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Day O’ Testing at Memorial Hermann ISMI

I wanted to give you all a little insight into what I was up to in December. Having raced Ironman Cozumel on November 30, it meant December would be my ‘off month’ from regimented training. I actually love this time of year, as I do whatever sounds nice ‘on the day’; it could be a 20 minute run with our dog Amico or a Yoga class, but I never force anything; I just follow what strikes my mood each day.  One thing that is great about this time of year is the ability to catch up with sponsors. Luckily one of my biggest supporters, Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute (ISMI), is just down the road, a couple of hours away in Houston. So I used this month to take a visit to the facility, catch up with the Human Performance staff, but also get some performance testing done once my body was feeling normal again after Cozumel.

I visited their institute at Shepherd Square on the west side of Houston, which is one of their four facilities.  I drove in  Sunday evening to relax and get a good night of rest before the day of testing. Our day would entail the following:

~Bod Pod (indicating body composition)

~Bike Lactate Threshold test

~Strength & Conditioning session

*Lunch Break*

~Run VO2 Max Test

~Run Gait Analysis

(We did not do a nutritional consultation as I had done this with Brett Singer about a month prior. I will touch on these results in my next blog.) 

The day ended by enjoying a couple of beers at a local pub with the team, which was a nice way to end a productive day. Now to give you some insight into each of the tests.

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1) Bod Pod: From the athletes perspective, this is simply a way to measure body composition (namely ‘body fat’ for the purpose of us endurance athletes), which was very straightforward and quick. The Bod Pod specifically measures this via air displacement; giving the individual their ‘fat mass’ vs. ‘lean mass’.  I was fasted that morning and I was dressed in light clothing, shorts and sports bra, and hopped into a small egg-like ‘container’, where I sat very still for approximately 45 seconds. We did a second run just to be sure they were similar, which they were. We saw my body fat percentage come in a whopping 9.6%. While this is definitely on the low end, after talking to the team, our consensus was that since I am healthy (ie: I have annoyingly regular cycles, on my own, without the help of birth control) and my diet is sufficient and balanced, this is not a reason to be concerned; but for me to be aware that I definitely do not need to be any leaner than I currently am. I am very much of the opinion that leaner and lighter is not always better, and when you see my dietary recall, you’ll also see that I consume probably too much fat! I believe as athletes we work with what we’ve got as best as we can; given my build, and the amount of training I do, I have a tough time putting on much weight and I stay pretty consistent throughout the year; both in and out of season; which I find to be a healthy approach.

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2) Bike Lactate Threshold: After a quick snack, it was onto the bike lactate threshold test. I was a bit nervous for this one, since I’ve been racing Ironmans all year and focusing a lot more on lower end sustained power than higher end efforts. But this test would simply tell us at the moment what the power was whereby my body produced more lactic acid than it could adequately clear. After a warmup, we started off at about 160W and we bumped up 20W every 3 minutes. They took a prick of blood from my finger at the end of each stage, watching for an increase over 4.0 or a ‘significant’ increase in the reading.  These numbers usually start at about 1.5 and increase with your intensity. We saw mine go from 3.6 at 200 Watts to 4.4 at 220 Watts, a bump but not extreme; but then at 240 Watts, I increased to 8.5. So yes, in full disclosure mode, my threshold is pretty low at the moment! But when I’ve been training for Ironman at the 170-180 Watt range extensively, I expected this. So, we came to the conclusion my ‘threshold’ was about 215 Watts, which is useful for me to know as the bike training kicks back into gear in January.

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3) Strength & Conditioning: I spent about an hour with Rashad Ford,  Strength & Conditioning coach (who previously played professional baseball). He’s great because as he shows me these exercises, he does them with ease (ie: feet in TRX pushups) while I look like a feeble triathlete doing them. Perspective! I had told Rashad what I wanted to focus over my off-season, which is predominantly cycling focused strength, and he created a program which was appropriate to this; with the main exercises being dead lifts, step ups, single leg press, squats, single leg RDL’s; but others filling in the gaps to maintain and gain some swim specific upper body strength and overall core work. The session here was more of ‘learn the movements’ given all I had going on during the day with the testing, but he created a 6 week program for me, which is twice a week; one day being focused on Strength, the other on Endurance.  Now that I’m currently about 4 weeks into his program, it’s been nice to see a few new little legs muscles develop and to feel a bit of transfer over to the bike already. It will be fun to hopefully see more, I dig my teeth in over the coming months with increased cycling.

