I had my first set of proper performance testing today, and it was quite an experience. This is what happened and what it’s all about….
How it all came about.
I met Vince, the chap who very kindly performed the testing for me, at the Tour of Wessex on the epic smashfest of stage two. I rode this 120mile, 2800m ascent course in a fairly aggressive and hectic bunch of around 20-25 riders. The average speed of over 20 mph for over 6 hours tells its own story.
As usual, the bunch was driven by less than 50% of the riders, one of whom was me (honest). Vince put in a truly heroic effort that day, probably riding on the front for at least 3 of the 6 hours, tirelessly churning out a massive pace, and more than holding his own on the testing climbs of the day – a true all rounder. I shared a few breathless chats with him during the ride, and we caught up a bit in the event village after. We then followed each other on twitter and strava, which means we’re more or less bestest buddies now, right?
Shortly after the ride, Vince contacted me as he’s recently set up a human performance lab at Nuffied Health centre in the City (https://www.nuffieldhealth.com/gyms/city/sports-performance) and was after a bit of a guinea pig. And here I was, the runt of the litter of said pigs.
What it involved
I was getting a vo2 and lactate threshold test, which are key measures for understanding your performance on a bike.
I won’t teach you how to suck eggs, but if you’re unaware of what these measures are:
- Lactate Threshold –this is the physiological point at which the lactate that’s stealthily accumulating in your legs as you pedal overcomes the body’s rate at which it can be cleared, and the Tommy Voeckler pain faces start kicking in. The test determines two measures, LT1 , which is basically your very long term power (i.e. 2 hours minimum), and LT2, your 45-60 minute power. It is LT2 which is typically similar to your ‘on the road’ FTP (how similar this is varies from person to person however)
- V02 max – this is the amount of oxygen that your body can process to feed those twiddling legs when you’re really pushing hard. Once you’ve hit your vo2 max, you tip into anaerobic territory, and this is where the pain truly kicks off and stars float into your vision. Your vo2 max wattage is typically defined as being at around 106% of your FTP. Miguel Indurain famously had a ridiculously high vo2 max, as does Chris Froome. Rowers are renowned for having massive vo2 max levels too, so think carefully before riding with an ex-rower….
Vince’s centre used the protocol followed by the Australian Institute of Sport, and adopted by many training and testing centres, as its deemed the most reliable and accurate method to test these metrics.
It’s basically a staged ramp test to failure. So, you start at a low power, in my case, we kicked off at 140 watts. This was set by Vince based on the FTP I believed I had based on my own testing and estimates. Then, every 3 minutes the power goes up by 30 watts, and on, and on, til the poor pins decided enough is enough. Whilst doing this, you breathe into a mask and Vince takes blood from the earlobe to record those all important oxygen and blood levels. Easy huh?
How did it go?
Well, it certainly wasn’t pleasant, but it also wasn’t as bad as I expected. I was expecting at least 5 minutes of thigh-searing lung-burning torture, falling off the bike, then having to be thrown in a taxi in order to get home, all the while trembling in a foetal position. For many riders, depending on their physiological characteristics, this is how it ends up.
For me however, it was more a sudden bludgeoning of my legs and lungs. I was going totally fine for around 10 minutes, for about 5-7 minutes it was getting tough, a couple minutes after that I could start to feel myself on the ropes and felt like I couldn’t get air in through the breathing mask. Then all of a sudden, for about 30 seconds, I found myself doing all I could to keep the watts up, clicking down the sprockets, lowering the cadence and clinging onto the tops, squeezing every tiny bit out I could.
Suddenly BANG it was over, the legs stopped. The thing is, within a couple of minutes of recovery I was fine. The difference in response between me and those outlined above who get their face wiped clear of sweat then thrown into a taxi is explained by my results….
So, what did I find from it?
It was kind of a confirmation of things I was vaguely aware of, however, to have my suspicions confirmed was really helpful, and to have the further insights from Vince’s endless store of knowledge was fantastic.
