A few months ago, I was offered a unique opportunity to participate in an athletic performance study taking place at Brock University by a training peer of mine. Now, first, let me get something perfectly straight…I’m not accustomed to hearing myself being referenced (even in the most general of terms such as this) to being an “athlete”, so the initial request really took me as much by surprise as it was flatteringly. So, hey, how do you turn down a request like that? I’m in! Of course, it might have helped to have read the fine print first but hindsight is 20/20 right? As it was, I was totally in taken by the rose-tinted lens of being considered as some sort of athlete. What followed over the next six weeks could only be described as my own epic journey to stretch both my physical and mental capacities, all in the name of science.
The particular study that I was invited to participate in was being hosted by the university’s Kinesiology department called the ‘Separate and Combined Effects of Hydration Status and Thirst on Voluntary Exercise Capacity’ ; that doesn’t sound so bad does it? The whole purpose of this study was to test the parameters of athletic performance in regards to determining the real limiters to athletic performance as being either the actual physical state of dehydration, or the perception of thirst. Considering I’ve pondered exactly the same thing during my own Ironman training back when my long workouts tended to fall in the middle of a scorching heat wave, I thought this would be a great way to learn more. Here’s a short video (by the actual PhD students conducting my own test) discussing the effects of heat on athletic performance:
I’m so in.
So after a few initial conversations with the professor leading the study, I was forwarded both a ‘Screening Form’ complete with questions regarding my health (I have no issues so I passed with flying colors), and a ‘Consent Form’ providing all the details required by and of interest to the participants. The primary ‘Invitation’ segment of the consent form sounds rather, well, fun.
“You are invited to participate in a study that involves research. The purpose of this study is to examine the separate and combined effects of thirst and hydration status on performance during a 20-km time trial. You may participate if you are 18-50 years old, a cyclist or triathlete, and comfortable with a “hard” two hour bike ride and time trial type efforts or competitions.”
Sounds like a piece of cake, right? Hey, I can’t remember the last time I’ve cycled only 20k so it was hardly perceived as being any real challenge on my part. How wrong I was. But I’ll get to that part shortly.
The study was divided into 6 different segments. The first being the anthropometric measurements and maximal aerobic capacity testing; which is fancy lab talk for taking my height, weight, and body fat content with a pair of calipers. Oh goodie. What person doesn’t look forward to having all his fat folds scrutinized in a laboratory setting, right? Anyway, the consent form also made mention that these tests would be performed by a “member of the same sex” so at least it would come with minimal embarrassment. The real benefit as I saw it was the ‘maximal aerobic capacity testing’ part which would be determined through what’s known as a V02-Max test. Basically, this test was my opportunity to have my level of aerobic fitness determined through an actual scientific means. What triathlete-wannabe is ever going to pass that up, right? Not this guy. The entire session took approximately an hour, with the actual V02-Max taking up about 15 minutes or so. I could further break that 15 minutes up into approximately 8-9 minutes of relatively comfortable cycling, followed by 2-3 minutes of flat out torture of Herculean proportions. Coupled with this bitch of a workout, was the fact that I was also connected up to about a thousand electrodes and required to breathe through a soft silicone face mask until exhaustion in order to obtain my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and maximum heart rate. Yeah, like I said…torture. It was like trying to breathe through a toilet paper tube; not comfortable in the slightest.
Seriously, how much fun does this look?
But survive I did. Here are the results:
So, based on this information I am, apparently, get ready for it…”Good”. Whoopee shit. Yeah, three years of intense Ironman training and I’m – *sigh* – Good. I could offer the excuse at this point that when I conducted this test, I hadn’t even begun my bike training and was primarily focused in the pool, nor had I done any cycling as a matter of fact for at least a month prior. I could also mention that I was still in the grip of suffering “hot spots” on both my feet, leading for a very unpleasant cycling experience throughout the test but, regardless, it is was it is. I’m confident that if I were to conduct the test again now at the point where I currently am in my 2014 training plan, they would be very different, but ‘c’est la vie’ suppose. It is was it is.
The next week’s session was the ‘familiarization session’, where I would be required to conduct the entire test, including the 20k time trial, under the normal conditions to “ensure that (I was) able to fulfill the requirements of the exercise protocol”. Hmm. Should I be worried? Nah.
The familiarization session was conducted in the environmental chamber at 35°C with a relative humidity of 45%. The chamber has the ability to adjust the heat (or cold), humidity, or even simulate a desired altitude. Whatever, its basic functionality is to make things as unpleasant as possible, no matter what end of the spectrum you wish to suffer at. Couple that with the fact that I’m also not permitted to have any fluids whatsoever, or even so much as rinse my mouth, I think they should call it the ‘Suffer-o-Matic’.
