“Won’t you step into the freezer
Tease her with a tweezer
It’s gonna be cold, cold, cold, cold, cold…”
It’s been almost two years since I last stepped back into the Brock University Kinesiology Department headed by Dr. Stephen Cheung. I figured that either they didn’t have anything particularly interesting going on since my last trip into the over (click HERE) or they had simply run out of ideas on how to adequately make my life mentally and physically miserable.
Well, for whatever time it is that I’m spending in the lab anyway.
But as it turns out, they were apparently biding their time in a two year brainstorming session on the next best way to torture me and, boy, did they come up with a doozy this time.
This time around the oven is being converted into a meat locker, so instead of being roasted alive, I’m going to be turned into a human Popsicle in the latest and greatest “Effects of Hyperpoxia on Exercise Performance in the Cold” study.
Sounds like fun right?
The study is aimed at determining whether or not Hyperpoxia can improve exercise performance in the cold. And seeing as how I typically do the bulk of my long distance Ironman training in the winter, hey, this might be a great learning opportunity (as I’m choosing to tell myself anyway). At the very least I figured, “hey, I already run in -stupid° temperatures until I can’t feel my feet, face, or hands, so how bad could this really be?” Not that it ever takes me any time at all to decide whether or not to volunteer for these crazy experiments but, honestly, in this case, I actually begged to be a part of it.
Once again, my lunacy knows no bounds.
Anyway, to begin with, let’s first review what in the sweet Sam Hell this “Hyperpoxia” beast is.
Hyperoxia occurs when the body’s tissues and organs are exposed to an excess supply of oxygen (O2) or higher than normal partial pressure of oxygen. In medicine, it refers to excess oxygen in the lungs or other body tissues, which can be caused by breathing air or oxygen at pressures greater than normal atmospheric pressure. This kind of hyperoxia can lead to oxygen toxicity, caused from the harmful effects of breathing molecular oxygen at elevated partial pressures. Hyperoxia differs from hypoxia in that hyperoxia refers to a state in which oxygen supply is too much, whereas hypoxia refers to the state in which oxygen supply is insufficient (a feeling of which I am very familiar with from swimming endless laps in the pool). In a properly regulated doses however, that extra oxygen in the blood can give the body that extra ‘umpf’ in performance (ie. blood doping in cycling).
Now, in the extreme cold it has been proved that the body’s blood flow is significantly decelerated in its ability to feed oxygen rich blood to the muscles to sustain performance; hence the overall performance declines. Makes sense right? Anyone who’s ever tried to run in polar vortex temperatures, such as I have, will already know that it’s a significantly harder effort. But what would happen if you “super-oxygenate” that blood beforehand? In other words, what if what little blood – decelerated in delivery as it is – was enhanced with above normal oxygen levels to fuel the muscles once it got there. Would that then counter-effect that decrease in performance? While this super-oxygenating blood to improve performance has been widely known in the sporting world already resulting in some pretty clever scandals to cheat the odds, no one has thus far attempted this same principle in an extremely cold environment where the blood flow has also been slowed down.
Enter yours truly (along with a few other willing “suffer bunnies”); let the chips fall where they may.
Session 1: VO2-Max and Familiarization
As I have come to learn and understand, before I can look at the bike I have to first run the gauntlet of having my fatness measured, scrutinized, and recorded. It’s not a very dignified process, believe me.
Here’s how the consent form describes the process:
“Body fat testing will be performed using skinfold calipers, which might cause a slight pinching sensation.”
It was like being goosed over and over again by a giant mechanical lobster.
Let it be known now that Steve, the new Principle Student Investigator (PSI), has absolutely no caliper skills whatsoever. Sorry, buddy, I still love you and all but you definitely need some practice; not that grabbing ahold of and pinching another man’s body fat ranks up there on your resume of skills, I get it, but still…
Maybe there is something to say about having a few cute female undergrads girls do it like a few years ago. Whatever the case, if I had any misgivings about it before, I’m definitely not cut out for the hardcore S&M lifestyle.
Fortunately, after a minutes of poking, pulling and pinching, not to mention not much eye contact, it was all over with and we could hook me up to the censors and move into the chamber to get down to business beginning with the dreaded V02-max test to determine my overall level of aerobic fitness. And considering that I have been spending ample time on the bike doing some tempo and interval workouts, I was hoping for something a bit better than the ‘Good’ status I received last time.
Seriously, it is worthy pausing here to note that had I not fared better this time around with my V02-max, I likely would have thrown the Velotron bike through the wall of the Kinesiology lab in a fit of anger that would have made Bruce Banner cower in the corner like a little nancy girl.
Anyway, on goes the silicon mask to measure my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and immediately I feel like this:
Of course, I didn’t look quite so badass.