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4) Run VO2 Max: After we took a lunch break (and I learned that I can eat indeed eat gigantic turkey cranberry sandwich and potato chips only 1 hr prior to running), we were back in the lab for the Run VO2 max test. While we know that my VO2 max is not going to change anything necessarily at this point in my career, Derick was moreso curious as to what my VVO2 was running, which is ‘Velocity at VO2 max’, or what my pace per mile was at my VO2 max (which is the peak oxygen usage at maximal exercise). Because we wanted to see ‘velocity’ (or pace), we opted to do a flat protocol, meaning we left the treadmill at .5% grade but we increased speed. After about a 12 minute warmup, we started the pace at 7 minutes and we dropped the pace every 1 minute by 15 seconds/mile. During this test, I had a mask on which measured oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide expired. In a test like this, you almost want to get it over with as quickly as possible, because it will be tough no matter how you approach it. While I was running, Kim Gandler (Biomechanist) was managing the treadmill pace while Alyson Ruggiero (Exercise Physiologist) was monitoring the immediate data, the key markers being my RER (Respiratory Exchange Ratio) and VO2 Max. They watch to see when the VO2 max starts to drop (as it gradually increases throughout the test), but also to indicate a ‘true VO2 max’ they want to see the RER hit at least 1.15. All in all this test was encouraging of my aerobic capacity and indicated that even though I’ve been in Ironman mode all year, I still have some leg speed and my body is still functioning fairly well as an ‘elite athlete.’

Given the way we formatted the test, we did not actually hit a ‘true VO2 max’ because after 5 min/mile pace, my legs began to struggle to keep up! Which we knew was a possibility. The encouraging things we saw however from this test were:

  • My RER actually ‘dropped’ between 6:45 and 6:30 pace, from .95 to .93, indicating that I was almost more efficient at that pace (which makes sense given that I train my body to run Ironman marathons in that mid 6:30/mile pace range).
  • We only hit an RER of 1.04 when I had to stop the test for fear that my legs may fall off of my body or I may catapult off the treadmill, and at this point, my VO2 max was 62.5 but it was still climbing; so, we can conclude that it is highly likely that VO2 max number would have kept climbing as the RER number got closer to the key marker of 1.15. We would call this ‘Volitional Fatigue’, meaning we had to stop the test simply because my leg speed could not match what my heart and lungs could still maintain.  (Which means when you are as competitive as I am, once I caught my breath, I said “Let’s come back tomorrow morning and do a ramp test!”)

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5) Run Gait Analysis: We wrapped up the day in the lab with one of the ‘easier’ tests, a Run Gait Analysis. They filmed me on the treadmill from various angles; front, behind and from each side, to simply see my running mechanics from all angles. This is something that I’ve had done in the past (having worked at specialty running stores) but here the ability to view my mechanics was far more thorough. Kim informed me that overall things are fairly good; I had some pronation which is to be expected but I seemed to stay fairly neutral throughout my stride, and while I have a very long stride, we could see that at the more moderate/faster paces, my mechanics actually looked better. I was pleasantly surprised that my left and right legs looked so similar, given some history of surgery on the left leg.

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In sum, it was a very informative and productive day in the lab; and as an athlete, it is always nice to stay in touch with these parameters. I believe it’s a great use of time and resources to take advantage of these services in the off-season, when the body is a bit more rested, and before we begin a new training and racing cycle. The best part of the day was doing one of my favorite things, enjoying a few good microbrews with the team at a local pub. It’s all about balance, my friends! 🙂

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2 replies on “Day O’ Testing at Memorial Hermann ISMI”

Ah so in love with all this testing. I just got to geek out a little and relive my days in grad school lab testing. The bod pod was next door to my lab, and the physiology lab across the hall so I loved getting to read all about the testing. Despite me wanting to say that VO2 max testing and threshold testing is awful, it really sounds like a fun day. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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