Posts Tagged ‘Brock’

“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.”

Slight?

Ha! 

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…

Ouch!

aMaybe 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.

Seriously.

Anyway, on goes the silicon mask to measure my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and immediately I feel like this:

bane

So, you think the bike is your friend?

Of course, I didn’t look quite so badass.

self-portrait

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.

Thank Christ.

Here’s what all this data looks like on the screen:

img_1459

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:

results

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.

The fuck?

bApparently, 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.

Thanks Steve.

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?

Who knows.

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; 13 minutes or so of blocking out all the weeks worth of media bullshit on Lady Gaga’s belly fat and whatever the hell it is that Donald Trump is currently waging a Twitter war against and simply…giv ‘er.

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.

img_1477

WTF?

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?

Me neither.

Basically, I was going from this:

hot

An oldie but a goodie

To this:

freezer2

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:

borg_2366

And only marginally less menacing.

img_1516

See how happy I look?

img_1518

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.

Nope.

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.

Me?

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, a collection of the New York Times crosswords and the entire 8 seasons worth of Dexter  really.  So once the shivering began I plugged into my playlist, cracked my book and….

Nope!

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.

Fuck.

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.

But, NOOOOOOOOOOO!

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.

img_1532

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?

A lot.

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?

img_1533By 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.

Thanks Phil!

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.

What?

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:

o-frozen-meat-facebook

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.

img_1535

Don’t let the smile fool you, inside those mittens I’m really giving Gary the finger.

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:

popsicle

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?

Doubtful.

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”.

Who knows?

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.

(Note:  You might remember when I alluded to another experiment in order to test the results that we determined during the fight-fighting testing I was a part of (click HERE).  The premise being that if overall improvement in extremely hot and shitty environments is more a mental thing than it is physical, how do you improve someone’s mental ability exactly?  This is that experiment.)

For the past two years, I’ve had the fortunate – or ‘unfortunate’, depending on how you want to look at it – opportunity to participate as a research volunteer at the Brock University Kinesiology Department.  This department, headed by Dr. Stephen Cheung, also just happens to be on the cutting edge of sporting science, so getting to be a test monkey as part of something with that scope of importance is a real privilege in my opinion.

Anyway, as such, I’ve undergone some pretty intense experiments in the past, both physically and mentally, in order to improve our understanding of human performance and the limits of our endurance.  I’ve had various sharp pointy things inserted into my arm, had my body scrutinized and measured for all posterity, seen my precious life fluids including blood and sweat (and tears for that matter) vacated forcibly from my body, and been subjected to insane heat and humidity in that god forsaken oven (click HERE  for a lengthy recap).  Basically I’ve stoically suffered whatever tortures and indignities that were deemed as either important or necessary to the project, and probably some that weren’t but only served to further humor my tormentors.

Just kidding, of course, they’re really nice guys…I think.

Oh, and let’s not forget the probe.

So when I got the message from Phil, the Principle Student Investigator (PSI), asking me to undergo yet another run of the gauntlet, it was with mixed emotions that I accepted the invite.  Shit, after that last firefighters test, surely, I can endure anything  (nearly a year later, it’s not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares of being cooked alive).  I’m not really sure what it says about me as a person that I like, no love, being a part of scientific testing that is in part geared towards breaking you down physically and mentally in order to see what makes you tick.  Truthfully, I think I may be developing some bizarre case of sado-masochistic pleasure from performing as a lab rat and I’m sure there will be some professional counseling in my near future.

All that aside, I agreed to participate in the latest (and greatest) ‘Effects of Mental Skills Training on Endurance Performance and Cognitive Function in the Heat’  study.

Doesn’t that sound like a real page turner?

In a nutshell, the test is designed to determine whether or not a psychological intervention can improve endurance performance and cognitive function in the heat.  Oh goodie.  I’m good with my limited athletic prowess being exposed but, well, let’s just say that what lies between these two ears may not exactly paint a pretty picture.  In other words, I’m hoping that this research doesn’t also expose me as being a total and complete moron.

What have I gotten myself into?

Day 1: Anthropometric Measurements, Cognitive Tests and Maximal Aerobic Capacity Testing

This is sure going to suck to get off

This is sure going to suck to get off

Similar to the other studies I’ve been part of, it’s necessary to get a baseline of my physiology and athletic ability.  What this really means is that they’re going to poke and prod my body fat and then subject me to approximately 15 minutes of torture on a bike.

Yay.

The differences this time around is that 1) there were no cute female PhD students to do the actual poking and prodding of fat folds (thank GOD!), and 2) I also had to complete an initial assessment of my cognitive abilities by answering a questionnaire and then work on what’s known as a “Purdue Pegboard”.

Sadly, it has nothing to do with pirates.

The first “anthropometric measurements” step is no big deal as this certainly isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to having my fat marked up with a Crayola marker and then being pinched with cold metal instruments; no sweat.  The second step with the “Purdue Pegboard” was certainly more entertaining though.

Now, if you consult the Interweb thingee you will learn:

“The Purdue Pegboard is a neuropsychological test of manual dexterity and bimanual coordination created by Dr. Joseph Tiffin, an Industrial Psychologist at Purdue University, designed the test in 1948.”

Now that’s all well and good but, really, what it is?  Well, what it really means is that I have to build little “castles” out of little metal pieces (“pins”, “collars” and “washers”) to test the gross movements of my arms, hands, and fingers, and my fine motor extremity, also called “fingerprint” dexterity.”  Poor Pegboard performance is a sign of deficits in complex, visually guided, or coordinated movements that are likely mediated by circuits involving the basal ganglia.  Yeah, yeah, I already hear you: “What’s ‘basal ganglia’ Terry”?

It sounds dirty, I know.

It’s not.

Basal ganglia are little nuclei in the brain that are strongly associated with a variety of functions including: control of voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, routine behaviors or “habits” such as bruxism (excessive grinding of the teeth and/or excessive clenching of the jaw), eye movements, cognition and emotion.

To start, I was given three attempts to build as many little metallic castles as I could within a 60 second period.  A castle consists of 4 parts, 1 pin, 1 collar, 2 washers for a total score of 4 points if completed successfully.  So, say, if six complete assemblies are made then your total score would be 24.  But if a castle is incomplete, then you only score 1 point for each part that was properly assembled.  If, say, only the 1 washer and pin on a seventh castle are properly placed you add each part separately (i.e. 24 plus 2, or 26 total); something like that anyway, I dunno. I’m no rocket scientist – clearly.  If you really want more information on how to score this damn thing click HERE, but all you really need to know is that in three attempts my best score on the pegboard was 34, which probably puts me somewhere between a coconut and a chimpanzee.

Whoopee.

Pass the banana.

Anyway, time for the main attraction.

Bring on the oven.

I’ve been through this same test once before coming off my Ironman peak in 2013, and given (I feel) that my fitness hasn’t been particularly on point since that time, I was little apprehensive about what today’s results were going to say about my current fitness.  I’ve spent considerable time in the pool in the past six months and my run fitness is just  beginning to come back after last year’s total and complete breakdown at the Incredoubleman Triathlon but I haven’t really spent any considerable time on the bike.  I spin 2-3 times a week with one session being a tough 90 minute Master’s class but, aside from that that, I haven’t focused too much on it instead preferring to wait for the nicer weather before amping up my cycling program.  So, yeah, what my fitness level is going to be as a result of being on the Velotron bike is anybody’s guess.

Remember then that the entire point of this test is to have my level of aerobic fitness determined through an actual scientific means.  To do that I am fixed with a soft silicone face mask to breathe through to the point of exhaustion in order to obtain my peak oxygen consumption (VO2peak) and maximum heart rate.   The improvement this time around is that the lab has been reequipped with a fancier and better fitting mask that wasn’t quite so uncomfortable or difficult to breathe in.

Check it out.

1

Am I beautiful or what?

Once the test began, I was required to warm up at 100 watts on the Velotron for 3 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 what time I do spend on the bike I train at my 75-80% threshold level.  But by the 13 minute mark (350 watts) I was clearly suffering and shortly after passing the 14 minute mark (375 watts), I tapped out.

Here are the results:

V02-Max Results

This result is, well, as odd as it was unexpected.  After analyzing the data, it was determined that my Absolute VO2 equated to 3.10 l/min, which represents a HUGE improvement of 0.93 l/min  over my last test. My relative VO2peak , however, only improved by a minimal amount to 41.9 ml/kg/min (rounded to 42.0 ml/kg/min).

Why you ask?

The short answer is because I’m fat; nearly 22 lbs worth.

Now, had I maintained my Ironman weight from just over three years ago, theoretically speaking, my VO2peak  would have been approximately 46 ml/kg/min, or in the “Superior” classification as opposed to today’s meager “Good” effort.  Or would it?

There is also the theory that by losing too much weight I will also lose some of the strength I’ve acquired; what to do…what to do.

So, yeah, basically, the official result is that I’m fatter but fitter.  Go figure.  This is definitely going to factor in later this year when I begin to strategize about what my “ideal” race weight should be.  Do I focus on dropping weight and therefore roll the dice in regards to maintaining my current level of fitness, or do I focus more on improving my fitness at (or around) my current level of fatness?

Decisions, decisions…

To summarize, I now have lots of motivation to improve this result through the quickly approaching coming season as I start to build into more speed/pace based workouts.  I may never be up there with the greats (click HERE), but in my own mind I’m already becoming a legend.

Chimps beware!

Day 2: Familiarization Testing

Its one week later and I’m back in the lab ready for the first familiarization session.  The thing is that this time around I’m also playing Dad as I have HRH  in tow because, hey, what 10-year-old girl doesn’t love watching her half naked step dad being fixed up with wires and electrodes prior to being tortured in a meat locker?   It may not exactly be a picnic lunch at the zoo but, still, good times.

The real crazy thing is that she was actually looking forward to seeing me “suffer” and had been talking about for days in advance.  I’m not sure what I’ve done as a parent to warrant this kind of excitement but, whatever, she’s along for the ride today.

