Lab testing!

james-exhaustion-test-2Turbo trainers are an acquired taste. I don’t have one, but I have had a fair few goes on some. (disclaimer – years later I do now own one, but still prefer rollers) Thus I know that they are horrible things that are primarily designed to help one inflict a prolonged period of pain on oneself for as long as one is inclined. So why would I volunteer for three sessions in a lab with the aim of seeing how long I could endure one of these things for? The tests were in the name of science, and I do like a bit of that. Also, I was going to have my VO2 max tested for free, and as I understood it at the time, this is a good thing to know – I just hoped mine was a big one.

The reason for the testing was allegedly to test the “Reliability of drafting in laboratory”. The tests were performed over a three week period. Week one was a Maximal Incremental Test and a Familiarisation Time to Exhaustion Test. Then weeks two and three would just be time to exhaustion tests. The study would analyse and compare the results of these two tests. The testing was being carried out by Francesca, a young lady from Italy, who was studying in Kent for her masters degree in sports science. On the advice of my friend Lee I emailed Francesca to apply for the testing. I was readily accepted and sent instructions telling me what I could and couldn’t eat and drink the day before the test.

Week one

The day before the initial test I followed the instructions and didn’t drink any booze, and got an early night. Then I didn’t drink any caffeine the next day – having to go without tea or coffee in the morning was strange – I was reminded how addicted I am to the stuff. I rode my bike to the lab, trying to take it easy. The ride there also doubled up as a reccy of my new commute to Rochester for a job I was starting later in the week. Upon arriving I met Francesca outside, she showed me in and gave me a thorough briefing. I found out that as well as the £50 gift voucher I was going to get for taking part, there were also prizes for the top three test subjects – top prize was £100, things just got SERIOUS haha! First I performed a VO2 max test. This was to find out what my Peak Power Output was in order to work out what resistance to set me for the exhaustion tests. First a blood sample is taken, to get a resting lactate level. Then you’re put on the turbo, starting at 50w resistance, and every two minutes the resistance is increased by 25w. I also got to wear one of those face masks that measures the amount of oxygen going in and out of you. You keep pedaling until you can’t go on. Its easy at first, but quickly gets hard, and then the typical-turbo-torture kicks in. I wasn’t allowed to have my own heart rate strap or computer, so I was riding blind, this makes it even harder to keep going. Francesca did offer some words of encouragement though, which certainly helped. I eventually stopped because I thought I was about to pass out and fall off the bike! Then another blood sample was taken to see what my lactate level was post exertion.

I was then given half an hour to recover before taking the familiarisation time to exhaustion test. During the rest I was given a questionnaire to fill out about how I felt and my motivation. Then the real torture started…

The Time To Exhaustion test is a toughy. Again, I had no computer giving me any sort of data feedback with which to gauge my effort. And, despite not having the face gear on, I wasn’t allowed to drink any water either. The turbo was set at a resistance which the test subject should be able to maintain for a limited amount of time. I had no idea how long this typically should be, nor what the resistance was actually set to. Mercifully the lab is at a nice cool controlled temperature and there is a large fan blowing air to simulate air resistance. Cruelly though, another guy on a bike is plonked right in-between the fan and yourself in order to simulate a lead rider of a drafting pair. So you only get limited airflow to cool you down. Deceptively it starts out feeling pretty easy. Slowly you feel your body respond and your heart rate elevate, and after a few minutes you can tell its not as easy as you first thought. Throughout the test I was presented with two big laminated cards, one with a scale of perceived effort and the other with a scale of how I was feeling. Francesca also kept instructing me to look forward, don’t look down. I started out feeling good and with a low perceived effort, and this seemed to continue for a while. When the effort started taking its toll I jumped from one end of the perceived effort spectrum to near the other end, but I think I still felt quite good. I lasted like this for a while. Then the suffering really started and I seemed to last ages at a high level of exertion. The mental exertion was just as hard as the physical effort, if not harder. My subconscious wanted to give up, badly. I had to continually override my instinct to stop. I kept telling myself that I was sacrificing time with the family in order to do this test, so I was going to do it to the best of my ability so as to make it worthwhile. I visualised my boys having fun in the park with mummy to take my mind off the pain. I don’t really remember making a conscious decision to stop, I think I must’ve just lost concentration for a moment and my subconscious finally had its way.

I got the impression that I’d done quite well at the test, although Francesca wasn’t about to let me know any details until after all three tests had been performed.

After the exhaustion test I had to fill out another questionnaire and was free to go. I had been intending to ride to the park, about 20 miles away from the lab, but I really wasn’t in any fit state for that, and headed straight home where I stuffed my face and ran a very hot bath.

