The appliance of science

To date my training has never been particularly structured. I don’t know what my FTP is or what my training zones should be, I just ride. Over time I’ve figured some things out through trial and error and had some assumptions about my strengths and weaknesses. For the Transcontinental Race I won’t have the racing pedigree, the generous training time or the youth of the fastest contenders, so I’m looking for other ways to find a competitive edge and this means applying a bit of thought and analysis to proceedings. As I’m just about to begin a seven month block of training it’s the ideal time for a full physiological test and so this morning I spent a few hours at Le Beau Velo with Dr Garry Palmer conducting a Sportstest™.

The goal was to get a picture of where I am now; to understand the unique nature of how my body performs and to devise a plan to get me in the best condition possible for the race in July. The process begins with a telephone conversation to talk through my background, my goals and to explain a little about the structure of the test and what to expect. Then, ahead of the test itself, I filled in some assessment forms where I gave more detail on my sporting history, my lifestyle and a soft analysis of my strengths and weaknesses.

Bike set upArriving at Le Beau Velo, my bike was set up on the turbo trainer and I sat down to have another chat with Dr Palmer about my current training, which, I had to admit, was a bit poor over the past few weeks. It included things like maximum observed HR, average speed on recent zone 2 rides and so on. It gave him some benchmarks which would be useful to help him frame my session and be confident the test had been thorough, that I wouldn’t wimp out of the ramp test too early. We also spoke more about the race and the unique challenges that come with it. Here I had the chance to learn more about how my body will react to the extreme punishment of ultra-distance riding. It’s only ‘on paper’ but it’s great to be able to go out and test this in the real world armed with a better understanding of the science behind it.

“Yes, yes, there’s quite a bit of weight to come off here.”

Next up was some body composition tests. I’m a little heavier off the back of a few weeks off, Christmas and a ski trip in Canada, but I’ve been monitoring my weight daily so that wasn’t a surprise. 80.8kg at 6’4″. Now for the body fat analysis. My more traditionally-proportioned, non-cycling friends consider me to be very lean but once the kit came off I had to chuckle when Dr Palmer said “yes, yes, there’s quite a bit of weight to come off here”. My scales at home also have a bio-impedance function which measures body fat using electrical resistance. It’s a fairly blunt tool though and I’m far from a typical body, so I’ve never been too concerned about the absolute number it gave me (15.1% this morning). It is consistent though so it’s useful for monitoring general trends. By far the most accurate way to measure body fat is with a calliper test, but it does take some experience to administer it properly. My result was 11.8%, which means I’m carrying almost 10kg of fat. This is just below the 12-15% ‘ideal’ for the general population; high for an athlete but not atypical given the time of year. My target racing weight was set at 76.1kg at 6%. It’s possible to go as low as 74.5-75.0kg at 4.5% body fat but bearing in mind that I’m likely to lose even more on my way to Turkey it’s wise to be a bit heavier than that before the race starts, so I’m still at safe levels by the time I finish.

Just keep the kite centered in the frame. Easy, right?

On to the bike I begin with a calibration, slowly building up to 260 Watts of power. I’m fitted with a mask that measures the amount of oxygen I’m taking in and the amount of CO2 I’m breathing out. This allows us to calculate how many calories I’m burning and how that’s divided between carbohydrates and fats. I drop the power to 90W and start a gradual warm-up before the first of two sub-maximal tests. On the screen in front of me is a little kite that represents my power output. My task is to adjust my pedalling to keep the kite within the frame, the limits of which gradually adjust as the test continues. The required power rises slowly to 180W and settles there for five minutes to allow for an accurate reading. It’s all relatively easy but I’m expecting the hurt to come later. Over the next minute the power rises to 240W and holds again for a further five minutes. Again, this feels relatively comfortable and after five minutes I drop the gears and spin loosely to keep things warm.

Dr Palmer is surprised at my metabolic readings and the apparent ease of the effort at the measured heart rate. This echoes my own experiences out on the road and particularly on competitive sportives like Ride London or the Tour of Cambridgeshire. The results could also be down to a lack of energy though; something that will be revealed on the next phase: the ramp test.