According to the Consent Form:

“A familiarization trial will be scheduled prior to the commencement of the two experimental sessions to ensure that you are able to fulfill the requirements of the exercise protocol.”

It get's a wee bit humid.

It get’s a wee bit humid.

You can basically interpret this as a “Hey, this is how bad it’s going to suck. Think you can handle it tough guy?”  type of statement.

The session is intended to be identical to the actual experimental session to follow in a few weeks.  The environmental chamber (aka “the oven”) will be set to 35°C with 50% relative humidity, which may not seem like a lot but, believe me, it is.

To begin with, there’s the usual “preparation” routine that I’ve been through before on the other two testing sessions.  This process involves having all my baseline measurements done and providing a urine sample to record my over all body euhydration (normal state of body water content), not to mention getting all fixed up to a bevy of instruments including skin temperature/heat flow censors and, yes, there is that rectal probe to deal with as well (Oh, and for the record I didn’t exactly let HRH  in on the probe thing as, well, it didn’t seem like it was something appropriate to “bond” over).  Fortunately though, this whole probe business is old hat by this point.

Okay, maybe not quite like that.

No, I won’t say it’s like being reunited with an old friend but, well, let’s just say that if this whole lab rat thing doesn’t work out I definitely have a promising future as a drug mule.

Once I was all connected up, I also needed to establish a baseline for my overall mood using a Brunel Mood Scale (BRUMS) Questionnaire.  The BRUMS is a 24-item questionnaire of simple mood descriptors such as angry, nervous, unhappy, and energetic.  It has six subscales, with each of the subscales containing four mood descriptors including anger, confusion, depression, fatigue, tension, and vigor.  For the record, my mood was pretty good. Again what this says about me as a person in that I enjoy being experimented on I’m not really sure.  But I digress.

Groton maze testing

Groton maze testing

Following the questionnaire, I was required to work through a Cognitive Test Battery (CTB) on a computer tablet to assess my cognitive abilities.  These tests (designed by Cogstate Research) consist of what’s known as a ‘Groton Maze Learning Task’, a ‘Detection Task’,  and a ‘Two Back Task’.

The ‘Groton Maze Learning Task’ (actually a series of two tests, ‘Maze Learning’ and ‘Set Shifting Task’) tests my executive functions which include working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving abilities.  The ‘Detection Task’ which, easily enough, required me to hit a single key on the keyboard whenever the Joker on a deck of cards appears on the desktop (Disclaimer: it appears every time), tests my reaction time, while the ‘Two Back Task’ tests my working memory and attention skills.

Now, given my current lacking of technical prowess given I don’t owe a cell phone so I don’t text or play video games, etc., these tablet tests – while still basic – took some time general getting used to. I’m sure for HRH  it must have been like watching the monkey’s with the obelisk in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.   Basically, I felt like whatever banana I had earned with the Purdue Pegboard on my last visit to the lab was just taken away from me.  I hate computers and computer testing at the best of times and I wasn’t terribly confident in how I performed and, in my mind, I think I might have even heard monkeys laughing at me.

Purdue Peg Board

Purdue Peg Board

Computers just arn’t my jam.

Anyway, after the cognitive tests were complete (20 minutes or so) it was time to get in the oven; time to suffer.

Suffer I can do.

The trial protocol consisted of two exercise bouts, and two identical rest periods during which I would do more cognitive testing.  Throughout the protocol I had to wear the same soft-silicon mask that I wore during the V02-Max test to continue to monitor my ventilation and metabolic data throughout the two exercise rounds.  And, not to jump too far ahead, but this would inevitably be the worst part when the heat and humidity began to kick in.

The first exercise protocol consisted of a 5 minute cycling warm up at 100 watts followed by 25 minutes set to 60% of my “Peak Performance Output” (PPO) that we determined during the VO2-Max test last week (210 watts). Compared to my past runs in the oven, this particular session didn’t hold a candle “suffer-wise”.  That’s not to say however that is was “easy” either. No, spinning in that kind of hot and humid environment while wearing and breathing through a silicon tube is never fun and soon enough the sweat began to pour.

And let me tell you when all you have it this to focus on:

4

Time grinds down to an absolute haul, let me tell you.  My only reprieve from the whole thing was seeing HRH’s face appear periodically in the oven’s window as she peeked in to monitor my “suffering”.  So after 30 minutes of spinning, sweating and playing peek-a-boo, I was removed from the bike, weighed, and draped in a bright yellow rain poncho to preserve my core temperature as much as possible.

Goodie.

If I wasn’t sweating before, I sure as shit was now!

I felt like a BBQ-ed steak that had been left out to rest.

Oven selfie

Oven selfie

During this rest period (30 minutes) I wasn’t allowed to leave the oven, but asked to perform the same mood (BRUMS) and cognitive (CTB) tests as before.  From what I recall, neither my mood or cognitive abilities with the tests changed much; I was still happy and dumb as mud.

Yay me!

The second exercise bout was intended to be a “Time to Exhaustion (TTE)” test performed at 80% of my PPO (280 watts) after an initial 5 minute warm up at 125 watts.  The premise is very easy: cycle your ass off until you drop.  Yup, this was definitely going to suck.

Basically, it works like this: exercise (i.e. my suffering) would only stop due to volitional fatigue, if my cadence should drop below 60 rpm  for more than 5 seconds, or my core temperature reaches 40°C for 1 minute (talk about “hot shit”!), or my heart rate exceeded 95% of my maximum for 3 minutes.  So basically, anything that indicates you’re mere seconds away from death itself would count as viable grounds for stoppage.  Awesome!  Furthermore, there was to be no motivation queues provided aside from being asked for my RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) on the Borg Scale (taped to the wall in front of me) every 2 minutes.

Making matters worse, is that the whole thing was being filmed.

But that will have to wait for another post.

>>wink<<

Suffering

Suffering

I had assumed at the time that the best strategy was to begin spinning slowly at approximately 65-70 rpm  figuring that I could maintain that particular cadence for a while.  The problem being (or so I learned anyway), was that once I began to fade there really wasn’t much wiggle room in regards to lowering my cadence any, which is exactly what happened.

Everything went fine initially and I felt pretty good, despite the conditions and mask and stuff, but when I began to struggle cardio-wise, it was quick, slippery slope into painful torment.  Part of the problem is that as a requirement of the test, I wasn’t able to stand up at any point.  Usually, on the road when you climb in a heavy gear you can give yourself a quick break by shifting the primary working muscle group by standing up and then being seated again.  Here, there was none of that; it was ass in the saddle all the way.  So when my working muscles started to go, they went…fast.

Now I have no idea how long I lasted, but I’m estimating approximately 10-12 minutes including the warm up based on how many times my RPE were requested.  Of course, it might have been 30 seconds…who knows.  In essence, though, it went something like this:

12.

12.

15.

18.

Tap Out.

Just like that.

Die I did, much to HRH’s enjoyment.

I will admit, I was a bit disappointed with myself and I made a mental plan to last longer by incorporating a quicker cadence to start off with and then gradually wind ‘er down when the legs begin to fail afterwards; more on that strategy to come.

Anyway, immediately following this, it was time to don the poncho and complete another round of mood and cognitive testing.  This time, however, it was significantly more difficult I can assure you. In fact, the ‘Two Back Test’  pretty much kicked my ass and I was more or less just tapping at the keyboard with reckless abandon.  I was hot, uncomfortable, and didn’t really give a shit if the card was a Queen, Jack, or 10 of Spades.  I simply didn’t give a shit, nor could I if I wanted to.  However, I think I did make the ‘Groton Maze Learning Test’ my bitch.  Again…go figure.

Only time will tell I suppose.

Day 3: Experimental Session #1

Now that the preliminary VO2peak  and familiarization sessions are over with, it’s time to get on with the real festivities; the actual exercise protocols themselves.   Yup, it’s time to get medieval, time to officially put my suffering in the books, it’s go time, or whatever other popular euphemism you wish to use to associate with the underlying message of “time to put or shut up”.

Needless to say, everything else up to this point was just for shits n’ giggles.

Anyway, by now the whole pee, probe and final shuffle of shame are just part of the ordinary “business as usual” drill, every bit as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning.  Of course, I’m not shoving flexible core thermometers up my ass most mornings, but I digress.

testing

All bid’ness.

There is very little else to describe at this point that I haven’t already haven’t discussed in the previous familiarization session; 30 minutes set to 60% of my “Peak Performance Output” (210 watts) and a balls-to-the-wall “Time to Exhaustion (TTE)” test performed at 80% of my PPO (280 watts). Before, between and after each exercise protocol there is also the series of cognitive tests that I’ve described already as well.  Oh, and let’s not forget the yellow poncho to keep me as uncomfortable as possible – you know, just because.  Seriously, you’d think these lab nerds lay awake at night under their Star Wars bed sheets conjuring up ways to torture me.  Sometimes, I think this is all part of some elaborate ruse and at the bottom of some resume somewhere, there’s “making Terry suffer”  listed underneath the heading ‘Interests and Hobbies’.  Of course, I still willfully participate as a volunteer and no one is holding a gun to my head but when the going certainly turns shitty, well, let’s just say that sometimes I wonder.

As per usual, the only stimulus I am ever afforded are the three charts in front of me with which to gauge my RPE and overall discomfort.  There’s no encouragement (visual or otherwise), no chuckles, no giggles…no nothing.

It’s all bid’ness.

How’s that for “comforting”, right?

move over chimps

Move over chimps.

Same as the previous familiarization session, the first 30 minutes are boring as all fuck; total bag of dicks where I sit pedaling aimlessly, breathing into my mask in the hot and humid environment and trying not to think about how incredibly boring and shitty it is.  Basically, I just try to visualize my inner happy place from underneath my silicon mask which, for the record, just happens to be a nice pub in a remote countryside somewhere that serves decent beer, a complimentary bowl of nuts and an amazing cheeseburger.   Just sayin’.  Then I do some more cognitive testing on the tablet, sit around for a bit in the heat n’ shit and, finally, jump back on the bike for the eventual opening of the Gates of Hell.

