Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Getting Into The Lab

As an Anesthesiologist I deal with human physiology on a daily basis. I can manipulate any vital parameter with a push of a syringe or a dial on my machine. I guess you could call me an applied physiologist. It’s a job that I love and seldom become bored with.

Last summer, I decided to take this knowledge and my undergraduate education in exercise physiology to begin coaching a few athletes. When I was in college, my career goal was to be an exercise physiologist but somehow I ended up in medicine. This latest foray into coaching seems to satisfy that latent desire.

I limited the number of athletes I coached to five so that I would not over stretch myself, and provide the individual attention necessary to do a good job. The athletes on the squad have different levels athletic and triathlon experience. They have goals ranging from performing at a personal best to going to Kona. The one thing that they all have in common is that they are willing to put in the work necessary to get there.

After a few months of base training and letting the athletes get familiar with the system, I arranged some baseline testing at the University of Oklahoma’s Human Performance Lab and Exercise Physiologist, David Brennan. Here, I would accurately determine my athletes VO2 max, aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, and heart rate training zones, to base their upcoming workout sessions and training prescriptions. David is an Aussie, and former 4:04 miler. He is a great resource for me to consult and has personal contact with Alan Lim, who was a consultant for Floyd Landis’ power training program.

With this testing my guys would also get the opportunity to learn more about how their bodies handled stress and why they needed to stay in their “own” training zones. They would be able to see that “their hard” may be someone else’s easy. I think most folks overestimate the lactate threshold and the easy recovery sessions are often too hard. A lot of athletes end up training in the midrange area which yields poor results. Having this data is precise, black and white, and easy to understand.

Last week, we were tested on the bike. This type of testing used to be a luxury and only available to just elite athletes, but now the general public can be tested. Fortunately, I was tested years ago in college in an exercise physiology class, and my VO2 max at that time was in the 70’s. I can recall that I was in pretty good shape, and riding my bike a lot back then. VO2 max declines with age so it would be interesting to see the results I could put up 25 years later.

Steve Scace and I tested on the same day and we were able to encourage each other throughout the procedure. Steve is pictured putting in his effort above. Our weight and body fat percentage with skin calipers was measured first. Mine was up to 11%; I guess I have been porking out this winter, because I was 5% at Kona. That’s ok, because it’s not healthy to be at race weight all year long. I like to periodize my weight for big races. As a big race approaches, I take action to lean up.

The test involved the use of a metabolic analyzer. Your nose is clipped and you breathe into the analyzer which measures the volume and percentage of carbon dioxide in the expired gas. A heart rate monitor is also worn so this is correlated into the results as well. A Borg effort level is used by the athlete to rate the level of perceived exertion. The test itself is a graded exercise which starts off very easy and is increased to a new, more difficult, level every 3 minutes. The heart rate, rate of perceived exertion, and VO2 were recorded every minute with blood lactate levels taken at 3 minute intervals. We started at a very easy 100 watts and eventually ended up in the mid 300 to 400 watt levels at max.

From the data, we would be able to determine the heart rate and wattages of the Aerobic Threshold; an intensity and heart rate at which the body burns the most fat and fat is used for fuel, and Anaerobic Threshold: the highest intensity at which the body can remove lactate as quickly as it is produced. Knowing this level is invaluable to achieve conditioning without incurring muscle damage associated with lactic acid buildup.

At the end of the test we went for our max. The VO2 max is a measure of athletic potential. In a nutshell, it is the amount of oxygen that your body can utilize in one minute of maximal exercise. This is expressed in liters of oxygen/ kilogram of body weight/ minute. David made the statement that it doesn’t matter what your VO2 max is; it’s what you do with it that counts. I read somewhere that Rob de Castella had a VO2 in the 60’s and went on to run a 2:07 marathon, a world record at the time. His running efficiency must have been flawless, and he must have trained himself to run at close to max for the entire race.

Steve Scace is a relative beginner to the sport and his VO2max was measured at 49L/kg/min. With training, it is possible to increase this level by up to 20%. His body fat level is also higher that most elite athletes, so by adding more fat burning workouts and decreasing his weight, improving his overall aerobic endurance, and then sharpening, this value can improve significantly. I feel it is possible that he can reach the low to mid 60’s. I have told Steve from the start, that he has the potential to improve the most.

That day my value was 64L/kg/min. It wasn’t bad for winter, and that most of the bike riding only came from Epic Camp a few weeks ago. I recalculated the results to my race weight and found them to be around 71L/kg/min. It will be interesting to see how it improves at key race time. I was surprised to find that the value hadn’t declined much since my college days. It typically declines 5% per decade.

Aside, it is nice to have this data as we move forward and get closer to the season and the training paces start to pick up.

We will test the run on the treadmill in a week or so, then possibly do some field testing with my portable lactate tester in a few months, and then we’ll get back to the lab for retesting in 3 to 6 months. A swimming video analysis is another thing I have planned for the future. I hope to see some good results from the crew this year and I will update the progress as they progress with their seasons.

Anyway, I am enjoying this little science project and I hope I can get the same results that my son had at the school science fair a few weeks ago;)


MarkyV said...

His running efficiency must have been flawless,
All runners have good efficiency... if his VO2 was that low it was his economy that was flawless


Rob Chance said...

Not "all" runners bro. But if you are absolutely correct. His economy must have been incredible.

From what I remember, his running style wasn't exceptionally pretty.

Thanks for correcting the semantic error.

MarkyV said...

Not a semantic error... efficiency and economy are two inherently IMPORTANT issues when it comes to running and swimming (for cycling economy need only apply).

Take me and swimming... my economy actually sucks... but my efficiency is sooooooooooo damn good (20 years and 000's of miles of swimming will do that) that I can get away with it. Lots of folks have better economy in swimming than i do but due to a lack of efficiency this power is wasted to the water and does not propel them forward.

Then there is running... where you also need good efficiency (less than swimming tho) but where economy can overcome.

This debate basically is the single sportist vs. triathlete debate. A triathlete (DS MA etc) could have had horrible efficiency but their economy was INSANE!!! and therefore they could race the way they did. Due to poor efficiency they could not have been world class at single sport but were able to dominate at multisport.

You are now seeing tho guys at ITU level who have both amazing efficiency and economy... and no longer is TRI a back seat to single sport. These ITU guys are efficient AND economical at EVERYTHING they do. It's beautiful to watch.

Email me for more. :)

Rainmaker said...

Very interesting post.

I'm really looking forward to getting tested here in the next few weeks by my new coach. It will be interesting to see what the results look like. Of course, more interesting will be the work to start improving my running form and other areas of the sport.

It will be fun to follow your new athletes over time.