Saturday, January 23, 2016

SPACE Mission Update: Signs of Improvement

I'm really encouraged by the improvement I've seen in my performance after I hit the halfway mark of the SPACE study. As of today, I've completed 15 of 26 weeks. And as I noted in my earlier post, I've really learned a lot. My mid-protocol test results are back too, so I thought I'd share some of that information for the data-curious among you.

The Tests
The second set of performance tests is a chance to compare my results with my baseline numbers. I wrote a bit more about those here, in case you'd like to catch up. But I'll repeat the numbers below side by side with the new results for comparison.

Bill during V02Max test
There are three measures to compare: 1) a static leg strength test, a V02Max test, and a body fat composition test. Of the three, the most dramatic and difficult - by far - is the V02Max test. This is where the goal is to pedal on a stationary bike with the resistance increasing every 2:00 minutes. The directive from the physiologist conducting the test: "Pedal to exhaustion." All of this happens while strapped to a breathing tube, nose pinched shut, so as to measure the consumption of oxygen and the composition of the gases you are inhaling and exhaling.

Well...see above for yourself! In the picture, I'd only just started, so I look rather composed. By the end, I was not in such pristine form.

The other two tests are much less demanding. The static leg strength test involves having your dominant leg strapped to a dynamometer that measures the force you exert when moving your leg. There are a series of measures, from pushing against a solid force to kicking the leg out against variable resistance. The heaviest repetitions are heavy enough that you can't move the leg fast at all. The longest test involves kicking out and pulling back as rapidly as possible twenty times against less resistance. This allows for measurement of endurance as well as peak force.

The third test is body fat percentage. This is the easiest physically. You strip down to a pair of bike shorts and sit in a big egg-shaped machine. What this test lacks in physical demands, it more than makes up for in emotional ones. Humbling. To say the least.

Results: Getting Better!
I went into the testing period thinking I might have improved some, but with modest expectations. So it was really heartening to see that I improved quite a bit on all of the measures! Results compared with baseline numbers are in the tables below, followed by some discussion.

Leg Strength Baseline Midpoint
% of bodyweight 85 147

Body Composition Baseline Midpoint
weight (kg) 75.6 76.4
% of lean body mass 23.1 22.3

V02Max Baseline Midpoint
ml/kg/min V02 43.5 48.3
METS 12.4 13.8
Peak Watts 275 325
MAX Heart Rate (BPM) 187 188

First things first, that weight includes my clothes and shoes! As you can see, I gained about a pound between September and January. Not bad, given my usual spiral into winter. But this is one time I can say, without it being pure fabrication, that the weight gained was muscle rather than fat! Why? Because my lean body mass percentage improved over the same period. So far so good.

It makes sense that I gained some muscle when you look at the results of my leg strength test. In September, I was able to move 85 percent of my bodyweight with my right quadriceps (the machine isolates these). In January, I improved to 147% of my bodyweight. Big gain!

My V02Max numbers also improved more than I expected. I knew that I could push more Watts than before, based on what I was able to do on a day-by-day basis in the lab during my 30 minute continuous workouts. But it was nice to see this translated into a nearly 5% increase in V02, from 43.5 to 48.3. Here's what that translates to using the chart I linked to in an earlier post:
I go from the upper end of the "Good" category to the upper end of the "Excellent" category. Not bad. Knocking on the door of Superior. Maybe they'll let me in come April.

What Does It All Mean?
It's pretty clear to me that the kind of short (30 minutes or less per day), but intense and very, very consistent workouts I've been doing can translate to good results. And not just in my baseline fitness and potential, as the mid-point numbers show. I am seeing real improvement in my performances as well. Based on what I've done in my 30 minute workouts, for instance, here is a comparison with week 6 and last week:

3 x 30 Min Continuous Week 6 Week 14
Avg. Watts 235.38 240.2
Avg HR (BPM) 171 162

What that translates to is three 30 min. workouts last week, all of which topped 240W and all done at a HR that felt less like imminent death. Based on my most recent performance data, I think my functional threshold power is now somewhere between 228-232W, with peak 1 minute Watts of 325 at the end of a 30 minute effort. 30s peak power is about 375-400W. And, based on my daily experiments in pacing, I think I could do a few attacks at 300+ W in a race situation, if I rode smart and had recovery options. There will be no long breakaways above 240W, but I now see I have some tools in the toolkit to play with.