Good times indeed.

I’d like to think I did a bit better this time around then I did in my familiarization session, but I had no real way to know for sure. All I know is that it sucked equally and unequivocally; ‘suck’ is the only constant variable in these types of tests.  In fact, I tried a bit of a different approach to my TTE in that I periodically spun my cadence up a bit from time to time to try and take advantage of the momentum generated in the pedals (not that there’s much momentum on a Velotron bike, mind you) to rest a bit but, honestly, what little rest there was inconsequential to the constant punishment being inflicted on my quads and I eventually tapped out – as I do – thoroughly broken and exhausted.

Yay me!

Mental note to self: the worst part of the testing (inserting the probe) also turns out to be the best part when you get to remove it later. The lesson here though is to avoid any bowel movements prior to inserting for at least an hour or so before testing, otherwise you end up extracting something from your ass that looks like this:

Isolated corn dog on a stick

Sorry…I couldn’t resist.

 

So here’s where the interesting part comes in.

Following this first exercise protocol, participants are then randomly divided into two categories.  For the Control group, nothing changes and in two weeks’ time they return to the oven to complete their second protocol just as before.  The second Test group, of which I was selected, will have some additional homework to do in the days (week) before showing up to complete the second protocol.

That’s right – homework.

The premise goes along the lines that scientific studies have already proven that individuals tend to perform better when they feel confident and motivated during high-energy activity.  They feel better about themselves and consequentially try harder and keep going when that going gets difficult.

I know, I know…”but everyone knows that already, Terry”.  And I agree.  But I think most often, people will tend to associate this type of motivational affirmation in this kind of light:

I know I did, or used to anyway.

But, in reality, it’s much more challenging than that.

Thinking happy thoughts

Thinking happy thoughts

For me, this whole “positive self-talk” has proven to be a very difficult, particularly given some of the setbacks I’ve experienced lately.  By comparison, I used to be able to tackle extremely difficult workouts prior to Ironman Wales simply by positively willing myself through them, but since then, I tend to beat myself up more with negativity; negativity regarding my not being able to perform at the same level, for not being in the same peak fitness, etc.  You could say that my confidence has been rattled and while I accept that as part of the current path I’m on and, hopefully, my confidence will return at some point, in the meantime…I continue to struggle.  I still persevere and do my best through all my prescribed workouts, but I’m not rocking them as I used to.  I suspect that this negativity has a lot to do with it.

Lest we forget: click HERE.

So, consequentially, these negative thoughts are really doing me no favors…and Lord knows I have a lot of them.  I am my own worst enemy in this regard.  In fact, any negative thought I might have associated with the difficulty of the task, any unpleasant sensation that I might be experiencing or the level of effort and motivation towards the end goal during any moderate and high-intensity activities tend only to interfere with the optimal performance of the task.  And God knows that cycling in that god forsaken oven would definitely qualify in all those categories.

So, I have now been officially tasked in identifying these negative thoughts and record them in what I am now referring to as my ‘Big Book of Suck’, and then counteract them with more beneficial motivational “self-talk” statements that will ultimately help maintain or improve my level of effort and coordinate my performance towards achieving the best possible performance; namely, surviving a single minute (or more) longer in the oven when the Gates of Hell are opened and the Suck begins to pile up.

On a personal note, the implications of this study are huge, as if I can determine what my “limiters” are motivation-wise through this exercise and then be able to counteract them with more positive inspirational self-talk, then I might be able to get myself back on my way to acquiring that same level of confidence that I had once before.

In this ‘Big Book of Suck’ there are some activities to help me craft my own unique motivation self-talk statements to use in the oven during both my exercise protocols, as well as my cognitive testing, when those other nasty negative comments begin to rear their ugly head and bubble to the surface.

The first thing to do is to identify examples of negative comments that cross my mind while I’m in the oven.  Now, I told you before that when it comes to elf-depreciation, I am an absolutely black belt, so listing every negative thought that goes through my head during those 45 minutes or so in the oven was fairly easy.  Likewise, there’s not enough bandwidth on these blog pages to list them all so I’ve captured a few of the more popular one’s for you:

  1. You’re out of shape
  2. What’s wrong with you?
  3. This sucks.
  4. I’m not good enough to be here.
  5. You’re a loser.

And the ever popular…

  1. I bet I look fat in these bib shorts.

When it came to the cognitive testing, the negativity was condensed into a single phrase: “You’re an idiot.”

It’s true.  When it comes to beating myself up I’m a true artist; I’m the Rembrandt of self-depreciation.  Negative commentary is just the primary tool with which I paint the wretched canvass of my soul.

Too much?

You get the idea though right?

Anyway, the next activity in the booklet challenged me to come up with some more positive phrases that I could use instead of those common negative statements, like “hang in there”, “dig deep”, or “you’re a winner!”   Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, as it turns out, it’s not as easy as you might think given I am not accustomed to pumping myself up regularly with “you’re a winner”, so I found coming up with statements particularly tailored to my own motivational drive challenging indeed.  But after considerable thought I came up with a few statements that I felt would be positive motivational when the wheels inevitably start to fall off.

The challenge now is to use, assess and then retool my suggested statements over the following week during 3 workouts, and then practice them to be as beneficial as possible come time to get back in the oven.

Here’s what I came up with for the exercise protocols:

  1. You can do this!
  2. Relax, focus and breathe
  3. Get tough!
  4. Just be calm and push on

Not exactly Shakespeare I agree, but they’ll do.

For the cognitive testing, I have two other statements:

  1. Just relax and focus
  2. Pass the banana

Okay, I’m totally kidding on the last one but, again, you get the idea.

Positive Phrasing Test #1:

Four days later I had my first trial of my motivational self-talk statements during a long 90 minute interval run.  I haven’t really acquired my running legs yet so these long runs tend to be an exercise in pain and total self-depreciation which, fortunately, gives me the perfect chance to practice my positive phrasing.

The idea is to also detail when these negative statements begin to occur in the workout which, in this case, was about 30 nanoseconds into the run immediately following my stepping off the front porch:

“Oh God, this is going to suck”.

Shit!

Okay, think positive statements:

“Just be calm and push on”.

It totally worked and I felt better.

Good.

Then another negative comment hit me again a minute later:

“Shit, that was only 5 minutes and you’re already winded? What the fuck?”

Dammit!

“Relax, focus and breathe”.

Okay, good.

Then again:

“You’re so slow you fat fuck”.

Jesus. Again?

Okay, “Just be calm and push on…relax, focus and breathe….”

And so the internal dialogue went for the next 85 minutes.  I know I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’m actually amazed at how often my thoughts turned negative during the 90 minute period.  I figure I was probably beating myself up with negativity approximately 8,897,798,990 times.  Wow.  It was being riddled with bullets from a Tommy gun.

The good news was that each time I became aware of that negativity, either of those planned motivational statements ended up bringing me back down to earth so that I was able to push through some intervals at both my half-marathon pace (5:30min/km) as well as my 5k pace (sub 5:00min/km).  Truth be told, the positive “self-talk” seemed to be helping.

Positive Phrasing Test #2:

The next morning I was in the pool for a muscular endurance workout which involved some faster sprint pace intervals which, given I am currently building for a 10k swim in two more weeks, is not a regular feature of my swim workouts.

I’m a little more confident in my abilities in the pool so I wasn’t hit quite as soon or as often with the negativity as I was the day before on my long run, but when I started sprinting they sure started up in earnest. Two or three intervals in the first negative comment reared its ugly head:

“You’re tired. Maybe you should use the pull buoy instead”.

Ah ha!

I see you, you sneaker fucker!

“Just be calm and push on….”

Nothing.

“Relax, focus, and……”

Shit.

Shit, I couldn’t even remember what my second positive motivational phrase even given as I was too busy, you know, breathing.  After all, staying alive is my top priority in the pool.

Neither statement seemed to be working. So I had to switch gears a bit and went with “You can do this!”, and “Just keep going!”   These statements seemed to work a little better as they were more direct and easy to recall once my mind began to race and the negative commentary started to bombard my lizard brain.

Positive Phrasing Test #3:

Two days later and I’m in San Antonio, Texas and it’s hot as all fuck outside meaning my speed workout around Woodlawn Lake wasn’t going to be much more fun than the oven itself.  Perfect testing ground for my next exercise protocol, wouldn’t you say?

Once I started off it was a bit difficult going in the early stages as I warmed up – literally and figuratively – as my lungs took some time to adjust to the heat and humidity and, for whatever reason, my legs felt weary after 48 hours of traveling. However, when the negativity started to hit I was well prepared:

“Just be calm and push on”.

“Relax, focus and breathe.”

Boo-yah!

Success!

Gettin er done.

Gettin er done.

Once I started with the actual speed intervals (8 x 400m), however, not so much.  I ended up having to revert back to using the more direct statements just as I had in the pool.  “You can do this!”  still worked like a charm but, “Just keep going”, however, did not.  It only made me want to check out my Garmin to see how far I’d gone and then when I realized I had only gone a certain distance, the negative commentary started back up with a vengeance.  Instead, I retooled this last statement into “Get tough!”  as I began each interval and that seemed to work a bit better.  I continued to use “You can do this!”  to see each interval through to the end.

An honorary mention also has to be made for: “Just get through this and you can have a cheeseburger”, but I decided that that’s probably not going to fly in the oven next week so it was left off the list.

So, in short, my plan of action come next Wednesday during my last exercise protocol is to use “Just be calm and push on”  and “Relax, focus and breathe”  to push through the first 30 minutes of the warm up to cope with the boredom and tediousness, then revert to the more direct and engaging “You can do this!”  and “Get tough!”  when my heart rate begins to elevate and the imminent shittiness begins to mount up during the last TTE.

As far as the cognitive testing goes, I am sticking with “Just relax and focus”; simple and elegant as it is.

