Derby Triathlon Club

What it’s like to be a Laboratory Rat by Dave Acklam

In October last year there was an e-mail to the Tri Club from a student at Nottingham Trent Uni asking for volunteers to participate in a study needing cyclists. I was interested make a small contribution to science and to get my VO2 max number which would be generated during the study so put my name down quick to get to the front of the queue before the 

They ideally wanted trained cyclists; I’m not sure I’d really regard myself as “trained”, but they were desperate and I was keen. I was in.

The aim was to test if there is a difference between drinking a sports drink, or swilling & spitting, or nothing. What was required was to cycle on an exercise bike for an hour to go as “far” as possible while periodically being given liquid to drink, or spit, or have nothing; while giving blood samples, heart rate, and perceived effort ratings at regular intervals.

There would be 5 weekly visits to the lab – a VO2 max test, a familiarisation session to get used to what’s to happen, then the 3 tests. The only info during the hour of cycling is a clock, no indication of distance travelled; you can vary cadence and resistance on the bike but this is all by feel not knowing the actual levels. For consistency I need to be in the same condition for each test, so prepare for each one as if it is a race.

The VO2 max test format was to cycle for as long as I could while resistance was increased by 30 watts every 3 minutes – not a gradual rise, more like hitting a brick wall every 3 minutes – only one word describes it – brutal.

Familiarisation – I’m still full of enthusiasm – my plan is to even out my effort over the hour. This did not work as well as expected – I still had some energy left at the end despite a frantic Test 1 (Swill & spit) - New plan for this test – 15 mins cycling harder than I can keep up for a full hour, then 15 mins a little easier, then 15-20 mins flat out aiming for exhaustion, then just hang on to the end. This worked, I was absolutely shattered.

Test 2 (Drink) – same plan as before. Doing this test is when I start to feel a bit like a rat in a lab test, being monitored while those running the test give no encouragement or conversation in case this affects my performance; they simply feed me measured amounts of drink, extract blood, note HR, and note RPE. 

Test 3 (No liquid) - Sitting in traffic on the way to the lab I’m filled with a sense of dread – memories of the pain from last week are not forgotten, and I don’t feel recovered enough to do it all again. I need to man-up and get through it. Same plan as before, which works again.

Done. Over. Finished. I’ll never do one these again.

Results are sent when it’s all over and show my VO2 max is 43.2 which is “Good” for my age amongst the general population. Work generated was Familiarisation 558KJ, Swill & spit 643KJ, Drink 670 KJ, Nothing 663 KJ.

Over Christmas I spend some time on my turbo and notice a significant improvement in my performance – previously I’d do about 15 miles when cycling hard for an hour, now I’m doing about 18 miles for what feels like the same effort – a 20% improvement ! and it’s still there weeks later which I can only put down to the weekly sessions of pushing myself to the max.

In February I get an e-mail asking if I’ll take part in another study. By now I’ve forgotten the pain and am intrigued to know if the improvement is because I’ve got fitter or just got tougher. 

A new VO2 max will tell me so I sign up for the new trial. This one will be swill & spit different concentrations of sports drink, with again blood, HR and RPE etc given at regular intervals.

VO2 max – same format as before of 3 minute segments, but this time I put in a burst just before the end of each segment as a run up to the 30 watt increase – works a treat.

The format is similar to before but not quite the same – based on the new VO2 max test I will have to generate a specific amount of work as fast as possible ( it’s estimated to take an hour); I will not be able to vary bike resistance, just my cadence. For me its 755 KJ required, which is much more than I produced the first set of tests. To do this in an hour is an average of 209 watts, which is probably at least 50% more than I would choose to cycle at. This time there is no clock, just a counter of KJs generated. 

Familiarisation - Oh its so hard – if the first study was like a Time Trial this one is like struggling up a big tough long hill in bottom gear, so there is no option but to keep plugging away or get off and walk. This should strengthen my legs.

Test 1 – My plan is to keep in a cadence sweet-spot for a long as possible, then at 700 KJ make a sprint for the line. As I struggle to keep at the right pace to get me to the end I find I’m remembering my time on the Mont Ventoux challenge (85 miles, 4,400m of ascent, taking me nearly 12 hours, but that’s another story)

Test 2 – Same plan as before, but the big push to finish will start when I reach 650 KJ

Test 3 – Same approach as Test 2. It’s the last one and feels great to finish so go all out at the end.

The initial set of numbers from Study 2 is just in – VO2 max has improved by nearly 10% from 4 months before (I’m now “excellent”); what surprises me are the times, Test 1 was the fastest at 68 mins, then Test 3 at 71 mins and Test 2 at 72 mins – surprising because if asked I’d say the times for tests 1 & 3 would be the other way round. 

I suspect my performance has improved again, probably not by as much as before but I’ve not yet done enough turbo sessions to find out. It will also be good seeing if it makes a difference out on the road.

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