Monday, July 27, 2015

VO2 Max

The other day a colleague came up to me and asked me what my VO2 Max was. I couldn't remember whether it was just under 60 or just under 70 - but 70 sounded too high to me. It turned out to be 69 - although I've always felt that this was unrealistic - and he immediately responded by sending me back an excerpt from a Wikipedia article which put me on a par with Ron Hill, the second man to ever break 2:10 in the Marathon. But he reminded me that I last did that test 2 years ago, when I considered myself to be in such good shape that I wanted to take a "photo" of how I was for later comparison. How opportune because that was the same year I last ran the New York Marathon, so it seemed like a good idea to do another one to see how much of my perceived decline lately was in my head, and how much was in my lungs.

Strictly speaking, the lungs are only one part of what goes to determine your VO2 Max. Specifically, it measures how much oxygen (O2) per kilo of body mass you use to metabolize (burn) carbohydrates and fat when exercising, and this in turn depends on how much muscle mass with aerobic fibers you have, how many capillaries you have to transport the oxygen there and, of course, your lung capacity. It seems that these things are largely determined genetically - or at least your max VO2Max might be - and that training can only bring you closer to your max max. Having said that, only 6 months after giving up smoking and taking up running instead, I also recorded a VO2 Max of 68 (slightly less only because I weighed a bit more then) which was a factor in encouraging me to take it a bit more seriously.

Having said that, when I did start to take it more seriously, training with a coach, whenever I did VO2 Max tests with him, the number came out much lower - the best I got was 61 if I remember right. Of course, I find it hard to remember because I prefer to keep the 69 number in my head.

This time I expected to get a lower score but I specifically wanted to go back to the Reebok Sports Club where it might be exaggeratedly high but it would at least be a good reference relative to the score I got two years ago. It's true that I am not at the same point in a training cycle nor am I training as intensively right now, but I didn't expect to get 59 - 20% lower than last time. To make it even worse, I was about 3 kilos lighter so my VO2 Max would have been 3% bigger, all other considerations being equal. Maybe they have re-calibrated the machine or bought a new one? Or maybe its just not a very reliable test.

Another thing to look at is the maximum heart rate. This tends to drift downwards with age (I suppose in part because you tend to lose muscle mass and therefore have less to "feed" with oxygen) but as much as the commonly reported 1 bpm per year I have not experienced. Its true that I tend to avoid situations that take my heart to its limit as much as possible but I had it in my head that it must be around 190 bpm. In the test (which was supposed to take me to my maximum everything) I only got to 180 bpm! To be fair, this needs to be verified by looking at the electrocardiogram in detail - as usual, my profuse sweating through the machines off and the assistant had to keep adjusting the electrodes while I was running. At 21 kph!

That was the other surprising thing about the test. If my VO2 Max has gone down by 20%, how come I was running faster on less oxygen? The maximal velocity is called vVO2 Max and some people think it is more interesting that VO2 Max. Last year I did an experiment of hardcore interval training at my then vVO2 Max of 20 kph. Maybe that helped because it doesn't seem to have helped with anything else: I ended up breaking the board of my brand new treadmill in less than 5 months and I suspect that it has something to do with the appearance of my Morton's Neuromas, although the doctor in the Reebok Sports Club told me that it didn't necessarily have anything to do with it. So it would seem as though my running economy has improved by a factor of 120% * 105% (20% less oxygen/kilo for 5% more speed) - sounds good, right? What makes more sense is that my VO2 Max is right now and was significantly overstated before.

Well, I think it is important to look beyond the numbers, to what they are trying to tell you. Nobody ever won a race on their VO2 Max. (By the way, my new Fenix 2 watch has estimated based on a few easy runs that my VO2 Max is  - wait for it - 59 ml/kg/min! According to the watch, this corresponds to a Half Marathon in 1:21 and a Marathon in 2:49, times I would be happy to see again.). My conclusions are:

My maximum heart rate is not what it used to be. I will wait for the final report from Reebok but I may repeat the test (without the VO2 measurement) to see whether I can get up to 190 again (don't worry, I will stop before I literally kill myself). I should adjust the heart rate at which I plan to run my races - particularly the New York Marathon in November - accordingly. It might help explain why I have been going off way too fast (both in terms of pace and heart rate) and finishing disappointingly lately.

