Not quite an Athlete

Those who have been reading this blog from it’s early days will be aware of my irrational discomfort with certain names and terms. For some time this held me back from joining my cycling club, the Wannabees, simply because I was hung up over their name. There has been a recurrence of my foolishness over names more recently. On several occasions in the past few weeks I have been referred to as an ‘athlete’ in conversation. Hearing that word in reference to me quite literally makes me cringe – worse even than the sound of nails scraping down a blackboard. It seems such a disservice to those who  actually are athletes to use it to describe someone who spent 25 years sat at a desk in front of a computer screen and then accidentally chose to take up cycling. The term MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra) seems far more apt in my case, even if it’s harsh accuracy makes me just as uncomfortable.

The reason for mentioning this now is my visit to the torture machine pictured above. Around a week back I signed up with a cycling coach, Erica Green. Erica is the wife of Spook, who along with William has seen to all of my bike setup needs since the whole long distance cycling adventure started for me. As a world class cyclist and former Olympic mountain biker, Erica most definitely has earned the right to be called an athlete. Together with Spook, she now runs Daisyway Coaching, who rather handily for me are a based a few hundred meters down my road. I’m not sure Erica knew what to make of the type of cycling I do – it’s quite different from mainstream mountain or road cycling. As our conversation deepened into longer term objectives, I sensed there may be an unspoken question in her mind about my sanity. She certainly wouldn’t be the first person to think I may be mad, including me sometimes. Regardless of any doubts, Erica outlined a very professional and structured approach to assessing my needs and building  training plans  – exactly what I had been hoping for from the visit.

My motivation for adding a cycling coach to the help I already get from André with my gym work is simple – I want to improve my speed over distance. If I don’t faff too much at controls, the speed I have now will be fine to complete PBP. Even with my sluggish plod around LEL enjoying the food and companionship at controls rather too much, I still crossed the 1230km distance at Market Rasen in under the required 90 hours. But PBP will be different, queues will be longer at controls, and purely for personal satisfaction I’d rather go into the event fitter, faster and better prepared than I was for LEL. I’d like to enjoy the ride more with less stress from time pressures. Being able to sustain a faster pace at the front of the bulge is the most effective way to do this. There are also longer term goals which I have in mind, but in good Audax fashion I’m not going to get ahead of myself by planning beyond the task at hand – the next control along the route, the next event, PBP.

So we come back to the torture machine, and my visit to the Stellenbosch University Sports Physiology Lab. As with buying a power meter (which will be the subject of a future post), I’ve thought about having my VO2Max tested in the past. Both have seemed rather extravagant though – lots more numbers and stats but with no real context. Now, as part of Erica’s structured approach to my training they not only make sense, they’re essential. To quote Erica (and others)

we need to make sure your hard days aren’t too easy, and your easy days aren’t too hard‘.

I must confess that along with hunger and thirst from fasting for the past 3 hours, I was also feeling rather nervous at what the testing would entail and reveal. Fortunately the first past of the test, body composition, was over quickly. It was pleasing to see my overall body fat is nicely low – helped I’m sure by drop of a few kilos from my recent switch to a Banting diet. Even more relieving was being able to quench my thirst, although there was a moment of panic in the lab tech’s voice at what might be in my bidon. He was clearly relieved at my answer that it was plain water.

The testing itself was much quicker than I expected – it took almost longer to get the saddle mounted on the infernal pain machine. I was impressed they had the exact model and size I use – a Specialized Romin Evo, 143mm. The machine is initially set at a power of 80W for warmup, and you are instructed to spin above 80rpm. Coming from a regular indoor trainer, it’s an extremely odd sensation at first. However fast you pedal, the power stays fixed. Initially it takes a couple of very heavy turns to get the big chain-ring turning – it felt like climbing a steep hill in a big gear. But as the cadence picks up, the pedals spin more freely. It’s tempting to say it gets easier, but of course it doesn’t. That’s an illusion – 80W is 80W, it just feels easier pedalling at 90rpm than 1rpm.

After warmup came the second lactate check – a quick finger tip prick, and a drop of blood is sucked into a hand-held measuring machine, The first attempt before warming up had barely drawn enough blood to measure. But now my heart rate was up the blood flowed easily. The HR strap was already in place, and before the test proper a ventilation mask was attached to measure respiratory response. To describe it as uncomfortable would not do it justice – it was claustrophobic. I was about to be asked to push myself to the max, wearing a gas mask.

The initial level of the test started at 120W I think, and then hopped up to 150W. After this a further increment of 30W was added at around 3 minute intervals. During each interval came another stab at my finger to measure lactate levels. My tempo was comfortable at around 95rpm for the next couple of intervals. As the power increased it dropped a shade to between 90 and 92pm but was still steady. As we headed to 240W I could feel myself slowing and it became a struggle, and when it went to 270W the suffering really started.

Come on Robert, come on, let’s complete this interval. Come on, 2 minutes more, half way there, 1 minute to go now, 30 seconds. Come on, come on, you’re down to 80rpm, push now, fight for this, come on, just 15 seconds, 10, 5, …… you’re done.

The 80rpm threshold I had been warned ahead of the test was a key indicator. Once I couldn’t sustain this cadence or my HR went too far over my predicted maximum the test would be finished.

I wanted to punch the lab tech during every screaming moment of that last interval, but it kept me going. I dug deep and buried myself spurred on by his words of encouragement. My heart was pounding at the end, I later found out we’d hit a max of 189bpm in that last 3 minutes, considerably above the prediction based on my age. I did mess up the heart-rate-recovery measurement by ripping off the mask too soon, a mistake I’ll know not to make next time.

My nerves had been misplaced, the stats didn’t come out too bad – I’m relatively fit for my age. The lactate threshold level was measured at 210W and my peak power 270W. What’s interesting is the last FTP test I did myself gave an estimate of 220W. Given what a crude setup I have, I’m rather surprised this was within 5% of the properly measured level. My lactate heart rate level is considerably different to my last home test though – at 171 vs 153. I’m actually rather surprised it’s higher not lower, given that all my recent rides and events have been long and low intensity.

The rest of the stats will now be assessed by Erica in devising a training programme for me. I’m fascinated to see how that maps out. One last part of Friday’s lab test visit made me smile though. Towards the back of the test report is a categorisation of your VO2Max level on a colour coded 3D bar chart based showing fitness levels grouped by age. My current level is at the upper end of a rating termed as High – a nice royal blue colour on the bar chart. Just above it is a dark blue set of bars termed Athletic. So it seems in this case, my dislike of inaccurate names is justified, It says it there in blue and white on a properly measured report. I’m not an athlete, at least not yet.

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