“My stomach stages a protest and threatens to take direct action if this madness carries on.”

The ramp test involves a gradual increase in the power required until you cannot keep up and the body fails. It will always hurt. It might be a common concern when riders take these tests but I was worried here about quitting too soon. Am I actually a bit soft? Will my mind give up before my body has reached its full potential? We’ll soon find out. The power level rises by 1W every three seconds and soon we’re comfortably beyond the 240W of the previous test. Sportstest sideAt this point Dr Palmer turns off my data feed and masks my Garmin screen. This prevents my weak mind from getting involved in the decision-making about whether I can continue or not. The power builds. Several times I’m forced to change up a gear and then readjust to the new cadence. Things are still relatively manageable for a time though. Soon enough my breathing becomes more intense and is accompanied by some grunting and groaning. Sweat is beading down my face and my vision gets a little less clear. It hasn’t been that long yet. I thought I’d be stronger. Sensing the struggle Dr Palmer starts with the encouragement, “Great work Darren”. The eyes blur in and out; sweat, perhaps? “Give me 15 more seconds”. I contemplate another gear but the intensity feels like it’s ramping up too quickly and I’m worried that any brief hesitation will overpower me. “Keep going!”. The legs are flooded with lactate now. They’re on fire. The mind is weakening; would it be OK to stop now? That’s got to be a respectable output? “One last push!”. My stomach stages a protest and threatens to take direct action if this madness carries on. I dig in for one last push but there’s simply nothing in the tanks and it’s as if a switch has been flicked and the taps have turned off. As the kite dips below the frame I’m fairly confident I can do no more. When Dr Palmer puts me out of my misery my stomach issues a firm confirmation that I did indeed hit my maximum.

Sportstest Graph

Quickly enough my heart rate calms, the urge to vomit subsides and the room comes back into sharp focus. Dr Palmer tells me he saw 191bpm on the heart rate monitor and is satisfied that we got everything out of our test. He hands me a recovery drink and I settle down at his desk to review what we’ve learned. The ramp test confirmed that the results of the sub-maximal test were not related to a lack of energy. It appears I’m able to train at a high percentage of my threshold and still be in the fat-burning endurance zone. When Dr Palmer calls me “an absolute diesel engine” it’s music to my ears. He’s as delighted as I am because this is an ideal profile for ultra-distance racing. I’m not sure how much of this is a lucky result of the type of riding I’ve done over the past 18 months (long rides at around 160bpm, often under-fuelled) and how much is the even luckier result of genetics. I suspect it’s a combination of the two, but I’ve made a mental note to ask Dr Palmer about this on my next visit.

“When Dr Palmer calls me ‘an absolute diesel engine’ it’s music to my ears. It’s an ideal profile for ultra-distance racing.”

My maximum power is unspectacular but if I put ego aside that’s not really a factor in any of the riding that I do. That’s more useful for sprinters and crit-racers. VO2 Max and power-to-weight ratio were discussed. Both are respectable in my current condition but should improve to something closer to ‘elite’ standards by the time I’ve hit my target weight.

One of the most useful takeaways from the session was a tailored set of training zones and I was very happy to be told my endurance rides (which naturally make up the bulk of my training) should be between 152-162bpm. Recently I’d been really struggling to find motivation for 130bpm rides which are slow and unfulfilling, so this was great news. I now have a periodised training plan that should see me arrive on the Muur in the best condition possible for the Transcontinental. I’m looking forward to a follow-up visit with Dr Palmer before the race to see what progress I can make. The ramp test, not so much.

2 thoughts on “The appliance of science

  1. Reblogged this on Sportstest and commented:
    Fancy a small challenge? Darren Franks recently visited the lab in preparation for the Transcontinental Cycle race. That’s Flanders to Istanbul, totally unsupported, a route of approximately 4000km with around 55,000m of climbing!

    Here’s how Sportstest are helping….


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