The test began shortly afterwards where I am required to warm up at 100 watts for 5 minutes before 25 watts were added each minute until the point of total burnout. Everything felt pretty good for the first 11 or 12 minutes or so, as I have been training at this 80-85% threshold level for some weeks now. I was feeling strong and confident. But once that over all fatigue begins to set in, boy, it’s a quickly spiraling slope downward into total agony. But by the 13 minute mark (350 watts) I was suffering and this is where I tapped out last time. Damned if I was going to give in at this point this time around, so I synched up the apple sack and made it another minute or so more well into the 375 watt mark and then ‘ol Thunder n’ Lightning imploded in on themselves and I slouch over the handlebars wheezing into the silicon mask like an asthmatic orangutan.
Here’s what all this data looks like on the screen:
Of course, this could be the EKG results performed on a rutabaga for all I know, but here is what all those squiggly lines and graphs really boil down to:
So these results can be broken out into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The obvious good news – scratch that, make it GREAT news – is that my relative VO2peak improved to 61 ml/kg/min, representing a 19 ml/kg/min improvement over my last crack at the bad two years ago. This places me squarely – FINALLY I might add – in the “Superior” classification for my age group. In fact, I tested as “Superior” for a male in the 19-25 age range. So I am extremely happy with this.
The bad news is that I’m only marginally lighter than I was at this time two years ago, weighing in at 96.06kg which is only 0.3kg lighter. It’s not a lot, but I’ll take it. I’m chalking this up to all my newfound core muscles and recent weight training. After all, muscle is heavier than fat but, regardless, that’s what I’m choosing to roll (no pun intended) with.
The ugly news is that my body fat percentage rose to 26.2%, an increase of 4.2% over two years ago meaning I’m lighter, but also flabbier.
Apparently, fat is my new secret weapon as it would seem on paper that the larger I get the fitter I become, so it’s ‘Goodbye kale salads, Hello bacon double cheeseburgers!’
How or why this is beats the living shit out of me as I’ve been working hard on my core (click HERE) daily, and doing lots of tempo and hill intervals on the bike in recent weeks. How I got bigger when I feel that I’ve actually been losing weight absolutely baffles me. I’m counting this up to Steve being a little overly aggressive into digging those calipers into my body fat.
Regardless, the bottom line is that I’m stronger so that’s the ultimate positive here in all this kerfuffle. Maybe all those weekend pints courtesy of my sponsor Brimstone Brewery (click HERE) have given me some kind of super powers?
Onto Phase 2, the familiarization time trial.
After being allowed to spin idly for another few minutes, be began the official 15k time trail that I will have to perform at the end of each protocol in the following weeks, complete with silicon mask just to simulate what it will be like in the actual protocol sessions. This familiarization is more of a formality really as I’ve done this in the lab on numerous occasions already but, hey, how often do you get to time trial on a real Velotron so, yeah, strap me in boys let’s go for it.
Basically, I’m wired up and hooked into to a computer which displays a virtual me as it tracks my effort and progress through a virtual 15k course. The computer tracks all the important details of my time trial performance including my gear setting, speed, heart rate, average wattage, peak wattage, RPM, average RPM and, apparently, that I am a pink-clad female cyclist.
Luckily, I have no gender status issues so I’m terribly bothered as long as I’m still kicking ass and taking names. The only distraction is to provide the PSI with 2.5k with my perceived ‘Rate of Exertion’ (RPE) as represented on a traditional Borg scale, as well as my ‘Thermal Comfort’ (otherwise known as a Bedford Scale) and ‘Thermal Sensation’. So, essentially, there you are wallowing in your self-induced pain cave as you focus on applying power to the pedals at pretty much your 90% threshold until the time trial is complete.
Here’s but a small sample of it:
When it was all said and done, I covered the distance in 25:39 with an average wattage of 235 and at an average speed of just over 35kpm.
Not bad for a fat chick, eh?
Of course, this was all completed in a neutral temperature with normal doses of precious oxygen and lots of encouragement.
In other words, this was about as easy as it was ever going to get.
Session 2 – Exercise Protocol
By the time a week had rolled by, I had more or less racked myself into quite a fright about this whole cold thing. I mean, when I first started doing these testing protocols at Brock years ago I had no idea what I was getting into so I really had no expectations about how bad it would suck.
I was ignorant.
But now that I have a reference point or benchmark on how bad things can really get, well, you begin to wonder “will this be as bad as that?” Sure this study is is different in that I’m not begin roasted alive but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s going to be any less tedious. And truthfully, I’d rather shit in my hands and clap than have to ever endure that firefighters protocol again (click HERE for a little reminder on how bad that was).
However, this time around I was to be sitting in a cooler at exactly 0° until my core temperature had dropped exactly 0.5°, or essentially, had gone hypothermic.