When I first arrived, I was met by the research assistants with whom I would work with closely over the next months’ worth of sessions. Matt, Greg, and Phil (the research assistants) were extremely nice and pretty non-assuming guys; too nice maybe. Their friendly and accommodating manner immediately got me to suspect that all may not be what it appears to be, in the same way that it’s always the character you least suspect in your typical who-done-it movie that ends up being the axe murderer. Considering what was going to unfold over the next few hours, it might have been more appropriate had they met me in the lab wearing devil horns and furiously rubbing their palms together while cackling all evil-like. Just sayin’.
Similar to the first session, I was required to be hooked up approximately a thousand different electrodes (forehead, abdomen, forearm, hand, quads, shin and foot) to calculate a mean skin temperature and heat flow, heat flow sensors (chest, upper thigh and abdomen) to quantify evaporative heat exchange, and one particularly intimidating devise, the “core thermometer”. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like…a rectal probe. Umm, pardon? I think I might have skipped over that part in the consent form but I was already in too deep (no pun intended) to back out now. Upon rereading the form, this procedure was described as thusly:
“Insertion of the flexible rectal probe may cause slight discomfort. You will be given instruction about how to prepare the probe, and will self-insert the probe in a private room.”
Discomfort? Really? No shit Sherlock. My first thought was ‘do I really need instruction on how to shove something up my own ass?’ Well, as it turns out, I did. As Greg put it to me as he handed me the impossibly long and menacing looking device and a packet of lube: ‘less is definitely more’, meaning don’t lube too much. Again? Really? Because the miniature packet he handed me seemed impossibly inefficient for the task. If left to figure it out myself, I would have emptied an entire barrel of the stuff onto the probe prior to insertion but, as it turns out, he was right. Too much and it just slips and slides all over the place; everywhere but where it’s intended to go that is. So, hey, what’ya know? Just a little dab will do ya. Who knew such wisdom could come from a 60’s Brylcream commercial? It was still not without a whole lot of struggling and finagling on my part however. It should also not go without mention that the listed risks in the consent form included – *ahem* – and I quote:
- Insertion of the rectal probe can stimulate the vagus nerve which can cause slowing of the heart rate which may lead to fainting. This is more likely to happen if you have a low resting heart rate.
- Perforation of the bowel can lead to peritonitis, a serious infection of the abdominal cavity.
- You should not participate in this research if you are pregnant, are under the influence of alcohol or other sedating substances (tranquilizers, sleeping pills, street drugs) or have any history of fainting or heart disease.
To so say I was uber-careful and concerned mid-insertion would be the understatement of the century. Wait, ‘vagus nerve’? I have no idea what that is but I sure don’t want to find out the hard way. But, regardless, eventually I managed to get it in there successfully and shuffle-stepped my way back down the hall from the change room to the lab (something I would later dub the ‘Shuffle of Shame’) in order to begin the madness.
Before we began, it must be said that they take into account absolutely everything. Absolutely nothing passes through my pours or bodily orifices’ that isn’t officially accounted for. Sweat, blood, pee, tears…you name it. If I even so much as had a juicy thought pass through my brain, I’m sure they knew about it. I was weighed about a zillion times not only before, but several time throughout the entire session; during and after. Eventually, after a base sample of VO2 was taken, we were ready to begin. Finally!
The first part of the session is easy enough, pedal at 50% of my VO2-Max for 90 minutes while having my weight and VO2 tested again by breathing into that damn tube and having my heart rate taken every 30 minutes. At other times, I was required to provide subjective information on how I was feeling during the session as based on scales posted on four paper charts taped to the wall: ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)’ or, how hard I was working, the ‘Thirst Sensation Scale’, how thirsty I felt, the ‘Thermal Comfort Scale’, how comfortable I felt under the circumstances, and the ‘Thermal Sensation Scale’ or, how I felt temperature wise. Usually, they just pointed to the chart every fifteen minutes and I grunted out a number. And so it goes for 90 very tedious, unstimulating, stab-a-fork-into-my-brain boring minutes. Afterwards, I was weighed again and asked to empty my bladder before being given a brief minute to brace myself for the all-out torture that was to follow. By the way, ever try to piss into an orange container while wearing bib shorts and even then, after sitting on a bike in a hot chamber for 90 minutes? Talk about frustrating, it was like trying to masturbate with a catcher’s mitt. Certainly not a high point on my short list of athletic endeavors, that’s for sure.
Then came the time trial and with it, the open gates of Hell. And, no, that’s not exaggerating in the slightest. Now, 20k may not seem like a whole lot but, when you’re already hot, thirty and have absolutely no mental or visual stimulus to motivate you like – you know – scenery, other riders, or a bike computer to display your pace, distance, wattage, cadence and what have you, that 20k tends to feel like an eternity. And eternity is a long as time, I assure you. Remember, this is what I look at not only for the time trial, but for the whole session.
Not exactly stimulating, is it? I’m sure this what Lance Armstrong will have to stare at in Hell.
The only queues I get during the time trial are the kilometers being counted off one at a time. So, it kinda goes like this:
And then it begins to feel like time stands still. Shit, it goes backwards. I swear that from the third kilometer to the fourth, an entire day must have passed, with each progressive kilometer taking longer and longer to achieve. And so it went for the entire 20 kilometers with every five minutes the need for another V02 sample by breathing through that damn tube as well as more information from the scales on the wall. By the time it was over, it felt like weeks had passed.
