Hitting the Rest Button 2: Getting in the Zone

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In my last post, I discussed how important it is to hit the proverbial reset button during the off-season. Now that my “off season” is over though (no tears at its passing though, I was getting antsy), it is time to return

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to training and get back into the zone—my heart rate zone that is.

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the basement laboratory of my friend, Melissa Dalio of Endura Coaching (if you are in the DC area I would HIGHLY recommend going to her!) to get my VO2 max tested. The term “VO2 max” is a misunderstood concept and gets thrown about in the endurance world since people see it as the ultimate benchmark of fitness. For those of you who do not know what VO2 is, it is defined as:

VO2 max (also maximal oxygen consumption, maximal oxygen uptake, peak oxygen uptake or maximal aerobic capacity) is the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise, which reflects the physical fitness of the individual. The name is derived from V – volume, O2 – oxygen, max – maximum.

In layman’s terms: how much oxygen my body is using when I hit my peak heart rate. Thus, the more oxygen I can consume when pushing myself to the limit the better and more efficient I am. The benefits of this test though go far beyond seeing whether you are physically fit and bragging rights.

Knowing your peak heart rate and how much oxygen you are consuming allows you to set up proper training zone both for heart rate and by watts. Thus, when your coach says do an “easy run,” go at “tempo pace,” or sprint in “zone 5a,” you know to hit a specific zone and not go over or under it. Your training therefore becomes far more effective. Without this knowledge, I feel that I am training in the dark and am searching blindly for where I should be.

The test is pretty simple to administer either on a bike trainer (which is what I did) or on a treadmill. Having set my bike up on a computrainer, Mellissa strapped a heart rate monitor and mask on me with tubes that ran into her computer that would monitor oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output. After a good warm up, Mellissa began the test. At first, she set the computrainer to a fairly low wattage which I had to maintain; regardless of how fast or slow I pedaled, the trainer would keep that wattage. If my cadence dropped, it would feel harder but if I kept my cadence high it would feel easier. In specific time increments, Mellissa would bump up the wattage all the while recording my heart rate. Bit by bit, I began to feel really fatigued. My cadence began to drop as I felt as if I was cycling through deep mud; sweat began to pour off my brow; my heart rate jumped; my legs burned with the feeling of a good effort. Finally, I was going all out at which point she pulled the plug.

After a cool down, we reviewed the results. My VO2 max was 70.49 ml/kg/min with a max heart rate of 185. As expected my zones have changed since last year, which is why it is so important to get this test done frequently. With my new numbers, I can set my zones up properly for my winter training instead of using out of date numbers which may be too easy.

While lab testing is great, you do not have to go to a lab or specialist to get these results but can do them on your own. Joel Friel outlines several tests that you can do in his “Triathletes Training Bible,” which I highly recommend and treat as my own reference bible on all things training and triathlon.

To get the most of your winter training, get tested and get in the zone!