Thursday, 4 October 2012

Being A Lab Rat

While reading my copy of Joe Friel's excellent Cyclists Training Bible, I came across the part about over reaching training (not sure if it's in the newer edition).  It talks about a method of training where by four weeks before a major event training is not only increased significantly in volume but also in intensity pushing the body to a state of near over training.  This is followed by two weeks of very little cycling which should help the body peak perfectly.

This test was perferormed on professionals and later amateurs. Although it doesn't state it on the page (it does in the references) this study was done by the young Dutch professor called Asker Jeukendrup.  I know this because I worked with him as one of his amateur studies at the University of Birmingham.

It was twelve years ago now and I still have strong memories of it.  The day my housemate Matt and I waited in this small office in a building at the University of Birmingham.  We had come to this point after seeing an advertisment in a bike shop window asking for cyclists to take part in a study and with the offer of £300 pounds .  That to two students was more than enough bait. We would cycle AND get paid for it!  Asker Jeukendrup interviewed us both in his office and questioned us on what cycling we'd done, a bit about ourselves before going on to explain what he would want us to be doing.  The word 'hard' was used a few times but we were young and has reasonable fitness so that word never truely sunk in.  Beside, free money was involved.

What neither of us were really aware of us is who Asker really was, but during our time we learnt more.  It probably wasn't until years later that I found out more about it him on the internet.  We knew at the time he was a nutritional advisor to proffessional cyclist and particularly the Rabobank cycle team. I also discovered that he had links with helping Lance Armstrong come back to racing after recovering from cancer.  He has since written books and articles on sports nutrition (you'll find his name in loads of references) and done 19 ironman races and competed at european and world duathlons.  He certainly had an impact on my life and perhaps is why I took up so much interest in nutrition and training.

When someone says hard, it is often difficult to weigh that up.  Riding 100 miles is hard.  Doing a 24 hour race is hard.  Doing Intervals is hard.  What Asker meant by 'hard' was different to anything else I could imagine.  It was a 'hard' that nearly broke me, a never ending nightmare.

We met up in the labs and were introduced to a pretty young Australian woman called Shona Halson who was doing her Phd and would be helping with the study.  We were shown the equipement, lent the latest polar heart rate monitors and given our training schedules for the first two weeks. 

The first two weeks were straight forward enough.  There would be 10 or so hours of endurance training, some tempo work and some short intervals.  All our rides were recorded using the heart rate monitors.  But it was the lab training that proved to be the most taxing.  Before the initial trial Matt and I under took a VO2 Max test.  I'm not sure how many of you have done one of these (they usually cost £80 to do) but basically the static bike every two minutes increases in resistance.  You have a tube in your mouth measuring oxygen intake and I had bloods taken from me which was used to measure lactate acid at various heart rates and intensity. I hate needles at the best of time!  They are horrible, doing a ramping test is bad enough but trying to breath with a tube on your mouth whilst having someone withdraw blood from you just added to the bad experience.  I ended up having to do eight of these things over the six weeks. It was here I discovered that my maximum heart rate was 225.  Also included ever week was a static 40km time trial.  Dull at the best of times this on top of training was very tiring.  We also did once a week a two set 10 minute intervals.  I'm not sure which I dreaded the most.  Every exercise required some blood from me.  I was weighed regularly and had my fat measured with calipers.  Once a week I had to wear a my heart rate monitor during the night, as well as keep a mood diary.

£300 was not feeling like enough.......


The first two weeks went by ok.  I was fitting the training hours around my life (not in my girlfriends opinion) and spending early morning at the lab and riding long hours at the weekend.  By the end of the two weeks I was starting to feel a bit tired.  But this was only the start.

Weeks three and four were monsters.  The intensity went up some 30% and the hours near doubled, or at least that how it felt.  The 40km time trail was the worst.  My legs were dead weights from the start so it would prove a very slow time.  I had when fresh done it in 1hour 7 minutes by the end of week 4 I was doing it in 1hour 22minutes.  By the end of week three I was a broken man.  Near to tears at having to do another lab test, having more blood taken from me.  My mood was way down, I was aggitated, my concentration low and I wasn't sleeping well.  Worse my veins in my arms had started to collapse from all the injections I'd had.  I looked the proper junkie.  It's difficult to describe depression but I was close to it.  Matt was the same and both of us had said to Shona about wanting to quit.  We had had enough.  It really was that hard.  The out of lab intervals were no more fun and riding my bike was the last thing I wanted to do.  Duing a big long ride or race is hard but only for that moment this was continous and those two weeks just went on forever.  Shona talked us round.  Her Australian charm winning us over.  I was always a sucker for an accent and a pretty face.  Asker in the mean time had gone off to join the Rabobank team at the giro d'Italia but sent us a lovely letter wish us luck during our 'weeks of hell' as he put it while he gives support to the Rabobank boys in sunny Italy.  Least he brought back some team bottle for us!

By the end of week 4 we knew that the worst was over.  The VO2 tests would continue as would the intervals and time trials but the the general riding was stopped.  By week six the last of the weeks I was feeling so much better in mood and in fitness.  My last 40km I did a 1hour 2 minute test beating my previous by 5 minutes.  In fact Matt and I improved in everthing and by some considerable margins.  I was feeling really good.

We were later given all our data along with explanations of what it all meant.  I've kept it all and it has proved very useful.  I learnt so much about myself.  I know at what heart rate my body would produce excess lactic acid, my VO2max but also my ability as an athlete.  The test would pretty much end any hopes of being proffessional but I'd figured that out before.  I learnt what it was to train really hard and am now very aware of myself and of getting overtrained.  It was the hardest money I'd ever earnt, but it has given me lasting memories.  Not all good I'll grant!

I ttitled this 'being a lab rat' as at the end of the day all I was was a statistic, an experiemnt in sports science.  The data used from these studies went on to prove probably very little and to even question the use of it in training and what over training is.  I hope you're all very grateful, I suffered for science and a better understanding.  Well maybe not............but I got paid.

A week later Matt and I took part in a team in the Red Bull Mountain Mayhem 24hr race and did some blistering lap times.  This training method obviously worked but to this day I could never repeat the effort required and neither would I ever recommend it to anyone.



Cool experience - I was a lab rat a few times in college for running studies, but nothing ever this hard! (...and I didn't get paid...grrr...couldn't accept money while on the team...)

yeah cool experience is something that sums it up quite well. I've kept all my data from it too so it's always there to remind me of those times

Thanks for that updated info, a fantastic service for everyone. More power to you!

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