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Allied Health Services supports top athletes, weekend warriors

By David Sorensen

I am not an elite athlete.

If I were, Allied Health Services in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation would be an essential part of my training. The centre and its co-ordinator, Dr. Amy Butt, could put me through a battery of tests including sport-specific body composition analysis (we all want that, right?), musculoskeletal testing, hydrostatic weighing and aerobic fitness determination, better known as a VO2 max test.

I would take this info and incorporate the results into my regular workouts, train more efficiently and produce superior results.

However, as I said, I am not an elite athlete. I play rec hockey a few times and week, ride my bike when the weather warms up and walk my dog almost every day.

But here I am, breathing into a tube that is measuring my oxygen intake and a heart rate monitor that’s keeping track of my beating ticker.

It’s the VO2 max test which brings me to the appraisal centre housed in the basement of the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation. In the interest of experiential journalism, I've volunteered for the VO2 max test to provide an up-close-and-personal look at the analysis, and why it’s not just for high-level athletes, but can benefit the aging weekend warrior like myself interested in optimizing their physical fitness.

The test starts out with a 10-minute warmup on the bike at a moderate pace. You can take the test on the bike or the treadmill and since I cycle occasionally, and loathe running, the Allied Health team thinks I should stick to the pedals.

After the warmup and a five-minute break to get my heart rate back down, master’s student Geoff Power hooks me up to the mask, and we get going.

I’m off on the test. The idea of VO2 max is that you exercise at increasing difficulties – in this case, the resistance on the stationary bike increases every two minutes – until you fail. That's right, this is a test in which you are guaranteed to lose.

So I start at what Geoff tells me is 200 watts of resistance which increases by 20 every two minutes. At 200, it’s a steady ride, not too difficult. As the resistance increases – 220, 240, 260 – it starts to feel more like work, more Long’s Hill than LeMarchant Road. The co-ordinator and our photographer are cheering me on to keep going, but it still feels okay. Remember, you will fail this test, and failure for me is minutes away.

At 280, Strength and Conditioning Specialist Sylvie Fortier tells me that I'm spinning the wheels at 100 rpm, higher than the 85-90 I started at. I think that maybe I should slow down to the earlier revs. But with the change of pace comes the loss of rhythm and I know I'm on the way down.

Geoff said I should be able to get to 300 watts, and I’m determined to at least get there, pain or no pain. He likens 300 to Signal Hill at its steepest. As we hit 300, I can feel the ache in my quads. The cheers of encouragement sound harsh (who are these people and why are they screaming at me?) A minute into this pace and I’m done, sweat spilling down my nose and the blood pounding in my ears. That’s it? I thought I had more.

Still, the results, as interpreted by Sylvie Fortier, are interesting. For starters, she tells me that I'm pretty healthy for a non-athlete. My VO2 max of 43.5 places me in the 75th percentile, meaning only 25 per cent of my age group scores higher.

The VO2 max test is designed to measure how many millilitres of oxygen per kilogram can be utilized during a minute of full tilt activity.

Someone who scored 60 is considered an elite athlete. Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden measures in the high 70s, according to a recent article in Macleans magazine.

I also find out that at peak output, my heart is going 200 beats a minute. That sounds fast, but Sylvie assures me it’s fine.

So aside from making boring small talk (so, my VO2max is 43.5, what’s yours?), what's the value of this information?

Sylvie, who conducts this test on varsity athletes as well as provincial firefighters, says that generally speaking, the most efficient training should get you to 80 per cent of your VO2 max or peak heart rate. She can take your two results and create training zones that optimize your workout, if you are serious about it and want to measure your heart rate while you exercise.

For me, I get to 80 percent of peak heart rate, of 160 beats a minute, when I'm pushing the pedals at a resistance value of 240 watts.

(Remember, this is a general rule and training for different sports requires different programs of training). If I train at this level, I have the best chance at reaching optimal results.

Dr. Butt sees Allied Health as another component of all of the services available to elite athletes in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation that can help take their results to a national, even international, level.

And while varsity athletes are the centre’s priority, they envision a time when the services are available to the wider sports community, the university community and people in the province who want access to these facilities. As mentioned, firefighters are required to have a VO2 max test, and this is where they come to get it.

The centre is collaborating with the new Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Training Centre on Crosbie Rd. in St. John's to offer high performance sports testing and evaluation for the athletes based there.

It’s also important that students in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, such as Geoff Power, are provided research opportunities through the centre.

Want to know more? Allied Health Services will host an open house on Wednesday, June 25, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. which will feature a VO2 max test demonstration. Key stakeholders from the university, government and community are invited.
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