Friday, January 1, 2016

SPACE odyssey: the halfway mark

I just finished week 13 of my Mars mission (background here), so it is time for an update about how things are proceeding. I will be doing my mid-protocol tests next week, so I'll have numbers to report like I have done previously shortly. But for now, I'll stick to the things that stand out to me - either as realizations or observations - about the overall experience of being a participant in this fascinating study. And for each, I've set a little goal (it is New Year's Day, after all!) for the coming year.

1. It remains on the whole, fun for me to participate in this study.
This is not a revelation, though I am happy to report it now with more certainty than I would have had at the beginning. Working out 6 days a week and following a very structured workout each time is something I've never done with this degree of precision. Because the point of this, from a scientific point of view, is to make a dataset for the team to analyze, I am doing exactly what is called for each day with no deviations. This is true for each individual day, but also for each week with just a few exceptions when I've had to reschedule a session due to travel.

But I like the regularity of the workouts very much. I'm going to try to keep up the pattern of 6 workouts/week throughout the year even when the study is done.

2. Intensity is much much more important than I thought for producing physiological adaptations.
This is saying something, because I've understood for a long time what the point of exercise is - to create stress that causes the body to adapt. The interesting thing I've started to see now, though, due to the large amount of data I am producing from a very consistent workout regimen is just how much adaptation can come from relatively short, but hard workouts. I'll have more to say about this once I get my next set of testing data back, but here are a few bits that you might find interesting.

At the six week mark, I reported that my best 30 minute sustained efforts came when I was producing between 235-240W. Those are continuous, no coasting, no rest numbers. So they function like an FTP test. I do this workout every other day. So I've done it about 28 times now.

As I start week 14, I am consistently able to produce W in that range. One key difference though is that at Week 6 I was doing that with an average HR of 170-172. At 13 weeks, it's more like 162-164 for the same power. I haven't seen a lot of improvement in my PR for the 30 min workout. I think this is due to the fact that my regimen is not really designed to produce huge gains in performance, but is rather designed to help astronauts maintain fitness levels in zero gravity conditions. Still, I'm getting better: more efficient and better able to use more of the total power I can produce.

An area where I have seen consistent improvement is the 4x4:00 interval workouts, with 3:00 active recovery in between. These long intervals are done at a Wattage level of my choosing (unlike the other two intervals, which are set by the computer), so I can dial them up to 11. I think about these days as the days I get better. Early on, I was doing these at 240 or 250W. In week 3, I started at 268 W for interval one and had to drop way back in subsequent intervals to try and recover from that first one.

But these days, I'm doing 4x4:00 at 283W. That's a big difference. Considering that in my baseline max test, I was only able to get to 275W (for 2:00), it's a noticeable change (though not necessarily a big change in my V02Max). I think by the end of the study, I'll be able to do 300W for all 16:00 worth of work interval. That's my goal, at least.

3. Making the Science is Weird.
First, I want to say that everyone I see as part of the study - all of the research assistants, post-docs, and others who run the project on a day-to-day basis - has been extremely nice, courteous, generous, grateful, and professional. They have clearly been very well prepared by the folks in the lab. But they are also, in general, super nice folks. They go out of their way to treat us like people (not like gerbils running on a wheel) and to express their gratitude for our effort and commitment to the project.

I can see why the PI's on the project spend time training the research staff to be like this. Because it is just a little bit weird to be a research subject. Some of the measurements - like blood pressure, etc. - feel like a visit to the Dr.'s office. But for the workouts, there are specific cues for the researchers to collect key data points such as our heart rate, cycling cadence (revolutions per minute), watts, and/or perceived exertion level (how hard we feel we are working). And so it's a little strange going full bore in front of other people who are literally measuring your effort. I think about folks being nervous to work out in a gym in front of others they don't know. Try doing it while someone is literally standing right beside you, taking your HR after every 30 second interval!

The takeaway here is simply that I've got nothing to hide any more. Now that I've been a 45 year old rat in a lab, slathered in electrode gel, huffing like a freight train in front of undergrads less than half my age (good god) writing down everything I can do or can't do on a given day...I know I can go to the pain cave now in front of anybody.

Bring it on, 2016!