Week Two

Since the first week I had started a new job, luckily it was a 10 minute ride away from the lab, so I arranged to do the next two tests straight after work. I’d kept a food diary as requested, and drank as much water as I could manage in the preceding 24 hours. Very business like I turned up, filled out the questionnaire and prepared for the test. Blood was taken and the bike put on the turbo. This is where things seemed out to get me. Firstly, I’d smashed my bike up whilst out on a ride with a friend a couple of days before. I thought I’d fixed it by changing the large chainring, but once on the turbo it was obvious that the new chainring wasn’t going around as it should – seems I’d bent the crank spider too. So I had to use the lab bike. Also, I was told that the resistance set on my last exhaustion test was too low, and that actually I had lasted longer than anyone Francesca had ever seen. So it was just going to have to be set harder. Straight away I felt the extra effort. “Oh boy” I thought “this is going to be much harder than the already really hard test I did last week”. The lead rider was back in front of me again, and this time he had a jersey on with the word STOP and a picture of a hand giving a stop signal on it. I found this very curious, and now the instructions to keep looking forward seemed designed to make me focus on this jersey. Indeed, all the other visual stimulus in front of me had been covered over with white sheets. Towards the end of the test, when the pain kicked in, I took my mind off it by focusing on the words on the jersey in front of me and spelling out the word – “S. T. O P.”, muttering it to myself in rhythm. The obvious suggestion to stop actually made me want to push harder though- was this the actual test? I was also thinking of missing bedtime with my boys, and as I had sacrificed seeing the family for the evening I again used this as mental ammunition for pushing as hard as I could. Eventually the mental strain was too much though and I involuntarily stopped pedaling. I think I could’ve kept going physically, but in my mind there was no longer sufficient reason for flogging myself any more, and again my subconscious took over for just long enough to make me stop.

After the test more blood was taken and I had another questionnaire to fill in and sweat all over. More questions about how I was feeling and my motivation. I complained that the other chaps jersey had the word “stop” written on it and that that wasn’t very sporting, or words to that effect. Francesca said I’d done a very good test despite the hardship, but was giving nothing away about the wording on the jersey.

I rode back to the office and then drove home where I found my mother-in-law babysitting my two, still very awake, young sons. So I hadn’t sacrificed seeing the family after all 🙂

Week Three

The day of the test had been the hottest September day recorded for 100 years. And the hottest part of the country? My part of course. I turned up at the lab after a day of sweating in the office and after several nights of broken sleep due to the children waking us up. Another annoyance for me was that since the bent cranks incident of the previous week I’d been riding around on a shorter set and had gotten quite used to them. Getting on the lab bike felt even stranger than before. I went through the same motions of the previous week, but hopefully this week I was going to get some answers? Questions, blood, turbo torture.. The lead rider this week was wearing a jersey with the letters “ENERG” with a lightening bolt looking like the letter Y. I think I see where this is going now… I found the test noticeably harder than the previous week, and my cadence was certainly much lower. The picture above is from near the end of this test and I had just said I was finding the effort 20/20 and I was feeling -5 on a scale of 5 to -5! I still carried on for a few minutes longer though. That’s Francesca in the photo, and IMO she looks worried for me! I pushed on again through the pain thinking about my family. I’d also sacrificed a band rehearsal the previous evening in order to have an early night and be prepared for the test – so I sang some of the bands songs through my head to take my mind off the pain. I could only managed bits of songs though, maybe an intro, verse and chorus before my mind screamed at me to stop once more. I then resorted to counting to 10 out loud as that’s about all my brain was capable of processing at that level of exertion.

After the test I had extra questions to answer. I was asked what I thought the test was about, and why, if any, there were differences in my performance. I was then told that the test was indeed nothing to do with the effectiveness of testing drafting in the lab, and was of course all about the not-so-subliminal messaging on the jerseys. I was also told that I had almost certainly won the competition and sure enough a few days later this was confirmed – WOO HOO!!! 🙂 I was then shown my VO2 max results and sent them in an e-mail. Francesca advised me that if I lost some weight my VO2 max score would increase and that I should also buy a power meter. Things I already knew, but needed to be told. I have since bought a power meter. I was also given one of the jerseys from the test as a reward, I chose the jersey with STOP written on it as I had done better with that jersey. I then cycled back to the car, put the box with the jersey in it on the roof and drove off, leaving my new jersey in the middle of the road. I was totally spent! Realising what I’d done about 10 minutes later, I drove back and found the jersey in the middle of the road, luckily still in one piece.

All in all a very interesting experience, and one I would recommend to anyone who is interested in seeing what their body and mind are capable of when pushed to the absolute limit.


My VO2 max score was 57 ml/min/kg – I was hoping that it would be really really high like a TDF pro, but 57 is pretty good and about right for my ability. Here is a chart showing my heart rate plotted against power levels.


And here is a chart showing my heart rate through the 2 tests – test 2 was on the day I was tired. I did indeed do better on the first test with the STOP jersey and lasted 34:17. I lasted 32:50 on the second test. It was much closer than I thought.


With data feedback, a bit more airflow, and being allowed to take fluids on, I probably would’ve lasted quite a bit longer – we will see as I’m currently shopping for a turbo trainer and a power meter of my own!!! Bring on the torture 🙂

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