Breathe

I was very poor at maths at school, all those years ago. I also hated it. But if I had a particularly weak area of study amongst the subjects I enjoyed, it was sciences. I remember an end-of-year report when my chemistry teacher prophetically wrote “Enthusiasm for the experiments is just not enough”. Say no more! Such basics of science that I now tenuously possess have come to me much later in life. My enthusiasm for the experiments remains, however, and that’s really what this blog is about. Read it in tandem with the last couple of episodes, for context.

The incentive to learn any such science has, of course, been sport. While earnestly trying to add value to my training, about ten years ago, I began to dabble in the black arts of heart-rate based training, and stuff like that. This was a mix of good and bad things.

The good was that, by and large, (dying batteries notwithstanding), the heart rate monitor didn’t lie, and the results could be written up for future reference. The bad was that almost all heart-rate related articles online, and recording applications, etc, were based around the needs of distance runners. There has been an explosion of GPS tools, heart-rate and activity monitors, mobile apps, and so on in recent times, but I’d not be sticking my neck out too far if I said that the needs of distance runners still completely dominate the design and features of these. I’ve yet to find anything of that kind that is really any use to a sprinter.

One thing every athlete needs to do is to get their VO2max measured, and re-do this from time to time. To the distance runner, it’s a valuable benchmarking tool. To a sprinter like me, it provides a benchmark too, it’s true, but, less helpfully, it also serves to show how far adrift my ability to use the oxygen I breathe in is from what most distance runners would regard as good. This will be the case with most pure sprinters. On the half a dozen occasions I’ve tested my VO2max, it has never risen beyond the level most results charts declare as “Fair”. Fair comes below “Good”, of course.

This used to disappoint me. Back in the day, the way most people got their VO2max measured was by way of a “ramp test” on a treadmill or a bicycle ergometer. Both methods push you hard over a given period, then push you harder still, and so on, until failure. They are designed to get you to give 101%. They usually also require someone to be on hand to catch you when you collapse at the point at which you can go no further. Done conscientiously, this is not a pretty sight at times! Nowadays, there are ‘phone apps and stuff that put you through far less trauma, but have enough of a body of data underpinning them that they can extrapolate your VO2max with accuracy. This has its attractions for me, because it means I can do what I do best, and work really hard for a short period of time. And, to begin with, thinking this would declare that I had good VO2max after all, I dutifully did.

However, even these things tell me my VO2max remains firmly in the “Fair” category. A bit of reading consoled me that, to a certain extent, VO2max is genetically determined, and that it can be trained upwards a little, but never a lot.

So, I have come to terms with what (for example) running Parkrun every Saturday tells me: I simply don’t get as much physical performance out of a lungful of air as some other people. What is called my “aerobic” capacity is, and has always been, typical of a sprinter. I could have tried as hard as I liked in younger years to train my body to use each breath better, but it would never have made much difference. On those few occasions I’ve ever raced over 400 metres, I used to say to myself, with 150 metres left “GO!”. My body always used to reply with the message that it had actually “gone” somewhere around the 200 metres mark, and had little left to give!

What I can muster well, however, is anaerobic power. That, put simply, is my ability to continue turning out the power even when operating at close to maximum heart-rate while, of course, breathing as if every breath would be my last! It’s part of the physiological skill-set that marks most of us sprinters out.

It’s also what I’ve recently been using the Wattbike at my local gym to probe, because the good thing I read is that anaerobic capacity can be trained and improved, albeit not without pain. Most of the Wattbike tests are longer or shorter variations on the Wingate Anaerobic Test. To me, any such test that is designed to be carried out over 30 seconds is just fine. The Wattbike even has a test to establish peak wattage that is just six seconds long. I like that too!

However, what are giving me greatest satisfaction at the moment are the tests that last in the region of 20 to 30 minutes all told, and which are based around repeated, really hard efforts of 10 or 20 seconds duration, followed by, say, a 40 or 50 second “recovery” period. Typically, five hard burst/recover efforts are spread over six minutes or so, and repeated three times in all during the test, with a gentle phase of pedalling for a few minutes in between. During this phase, you try to remember who you are, what day it is, and what you’re doing here. This sort of thing often goes under the name of “high impact interval training”. The acronym “HIIT” is very appropriate.

Here’s a graph from one such recent session. The yellow line is cadence – the speed I’m pedalling at. The blue line is the power in watts that I’m putting out. The red line is heart rate.

My wattage peaks come in the short “power bursts”. There are 15 peaks (3 x 5) in this test, over a period of 24 minutes. The wattage peaks are achieved by pedalling as hard as I can, hence the blue peaks come at the same time as the yellow peaks. However, the key feature of this test is that it’s designed to be done at or near maximum heart rate, which is reached very early on in the test, because of the effort required to achieve the specified wattage level. My max is 160 beats per minute. Most of this test was done above 155 beats. Notice, however, that the red line has no corresponding peaks and troughs. The power is coming when my heart and lungs cannot process any more oxygen than they are already coping with. This is anaerobic power.

It’s not just a fluke of that test, either. I do a regular 20 minute warm up routine where my power, cadence and heart-rate all pretty much flatline for most of the time. However, the sting in the tail is three full-on sprints near the end. Each is very short, but very intensive, and has virtually no recovery time before the next. And here too, as the graph below shows, my ability to suddenly whip my output wattage up to far greater heights comes without my heart-rate suddenly spiking as well. The power isn’t coming from my body gulping in increased amounts of air and converting this to power. In this example, I’m not working at quite so close to heart rate max as in the previous example. The peaks are higher and shorter, and, as with a sprinter busting forth from the starting blocks, there is no time for heavier breathing or a faster pumping heart to provide the wherewithal. The power is anaerobically generated.

That’s it, really. A few things I thought it would be interesting to share.

Regulars will know I like to find a suitable blog title from within my big music collection. This time it was harder than usual, and Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” is (shamelessly) a little ironic.

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One Response to “Breathe”

  1. Angele Style Says:

    These experiments are obviously feeding your mind. Are you experimenting also with breathing and the energy fields that come from …no mind…. only BEING NESS? Do you feel like your practice is MIND/BODY BODY/MIND or is there a third element to the training you are experimenting with as well?

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