After crossing the annual threshold of the December holidays, it was time to get back on the wagon and start training again. This spring I have two ultras currently planned, in Mid-March (Chuckanut 50k) and on May Long Weekend (Sun Mountain 100k). With the luxury of time on my side, I wanted to try and train as intelligently as possible for these upcoming races. Over the winter I started working full-time as a Registered Massage Therapist, and I got a puppy, which means that my daily time available for training needs to be optimized!
Last year I experimented with heart rate based training for the first time, and was extremely happy with the results during the ultras that I competed in last year including a 50 miler, 100 km, and 100 miler. I found that by training my body to run at the appropriate heart rate during my build up, I was able to maintain these paces at race day over the long haul. Thus, I wanted to get a metric of where my fitness was at this January, what heart rates I should be training at given the specific workout, as well as establishing a baseline for further testing later on in the year.
Many runners have heard about Lactate Threshold and Vo2 Max, whether it is the pace that they are supposed to be running at during their Wednesday night track session, or the data that exemplifies world-class athletes who hardly seem to break a sweat as they glide along the racecourse effortlessly. But what does it all mean?
Throughout the day, as well as when you run, your body is consuming carbohydrates and fats to create energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) the energy currency of the body. Blood lactate is a by-product of glucose utilization by muscle cells while creating ATP; it circulates through your bloodstream, increasing in concentration as your running effort increases. The simplified version: Lactate Threshold (LT) is the point at which lactate is produced faster than it can be cleared by the body during exercise, and so begins to accumulate exponentially. Once you exceed the amount of lactate in your blood that your body can re-process back into useable energy (LT), the buildup of hydrogen (H+) ions associated with lactate production will begin to reduce the effectiveness of muscular contractions and your body will be forced to slow down. Thus the goal is to keep your effort just below this level, riding the fine line between too little and too much effort.
Plenty of runners, especially us ultrarunners, choose to run by “feel”. The idea being that we can intuitively feel when we are working too hard, and will scale our effort back to remain under our LT. The problem is that most people aren’t very good at this, myself included. When I first started running with a heart rate monitor last February, I was shocked at how slow I had to run to stay in my easy heart rate zones. It is easy to convince yourself that you are not running that hard, and then pay for it later on. This pattern comes to light in every ultra that I have run, ever. The back half of the race is littered with the folks who went out at their “easy/all day pace” and overcooked it after only ½ or ¾ of the race. I found that by racing by heart rate last year, I was able manage my race efforts much better, walking when needed on big hills and tempering the pace in the early miles of the race. This was in stark comparison to some of the incredible blow-ups that I had in past years; complete with full leg muscle cramps, walking for hours at a time, dizziness and of course puking. Safe to say, I’m a believer, and I was eager to get my testing in early this year.
Luckily for me, my new employer (Fortius Sport and Health) has a state of the art human performance lab that does this exact testing! So last week, before I started work in the afternoon, I met the exercise physiologist (Megan) and began to prepare for my testing. We would be testing a wide variety of metrics including my blood lactate (to determine my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds), my V02 max (how much oxygen my muscles can consume at maximum running intensity), my ventilatory rates and my carbohydrate consumption rate. All of this testing takes place over approximately an hour timeframe, and then my results were sent to me a few days later.
In order to get the appropriate data, it is a requirement that you are hooked up to a few pieces of machinery which the exercise physiologist uses to collect data and monitor your effort throughout the test. The head piece and “snorkel” are the key pieces of this and were fitted to ensure that they are as comfortable as possible during the test. Your nose is taped and then pinned to ensure that you are only breathing out of your mouth, and the head gear then supports the tubing which fastens around your head similar to the way a bike helmet would. I began with a 10 minute warm up to get my body moving and to allow for Megan to get a reading of where my baseline levels sit with a very easy effort. In order to do this, your blood is sampled from a pin-prick in your finger in the same way that diabetics measure their blood sugar. As some one who hates needles, I am always wary of this part of the test, but it is truly painless and the pin prick heals within a few minutes after the test. Once the ten minutes was up, I had five minutes to roll out my legs, stretch and prepare for the test while the machine measured my blood lactate and Megan decided what speed would be appropriate to begin the test at.
The test that I did is very simple. Get on the treadmill and run at a constant speed for three minutes, and every three minutes your blood is measured and you move 1 km/hr faster. This is done until you stop the test. As I mentioned, throughout the testing there is a machine which is measuring your oxygen use, and every three minutes you briefly step off the treadmill to have your blood sampled to look at its composition. This test is very much something that you must take on mentally. All of the paces, heart rates and speeds are covered on the treadmill so you simply run until you cannot anymore.
During my test as I reached my limits, we did a stage at 17 km/hr (3:31/km pace). The thought the next step of 18 km/hr (3:20/km) was too much, I feared that I might go flying off the back and break an arm when my legs failed me (this actually just happened to an elite runner Corey Bellmore, and he was probably going much faster than me!). Instead what we did was started to increase the incline of the treadmill and after only a minute and a half with the slight addition from a 1 to a 2% incline, I was done. My legs were feeling cooked and my body was working in overdrive, but I was glad to have given the test an honest effort and I was excited to see the results.
A few days later, I was emailed my results and I was happy to see that even though I only had 2 weeks of base training back in my legs, my body was in better shape than last year in March when I did the test last. The email that I received had an easy to understand graph which outlaid my threshold levels, my Vo2 Max, and most importantly for me, my prescribed paces and heart rate zones for training. I was then able to sit down for a 30 min complimentary consult with Megan to further discuss my results, and to get a complete understanding of how I should be training over the coming months. Given that I am already an adherent of heart rate based training, this data is extremely valuable and I hope that I can use this to shape another fast and competitive racing season.
Why should you get tested? Many people who are running, no matter if they are working to complete their first 5km race or a veteran 100 mile racer can benefit from having this information. As I mentioned before, the ability to guess your perceived effort is very challenging for most runners and unless you have been training and racing consistently for years with regimented pacing and structure it is very difficult to determine where your true thresholds and appropriate heart rate zones sit. The key is to train smarter, not harder. The vast majority of us do running as a hobby, as a side project from our work, families, friends. If you can avoid training in the “junk miles” zone, you can truly use your recovery runs as recovery, and do your workouts at the appropriate paces to ensure your body is being pushed to where it can actually go. Individualized zone training stimulates specific physiological adaptations to improve your lactate clearance capacity and performance, increasing your lactate threshold which will result in a higher power output at a similar heart rate and perceived effort.
I encourage you to send me an email if you have any further questions about the testing, its uses, if it would be useful for you or anything else for that matter. You can also contact the Fortius Lab and speak with Megan if you have any other questions. She is a wealth of knowledge and can speak very accurately about any of the above testing details, data and uses in much greater detail should you want to find out more. The Lab can be reached at 604-292-2503. The lab is located in Burnaby just off Highway 1 at 3713 Kensington Ave, a 10 minute drive from Vancouver and 15 minutes from the North Shore.
Pricing for the Lactate Threshold Testing with Vo2 Max: $200 + GST
Lactate Testing Only $175 + GST
Pricing includes the testing, package with all of your test data and how to use it, plus a 30 min follow up in person at Fortius or by phone.
Groups pricing applies for 10 + group members so if you have a team or group of friends training for an upcoming race email me to ask about what the group pricing rate is!