Perspective: does laboratory-based maximal incremental exercise testing elicit maximum physiological responses in highly-trained athletes with cervical spinal cord injury?

The physiological assessment of highly-trained athletes is a cornerstone of many scientific support programs. In the present article, we provide original data followed by our perspective on the topic of laboratory-based incremental exercise testing in elite athletes with cervical spinal cord injury. We retrospectively reviewed our data on Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby athletes collected during the last two Paralympic cycles. We extracted and compared peak cardiometabolic (heart rate and blood lactate) responses between a standard laboratory-based incremental exercise test on a treadmill and two different maximal field tests (4 min and 40 min maximal push). In the nine athletes studied, both field tests elicited higher peak responses than the laboratory-based test. The present data imply that laboratory-based incremental protocols preclude the attainment of true peak cardiometabolic responses. This may be due to the different locomotor patterns required to sustain wheelchair propulsion during treadmill exercise or that maximal incremental treadmill protocols only require individuals to exercise at or near maximal exhaustion for a relatively short period of time. We acknowledge that both field- and laboratory-based testing have respective merits and pitfalls and suggest that the choice of test be dictated by the question at hand: if true peak responses are required then field-based testing is warranted, whereas laboratory-based testing may be more appropriate for obtaining cardiometabolic responses across a range of standardised exercise intensities.