Turn It Up – When Science Meets Bicycling

Editors Note:  This is the first article from WeBikeEugene’s newest contributor, Jennifer Hughes!

Another participant, David Kuhns, sweats it out for science!

Sweat poured down my face and landed in the puddle forming on the insulating, black floor mat.  I took a gulp from my third, 16-ounce water bottle, then my arms flung it back in its cage.  I turned up the volume of my iPod so loud that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” drowned out my heavy breathing.  With exhaustion creeping up through my burning lungs, I put my head down and pedaled harder. “You got it Jenn, keep it up!” The enthusiastic lab assistant shouted as I ferociously pedaled on a funky ergometer stationary bike in a heat chamber set to a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  “Your data is looking good!”

I was only 28 minutes into a 60-minute go-all-out-and-ride-as-hard-as-you-can time trial, and my legs felt like lead.  My heart pounded through my sweat-soaked, quick drying performance t-shirt that was a shade darker than when I started. The seconds felt like minutes, the minutes like hours.

Seventeen days earlier, I had committed to 20 days as a lab rat for Santiago Lorenzo, who, at the time of the study, was a University of Oregon Ph.D student working on his dissertation.  Lorenzo is currently doing post-doctorate training in the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. For the study, Lorenzo was researching what effects training in the heat have on athletic performance in hot and cold weather.  When I heard about earning 500 dollars as a subject, I signed my name on the dotted line.

On day one I wandered down the hallway and around the corner until I reached the entrance to the laboratory.  A hand written sign was posted on the door, “We are probably here, so KNOCK LOUDLY. ”  I pounded on the door.  As if Lorenzo was eagerly waiting for his next victim, the door opened instantly.  I looked up, and then up again.  A former Olympian decathlete, Lorenzo is nearly a foot taller than my 5’6 frame.  His veins poke through his muscular, tan-skinned arms.  By looking at his well-defined calves, it was mysterious that in the past two years, his workout regime was, well, not a regime.  (He said he only worked out two, maybe three times each month).  His infectious smile eliminated any intimidation I had, and I reached out to shake his hand.

I spent 10 days pedaling inside a 104-degree heat chamber at 50 percent of my maximum heart rate for two, 45-minute sessions.

The first and final five days of the study consisted of a series of tests that included one-hour time trials, and maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max tests) in both cool (55.4 degrees) and hot environments (100.4 degrees) and a skin day (lying down for nearly five hours while being poked and prodded). At the end of five days, I could confidently insert a thermometer into my anus without flinching. Surprisingly, the round, slender plastic thermometer easily slid right in without me hardly noticing. Sitting in a heated bathtub while sweat dripped from my forehead? No problem.  Having blood sucked from my veins every 15 minutes was starting to feel like second nature.

After five days of testing, I spent 10 days pedaling inside a 104-degree heat chamber at 50 percent of my maximum heart rate for two, 45-minute sessions. (In between the sessions? I sat inside of the heat chamber to really absorb the warmth in case I missed it while pedaling.)  It felt like 100 percent.  The lab assistant chatted at me to pass the time. I gulped water like there was going to be a drought the next day.  Lorenzo occasionally came into the room to see how I was doing, but I imagine he wanted to see how much pain I was in.  And I was in pain, but in the end, it was worth every ounce of sweat I lost because I helped Lorenzo make a groundbreaking discovery in the world of endurance.

I looked up at the clock:  59:31.  In less than 30 seconds, I would finish the tortuous time trial.   I could nearly see my reflection in the puddle-turned-pond at my feet.  “And…you’re done!” I suddenly heard in the background.  I stopped pedaling and reached for my water bottle to suck out the final drop.  I grabbed the damp towel from the handlebars and wiped my forehead.  The lab assistant removed the five wires that were taped to various parts of my body – my head, back, arms.  I sighed heavily, my shoulders relaxing for the first time in an hour, and I smiled because I was happy to be done with my final session in the heat.

At the conclusion of the study, Lorenzo found that cyclists’ performance in both cool and hot weather improves after undergoing training in heat while the athletes continue their own training.  The subjects who underwent heat acclimation improved their performance by an average of five to eight percent.  The subjects who did not undergo the heat acclimation process, and instead cycled for 10 days in a cool environment, did not see any changes in their performance in heat or cool conditions.  Some professional cyclists are already using this new training method to gain an edge on their competition the same way many professional athletes practice altitude training (train high, live low).

So, the next time you’re considering skipping your summer workout when its 100 degrees outside, maybe think instead of doing your workout twice, with a mere 10 minute break while you stand beneath the sweltering sun.

Author: Jennifer Hughes