise performance.

He is interviewed by Dr Peter Attia MD another one of my performance, health and longevity gurus. His content in itself is exceptional; that’s how much I rate it.

This is a great podcast listen

Dr. Iñigo San Millán

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