Saturday, 30 January 2016

Becoming a lab rat....

Over the years, I have vaguely heard people talk about physiological testing, using words such as "lactate threshold" and V02max, but not really known much about what they really meant. An opportunity came up to visit Northumbria University to be a lab rat and take part in some of these tests, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though I really didn't know what would be involved.

An example of a lactate curve
You probably need to be nicely rested to get accurate results......whereas I'd had a busy week working extra hours, and having to run around town lots taking my car to the garage and back.....but I still thought it would be interesting. I had also been fighting a battle with sinusitis and a head cold for a couple of weeks, but as my chest was clear (and I had almost won the battle) it was fine to go ahead.

The room looked slightly scary as I entered it.....a treadmill in the middle with computers on each side, a box with some measures by it, a physiologist, a lab technician, a PhD student and 3 undergrads. It felt weird doing a quick warmup jog on the treadmill with all those people watching me, but actually they probably weren't really watching, just setting up the equipment. 

Curves vary for different specialisations

I was weighed (the heaviest I've been in about 8 years), had my height measured (taller than I've ever been???) and then it was onto the jumps. The first test involved squatting to 90degrees for 3 seconds and then jumping up vertically (to measure stored force in the legs), the second test was an up and down jump (ie not holding the squat), and the last one involved stepping off the box but making the first contact with the floor as short as possible. Each jump was repeated 3 times for accuracy, but it was the last test I had the most difficulty with - you had to try to step/fall off the box itself but not step too far away from the box, and land with both feet on the floor together, and then remember to jump as quickly as possible.

Checking the lactate level
After that we moved onto the lactate testing. This involved running at a set speed on the treadmill (starting at 11kph) for 4 minutes, then stopping for a minute while I had my finger pricked and the lactate level measured. I then had to jump back on the moving treadmill (while the speed increased by 1kph) for another 4 minutes and repeat the process. This would carry on until I was told to stop from the reading that were being taken. I also had to wear a heart rate monitor (I never usually wear one of these as they seem to either fall down or cause horrible chafage) so they could check my HR whenever they checked my blood lactate.

My poor battered fingers ;-(
The thing that I found hardest about this was running with a mask on, which was recording my oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The first mask was slightly too big for me and so it came up too high and partially covered my eyes, but the smaller mask was much better. I still felt like I should be in outer space, as the mask below my eyes and the straps above them made it feel like I was wearing goggles. I couldn't see where my feet were landing on the treadmill which was rather off putting, but Phil (the physiologist) just told me to keep my head up, look ahead and trust my landing. I did have to look down at the start/end of every 4 minutes, as I could only imagine the carnage of me trying to jump on and off a moving treadmill without looking at it.

As the treadmill got faster and faster, I was desperate to be told that my lactate levels had gone high enough for me to stop, but no sooner had I stopped running, than it was back to the jumps to repeat the tests. Strangely enough, it felt like I had improved at them, but it was probably that I had actually just warmed up.

We stood around chatting for a few minutes and I thought (with a with of relief) that it must be all over. How wrong could I be? Phil announced that I must now "run to exhaustion"!!!!!! 

An example of VO2max testing
On went the mask and heart rate monitor again (o joy!) and back to the treadmill I went. This time it was set on an incline on 5 degrees and the speed increased by half a km/hour every 30s. It felt rather tough and I was petrified of sliding off the back and ending up in an embarassing heap on the floor. I knew my fried Rosie had disconnected the cables when she did this test as she was trying so hard, but me found that my legs were just getting more and more painful at a slower speed than I'd expected. The end point of this test is up to the runner - when you don't think that you can continue any more - and the limiting factor differs between individuals - but what stopped me was my legs rather than my cardiovascular system. Maybe it was the incline, maybe the previous tests, or maybe the after effects of my week or my cold, but my quads were burning so much that I had to stop. At least I'd managed to get up to the same speed as I had in the lactate testing, but I did feel rather a failure.

After that, you guessed it, back to the jumps........and then it was finally over!!!

The position of the treadmill meant that Phil had been able to wander round while I was running on it, so he could actually asses my form and my gait (stride and step length were also being measured)......which was probably rather a scary thing for him to have to do. I know that I have some "interesting" gait issues, and know what injuries I am prone to, so it was interesting to hear his opinion. I had felt my pelvis tilting anteriorly as the speed increased on the treadmill, and this was one of the first things he commented on. It means that I don't actually activate and use my glutes properly (shame, because they're big enough) which must lose me a lot of propulsive power. This is exacerbated by my tight hip flexors which worsen the anterior tilt. He also noticed that my pelvis is higher on the left hand side (I do have more problems with that hip flexor) and to compensate, I carry my left shoulder lower than my right. This explains why I appear to have a twisted foot in all race photos (I rotate my leg while bringing my foot through to avoid hitching my hip further or swinging my leg right out) and also why I always have a sore left shoulder/back after long runs/races. 

All in all I'm rather weird and wonky........and I almost dread getting the analysis of the results as he might just tell me that I'm a disaster area and should just quit while I'm ahead(!).

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