Wish me luck.

God help me.

Day 3: Experimental Session #4

Not much about the whole lead into and set up for my second (and last) exercise protocol is different from the others with one notable exception: I brought the wrong cycling shoes.

Shit.

Yup, upon pulling out of my parking lot at work, I realized that I had mistakenly brought the wrong cleats meaning I couldn’t use them with the pedals on the Velotron.  In short, I was fucked and I started panic as I hated the thought of letting down the lab gurus by not being able to complete my second test protocol as planned; especially given all the work I’d done in crafting out my motivational statements.

But after a second or so of “oh shit!”, “how could you have fucked up like this?”  and, of course, the ever popular “you’re a fucking idiot”  running through my mind, I decided to take a different approach.

“Relax, focus and breathe”

Seconds later, I had pulled a U-turn into the parking lot of In.Cep.tion cycles, picked up an extra set of SPD pedal clips to match my misbegotten cleats and, Bob’s your uncle!, we’re back in business; In.Cep.tion with the save.

Thanks Brandon!

Hey, maybe this whole motivation self-talk might actually work.

Huh.

Upon arriving, I ran the pee, probe and shuffle gauntlet, got weighed, got affixed with the usual heat sensors and electrode thingee’s, completed both my BRUMS questionnaire and base cognitive testing on the tablet (which, I am fairly confident went very well when I applied my positive self-talk statements) and minutes later I was in the oven ready to go.

I’m also noting here for the record that I was adequately hydrated for this particular session as, two weeks before, for whatever reason, my hydration was pretty poor.  In fact, my urine sample resembled the liquid version of Charlie’s Golden Ticket, so I was conscientious to hydrate today like a mofo to avoid that from happening again.

sweat

Gettin’ sweaty…

The goal today was to be cognizant of all my negative thoughts and, instead, use the motivational selftalk phrases I’ve been working on for the past week.  The idea is to see what difference (if any) that provides to both my exercise sessions as well as my cognitive testing immediately following them.  In other words, shit was about to get real and I was focused on proving that they worked as I generally believe they would.

It has to be said that the first 30 minutes at 60% (210 watts) of my PPO is the most tedious.   I can deal with the 35°C temperature and 50% relative humidity, but it’s boring as all get out and very shortly into it the negativity started to creep in.

“This sucks”, “this is boring”, and “How much longer?”

No problem, I was prepared.

“Just relax, focus and breathe…just keep calm and push on…”

Worked like a charm.

One problem though.  A piece of surgical tape used to secure my probe to the sumo sling I use to keep it, well, wedged up in my ass, had begun to rub under my Charlie Brown’s.  Not pleasant.  So with every pedal stroke there was this uncomfortable scratching going on under my nut sack.  Yeah.

And let me tell you, trying to stay positive and think happy thoughts while your choda is being treated like a Lotto scratch ticket is not easy, like, at all.  Lord knows I tried.  Ultimately, I knew, boring as it was, I could do the first 30 minutes fairly easily so all I had to do was make it through that and then I could try and “readjust” myself afterwards prior to having to get back on the bike.

suck

This is the face one makes when their scrotum is being rubbed raw.

However, despite my attempt to exist in my “happy place”, it was all pretty much in vain.  After all, my happy place in that country pub does not include something coarse and scratchy down my pants.  But I made the first 30 minutes successfully and, yes, I used my self-talk statements as much as possible.

When I dismounted the bike to don my rain poncho and complete my cognitive testing I tried my best to fix the issue.  In the rare few moments I am actually alone in the oven I had both hands burrowed deep into my bib shorts and ferreting around like a squirrel digging for acorns, but to no avail.

FML.

The first round of cognitive testing I think went very, very well.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I made the tests my bitch, particularly the “Two Back”  and “Groton Maze Learning”  tasks.  I’m not surprised really as I was very dialed in and focused using my “Just relax and focus”  statement.  For the rest of the 30 minute cool down (and I use that term loosely), I put my feet up and tried not to focus on the chafing beginning to happen under my balls.

I figured I could manage one last TTE but, then again, what choice did I really have?

Eventually, I mounted the bike for the last time and had the mask affixed to my head and I braced myself for the eventual suck to follow.  I immediately reverted to my more calming and passive motivational statements to “get in the zone”, per se. I knew it was going to difficult (isn’t it always?) but I really wanted to do better and by “better”, that inevitably means “suffer”.  It’s just the nature of the beast I’m afraid.

Finally the first 5 minute warm up at 125 watts began, and as soon as it did it started:

“God, my balls are on fire!”

“Just relax, breathe and focus…”

Nope.

“Just be calm and push on…”

Nope.  Still on fire.

“Get tough.”

Okay, that worked…a bit.

Finally, the official TTE at 80% (280 watts) began in earnest and it was on.

Again with the negativity.

Ho-lee shit”, “My legs hurt”, “My balls are burning” (not to be confused with the popular 80’s song ‘Beds Are Burning’ by Australian rockers Midnight Oil)…it was a total cacophony of self pity, remorse and intense bitchiness.

Fueled by “Get tough”  and “You can do this!”, I did my best to block it all out and started with my first spin-up and then remained focused on holding that cadence for as long as it felt “comfortable” to do so.  It hurt, but I did it.

“Well, that sucked”, was the immediate response in my brain.

Fuck you negativity, “You can do this!”…and I did it again…and again…

…and again.

I concentrated on putting power into the pedals more than I have ever done before, even when it felt like my lungs were going to explode and my nuts were going to rupture.  In fact, I became a bit worried at one point that I might have some unfortunate scaring going on in places I didn’t even want to think about but, still, I focused on power.

“More power!”, actually became a new motivation self-talk statement at one point.  I know it wasn’t part of the original plan but I was certainly willing to go with whatever it was that worked in the moment, and in that precise moment, “More power!”  is exactly  what I needed to hear.

I continued to spin up an hold as best as I could and the last 2 or 3 “sprints” were every bit as agonizing as the sensations going on in my shorts, let me tell you.

I had no concept of time.  I know that the research guy in the oven with me (Phil) comes around every two minutes to get my RPE and Thermal Sensation and Discomfort readings so I should be able to keep an approximate track of how much time has passed but, truthfully, after the first two or so and it’s really beginning to get shitty, they all feel like the first.

Eventually, I couldn’t take any more and immediately following my last spin up I quit.  Now, whether I 100% gave up or whether my cadence dropped below the pre-established 60rpm for 5 seconds signaling the finish, I’m not really sure.  What I do know is that I was 100% spent and feeling rather disappointed with myself (as I’m sure was reflected in the subsequent BRUMS scale I completing immediately after getting off the bike).

A picture is worth a thousand words:

3

I figured that while I had put more effort into the pedals, the eventual cost was in not being able to go for as long as I would have liked.  Plus, I hated the feeling of having to “quit” (whether or not that actually happened, is moot).  On the plus side, I think my cognitive testing afterwards (once my heart rate came back down of course) went very well, just as it had the first time.  In that regard I was definitely happy.

In the first exercise protocol I managed to last 12 whole minutes at my 80% and today, using motivational self-talk, I was able to last 13 minutes representing an improvement of 9% overall.  So, despite how I felt about the second TTE, that positive phrasing definitely seemed to work.  But here’s the part I’m really pleased with:

During the first session, I managed 10 or so spin up’s to approximately 90 rpm before dropping back down to an average of approximately 77 rpm.  This time around, I managed 12 spin up’s overall at over 100 rpm  which I was able to sustain for up to 40-45 seconds at a time before returning to an approximate average of 80 rpm.  That means that my ride on that particular day was a lot less variable in my being able to maintain a steady cadence and power outage.

I guess I can live with that.

Where positive self-talking definitely helps with athletic performance (which is awesome), even in extreme hot and humid conditions (even more awesome), it also works very well in positively improving cognitive ability as well and that’s particularly some pretty awesome shit.

I will include all the actual results in the follow-up Part 2 to this post in the near future so, until then, hang tight, for that awesome shit is about to get real.

My official results:  TN-Handout

You might remember that one year ago that I was participating as a guinea pig (I prefer the term “suffer Bunny”) in an Effects of Cranial Cooling on Temperature, Ventilatory, and Perceptual Responses to Exercise in Fire Protective Ensemble’ series of testing at the Brock University kinesiology lab (click HERE).

Basically, I allowed myself to be heated up like a baked potato in their “oven” while clad in full on fire-fighters gear and then ran the gauntlet to see the effects of heat on my overall performance.  The theory being that if I were allowed to temporarily cool off between exercise protocols using a “cooling hood“ that my performance might improve, or in some way become easier.

It didn’t.

It sucked…each and every  time.

And that’s no exaggeration, believe me.

So as a result, nobody really paid this study any notice.

Maybe they should have published the study along with a sexy type calendar.  I mean, after all, who wouldn’t want to gaze on this at their cubicle wall?

Am I making you hot, baby?

Am I making you hot, baby?

Here's some more sexy shit.

Here’s some more sexy shit.

I mean, we didn’t really prove anything did we?   No.  This particularly sucks because I (we) suffered apparently to only prove what everybody already knows, that getting roasted alive is not fun. It’s torturous actually.  This is completely the opposite of the Separate and Combined Effects of Hydration Status and Thirst on Voluntary Exercise Capacity’  study (click HERE) I did the year before which ended up turning the athletic and endurance world on its ear in regard to its rethinking of popular hydration strategies.  Plus, I officially got referred to as an “athlete”.

THAT  was some cool shit.

This?

Not so much.

But, hey, ‘c’est la vie’.

Anyway, here we are a year later and the official paper has finally been published.  So did we actually learn anything from this experiment?  I mean, if I suffered like a champ for this, surely, something  had to come from it right?

Thankfully, something did.

It isn’t much, true, but it’s something  at least.

