After twenty-odd years of bike racing I’m sure I’m not alone in being a little disorganised when it comes to training. Every year I start out with the right intentions, then stuff happens and you end up ‘just doing enough to get round’, or ‘racing yourself fit’. These terms are all too familiar with all cyclists and with the pressure of modern day living, how do you know if the training you are doing is working?
In the early nineties riders started talking about heart rates and the training techniques of the top professional riders changed drastically. They started talking about training zones, levels and fat percentages. Riders began using training diaries and going to sports institutes for assessment, the days of training all day until your legs fell off finally looked numbered. The riders changed too. Do you remember when Sean Yates lost about 2 stone and started winning races? or when Chris Boardman won in Barcelona? Training was now big news.
Who do you think you are?
I suppose every rider wants to know what kind of rider they are. How do they compare with a great rider like Lance Armstrong or something a little closer to home like the local club champion? What I was interested in was am I any good at this? Well I’m not kidding myself, I know how fast I can ride up Alpe D’Huez and it isn’t that impressive, but testing might be able to find out what type of training I need to do to be better, what type of race suits my physical talent (or lack of it) and find out some optimum training levels and guidelines. So with a fairly open mind I travelled to the West Midlands for a session with ‘The Doctor’.
Prepare for the big day…
Two weeks before the test a envelope arrives with instructions for the day, I have to eat 4 hours before the test (I had a sandwich from a service station on the way about an hour before, oops) and have to be there for 10.30am. Bring your bike, shoes and shorts. I’d also recommend that you drink plenty too, this is hot sweaty work. Sportstest is based in a unit on a small business park which is spacious and comfortable. There is a shower for after your test and an upstairs consultation room, it’s a very relaxed environment. Garry met me at the door and took my bike away to be mounted on the Kingcycle, I remember why I’m here and feel a little pensive.
An initial assessment is intended to let Garry find out where you are fitness-wise and what type of rider you are or have been. It’s a series of questions about your performance in competition, weekly mileage and how fit you think you are at the point of testing. During the interview Garry pointed out that my goals were a little weird (I like to keep my cycling ‘diverse’). He also asks about your health generally and there are some acceptance forms to sign. He tells me what’s going to be done and how, so I start to relax a bit, it doesn’t sound so bad.
Down to testing
First of all Garry tests your body composition, which means a body fat analysis with a variety of skin fold measures, these total up and give you a percentage. After much hilarity (I’m quite ticklish) he came up with some depressing stats. I know I have a tendency to ‘Ullrich’ a little in the winter but I wasn’t prepared for such a shock. I’ll spare you the grim details but let’s just say I haven’t eaten much since last Thursday. He weighs you and measures your height. This also contributes towards a power-to-weight ratio figure, but that comes later on…
Onto the bike
The equipment looks like something from a torture chamber but it serves to take readings from your heart and lungs. The gas mask will assess what your breathe in and exhale and the HR monitor tells you (via a handlebar monitor) and the machine what your ticker is up to.
The first test is a sub-maximal exercise test. This is where you have to take up a set pace for a certain amount of time. This is low level stuff and relatively painless, you just concentrate on keeping a pointer in the centre of a screen in front of you. After a ten minute warm up the first test lasts about 5 minutes followed by some recovery and another 10 minutes at a harder level, all fairly straightforward, so far.
It’s getting harder…
Now down to the serious stuff. This is when the machine picks up the pace progressively. Until you stop. Stop? What the hell does that mean? Can’t get the pedals to go any harder? Fall off the bike? Well something like that, let’s just say you’ll know when to stop, your legs will tell you. This started out OK, then the machine picks up the resistance and at around 260 watts I’m a sweaty mess, but I can plot my progress via the Watts on the computer screen and my HR monitor. So Garry covers up the heart rate monitor with a bit of sticky tape. Great. Now I can’t gauge my effort. A few minutes later and I’m beginning to hurt. Now he turns off the screen. Huh! (later he tell me this is so the test is ‘fair’ so the rider doesn’t either stop or go on trying to beat a given wattage or maximum) So now I have no idea where I am so I stare at the wall and grit my teeth. Try to pedal a little longer. Garry shouts encouragement. Then that’s it, all over. Ten minutes (or so) of agony.
All over the bike
Garry is pretty busy whilst you are suffering. He takes a video of you riding through the pain (it wasn’t pretty) and attends to all the wires and laptops around you. The video is really useful, it shows your position in action and he points out a few ‘issues’ I never realised I had.
After a shower and a drink we sit down to discuss the results. The sub-maximal exercise test results include Maximum Aerobic power, maximum power to weight ratio, combined with the Maximal exercise results that give you maximum heart rate and VO2 max. Also we have sub-maximal efficiency figures (how much energy goes out as heat or is wasted) and one minute recovery times. This all stacks up to give Garry a fair idea of where you are. The bad news is I’m not in good shape but there are some positives and Garry points these out and we discuss what to do next.
It’s not a competition
Garry is keen to stress that your figures are individual to you, like a fingerprint it has little resemblance to that of another rider, even of a similar height and build and Garry stresses that it’s not a competition. This is why he doesn’t like doing groups or riding buddies together as it can end up being a battle, all he wants is to get a true result of your capabilities.
Overall Garry has a enthusiastic approach to your fitness and he pitches his advice at the level of your knowledge, which I find quite refreshing. This is very good for someone who is learning about this sort of thing for the first time and his professional manner and method is very ‘comforting’. He suggests I lose some (ahem) weight and gives me a rough programme to follow for the next three months and although I know I’m never going to be the next Lance Armstrong, I leave Stourbridge feeling surprisingly motivated… now where’s that heart rate monitor.
Who is Dr Garry Palmer?
Garry has a first degree in sports studies from the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education, where he developed his experience of working with elite cyclists. Garry then went on to complete a PhD (Med) in exercise physiology at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and the University of Cape Town Medical School. In addition to being an accredited physiologist for both sports science support and research with the British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences, he has recently been advanced to the status of Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
He represented Western Province (South Africa) in both duathlon and triathlon. Garry has also enjoyed success as a runner, having previously captained Jersey (Channel Islands), and represented Hampshire at national and international cross-country and track events. As a physiologist Garry has experience to World Championship level in several sports. He has previously travelled as physiologist to the English Karate team to both World and European championships. His experience with cyclists has given him the skill to coach elite road and mountain bikers to achieve excellent results in international competition. He is currently working with Keith Murray and Adrian Timmis amoung other top ranking UK riders. Garry was also formerly physiologist to the South African Olympic Triathlon Team, and is now working with sports as diverse as motor racing and soccer and he is currently the physiologist at Wolverhampton Football Club.
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