What I remember most is coming off that bike nearly cross-eyed. Seldom have I ever brought myself to the point of collapse and that’s about as close as I ever care to get, thank you very much! All I wanted to do was plop my sweaty ass down again which is exactly what I did. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be finished something in my entire life. I was so wobbly on my legs from extreme exhaustion and dehydration that when I shuffled across the lab to take a seat, I’m sure I won a dance completion of some sort. I remember that drive home from the university campus (in St. Catharines) back to my home here in Ridgeway as being the longest drive of my entire life. I felt abused…violated…and fatigued beyond anything I had ever felt before. I felt almost empty…except for the sensation of still having a huge space occupying my asshole where the probe had been for the past 2+ hours. But I digress. Of course, this was just the familiarization session…I still had four more actual sessions to complete. Little did I know that this was only the beginning (click HERE for an appropriate response).
When the next week rolled around I can honestly say I was less than excited to begin the official sessions. I knew I could withstand the spin, the chamber, the probe, the time trial, etc. and so forth, but there was going to be a very notable difference, namely, the need to be infused with fluids (or not), as well as 20ml blood samples to be taken before periodically through the testing. This required, on top of the multiple gadgets and gizmos that I was already hooked up to, the need for two IV catheters to be inserted (one in each arm). Oh joy.
To such an end, I was introduced to another member of the team who had been so far absent from the other sessions, Vaughn, a local Advanced Care EMT paramedic who would literally be what I would come to think of as my guardian during the next three weeks’ worth of testing. Fortunately, it has to be said, that Vaughn turned out to be just about the nicest, easiest going guy I have ever met. I’m sure he could calm tropical storms simply by looking at them. It was his responsibility to insert the catheters in each of my antecubital veins located in my forearms prior to being weighed, sampled, hooked up, lubed up, etc., and then oversee the drawing of blood and monitoring of fluids should I be getting them. Based on his familiarity with my bodily fluids, Vaughn is probably more knowledgeable about me now than, say, my own girlfriend. In fact, I think we might even be engaged.
Now, to my knowledge, whenever any is presented with the need to be perforated with an IV, they typically won’t respond with: “Oh boy! Needles!” Clearly, I am certainly not of this mindset myself as the thought of being hooked up to two IV’s simultaneously was, well, not ideal. Needless to say, I stressed about this. A lot. However, Vaughn made this whole process as painless as possible by talking me calmly through the procedure and by the third session, I didn’t even mind this part so much. Well, okay, I still hated it but I was a lot better at hiding it. But in the beginning, well, not so much. I labored over it and stressed about it and whined throughout the entire thing. I hated it as was evident by the sky high blood pressure reading immediately afterwards before I hopped off the examining table to get into the chamber. Regardless, I recovered well (I’m a trooper if nothing else) and we were always able to proceed as planned.
Blood samples were taken at the beginning of every session (as a baseline) and then every 30 minutes from the offset and every so often, he would fiddle with the IV bag that I was hooked up to. Now, whether or not I was actually being infused with anything I have no idea as they put this big menacing black bag around it, again, to prevent from know, well, anything. The idea for these tests was to manipulate my hydration status and thirst perception in a randomized fashion:
1) EU-NT. Euhydrated, or “normal fluid balance” (± 0.5% baseline body mass) and absence of thirst (based on subjective thirst sensation scale)
2) EU-T. Euhydrated and presence of thirst
3) HY-NT. Hypohydrated (~ -2% from baseline body mass) and absence of thirst
4) HY-T. Hypohydrated and presence of thirst.
Now, the only real difference on my end regarding these states was my being able to rinse my mouth out with water to simulate the absence of thirst. Not swallow, mind you, but RINSE. But if I was receiving actual fluids at the time to aid me along in my suffering, God only knows; it all sucked equally and unequivocally. And so it went for the next 4 weeks. While I can’t say my fitness or bike prowess improved at all over the course of these sessions, what I can say is that my mental toughness conditioning improved by spades. I mean, cycling for two hours at a go (including the balls out time trial) while attached to a series of wires, electrodes and other scientific instruments was, well, medieval. If I can endure that, then I can endure anything and I still reflect back to these tests while suffering in my current workouts.
So what were the official results you ask? Are they in? Well, yes they are! But I’ve been asked to keep them confidential for the time being until they are properly published and officially released to the athletic world, so I will follow up later once that has been accomplished. I mean, I could tell you now, but then I’d have to run you over with my bike. So you’ll just have to wait.
In the meantime, I have another opportunity in the very near future to participate in another unique series of tests and, while not being directly triathlon-related (or bike for that matter), I’m sure they are guaranteed to boost my mental toughness capabilities. After all, that’s the theme for this year, right? Besides, I’m sure it’ll make for a great resulting story and more than enough unflattering photos; the essence of any successful blog post.