I won’t go into depth as it’s probably not massively interesting for anyone but me, but will give you an ‘exec summary’ so you can get a feel for the type of things that this testing can tell you. I’ve censored the actual wattage numbers as i do’t want to put you all to shame:
- I have absurdly low body fat. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.
- My Vo2 Max is decent – comparable to most well trained athletes – but by no means spectacular. I was hoping it to be higher given my training load. More of that later. Those with super high vo2 max, who can push really really deep but maybe can’t do long steady miles (i.e., a basic comparison would be a track sprinter vs a roadie) are those who end up as a dribbling mess, as discussed above.
- My LT2 is quite different to my estimated FTP. LT2 is a physiological measure of lactate threshold, whereas FTP can mean a slightly different thing in practice – what you can push for an hour (i.e., your functional threshold power) can be independent of LT2.
- My LT1, or all day power, i.e., the watts I can push with no issue of lactate accumulation, is pretty good
- My economy, or, my ability to diesel away for long periods at a steady pace without getting into the red, is excellent. However, as soon as I go into the red and venture into Vo2 max territory, I’m in trouble and struggle to process the nastiness quickly.
I discussed my dissapointment with Vince, and he said that a first time test can be a little undercooked, in that experience can help in ramp tests in terms of mitigating nerves and being prepared for the experience. So, a second attempt may give me slightly better numbers.
Nonetheless, the results are still going to be very close to the truth, and the numbers really do confirm my suspicions. My physiological profile is a direct result of the fact that I tend to do a lot of long steady rides – be it 4-5 hour solo weekend chugs, or 2 x 20s on the turbo. I had always been doing these with a view to the fact that the events I want to excel in, such as Haute Route, demand that ability to be in the saddle a long time and be consistent.
HOWEVER, if I could work on that Vo2 max, it would instantly drag up my threshold power, make me racier (for example, being able to jump onto bunches and follow wheels), and generally improve my roundedness as a rider.
Up til a few months ago, I’d been avoiding the type of training that’s required for Vo2 max improvement – namely, ball breaking efforts at around 10% over my threshold. As I have to do my turbo sessions first thing in the morning I find it quite hard to muster the courage to go deep into the red having been out of bed for around 40minutes and on an empty stomach, and so probably 80% of sessions were on threshold training rather than anything much above that effort level. A 2 x 20 is certainly hard, but not quite as brutal as a proper Vo2 session. On top of this, my outdoor rides had been foucssed towards consistent power, particularly in the last couple of months when gearing up for Tour of Wessex and Dragon rid, both of which involve massive mileage. Interval based sessions that i was doing in Spring got put to the bottom of the pile unfortunately (and probably unwisely).
However, now is the time to HTFU, obey rule 5, man up, whatever you want to call it. Intensity over volume is definitely the aim of the game for a few months, and that’s what I’d been aiming towards anyway. Having put some massive mileage into the legs in the past months, I’m a little over 6 hours rumbles and like the mental variety of a 2-3 hour shitfest (pro term) of really attacking certain parts of the ride then riding super easy between these efforts to clear the legs. I’ve been hitting the Vo2 and over under intervals in the days since the test and it certainly is a refreshing change. And I’ve definitely learnt what the back of my eye sockets looks like during those final seconds of the interval where the pain face is truly engaged.
The test was a brilliant experience, and I’ve learnt a lot from it. Having a proper understanding of my body and what’s going on within it whilst i ride is invaluable, and will really help me train in future. Whatsmore, the detailed debrief with Vince after the test, and the summary report he emailed me after, have given me loads of great insights, tips and learnings that I’m going to be sure to heed.
I’m hoping to get back to the lab in a few months to see if a slightly different training approach has paid off.
I’d highly recommend you going for a test if you can. You will definitely learn a lot. Just be prepared to suffer, and be prepared to unveil truths about yourself that you may have been trying to ignore…!
Thanks again to Vince at the City branch of Nuffield Health for all the help with this.