However, a little background first. Studies were conducted in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that suggested that head cooling strategies were effective in improving performance in hot and humid conditions.  New evidence from 2008+ shows that if we wear a neck cooling collar we can exercise longer, harder, and to a higher core temperature.  Plus we ‘feel’ much cooler while using it. Such strategies include forearm immersion, facial misting (no, it’s nothing kinky I assure you) and neck cooling collars were all suggested and proven to be beneficial.  The problem is, for fire fighters anyway, is that for forearm immersion to take place one would have to remove their jacket which isn’t practical when fighting fires and facial misting is less effective in highly humid environments because of the decreased water vapor pressure gradient (meaning we lose the ability to evaporate the sweat and thus fail to cool ourselves).   So, would a “cooling hood”, which is easier to apply during a fire-fighters recovery period since it does not require one to remove their jacket, actually help? It makes sense given that there is lots of blood flow in the head. In fact, 25% of our metabolism is centered in the brain, even though it only weighs 2 lbs.. Furthermore, the blood flow is closer to the surface so its effect would be quicker to cool the blood and feel cooler, than say cooling the foot or arms…theoretically, of course.

And that’s where I come in.

Through this testing we (I mean the researchers, of course) were aiming to see if fire fighters could benefit from the cooling effect provided by the hood in “uncompensable” heat stress and, ultimately, perform better.  Specifically, would it:

  1. Drop the body’s core temperature?
  2. Allow them to last longer?
  3. Enable them to use less air, allowing them to perform longer?
  4. Allow them to feel better?

I know, I know, you’re on pins and needles here right?

Well, let me fill you in on the findings.

First, the cooling hood had absolutely no effect on the core temperature at all…like, none.

Core Temp

See? Nada.

And I can definitely vouch for this: it was fucking hot no matter what.  Even after resting for 20 minutes (the standard recovery period for active fire fighters) with the cooling head, my core temperature continued to climb into the second exercise protocol.  Okay, there was a marginal difference in temperature as the graph above shows but it was nothing to get excited about.

However, perception wise, the cooling hood did make me feel a bit cooler even though, physiologically, there was no difference in my core temperature whatsoever.  This was reflected in the ‘Perceived Thermal Stress’ (PTS) ranking where I was asked to give my perception on the heat stress I was enduring at time.

It is interesting to note afterwards, however, that while the perception of heat stress improved overall, the actual perception of the exercises difficulty did not as recorded in my ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ (RPE).

No sir.

It blew.

There’s a problem with this though in that both the PTS and RPE are highly subjective.  I mean, when all you have to look at and dwell on during the torture session are those two charts in front of you, you begin to consider your next answer long before the question is even asked.  So do I choose to appear as a tough guy and say it’s easier or less hot that it really is, or do I answer honestly in that it’s hotter than Hades and this is complete torture?

I dunno.

What I can tell you from my recollection is that during the first 4-8 minutes of the second protocol, everything felt…tolerable. But that quickly changed.  And after that initial period, once again, it was like leaping into an active volcano.

And this was for both the Passive recovery (the first session without the cooling hood) and the Active recovery (the second session with the cooling hood).

Seriously, can you tell which one looks like it might have felt better?

Phil runs the gauntlet.

Phil runs the gauntlet.

Fuck no.

So whether or not this total and complete feeling of HOT and SHITTY (think of that doomed marshmallow that falls into the bonfire kinda hot) both times is reflected accurately in my responses, I can’t say for sure.

Likewise, there was no major difference in my heart rate either.  During the second protocol, my heart rate only decreased by a mere 10 beats per minute which, in the grand scheme of things, is insignificant.

Lastly, there was no difference in the air intake whatsoever so, no, working for longer periods was not likely going to be an option either.

So what does this all mean then?

Well, the overall conclusion is that the cooling hood provided no physiological differences whatsoever.  However, perceptually, there was an improvement in our thermal perception even though there was no actual change in the perception of the exercise itself.  So while we might have felt  better, it did absolutely buckus to improve our overall performance.

What it all boils down to is that the test or, rather, the ability to endure the second protocol was unequivocally mental.   What else is there?  Hey, if there was no change in the core temperature, air consumption or heart rate, any differences to our protocol times really came down to our mental fortitude, or our ability to ultimately endure.  What else is there?  In essence, given the extreme difficulty of the task, how long were we willing  to allow ourselves to suffer?

And believe me again, we suffered.

Hence my preference for the term “Suffer Bunny”.

So if this is a mental thing, how do we improve that?  And that  very question is the premise for the next series of experimentation’s that I was involved in at the Brock lab later and which, as they say, is another story.

More to come on that in the very near future.

(If you wish read the full paper in all it’s scientific glory, you can click on the attachment below)

Wallace-et-al.-2015-Cranial-Head-Cooling-Firefighters

As I have alluded to in the past, I had another opportunity to step back into the Brock Kinesiology lab to participate in another series of tests and, consequentially, further develop my overall ‘mental toughness’ this year.  This time around the research dealt with the effects of heating and cooling on firefighters.  Yup, this means I got to dress up as a firefighter and live out the dream of every little boy on the entire planet including myself.  Seriously, who didn’t  want to be a firefighter growing up?

I got the email from Matt a few months ago inquiring if I was up to the challenge.  I like to think that he remembered me on account of my God like level of uber-fitness and total domination on the bike, but as I disclosed in my previous blog post during the Separate and Combined Effects of Hydration Status and Thirst on Voluntary Exercise Capacity’  study (click HERE) that, well, sadly, this wasn’t necessarily the case.  It was probably more along the lines of ‘who else would be stupid enough to do it?’, but I digress…

Whatever is was, I agreed immediately.  What can I say?  I like testing my mental fortitude in interesting and challenging ways; I’m a sucker for data and information about my current level of fitness; and maybe…just maybe…I missed having something stuck up my ass.  Who knows?  But, hey, they promised me a t-shirt…so how could I say no?

Anyway, this particular study went by the rather spiffy title of Effects of Cranial Cooling on Temperature, Ventilatory, and Perceptual Responses to Exercise in Fire Protective Ensemble’  (say that  three times fast).  The purpose of the research was to study the effects of cranial cooling during recovery on temperature and breathing responses during exercise with fire protective clothing ensemble.

When we exercise, our muscles produce heat.  If the heat can be released to the environment the body can “thermoregulate” itself and, theoretically, remain somewhat comfortable and functioning adequately.  The protective clothing used by firefighters traps the heat, which often results in a condition called “Uncompensable Heat Stress” (UHS).  In UHS, body temperature is elevated and work capacity can be severely impaired.  In order to reduce the effects of UHS, the study is seeking to explore countermeasures that help to cool the body either during exercise or during recovery periods.  This particular study was designed to evaluate the effects of a cooling strategy that pumps cool water through aspecial green balaclava-like hood that can be easily worn during recovery periods.  The testing for the study involves periods of hard exercise followed by recovery periods aimed at monitoring how this cooling strategy might affect body temperature and breathing.

What this meant for me in the long run (or short walk, if you will), is four separate parts scheduled over approximately two to four weeks.  The duration of each part will vary between 1.5 and 3 hours.  The first includes a ‘Graded Exercise Test’ (GXT) which measures my peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) while walking on a treadmill wearing the full fire protective ensemble (FPE) and breathing with a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); the second part is a practice familiarization session of two 20 minute periods of exercise and two 20 minute periods of recovery, complete with measurements on my core temperature (yes, this means the probe), skin temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, perceptions of effort, breathing and temperature stress, respiratory muscle strength, body weight, and urine specific gravity.  Sounds like fun, amiright?    Fortunately there was no need for blood samples so I wouldn’t have to undergo the whole IV insertion unpleasantness, so that’s good.  The next two parts consist of the actual study sessions identical to the practice trial; one trial will use the cranial cooling technique during recovery. The initial explanation and consent form said this about the study:

“The exercise and heat stress experienced in this experiment will be challenging.”

This could quite well be the understatement of the century, but more on that later.

Day 1: The Graded Exercise Test

The GXT involved about 15 minutes of exercise on a treadmill where the exercise gets slightly harder every two minutes or so.  The treadmill speed is set at a normal walking pace and will not change throughout the test.  At the start the treadmill will be level but the grade will increase slightly every two minutes.  As the test proceeds the exercise gets more and more challenging until, eventually, I can’t go any further due to the extreme exhaustion.  At this point, they can determine my highest rate of oxygen consumption, or my VO2peak.

Here is a snippet from the consent form:

“The graded exercise test requires maximal effort in order to keep exercising until exhaustion. There may be some health risk with this type of exercise. During and following test, it is possible that you may experience symptoms such as abnormal blood pressure, fainting, lightheadedness, muscle cramps or strain, nausea and, in very rare cases, heart rhythm disturbances or heart attack.”

Basically, nothing I mightn’t experience on a typical Friday night anyway so, yeah baby, let’s get it on.

Getting to play dress up.

Getting to play dress up.

During the test, I was expected to be dressed in the full FPE and breathe through a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).  I will admit to being really excited for this part as, like I mentioned above, I had that typical firefighter fantasy as a child.  With some assistance, I was fitted into the rather heavy outfit complete with cotton shirt and pants, jacket, overalls, hood, tank, helmet and gloves.  In all, the entire ensemble adds an additional 22.5 kg (50 lbs.) of weight and therefore resistance to the workout.

Once I was successfully ensconced in my suit, I kind of felt like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but, still, it was pretty cool.  Complete with the inhaling and exhaling sound through the SCBA gear, the whole getup reminded me of that classic horror B-movie scene where you see the psycho killer approaching the unsuspecting victim from the vantage point of looking through the eye holes of their mask.  The breathing especially is a bit challenging at first and the minimal visibility of the visor makes things rather claustrophobic.  Now I know how Anakin Skywalker must have felt behind the Darth Vader mask.

First all the usual body fat and weight measurements were taken.  If I ever see another pair of calipers again it’ll be too soon, let me tell you.  However, making things a little more awkward this time around was the PhD student in charge of the study was a girl named Maz and another assistant, Tyce, was from Brazil.  So, yeah, just what every insecure, aging, fat triathlete wannabe enjoys: having his folds of body fat scrutinized and recorded with attractive females in the room. “Oh boy, can we?!”

