The right stuff and how to get it

What is it that brings out the best in elite athletes? The chance to limber up at the exclusive Club La Santa in Lanzarote, for one. But, says Mark MacKenzie, warm-weather training there can be hell on earth
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you watch athletics on the telly, you may be familiar with the term "winter training camp". It's a phrase often mumbled by commentators when some British athlete hauls his arse over the finish line in last place of the last race of some minor European track meeting: "And, er, that spot of warm-weather training has clearly done him good." Quite.

If you watch athletics on the telly, you may be familiar with the term "winter training camp". It's a phrase often mumbled by commentators when some British athlete hauls his arse over the finish line in last place of the last race of some minor European track meeting: "And, er, that spot of warm-weather training has clearly done him good." Quite.

Yet, to cut a dash in the world of élite athletics, an annual spin at a warm-weather training camp over the winter months is a must.

Club La Santa, on the island of Lanzarote, is one such facility, and the list of athletes who have sweated their stuff at the complex reads like an athletics Who's Who: Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Jonathan Edwards, Frankie Fredericks, Heike Drechsler. And me.

But before I can burn up the same back straight as such Olympic legends, I need an objective take on what my vital fitness statistics are.

Which is why I'm having my chest shaved and plastered with electrodes by a softly spoken, blonde health consultant at adidas's state-of-the-art fitness testing lab in Stockport. Basements across central London charge small fortunes for such niche treatment. I'm hooked up to a diagnostic computer and bite down on the breathing apparatus that will measure my every breath for the next 20 minutes. To train like an élite athlete, it's vital I know my limits, and the treadmill test I'm undergoing is the industry standard for monitoring cardiovascular fitness and heart function.

The object of the test is to run until I drop, and the treadmill starts at walking pace, increasing in speed and gradient every three minutes. When the clock hits 18 minutes I'm struggling, and at a shade over 20, I'm done.

After the test, the blonde health consultant – in fact a "nuclear cardiologist" called Kim, takes me through the results I've generated. The first graph measures the maximum millilitres of oxygen an athlete can process per kilogramme of body weight each minute. Known as the "VO2 Max", this figure is a direct indicator of aerobic fitness – the higher the number, the fitter the athlete. At 56ml, Kim says my score is excellent and similar to that of Premiership footballers, "depending on their position". By comparison, most cyclists on the Tour de France boast a VO2 Max in the high 70s.

Next, we assess my "maximum heart rate" under pressure, or MHR. For men, MHR is loosely determined by subtracting your age from 220.

The treadmill's more accurate reading gives me an MHR of 194. Unlike VO2 Max, heart rates are genetic or "unmodifiable"; but, by knowing an athlete's upper limit, coaches can develop target heart- rate (THR) training zones, establishing the percentage of capacity at which an athlete must work.

Kim explains that measuring breathing alongside heart rate determines my "anaerobic threshold" – the point at which the body is not processing enough oxygen for the amount of energy being expended; the point, in other words, where demand outstrips supply. My anaerobic threshold is discovered to be 165 beats per minute (bpm), about 84 per cent of my MHR.

Working anaerobically, without sufficient oxygen, is not impossible. But as I've just discovered, it's bloody uncomfortable and, in my case, difficult to sustain for longer than two minutes. "To put this in to perspective," Kim says, "élite marathon runners are able to work at 90 per cent of capacity for very long periods."

Two days later and several thousand miles south, I step off the plane into the Lanzarote sunshine. With a bag of free sports-wear over my shoulder , I'm walking the élite-athlete walk before I've left the tarmac. But departing the airport at high speed has more to do with enthusiastic taxi-driving than any intrusive sports press.

On the drive to the complex, the occasional runner passes us on the deserted, sun-baked road – the same road I realise, pounded by the likes of Christie and Jackson as they plotted their way to glory. We pull in to Club La Santa complex and I'm introduced to our coach for the next two days, former Danish triathlon champion Morten Fenger.

A picture of extreme health, Morten's handshake is significantly firmer than my grasp of élite training techniques, as becomes apparent when we discuss my "fitness objectives".

Our programme will be based on a popular triathlon workout known as "back-to-back" training, a form of intensive aerobic training, or AT. Morten explains this is the most time-efficient method of improving VO2 Max and stamina to work above the anaerobic threshold. Keeping the heart rate as high as possible, the desired work-rate is the mid-90s to 100 per cent of capacity. So much for the theory – given my relative fitness, my aim is to stay in the "target zone" for as long as I can.

Training "back to back", athletes are required to alternate between different disciplines for eight minutes at a time for a total of 64 minutes. In my case, it's the running track and a road bike mounted on a roller. The next morning, I strap on a heart-rate monitor and take Morten's advice to pace myself. Before the main session starts, we are treated to 45 minutes of circuit training. A "warm-up".

By the time the bell goes for the main bout, I'm feeling the pace. As each eight-minute block passes, Morten orders an improvement on the previous session.

"Come on," he barks, "we're gonna get you smashed!" By the end of the final bike the lactic acid is kicking in and after a "warm-down" run, Morten tells us to take on fluids and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of finishing, after which period they will be of little use in recovery.

And recovery is premium. If back to back in the controlled environment of a stadium wasn't tough enough, Morten spices up the next day with a back-to-back duathlon in the great outdoors. A 14km mountain-bike ride is followed by a 5km run, and 30 minutes later we're back on the bikes, happily pedalling for home in a relentlessly uphill kind of way.

"Back-to-back AT training is particularly useful as it allows athletes to 'cheat' the body," Morten explains. "Switching between the bike and run uses different muscles and allows you to keep your heart rate high. If you tried to run or bike for 64 minutes at that output, you'd need weeks to recover.

"AT training means each time you exercise, you are actually straining muscles and causing damage. When the body repairs, it compensates and improves strength and fitness."

My workout results for the two days show improvements on the Stockport results. As we leave, I am convinced that the change in environment, not to mention temperature, has left me feeling rejuvenated and keen to look into the possibilities of specialist coaching at home. Perhaps. Elite athletes, it seems, should make the most of their time in the sun....

The facts

Mark MacKenzie visited Club La Santa as a guest of adidas UK. For further information:

Morten Fenger and the Club La Santa staff will arrange bespoke training routines via email. Contact Introductory training packages start from £100, with an ongoing monthly consultancy fee of £50.

Heart-rate monitors start at £30. Visit

The zones

The Forbidden Zone Working at 100 per cent or more of capacity.

Intensive Aerobic Training (AT) Most time-efficient training method – working at 95 to 100 per cent of capacity. Marathon runners and other endurance athletes work at 90 per cent of capacity for extended periods.

Steady State Training Working at 85 to 90 per cent of capacity.

Restitution or Recovery Training Performed between AT workouts; for instance, a 10-minute run to rid the body of lactates