I should do more strength training. I stopped doing weight training a couple of years ago, thinking that it was better to do specific strength building exercises such as plyometrics, hill sprints and the like. It reminds me a bit of when, years ago, I decided it made much more sense to stop paying for Spanish lessons to instead practice Spanish with my then girlfriend (now wife) - of course, we never did... Now I don't do anything in the way of strength training. One thing about getting older that seems inevitable is that there is a tendency to lose muscle mass which you have to fight against. I guess the body needs more and more proof that you really need to carry around and feed all that bulk (shame it doesn't need the same amount of convincing when it comes to fat). (Actually, the doctor told me that I should consider increasing my fat as my level of 11% was considered to be on the low side, and that fat helped protect against illness among other things.) As New York is a relatively hilly Marathon, I will certainly do some hilly runs and hill sprints etc, but I think it is a good idea to do some work in the gym always being careful not to "bulk up" too much of course.

Apparently Red Bull is not good for you. It makes sense, I suppose, as it seems to good to be true. I had always thought that just as sex is not as bad for you as drugs or indeed rock 'n' roll, Red Bull didn't have to be bad for you. I remember once a friend forwarding an article from the British Journal of Medicine which  proved scientifically that Red Bull was bade for you - the only hitch being that it was faked. The doctor at the Reebok Sports Club wasn't worried about my one-glass-of-red-wine-a-day regime or for that matter the 4 espressos I have everyday, but she did balk when I confessed about taking one Red Bull every other day. Apparently Red Bull is not good for you, so I will stick to my promise and cut down drastically.

UPDATE: It turns out that they made a mistake and forgot to divide my VO2 Max by my weight, so it is in fact very similar to the last values: 68.63 ml/kg/min. My maximum heart rate turned out to be 185 bpm, significantly less than the 190 of two years ago but the weird thing is that - while my anaerobic threshold is more or less where it has always been (180 bpm) - my aerobic threshold is much higher (168 versus 160 two years ago, versus 155 bpm 7 years ago) and, of course, even higher in percentage of maximum heart rate terms. It certainly looks as though my heart has adapted to the training. However, one of the comments I received on the final report said that I was slightly detrained as the rate at which my heart returned to beating normally was much lower, but that is not surprising or indeed worrying, it is just a question of putting the work in.

I had started to get a bit paranoid about my VO2 Max being so much lower than last time, so I went to the gym for a weights session, which is probably a good idea anyway. I looked up the weights I was lifting last time I went - in 2012 (gulp!) - and allowed myself to slack off a little. But when I set the machine to 78 kgs, I found that I could barely lift it once, let alone 15 times! I put it down to 60 kgs in the end, and struggled through the set. Feeling really demoralized, I went to the next machine where I set the dial to 52 kgs and found that it was ridiculously easy! Hang on a minute, could it be that I got them the wrong way round? Doh! So 60 kgs was 16% higher than I had intended to lift! Writing this on my brother's computer in London, I am still feeling the pain on Sunday, 4 days after... In spite of having trouble sitting down or doing my shoelaces, I am at least able to run reasonably well. I've been enjoying exploring the area round his new house which is particularly conducive to running, not to mention the cool but sunny weather that has been accompanying me so far. Two more weeks of relaxed running before I start the countdown to New York... 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Retail therapy

There's nothing quite like buying a new sporting gadget to inject a bit of enthusiasm back into your training. The other day I was hovering on the Amazon website when I spotted an offer for the Fenix 2 GPS watch that was about to expire as soon as they had enough takers. I couldn't see any harm in just putting it in my shopping basket before someone else snatched the offer away from me: I could still decide not to buy it. I now had 15 minutes to decide whether I "needed" it, in which time I broke out into a guilty sweat and rang my wife, hoping she would absolve me by saying something like "you deserve it" or simply just talk me out of it. She just said she didn't know whether I needed it or not - neither did I but I soon came up with a convoluted set of reasons why I couldn't live without one.
Just as well I only had 15 minutes to decide because, after committing to buy (yes, I did buy it in the end, surprise, surprise), I read a whole load of complaints about it crashing, resetting during workouts and suffering from "GPS drift". I hope that these have been ironed out in the year since its launch as there is now a Fenix 3 available.