Not.

Eventually, we were ready to begin.  Before the test started I was allowed to warm-up on the treadmill to get accustomed to being in my suit. Imagine walking normally on a treadmill.  No big deal, right?  Now imagine doing it while dressed in a 50 lb.  clown suit complete with head; the SCBA apparatus was particularly awkward and definitely took some getting used to.  Now imagine that while walking in that clown suit, somebody keeps increasing the grade on the treadmill every two minutes.  Still sound like fun? It’s not.

Trying to stay positive.

Trying to stay positive.

Motivated by my meager “Good” result last time around, I was determined to do better.  I spent the first few minutes, 10 or so, focusing on my breathing and simply trying to get ‘in the zone’.  I focused on maintaining a strong and relaxed breathing pattern through my nose as I’ve learned to do when I start to get uncomfortable.  Every few minutes I was asked to give my rating on a series of scales posted to the wall in front of the treadmill including ‘RPE’  rating my physical exertion, ‘Breathing Stress’, how labored my breathing feels, and ‘Thermal Comfort’, or how my body was actually feeling in relation to the heat stress being placed upon it.  Other than those stimulating visuals to focus on, there was only the hand that would magically appear out of my peripheral to increase the treadmill grade one agonizing percent level at a time; there was none of the usual motivation stimuli to give you that added push.  Sure, the research assistants would offer the occasional praise or motivation but, truthfully, you couldn’t really hear them above the sound of my own labored breathing and the loud din of the oven’s fans overheard.  All you really had to egg you along was your own mental fortitude to keep going at all costs and this was fine for, say, the first 10 minutes or so.

By the 13-14 minute mark, I felt my composure begin to break down.  My breathing became labored through the SCBA gear and I had to break my steady walking pace into that of a light run against the ever-increasing grade while carrying all that gear.  By now it was a matter of survival and simply hanging on and my mental fortitude was beginning to wane.

Not too shabby this time around.

Exhausted but pleased.

Now, I’d love to tell you here that I had lots of inspirational thoughts going through my head as I did on the bike previously but, well, this was an altogether different feeling.  The only thing I really remember towards the end was simply counting the seconds down in my mind until I collapsed (or died) as I was definitely reaching critical mass.

At approximately the 17 minute mark, I had officially reached my ultimate end game for the test and I tapped out for good.  I collapsed into a chair while my overall results were calculated.  Turns out, my original VO2peak score of 41.51 ml/kg/min.  during November’s test had improved drastically to a 47.75 ml/kg/min.  now, which, is still 10-15% lower than what it would have been had I not been wearing that heavy firefighting gear.  That means my VO2peak score might have scored as high as 52-53 ml/kg/min.,  classifying me as almost “Superior” on the general VO2-Max classification for men my age (40-49); just a tad bit better than “Good”, huh.

Here’s the official results: firefighter2

Yeah. Who’s your daddy? That’s right, bitches. Me. ”Almost Superior”…sweet.  How fucking awesome is that?  I found it extremely reaffirming to know that the past months of training were paying off. So despite my present battered condition, I felt…well, pretty fucking awesome actually. I won’t lie.

Day 2: The Familiarization

After the previous weeks GXT I can honestly tell you that I was less than excited for this trial session.  The novelty of getting to dress up in a firefighters outfit had long since passed and I more dreading having to get back into it, anticipating that this session was going to be much worse, like, way worse.  Remember, the exact term the PhD students used was “challenging”.

Now, the word ‘challenging’ itself isn’t very scary, nor does it ever phase me anymore, Lord knows I’ve done ‘challenging’ things, but the look in their eye when they used it actually sent chills down my spine.  As it turns out, this was the only ‘chill’ I would ever really experience the entire time I was in the lab (with the exception of the cold shower afterwards).  The look was like what you might get from a veteran when they talk about their experiences during the war.  They may say ‘bad’, but it’s almost spooky the way they say it.  You just know it was much worse than they are willing to say so you don’t press for specifics.  The way the lab assistants used the word ‘challenging’ was exactly like that; you just knew it was going to be much worse than they were able to say, except I didn’t know by how much…yet.

I did however take one piece of advice to heart from Phil (one of the PhD students) to make sure I was adequately hydrated so, for the next three days, I hydrated like it was my fucking job.  In fact, it was seldom I ever went more than 90 minutes without having to go to the bathroom.  In fact, I barely made the drive from my office to the Brock lab – a mere 20 minute commute – without pissing myself.  So mission accomplished there.

Getting ready...

Getting suited up…

The first 30 minutes or so in the lab were spent getting prepared and dressed.  This process included (among frequent trips to the bathroom of course) such things as being weighed, providing a urine sample (no problem there) to determine my hydration status, strapping on a heart rate monitor, attaching heat sensors to my body,and, yes, inserting that damn core thermometer (not to mention the dreaded ‘Shuffle of Shame’  from the change room afterwards).  I am pleased to announce though that the term ‘Shuffle of Shame’  has now been adopted by the kinesiology department as standard terminology for this short walk between the change room and the lab with a probe up your ass.

Again, from the consent form (just in case you missed it the first time):

“Core temperature will be monitored continuously during all practice and experimental trials. The system used for monitoring core temperature requires that you insert a small diameter, flexible plastic probe to a depth of 15 cm into your rectum.”

If ever a single sentence could strike fear into the hearts of men, this would be it.  Well, most men anyway.

For me, however, this whole insertion process was old hat and was more like getting reacquainted with an old friend (click HERE).  Well, maybe not an old friend so much as someone who used to bully you as a child perhaps, but you get the idea.   Let’s just say that this definitely wasn’t my first rodeo and if anyone needs any information or clarification on the proper procedure for shoving a probe up their ass – I’m your guy.

Probe?  OH BOY!

Probe? OH BOY!

All this was accomplished rather quickly and soon it was time to begin the trial and really open the floodgates…literally.

The first time I stepped into the environmental chamber (or the ‘oven’ as I likened to call it) back in November, the climate was set at 35°C with a relative humidity of 45% and bearing in mind that I was only wearing a typical cycling kit made of light, breathable materials.  Today’s session was about as far from that as you could possible get, like, eons apart.  Not only had the Velotron bike been substituted with a treadmill inside the oven itself, but while the temperature remained at35°C as it did before, the humidity had now been cranked way up to 65%.  Oh, let;s not forget to mention the added  50 lbs. of FPE.  Yeah, this was going to make my first foray into a hot yoga class years ago (click HERE) seem like a day at the beach by comparison.

Here’s how it was described in the consent form:

“The protocol will last approximately 100 minutes, and during this time you will walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes, recover for 20 minutes and then repeat the cycle. At certain times during the exercise and recovery we will measure heart rate, blood pressure, skin and core temperature, oxygen consumption, and breathing. We will also ask you to provide your perceptions of exercise, temperature and breathing stress using simple scales that are graded from “0” (no stress) to “10” (maximal stress).”

Sounds easy enough right?  Where’s the ‘challenge’ right? The fuck.

Think happy thoughts.

Not so sure about this. Just think happy thoughts.

Prior to beginning the first 20 minute session I was asked to walk on the treadmill for 3 minutes at an easy 3.5km/h  pace at a 1% grade (2) which was approximately the equivalent to my grandmother walking to market.  It was just an opportunity to get moving comfortably, well, as comfortable as possible with all that FPR and SCBA gear anyway and get used to breathing through the SCBA.  Immediately following the warm up, it was the ‘ol familiar “THREE…TWO…ONE….”

and the gates of Hell were opened once again.

Each of the actual 20 minute trials were programmed into the treadmill at 5.6km/h  for a 4% grade (5.6) incline. It’s work, but barely.  What was making it difficult (as you might expect) was carrying that50 lbs. worth of added weight and those preset hotter than fuck atmospheric conditions.  Soon, I was sweating like the pig who knows he’s dinner.  Every 2 or 3 minutes the research assistant (Bryan) asked me for my subjective perceptions based on those scales posted the wall in front of me, just as I had done during the GXT test the previous week.

I have to say, the first 20 minutes wasn’t bad.  Sure it was hot, yes I sweated my bag off but, really, it wasn’t overly difficult.  Following the first session I was allowed off the treadmill and cool down passively in a chair.  By ‘passively’ they simply mean remove my helmet, hood and gloves.  That’s it.  Big deal.  I was hoping for maybe a cold beer or a margarita, a Slip n’ Slide maybe, anything that might offer me some relief from the intense heat and humidity.  The good news was that I was half way done and just beginning to think that this wasn’t going to be too bad.  Yeah, right.

Following the 20 minutes cool down I stood up and immediately, things got ‘challenging’.  Oh shit.  My neck was sore from supporting the helmet and I felt lightheaded and disorientated and not at all like putting all that shit back on and climbing back on the treadmill.  Furthermore, while I was a bit more comfortable, it was clear that my body was still very hot and the thought of putting the hood, helmet and gloves back on was not a happy one.  About this time, Phil had a conversation with me about their expectations to only ‘do as much as I can’; but there was that faraway look in his eye again.  Determined to make a go of it, however, I staggered back on the treadmill and allowed the researchers to put all that shit back on.

Maz takes a selfie while I'm suffering in the background.  Can't you just feel the love?

Maz takes a selfie while I’m suffering in the background. Can’t you just feel the love? She may be happy with my progress but, clearly, I am not.

The second session began with the same 3 minute warm up, except that by the time the second 20 minute trial was ready to start it was like my body was on fire.  So this is what a pot roast feels like? I can’t say I liked it…like, at all.  I tried as best as I could to regularize my breathing and clear my mind of negative thoughts but, seriously, there’s little one can do to calm themselves when they’re being roasted alive.  My mask started to fill with perspiration so that each time I exhaled I was splattering the inside of my face mask with droplets of sweat and my hands felt like somebody was applying a blowtorch to them inside the gloves.

