I’m wearing a mask which wouldn’t look out of place on the face of a fighter pilot. Puddles of sweat are forming on the floor around me, even though I’ve only been exercising for a few minutes. And if this doesn’t stop soon, I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw up. Welcome to the wonderful world of the ramp test.
There is a point to all this unpleasantness. I’m at 76 Harley Street in London, a private medical clinic which also offers sports testing and coaching. The test is being overseen by Professor Greg Whyte, 76’s head of sports and exercise medicine and performance. You might know the name, and you’ll probably know the face: Greg coached the comedian David Walliams for his charity cross-Channel swim.
The results of my test will be used to construct a training programme to get me as fit as possible in just six weeks, ready for my first big target of the season: the East Surrey Hardriders time trial. After a winter of not enough miles on the bike and too many hours on the sofa, there’s definitely work to be done.
If you’ve done a ramp max test before, then you’ll know how hard it can be. First of all I’m wired up so my heart can be monitored. The CPEX testing equipment, which 76 Harley Street say is among the most sophisticated of its kind, doesn’t just track the number of beats per minute. The lab technician, Jim Pate, says he can tell from the electrocardiograph that I have a large left ventricle. I decide to take this as a compliment.
Next the mask is strapped to my face, covering my mouth and nose. Greg explains that the CPEX machine I’m now hooked up to gives particularly accurate results because it analyses every breath, rather than at set intervals, and measures carbon dioxide as well as oxygen. This helps pinpoint key performance indicators such as my lactate threshold with precision.
The mask feels uncomfortably tight, but Greg and Jim assure me this is necessary to make sure it’s airtight. I start off with a gentle spin, turning my legs over to warm up. Then Jim begins the test proper. Some test protocols use step changes in power, jumping up by, say, 20 watts once a minute. The CPEX test uses a constant increase in resistance. Again, Greg says this will give more reliable results and more precise training zones for me to work to in future.
At first, I hardly feel the resistance changing, and just concentrate on holding an even cadence. After a few minutes, though, I’m having to focus hard to stop the pedal revs dropping. Another 30 seconds later and I’m struggling. Half a minute more is all it takes for the room to start swaying and the sweat to sting my eyes.
Jim and Greg are shouting encouragement, but it’s hard to hear them over what sounds like a cow giving birth. It's not a dignified noise for a grown man to make. It’s a huge relief when Jim decides he has the numbers he needs and shuts off the machine. A few minutes later I’m showered and dressed and ready for the results.
It’s safe to say I won’t get a call-up from British Cycling, but the numbers don’t look too bad. My VO2 maximum, the highest rate of oxygen consumption which my body can achieve when working flat out, is 58ml/min/kg. The VO2 max is often described as showing an individual’s potential as an athlete. I’m pleased that’s an above average result for someone of my age (35).
However, my lactate threshold needs work. This is the point at which the rate of lactate clearance can no longer keep up with the rate of lactate production. At my lactate threshold I’m putting out 210 watts, which is less than half of the 435 watts I achieved at VO2 max.
Greg looks over the numbers, and explains in broad terms the plan for the next six weeks. “It’s hard to get your VO2 max up much. What we need to do is bring your lactate threshold up towards your VO2 max.”
Easy to say, but hard work to do, and not much time to do it. In my next blog I'll look at training, and then I'll reveal how I did in the race, which took place earlier this month.
Sports testing alternatives
Many university sports science departments and coaching companies offer ramp tests and physiological assessments, which help establish heart rate zones for more effective training. Here are a few of them:
Carmichael Training Systems: Lance Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael, has training centres in Colorado Springs, Asheville and Tucson in the USA. Coaching packages from $160 per month.
RST Sport Solutions: With bases in Stafford, UK, and New South Wales, Australia, RST Sport Solutions offer testing and coaching, with packages starting from less than £25 per week.
Sportstest: Run by Dr Garry Palmer, Sportstest offer physiological testing from £165, with bases in the West Midlands and the south of Britain. Complete coaching packages are also available.