The reasons I came up with were that my trusty 310 XT was not so trusty any more, it often corrupted the workout data and was very touch and go when it came to downloading courses or uploading workouts; also having Bluetooth connectivity would make all this so much easier. The discount price was 240€ (without Heart Rate Monitor) which put it in close contention with the 910 XT (also recently superseded by a newer model: the 920 XT) but this does not have Bluetooth, nor does it have some of the fancy new analytics that are probably a load of nonsense but are irresistibly attractive to us running geeks. Like VO2Max which tells you how fast it reckons you would run a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon or Marathon: in just three days I have reduced my predicted Marathon time from 3:03 to 2:49! All without having run further than 10K or faster than 13.5 kph! If I later decide to buy a new HRM, then I can have it also calculate vertical oscillation and ground contact time - whoohoo! For those kind of geek-stats, I'm still waiting on the runScribe device I backed on Kickstarter last year. Another thing I like about the new watch is that it has a built in accelerometer which means that (a) it incorporates all the functionality of the Garmin Swim watch and (b) it makes a reasonable attempt to guess how fast I am running on the treadmill based on a surprisingly accurate cadence measurement, which helps me keep track of all the kilometerage I am doing both on and off-road. Lastly, I appreciate the temperature sensor that it has built in which works quite well considering that it is biased by my skin temperature. It seems to start of way too high, come down to a realistic temperature as it is cooled by the wind and then starts to creep back up again as I get hotter and sweatier.

The downside of the Fenix series compared to the triathlon watches is that there is no quick release kit to allow you to transfer it to your bike easily. However, I've come up with a rubber band solution to attach it to my aero water bottle which appears to work well. The upside is that it is not fugly, and can be worn as a normal watch. The inverted screen looks cool but is difficult to read; Garmin appears to have realized that this was too much of a case of form over functionality and has incorporated a colour screen into the Fenix 3. I don't plan to wear it as a daytime watch as I already have my Casio Rangeman G-Shock which makes even the Fenix 2 look diminutive. This is what I call my "Zombie Apocalypse" watch in that it will probably still keep on working long after mankind has destroyed itself (although the automatic timesetting by radio will stop working I guess). I noticed that the large buttons with the little spikes are the same on both watches so I'm guessing that Garmin took some design cues from Casio here.

The only other features a triathlete or serious runner might miss from the 310 XT that I have noticed are that there is no ability to set heart rate zones per sport - the zones are very different between cycling and running, but not everybody cares about that. The other slight niggle is a bit specific and it comes about due to how the menus are organized: if you want to follow a prerecorded track you choose the "navigate" activity which, as it doesn't know whether you are running or cycling, does not record your running cadence if you have previously linked a bike cadence sensor. What I do miss when following a track, is that it doesn't alert you when you go off course; the 310 XT was a bit of a mixed blessing in this regard because the alert used to mean that the map would stop updating just when you needed it most (I think they fixed this in a firmware update eventually). Anyway, so far I'm happy in spite of it already locking up once on me. You kinda get used to the odd glitch with Garmin watches (I think they must have pretty poor programmers working there) but you sort of grow to forgive them as the watches are so cool when they actually work. On the other end of the spectrum, when an Apple product fails you tend to have zero tolerance because you get accustomed to such a high standard. Like when we tried to get an old iPhone working this weekend, we were greeted with this message

iPhone is blocked, try again in 23,758,096 minutes
My guess is that on the 4th of March 2015 at around 4:11 PM, we typed in the wrong PIN too many times and blocked the phone until 5 minutes later at 4:16 PM. We then took so long to get around to buying a new SIM card (the phone was given too us so we had to buy another line) that it ran out of batteries and went into such a profound sleep that it forgot the date and thought it was the 1st of January 1970 again: 23,758,096 minutes before 4:16 PM on the 4th of March 2015...