Seriously, this  is what firefighters have to deal with?  Hol-lee fuck!  It was all I could do at this point to trudge on as best I could and wait for the sweet release of death to rescue me from this agonizing torment.

It’s safe to say that I have never experienced anything like this before…and I have done some crazy ass shit.  This, however, was completely different.  If my initial goal for this study was to find a new way to test my mental toughness, well, I need look no further as this was about as tough as its ever going to get.  It was excruciating; words simply cannot express.  The only way I could ever communicate my perceptions of stress levels was by holding up fingers and even then, that was effort. Phil’s words ‘you can quit whenever you want’  were resonating in my brain but I trudged on.  I knew at this point that making the whole second 20 minute session was slim to none as I was feeling faint, my vision was beginning to blur and I was getting sick to my stomach.  It was hard to breathe and my organs were cooking.  I almost tapped out 2 or 3 times but, somehow, I managed to carry on with my Death March.  ‘One more minute…one more minute…one more minute…’ was the only think I could think of.

Am I looking glamorous or what?

“Hello, dum dum’s”. Am I looking glamorous or what?

When Bryan counted out the 10 minute mark I knew I was 99.9% spent.  By eleven minutes I was done and finally tapped out.  By this point I was ready to chew through my helmet in panic and they couldn’t get it off fast enough.  They quickly ripped it off (albeit not quick enough for my liking) and a tidal wave of sweat was instantly released out of the helmet and onto the treadmill; so much so it splashed my running shoes.  It was like a water balloon had been dropped out of the helmet.  I was allowed to sit again, this time with a green cooling hood that kind of made me look like the Great Kazoo…not that I gave a shit mind you.  It was bliss.

Including the initial 3 minute warm up I lasted a total of 14 minutes.  Now that may not seem like a lot of time but, I assure you, it’s an eternity in those fucked up conditions – or so it felt anyway.  It was a while before I felt comfortable enough to stand up again and disrobe and it wasn’t without a great deal of help that I managed to get out of my FPE and SCBA gear; I might as well have been a newborn infant for all the assistance I could provide.  My cotton shirt and pants were completely saturated with sweat.  It looked like I had jumped into a pool and they made the same sound that a wet towel makes when it hits the ground after being dropped from a height…SLOP!

Feeling lucky to still be alive.

S Feeling lucky to still be alive.

To put it all in proper perspective, before the trial started I weighed in at 88.16 kg, afterwards… 85.96 kg., which represents a total loss of 2.2 kg (4.8 lbs.) in a mere 37 minutes.  Yeah.  That’s insane.  I do believe that’s a new lab record for sweat loss.  And since I’m seldom ever setting ‘records’, per se, I’m choosing to take it and run with it.

Here’s the evidence:

And right there, folks, is a whole lotta nasty.

And right there, folks, is a whole lotta nasty.

Gross, right?

Anyway, all the sensors were then removed which, I might add, is much easier to do when you’re completely dripping with sweat.  The tape practically leapt off my body in protest.  I was asked to provide another urine sample (I’m actually surprised I had any fluids left) before I was allowed to remove the probe (which, is much worse than putting it in – go figure) and cut loose with an earth-shattering fart, or ‘fartgasm’ as I will now call it (let’s see if that term catches on at the lab).  Oh, and I had what might very well be the best cold shower I’ve ever had. Not that I care to relive it any, but here’s a brief glimpse for you of the trial itself in progress (pardon the shitty sound of being in the oven):

Day 3 – Experimental Protocol 1

To say I wasn’t looking forward to the next days experimental protocol would be an extremely accurate statement; so would ‘I’m as excited to get back in the oven as I am to get a root canal’.  Truthfully, I’d rather just be hogtied to the treadmill and have the research students take turns kicking me in the junk but, hey, I’m going to persevere and get this done just as I agreed to come Hell or high water, which, in my case, are almost practically guaranteed.

After the last weeks’ familiarization session, the first thing I recall is having one serious appetite…like, ravenous.  Seriously, on top of the leftover sandwiches I was offered in the lab, I could have easily made short work of any buffet table I might have encountered had I been given the opportunity.  I mean there’s ‘hungry’ and then there’s HUNGRY, and I was definitely HUNGRY.  Secondly, I was probably more tired than I’ve ever been in my entire life.  Not just the typical kind of fatigue I experience after my other workouts and events, but the ‘holy shit, I can barely remember my name’  kind of fatigue; I could have slept for weeks and I was practically useless at work the next day.  I didn’t really work so much as I just stared blankly into the computer screen.

The good news is that I know now what they mean when they say ‘challenging’.  String Theory is ‘challenging’; following the plot to Inception  was ‘challenging’; running a marathon is definitely ‘challenging’.  This was torture…pure and simple.  So while I was still nervous about the days protocol, I felt I was more mentally prepared than I was the week before and I was determined to give ‘er, even if for only one minute longer.

For that particular protocol the girls took over applying the blood pressure cuff and all the heat sensors to my pudgy body with tape, and afterwards helping me to get dressed; definitely not one of the finer moments in my life.  I guess they have to learn somehow by talk about awkward!   The indignities we lab rats subject ourselves to.  Within minutes, however, I was all fixed up, attached to all my bodily devices, dressed in the FPR and SCBA gear and ready to get my sweat on.  It’s evident how nervous I was when my first blood pressure reading came in at 155/91.

Here we go again...

Here we go again…

Although I had been through all this once before, it was almost worse this time around knowing what was going to unfold.  Ignorance is definitely bliss.  During the previous week’s familiarization session it had all been revealed how incredibly difficult today’s protocol was going to be; Pandora’s Box had been indelibly open.  I knew now how challenging that days session was going to be.  It was going to suck on a proportionately epic scale.

Whatever fun we might have had last week with the joking and humorous back and forth banter was now tossed directly out the window and I was beginning to focus myself on the task at hand…survival.  It was go time.  It was really no different than the moments before any major triathlon events, all is silent as the participants ready themselves mentally and put their game faces on.  The mood in the environmental chamber got serious…fast.  After getting squared away on the treadmill I was asked if I was ready to begin and I gave a very nervous thumbs up and within seconds the countdown started, “THREE…TWO…ONE…”

…and my return to Hell started.

Much like the previous week, the first 20 minutes were manageable and were completed fairly quickly.  I mean, it was hot and it sucked but it was doable.  Unfortunately, today’s protocol was passive cooling (no cooling hood), so my subsequent 20 minute “cool down” (and I use that term extremely loosely) was going to be passive (i.e. no hood).  My body was so hot and uncomfortable.  As part of the cool down I was offered a water bottle with only 200 ml  of water to sip on; in impossibly small amount given the nature of what I had just completed.  It’s like offering someone who’s just crossed the Sahara Dessert a Dixie cup.  But I made due by rationing my meager portion accordingly and resisting the urge to dump the entire contents over my head.

Simply hanging on...

Just hanging on…

While sitting, my blood pressure was retaken a few more times which was extremely unpleasant given my current state.  Each time the blood cuff was inflated, I could feel my heart beating in my teeth.  My fingers tingled to the point of extreme discomfort and I felt like crying out in pain.  I just can’t articulate how discomforting it is to have your blood pressure taken when you’re hotter than Hades and feeling cranky and uncomfortable.  It’s brutal.

I also have to say that sitting idly for 20 minutes is almost as unpleasant as walking on that damn treadmill.  You become keenly aware of all the sweat dripping down your body and pooling into your shoes.  Within the first five minute the towel I was given was completely saturated.  Likewise, knowing how intensely shitty the second 20 minutes is going to be its rather like waiting to be executed by a firing squad.  Not fun.  You just want to get up and get it over with, but you don’t.  It’s a total mixed bag of emotions.

Once the cool down session is over, the next two minutes are also particularly ‘challenging’ (insert faraway look in the eye here).  Immediately upon standing, all the blood that has been running to your legs immediately rushes back up to your head and you become extremely disorientated and dizzy.  You almost want to quit altogether at this point as it’s hard to imagine continuing doing, like, anything.  All you want to do is lie down, preferably in a Turtle Pool full of beer…ice cold beer.  But what choice do you have?  So you allow yourself to get suited up again, slip that fucking mask over your face and before you can protest it’s “THREE…TWO…ONE…”

…and you’re off.  Let the Big Suck commence.

Eventually, the queasiness passes and after the initial 3 minute “warm up” (I guess it goes without saying that this is another understatement of supernova-like proportions) on the treadmill we begin the second 20 minute session.  At first, it’s not so bad.  I’m still hot and uncomfortable but, again, it was manageable.  I was beginning to think that I might be able to make the distance this time so I tried to focus on anything but the burning sensation in my gloves, the sweat pooling in my mask, the soreness in my neck from supporting the helmet and the ever rising temperature rising inside the suit. Remember, this is all I have to look at for the entire session:

The view from within.

The view from within.

Not very stimulating is it? Fuck no.

After, say, the first 10 minutes into the second session what little confidence that had started to build suddenly began to crumble…rapidly.  It’s incredible to me how fast your mental and physical state can deteriorate in the oven.  I actually started to pray.  It’s true.  I would have happily converted to just about any world religion at the time had it provided me with any actual relief.  Shit, I would have sacrificed my firstborn to the Dark Lord himself had someone offered to save me from this torment.  As the heat and discomfort continued to escalate and my breathing became more difficult I asked my mom for strength, I continued to recite what few verses of prayer I actually know and genuinely tried to convince myself that I only had another 10 minutes left…I can do anything for only 10 minutes right?  How wrong I was.

A single minute later (which still felt like an eternity), Maz reminded me that I had reached last week’s tap out time (11 minutes) and to keep it going.  She reminded that I still had lots of oxygen and to try and breath comfortably but by that point it was all to no avail…I was cooked.  Quite literally!  I was growing desperate.

