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Academic, Athletics Partnership Creates Positive Results for Cross Country Team

COVID-19 forces coach and professor to get creative

ALMA — Keeping Alma College student-athletes in top shape — and motivated to improve — was a challenge for coaches in fall 2020, as restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the postponement of the fall sports season and limited opportunities for teams to practice together.

The Alma College cross country team found a solution to that challenge, thanks in large part to a collaboration with Alex Montoye ’10, an assistant professor in the Integrative Physiology and Health Science department. Together with Head Coach Matt Chovanec ’91, the two implemented a new program for runners designed to test their progress, which could be done by themselves, thereby minimizing opportunities to spread the virus.

“Our challenge was, how do you show improvement if there are no races to track that improvement?” Chovanec said. “Runners are very meticulous about their times, and I think we often fall in this trap of using their times as their only measurable outcome. What we wanted to do was create a new measurable outcome, and that’s what we did.”

“It has been tough at times to be engaged and stick to the plan. But in the end, I am very proud of our student-athletes. They did exceptionally well given the circumstances they faced, and hopefully they will continue to grow as we move forward.”

This past season, the Scots’ cross country team began tracking their “VO2 max,” which is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during an exercise of increasing intensity, such as running. According to Montoye, higher VO2 max values are generally associated with better endurance exercise performance.

“At its heart this program was trying to answer the basic question, ‘How do you predict what an athlete will do when they compete?’” said Montoye, himself a former runner on the Scots’ cross country team. “If you can answer that question, you can answer all kinds of other questions about practice effectiveness and other coaching tactics. We planned to do this even before the pandemic struck, but it ended up being an even bigger benefit to us when it did.”

Montoye said cross country runners typically track their progress by measuring their “personal record,” or best time at a given course, accompanied by runners from other colleges and universities.

However, the pandemic all but eliminated organized athletic competition in the fall and generally forced student-athletes to compete in their own backyards. That meant, for example, they couldn’t gauge their performance from this year’s event at the Michigan International Speedway track against last year’s.

So, they improvised. Instead of running great distances at comfortable speeds, like they would usually do, the Scots ran 1 1/2 miles at their top speed on a local bike trail. They tracked their times and sent them to Chovanec and Montoye, who gauged their VO2 max based on those times.

The end result was positive across the board. The men’s and women’s combined team averaged a VO2 max score of 53.9 at the beginning of the 2020 season and a 55.0 score at the end of it — an improvement of 1.1 overall. VO2 max is measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight (mL/kg/min).

Karl Stroup, a senior from White Lake, said he and his teammates were devastated when the fall sports season was postponed. Tracking their VO2 max provided motivation to continue practicing.

“It was really cool to see how well we had done over time,” said Stroup, who noted his own VO2 max scores improved over the course of the season. “I just think it’s one more tool in the tool belt, and I’m glad to see academics get involved in the athletics side of things.”

The experience was successful from a research standpoint, Montoye said. Early in the season, he and Chovanec noticed some scores were lower than they expected them to be, and tweaked the workout regimen for those student-athletes accordingly.

“We can also take a VO2 max and tell you, based on your age and other factors, how that compares across tiers of athletes. For instance, we can expect this athlete to do this in a race, and this athlete to do another thing. We would expect less improvement in this individual, so you might train this individual differently. It has a lot of potential,” Montoye said.

The partnership was also successful, Chovanec added, in showing how academics can play a role on the field of play. As a result, Chovanec and Montoye plan to continue tracking VO2 max well into the future, regardless of how COVID-19 affects the competition schedule moving forward.

“You got a big buy-in from student-athletes when you saw improvements in those scores,” Chovanec said. “I think it means a lot when you’re able to talk about how class plays a role, not just in the classroom or in a lab, but out there in the field. It has implications in real life, both in terms of health and in performance.”

Story published on February 01, 2021