Sunday, March 27, 2016

SPACE Lab: Mission Accomplished!

After 138 days, my mission is complete and like American astronaut and International Space Station Commander Scott Kelly, I'm back on Earth. Ok, he's back. I technically never got up the gravity well like Kelly did. I'm more like his twin brother Mark who stayed on Earth but performed a similar exercise regimen in order to learn how human bodies adapt to zero gravity conditions during extended space flights.

So in at least one way, Mark and Scott and I all have something in common: we're all contributing to the research that will help humans travel to Mars someday. And that's so cool I can hardly stand it.

Training Like an Astronaut
What is even better, the benefits of the study to me personally were substantial as well.  In previous posts, I've written about the exercise routines and the test regimen that evaluates the physiological results. And now we can see the outcomes for the full protocol. Here are a set of tables that summarize where I began, where I was at the midpoint of the study, and where I finished last week:

Leg Strength Baseline Midpoint Final
% of bodyweight 85 147 ??

Body Composition Baseline Midpoint Final
weight (kg) 75.6 76.4 74.3
% of fat body mass 23.1 22.3 21.3

V02Max Baseline Midpoint Final
ml/kg/min V02 43.5 48.3 51.7
METS 12.4 13.8 14.7
Peak Watts 275 325 325
MAX Heart Rate (BPM) 187 188 182

As you can see, I've continued to improve throughout the study. On Monday 3/28, I'll take my final leg strength test so those results are still pending. But the V02Max results are really encouraging. Frankly, I'm surprised at how much I was able to improve. I'm very happy to see it, mostly because while I've certainly had a sense that when I train hard I improve, I've never had the empirical evidence in this way.

Heck, very, very few people ever get anything like these results including professional bike racers. They have data, but this is a very controlled study with every outcome measure done with all of the scientific precautions one takes to control for confounding variables. So what you see is as close to what can be measured as was possible over an extended study.

So What Does It All Mean?
Well, it depends on what kind of perspective you are looking for, of course. One very important takeaway for me that I think is something for lots of people to think about is this: you can see big, measurable gains in your overall fitness with 30 minutes or less of exercise a day...IF it is at the right intensity.

What is interesting to me is that this is likely to surprise both normal folks who are just trying to get healthy by adding some exercise to their daily routines and hard core endurance athletes who were trained to believe that massive volume (lots of hours in the saddle, for example) is the only way to big improvements. I was in that latter camp. But no longer. I mean, take a look:
I'm 45 years old. Over the course of this study I moved up from Good to Excellent to Superior. I'll get a full debriefing from the scientists running this study soon (and I'll write about that!), but the lab techs who do the physiological testing - different from the lab where I completed the intervention - were already able to tell me that my performance was the best they had seen. And I didn't get there by being genetically gifted. It just took working very hard six days a week. How hard? Consistently at my limit. Pushing it every day. Needing a full shower after 4 x 4:00 intervals at an average W of 288. That kind of thing. Hard.

It makes a difference in what I can do on the bike too. Here's my 30 minuted sustained effort comparison:

3 x 30 Min Continuous Week 6 Week 12 Week 21
Avg. Watts 235.38 240.2 253.71
Avg HR (BPM) 171 162 168

I was very happy to put down 250W for 30 minutes. That's a big effort on a stationary bike where there is no coasting, there are no downhills, just you and the machine. And through it all, I stayed very close to my limit for the "damn this feels terrible" heart rate which is 166. Not all day pace by any means, but sustainable for just about as long as I would ever need on the road in a hard group ride or even in a road race unless I was in some crazy, ill-fated solo break.

Ground Control to Major Tom...
I feel really grateful for the opportunity this study has given me to explore my limits with a level of precision, intensity, and regularity that I've never had before. It will stay with me. I now know, beyond a doubt, that I can be better if I work hard. I know that I can keep getting better too. What I don't know is where the ceiling is! If I could sign up for another round to find out, you better believe I would do it.