One aspect of being a competitive cyclist that I have always thoroughly enjoyed is when I get to do physiological tests on the bike. I did my first test over three years ago at a USA Cycling National Talent Identification Camp and have looked forward to every test since. Tests provide reliable, comparable, quantitative data that is hard to get otherwise. This year our Junior team has the luxury of being tested at the Stanford Human Performance Lab, a cutting-edge lab that does both physiological testing as well as research in a variety of sports.
The most common type of physiological test that is performed on cyclists is a Lactate Step Test. In a Step Test athletes start at a given wattage and increase every few minutes. Their blood lactate level is taken at the end of each "step" and is then used to determine a number of things including their Lactate Threshold and their wattage at OBLA (Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation). But, before I got to hop on my bike for the Step Test I got to have a body scan. Most body scans are done with either a hand held apparatus that sends shocks through the body to determine percentage of fat among other measurable things or with skin calipers. The machine at Stanford however is quite a bit more advanced. After getting dressed in my riding clothes I lay down on the scanner, when the scan began a large camera went back and forth taking pictures of my body. After about 6 minutes of lying there and having hundreds of small photos taken of me I was done. I then looked over at the computer screen and saw the image of my body. It was quite amazing to see a full picture of my body that measured density and showed my skeletal structure.
On to the physically demanding part, the Step Test. I did a good warm-up on the compu-trainer that had been set up and after a few calibrations we were ready to go. My first wattage was relatively easy, which was to be expected. Every 4 minutes the wattage increased by 35 watts and every four minutes added more and more pain. It is THAT pain that I enjoy about physiological tests; pain that builds and builds until you just can't take it anymore. Again, a blood sample was taken from my ear at the end of each 4 minute step so that my blood lactate level could be measured. The goal was to complete as many steps as possible; the longer the test is the more likely you are to have a high threshold or OBLA which are good indicators of endurance.
After cooling down on the trainer I had the chance to discuss the results of the test with the Exercise Physiologist that had been testing me, Phil Cutti. Phil helped to explain what was going on in the body at every lactate level and how that related to training and racing. I continue to be amazed by the amount of information that is gathered during a test such as this. With Phil's help, the help of my coach and others I am able to improve the quality of my training and hopefully my racing.