By 12 minutes I was reaching my critical mass again.  My breathing was extremely labored and I had that pot roast feeling again.  Just…hang…on…

At the 14 minute mark (17 minutes including the warm up) I tapped out.  Same as the familiarization session, the researchers scramble to get me out of the gear.  It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of deal, all scrambling simultaneously to release me from my confines as if my life depended on it which, truthfully, it certainly felt like.  I didn’t even make it through the next 20 minute “cool down” session, after my blood pressure was taken (which I’m surprised didn’t explode off my arm) I begged to get out…like, begged.  It was right out of Oliver Twist, pleading eyes and all.

“Get me…out…of…here…like, NOW!”

I was nice about it, of course, but still very insistent I’m sure.  I just wanted out badly as I’m sure you could tell from this video:

Taking off the tank and jacket might just be the most joyous thing I have ever experienced; I swear, angels sang.  I stripped out of my drenched clothes down to my skivvies (running shorts) in what must have been the unsexiest striptease ever attempted.  I’m sure the girls are probably scarred for life now and I couldn’t care less. Oh, and yeah:  Mental Note to Self: NEVER step on the core probe wire as you’re trying to undress.

Ouch.

The final measurements were then taken and consistent with the previous week I had expunged a complete tsunami of bodily fluid; this time exactly 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) of sweat during the 40 minutes of testing.  Yay me!  Not quite the achievement I had been looking for originally but I’ll take ‘em wherever I can get ‘em.

Day 4 – Experimental Protocol 2

It is with mixed emotions that I begin the next  protocol session.  Where I wasn’t at all thrilled to go back into the oven (never mind the core probe, heat sensors, FPE, etc.), I was extremely pleased that this would be the last time I had to do it.  Likewise, knowing I was also going to be allowed to wear the cooling hood this time around that that will make things in the oven marginally more comfortable and (dare I say it) less ‘challenging’.

By then I had the whole pee, weight and probe routine down pat.  I’m certainly beyond the embarrassment and indignity of having my chubby frame taped up and affixed with sensors and what have you, so with little difficulty I was all dressed rather quickly and ready to roll.  You could say I was pretty eager to get this last torture session over with…pronto!  I guess my mindset was similar to the common philosophy for removing a band-aid…STRAIGHT OFF!

I was determined to make the distance this time, well, I’d be happy with one minute longer anyway.  To help, I decided to take matters into my own hands and provide my own motivation aside from those damn scales taped to the wall:

I give you:  Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Of course, Maz wasn’t too impressed.

So much for that!

Boo! So much for that.

Similar to before the first 20 minutes went by pretty smoothly.  There was a little complaining from Thunder n’ Lightning given I ran 17k the day before but, other than that, things went pretty uneventfully.  Helping matters along, of course, was knowing that I was going to spend the next 20 minutes during the cool down session wearing the cooling hood. So upon finishing the first test session, I took a seat and allowed the hood to be applied and just reveled in the instant relief it offered against the roasting feeling in my body. I also took the advice from another peer who is also doing the test, to raise my legs on an incline against the treadmill to help prevent the blood running to my feet and then back to my head afterwards when I stood back up and, hopefully, avoid the whole nauseous light-headed feeling again. So there I sat, legs raised, Nalgene bottle in hand, and pretending I was looking at this:

Awesome right?

Awesome right?

Of course, this is what I was actually looking at:

Yeah, not so much...

Yeah, not so much…

Once again…quite the let down.  But what can you do?

Truthfully, the cooling hood really helped improve my recovery and I definitely felt more comfortable for the first cooling session.  If my body was still roasting (and apparently it was) I couldn’t really notice.  I was beginning to think that maybe my next 20 minute test session was going to be a bit easier, then Maz explained to me that, physiologically speaking, while I might feel better now, the test was rigged in that ergonomically it was still going to be ‘as challenging’ during the second test session.  My positive can-do attitude began to shatter around me like breaking glass. Thanks Maz.

Making matters a bit worse is that the cooling hood started to fail.  I felt completely ripped off.  For 4-5 minutes it lost its cooling properties and my normal sense of heat discomfort began to return.  Thanks Christ Phil got it all sorted out pretty quickly and I had the remaining time of my cool down in relative comfort, but then it was back to the grindstone I’m afraid.

Fortunately, my legs up strategy worked and when I stood up I felt relatively good and I didn’t need that extra moment to collect myself.  I had the hood, helmet and gloves put back on and began the process of mentally preparing myself for the complete Suckfest to come. Eventually Bryan counted me down: “Exercise to begin in THREE…TWO…ONE…

…and here we go again.  God help me.

Just as Maz explained, the heat returned rather instantly; so much for my whole physiological argument.  Don’t you just hate it when girls are right?

Just...keep...going...

Just…keep…going…

Anyway, I labored on just as I had before and the suck factor ramped up quickly to nearly unbearable.  After the 12 minute mark my breathing started to become labored through the SCBA gear and I heard Maz whisper to Bryan that it probably wouldn’t be long now.  How I ever heard that I’m not sure; maybe some super natural presence wanted me to hear it.  I gave her a look and shook my head…whether she had understood or not that I had overheard her I’m not sure.  I wasn’t angry exactly, but I definitely more determined than ever to suffer.  14 minutes was my benchmark to aim for and as it approached I was trying to mentally assess how much longer I could go.  At exactly the 16 minute mark, I made the mental choice I was going to go for broke and shoot for the 20 minutes, if anything to prove Maz wrong.  Hey, in this kind of experiment you simply take your inspiration wherever you can get it.

Now, I know what she mentioned to Bryan was not intended for me to hear, nor was it a challenge or pre-determination on my ability.  She was only basing it on her past experiences and observations with us lab rats in the oven under these circumstances, as any significant increase in breathing difficultly typically spells out the beginning to the end.  I get it. In fact, by the 18 minute mark I was beyond suffering.  The torment was almost surreal and I almost tapped out twice.  My ‘RPE’  was 19, my ‘Breathing Stress’  was maxed out, and my ‘Thermal Comfort’  was definitely a 9 to boot, or ‘The heat is unbearable’  according to the rating system. In other words, I had pretty much maxed out across the board and it sucked.  It sucked bad.  This was making my whole experience with the heat and humidity during the Cancun 70.3  competition seem like a walk at the water park. For whatever reason, I thought about this from the consent form:

“If you become ill or injured as a result of participating in this study, necessary medical treatment will be available at no additional cost to you.”

It did considerable little to comfort me.

By this point, however, Bryan was counting down my time in 30 second intervals and I was simply taking it one painful interval at a time.  The last two minutes were brutal and were far beyond any realm of discomfort I have subjected myself to in any of my previous training or competitions. In fact, simply being flogged for an hour would have been infinitely more pleasurable and preferable.  Words simply cannot express.

Eventually, I reached the 20 minute mark and there was an all out panic to get me out of my FTE and SCBA gear.  I swear, I could not get those gloves off fast enough.  The feeling of air, regardless of how hot and humid it was, was still an immediate relief once the mask came off.  I was spent. I was pleased to have finally made the entire 20 minutes but I was barely cognizant of that fact at that exact moment.  It was rather like being rescued from a bad dream in that everything was still very surreal.  The consequence however was that I was 100% broken mentally, physically and emotionally.  It was a few minutes before I could really stand or communicate effectively.  All I could really do was bury my face in my hands and thank Christ it was finally all over.  Luckily, when you’re that sweaty nobody can instantly tell if you’ve been crying or not.  I’m confident that sweat was not the only liquid that poured from my helmet, believe me.

I think the end results tell the true tale: another 2 kg (4.4 lbs.) of sweat lost during the testing.  Now, how much of that was actually lost in tears will forever remain a mystery.  I have never been so happy to be finished anything in all my life.  This was definitely harder than anything I’ve ever subjected myself to.  Shit, even the 35 kilometer mark of the Ironman Wales marathon was more bearable than this.  I could probably spend a month in a Turkish prison at the height of their summer season and say, ‘Hey, at least it’s not the oven at the Brock University kinesiology lab.’

See how happy I am?

See how happy I am?

So, that’s that.  My time in Hell is finally over.  Based on my time in the oven (as well as others), the lab researchers were able to determine that…well, I’ll have to blog that when the results get officially published.

In the meantime, I’m back focused on my training and preparing myself for September’s competition. What about future testing you ask?  Well, I’ve already volunteered for the next two series of lab experiments beginning in July and November respectively.  Maybe I lost a little a few marbles through this experience, but I really do enjoy testing my limits and seeing the quantifiable results afterwards.  Plus, by now I’ve developed a rapport with the researchers and I take great pride in having some part in them completing their studies (however small a part suffering on a treadmill provides I guess).

So while I won’t say I’m necessarily excited to get back in the lab, I will do so happily when the time comes. Besides, after this total horror show, how bad could it really be?

P.S.> I am also happy to report that I got my promised t-shirt.  Yes, it might be for the Edmonton Fire Department but, shit, I’m thrilled nonetheless.  After all, a well-earned trophy is a well-earned trophy.

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?

How happy do I look right now?

How happy do I look right now?

But survive I did.  Here are the results:

V02MaxSo, 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’.

Wires anyone?

Wires anyone?

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.”

DSCF0674

Ummm…

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!

DSCF0646

and it only gets worse from here…

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 minutes of total boredom.  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, only 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, thirsty and have absolutely no mental or visual stimulus to motivate you like – you know – scenery, like 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 the Sunshine Calendar pin-up, is it?

Not exactly the Sunshine Calendar pin-up, is it?

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:

“ONE!…TWO!…THREE!…”

“And, he’s off!”

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.

I felt worse than I look, believe me.

I felt worse than I look, believe me.

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).

DSCF0576When 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.

Yeah.  Fun?  Hells no!

Yeah. Fun? Hells no!

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.

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The ominous black bag

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 four sucktastic 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 in nature.  If I can endure that, then I can endure anything and I still reflect back to these tests while suffering in my current spin 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.

UPDATE (May 6th, 2015):  Here is the official published document to validate this study; not to mention that this actually happened at all.  Please click on the link below.

Cheung-2015-Hydration