Well, it’s now been a few weeks since I’ve been riding consistently again and I definitely notice & feel the difference. My bike fit adjustment, although small, has helped quite a bit. My lower back appreciates it! But I know it’s important to incorporate more stretching and massage into my weekly routine.
I meant to get a VO2 test shortly after getting back on the bike, but you know how scheduling goes when your juggling work and family! This would have given me a snapshot of my baseline fitness in what I considered to be my “out of shape” state. By the time I got to my test today, my fitness was certainly much improved from that first ride back in June. I shouldn’t have waited so long but at least I know where I stand today. I’ve heard a lot of our customers say, “I’ve got to get in better shape before I get that VO2 test.” For some reason that is the way many people view a VO2 test, but it really is the complete opposite. The goal of the test is to see where your fitness stands right now. Then, you can utilize the numbers to guide your training starting the very next day! Unfortunately, I don’t think the term “VO2 test” is very good. Actually, it’s usually called a VO2 Max test. It sounds too scientific and does not convey why it’s beneficial. Some people use terminology such as “metabolic testing” or “physiological testing” but I don’t think they are much better. I use the term “fitness test” but that tends to get people nervous – who wants to test their fitness? What if I don’t measure up? What if I’m not in as good a shape as I thought? (probably the reason people think they need to “get in shape” before the test). First of all, that’s not the point! And second of all, I would say who cares? It’s not like anyone is going to post your results to Facebook!! The purpose of the test is not to see how your fitness stacks up against others – it’s to help YOU get better, no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
Whatever you call the test, I like the analogy of a car engine. Your body is the engine that powers the bike so you are essentially “looking under the hood” to get an engine diagnostic check. I think of the heart rate as the tachometer. You can only rev the engine into the red zone for so long before something bad happens. Our red zone is when our heart rate goes above our Anaerobic Threshold. We can handle this red zone for only so long before our body just gives out. The key to becoming a better cyclist or any sort of endurance athlete is to raise the threshold before you hit your red zone. This can be measured in terms of heart rate and power output (wattage).
Most people think of a VO2 Max test as someone running or cycling to complete and utter exhaustion while wearing a funny looking mask. It looks worse than it really is. The test starts out with an easy warm-up and you get used to the mask fairly quickly. Every couple of minutes, the power is ramped up 20-25 watts until you hit your Anaerobic Threshold and go a little beyond. And here is something you should know: you do not need to go to complete exhaustion! This is also known as a VO2 Submax test. The most important data is gained BEFORE hitting your maximum effort – that being your Anaerobic Threshold and training zones leading up to it. For most of us, those are the key metrics to help us train smarter. Some additional data IS gained if you do go to complete exhaustion, but it’s not required. For today’s test, I went above my Anaerobic Threshold but opted not to completely max out. The test itself only lasts 15 – 20 minutes but the process takes about an hour including a pre-test Q&A with the Exercise Physiologist as well as body fat and resting heart rate measurements.
Hopefully I’ve conveyed here that first, the purpose of the VO2 or “fitness” test is not to see how fit you are compared to others. It’s to see what YOUR engine looks like TODAY, so you can train better TOMORROW. And second, the test itself is fairly quick and not as tough as it might seem, especially since hitting your maximum heart rate is not required. If you want to, go for it, but it’s not necessary for the vast majority of us.
In my next “Back in the Saddle” series blog post, I will talk about the test results and most importantly, how to USE THE TEST RESULTS. Those who can benefit the most are actually the recreational to enthusiast cyclist and those just starting an exercise program – think recent couch potato!