Ever been hypothermic before?
Basically, I was going from this:
See why I was a bit worried?
Upon arriving in the lab I have to run the gauntlet of getting prepared by having my urine tested for adequate hydration levels and then getting hooked up to a whole battery or wires, sensors, electrodes and, oh yes, let’s not forget:
It’s real glamorous business this suffer bunny stuff.
Everything is being 100% monitored, my hear rate, my rectal temperature, my skin temperature/heat flow, the amount of oxygen in my blood and even my brain activity through a near infrared spectroscopy sensor (NIRS), so that by the time I was done having all these instruments successfully fished through my cycle attire and attached to my body you kind of begin to feel a bit like this:
And only marginally less menacing.
See how happy I look?
Just ecstatic I tells ya.
Anyway, from there it’s onto business and you couldn’t help but notice a slight chill in the air as Steve the lab guy begins to describe exactly what’s about to go down.
To begin with, I’m to get cozy in the freezer where they already have a nice, comfy lawn chair already set up for me and it’s a few minutes before all my sensors are then fed through a small hole in the freezer wall to the outside and hooked up to all that fancy shit outside so they can get their accurate reads on my suffering inside.
When they’re finished, they take a blood lactate sample with a lancet device (which, fortunately, looks nothing like the huge ass sword variety) from my ear lobe to get a base read of my lactate concentration prior to the anticipated madness. Immediately after that, I am asked to sit quietly with no stimulus (music, talking, etc.) so they can get another base read on all my internal systems before they officially open the Gates to Hell.
Usually when they begin the actual protocol you begin doing something. Cycling, running, walking, whatever.
But not this time.
This time I’m simply sitting in a lawn chair connected to about a thousand wires and seated across from me is a guy (Gary) in a snow suit.
And it begins to get cold.
Very fucking cold.
Almost immediately I began to shiver as the fan in the freezer pumps in air at around -4° to get the temperature to drop to the required 0° as quickly as possible before it stabilizes. It was clear from the get go that this was going to be a completely different kind of suffering. On my previous trips into the “oven” my butt crack more or less turned into Splash Mountain for all the sweat that began to pour, now you couldn’t slide a credit card between my ass cheeks if you had to for all the clenching that was going on thanks to the cold.
Keeping in mind, they were anticipating my having to be in here for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes in order for my core temperature to drop to the necessary 0.5°, yup, this was going to sure suck.
Prior to beginning this whole freezing thing, I chatted with Gary (the guy in the snow suit) who has had the fortunate – or unfortunate, depending on how you want to look at it – task of keeping all the study volunteers such as myself company through this freezing protocol. He mentioned that what he really found interesting was how each test subject dealt with their suffering. Some plugged into their music on their iPod’s, or played on their cell phones in an effort to forget the fact that their bodies were being frozen into Popcicles, while others simply zoned out and willed themselves through it. Others still spewed out random obscenities and pithy expletives for the entire duration as a way of coping with the stress.
Figuring that given my 26.2% body fat that I was going to be in this for the long haul, well, let’s just say I came prepared to stay a while. I brought a book, my iPod with a per-established playlist of “hot” themed tracks, a notebook to record my thoughts; everything but a picnic basket and a collection of the New York Times crosswords really. So once the shivering began I plugged into my playlist, cracked my book and….
That wasn’t going to work.
Apparently, I needed to forget that I was there altogether and reading simply wasn’t going to do it. And, honestly, my body was shivering so badly that even had I wanted to, the book which I had resting in my lap was shaking so bad that it probably could have phased right through my body altogether and into the chair had I allowed it.
Snoop Dogg had nothing on me what he says he’s “chillun'”, believe me.
So, instead, I struck up a conversation with Gary and talked about, geez, everything under the stars really. Anything and everything was on the conversational menu; work, travel; politics and, yes, at times even the current situation. What I can assure you though is that despite my efforts to block out the cold, it absolutely sucked and I was shivering like a chihuahua at the Arctic Circle.
Shivering is your bodies unconscious way of fending off the cold and trying to keep itself warm and, apparently, my body was putting in some serious overtime. In fact, at exactly the 30 minute mark my core temperature had actually risen by 1° as this process was taking place.
Not that I ever felt warm or comfortable mind you. This simply not the case. On the outside you’re fucking cold but, inside, your body is working hard to protect itself by regulating it’s temperature and therefore protecting you from serious harm, despite how you feel on the outside. Gary assured me that this increase in core temperature was normal and that all the other test subjects had experienced the same thing.
At the 60 minute mark my core temperature had rose another 2°, or 3° over in total from my normal body temperature.
It’s a curious thing to actually want your body to fail. Under any other “normal” (and I use that word loosely) circumstances, you want your body to endure, to overcome and to triumph. In all the other research experiments I have been a part of this was certainly the case; how long can I go? Now, here I was in the rather unique situation where I was actually wanted my body to pack it in, throw in the towel and traipse off gaily into the light at the end of the tunnel!
“Go into the light, dammit!”
The quicker my body started to fail, the quicker my core temperature would drop, and the quicker I could get on the bike to begin the time trail and to generate some heat.
Not my body.
Apparently, my body is extremely good at regulating it’s internal temperature – too good in fact.
So there I sat…shivering…suffering.
Not exactly a relaxing day at the beach is it?
By the 90 minute mark (the longest point at which any other test subjects had taken), my core temperature was back to 0°, or where I had originally started from exactly 1 hour and 30 minutes ago meaning all this suffering and freezing had simply gotten me back to the starting point again.
Do you have any idea how defeating that feels?
I was determined to make this work. I mean, after you have suffered for that long why not go whole hog and see it through to the end. Such is the life of a “suffer bunny” after all, right? Gary had also mentioned at some point as well that once the body begins to actually drop it’s core temperature, it’s typically a gradual slide downward so, yeah, maybe I just had to hang on a little longer.
Again, remember, I am actually willing myself to fail here as I am pretty miserable by this point.
The real question now was, how much longer was this whole failing process going to take?
At 100 minutes, my core temperature had only dropped a mere 0.1°.
Big fucking deal.
By 120 minutes (2 hours) it as the same, so the decision was ultimately made to pull the plug altogether and get me out of there. What it really came down to to the lab guys was how long can you ethically let someone suffer, knowing you have no idea what the end point is going to be? What’s an acceptable amount of time you can let somebody sit in a 0° environment? 1 hour? 2 hours? 3 hours? What?
By now, I had endured exactly 30 minutes longer than the next longest
sucker test subject in the freezer and, I can assure you, it was awful.
I mean, sure, “Yay me!”, but still, it totally sucked.
Would I have stayed longer? Absolutely. If the last ‘Effects of Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance and Cognitive Function in the Heat’ (click HERE) study had taught me anything, it’s that I can be one tough bastard when I need to be.
And, yes, I definitely used my mental skills training here as well.
But as a safety precaution, a 2 hour suffering time limit had been predetermined for the study so, yeah, I never even made it to the bike.
Needless to say, I was disappointed; disappointed that I had failed at having successfully failed.
It just is what it is.
Having said all this, when the guys started to help out of the chair, I realized that just about everything had locked up in the cold; my back, my legs, my knees, everything. The chances are that even had I made it to the 15k time trial, I wouldn’t have been able to do little more than simply over the pedals, much less time trial.
Furthermore, the skin on my forearms had freezer burn (which ultimately wouldn’t go away for another three days) and my pecker had done it’s best Punxsutawny Phil impression by burying itself in my abdomen, and considering the size of my abdomen these days, I likely wouldn’t see it again for another six weeks either.
In a picture, I felt like this:
The other thing to consider is, let’s say that my core temperature finally did drop the required 0.5° and I did make to the bike to complete the time trial – shitty as it would likely have been. That means I would then have had to endure that same 2-3 hours once more for the second protocol, and it I was nervous before, I would definitely have not been looking forward to doing it all over again.
It was another 20 minutes or so outside the freezer sporting a full winter jacket before the shivering finally subsided. And, truth me, you will never appreciate just how warm room temperature is until you sat in 0° temperatures for two fucking hours.
Finally I was able to remove all the sensors and, yes, the probe which, honestly, made me feel a bit like this:
Oh, and I also had the longest and most enjoyable hot shower I have ever had.
After each of these studies I ultimately try to find the learning lesson in for me. How does this translate to the outside world and, hopefully, provide me with a little added value. The results of the ‘Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance‘ study taught me how to improve my performance through positive mental conditioning and the firefighter study taught me that’s no way in fucking hell I’d ever want to be a firefighter. But what did this teach me exactly?
After two hours of suffering you’d think there would be some sore of profound “Ah ha!” moment, right?
But here I was at a bit of a loss.
Sure, if I happen to wander out of a bar in the middle of winter with an unseasonably fashionable jacket and end up passing out in a forest somewhere, the chances are good that I will survive for at least 2-3 hours.
But is that what I was meant to learn?
Maybe there wasn’t a learning lesson here beyond knowing that my body is very good at regulating it’s internal temperature. Maybe this is a result of all my cold weather training and conditioning, or maybe my body is just retarded in that it just doesn’t know when to say “I quit”.
What I do know for sure is that there are definitely better ways to spend a Wednesday evening.
Hopefully though, I will get some sort of honorable mention or maybe a footnote somewhere in the final paper about being the tough bastard (idiot?) who sat for two hours in a freezer with a probe up his ass.