TRAINING: Physiological testing with UCD

I received the preliminary results of my lactate and VO2 max test which I did at UCD under the capable direction of Romain Denis, the resident physiologist and expert marathoner.

It’s in the blood…

The test protocol is simple: After filling out some paper-work, my resting heart rate is recorded and a blood sample taken to deduce haemoglobin and haematocrit values. Haemoglobin is the iron-containing oxygen transporting protein in our red blood cells and so this tells you a lot about whether you are anaemic, a crippling condition for athletes lowering your ability to utilise oxygen and largely invalidating any training you have done.

Thankfully mine was within the normal range (Romain considered 13.5 to 17.1 g/dl normal, while some sources say 13.8 to 18). My measurement returned a figure of 14.1, so on the low side, but Romain explained not to be alarmed as heavy mileage periods always cause a sudden drop in your haemoglobin count to be followed by an abrupt spike as the body adapt (this is similar to what altitude training purports to do, if less dramatic).

Before the test starts, I spend about ten minutes getting used to the breathing apparatus whilst jogging away on the treadmill.

 Test 1 – Lactate threshold test

The first test consists of running intervals with a duration of 3 minutes at a set speed after which capillary blood is drawn from your fingers and your speed increases by 1kph for another 3 minutes. The test concludes when you hit a speed where the lactate content in your blood starts to spike.

This spike is a reaction to your body no longer being able to fulfil the energy requirements of the pace you are running primarily through the aerobic (fat-burning) system. As a result, the anaerobic system is increasingly employed causing lactate to be secreted into your bloodstream to be used as fuel for this process. The more well-trained the runner, the latter this occurs and the better your body can utilise the lactate and thus clear it from the bloodstream before concentration starts to build.

We started at a leisurely 11kph (slow jogging pace) and then moved on from there. Today my lactate turn-point seemed to occur somewhere after 17kph, so Romain decided to leave it there as he had the information he needed and wanted to keep me fresh for the VO2 max test.

Test 2 – VO2 Max Test

After a ten minute rest it was time for the really painful race, towards the end it should feel like “the end of a cross-country race”, to which Romain gleefully nodded.

Once again I began running 11kph but this time I would run only one minute for each increment and would continue until I felt forced to jump off the treadmill. Sounded good, I am always disappointed when they force you to stop when you still think there’s a bit of pain to be given.

The mid-increments felt harder this time perhaps because I was holding back for “show-time” when the pace went above 17kph. I had never run faster in a treadmill test, so this was my chance and I held on through 18kph before starting to struggle in 19kph. For a while I thought I’d hang in there to the promised land, 20kph, or 3:00min/km, but half-way through the interval I had to capitulate and jump off. “Good test,” said Romain, “with some sharpening work you would probably have lasted through the 19kph”, referring to my purely aerobic work at this point.

Anyway, this was the best test I have managed in a laboratory so far and I left it feeling encouraged and my approach fully vindicated. Continue down this path and more improvement will come. With the quality of this test, I’ll seek to repeat it in three month’s time before the season really begins and see where I stand.


I won’t compare to previous tests until I have received my full results as that would be jumping to conclusions but Romain did inspire me by saying: “Looking at your lactate profile you have the same marathon potential as I do”. Romain is a 35-minute 10k runner and qualified for the French Marathon Championship with a 2:37 marathon time. “Then I trained like hell,” he sighed, this was two years ago, “and have been injured since”.

He couldn’t elaborate further at that point except to say that such a time would  require the correct training and that the initial result could be anything from 2:37 to 2:45. Looking at the time available for my next half-marathon, he did some calculations which confirmed I look to be right on target to run the time I have in mind.

I am obviously delighted to get some sort of proof that my faith in own abilities is not just castles in the air, but nevertheless I have to treat them as such and just go back to work and focus on one race at a time. I am sure there are a lot of potential 2:37 marathoners sitting around on barstools wondering what could have been, to borrow a phrase from Dick Hooper, so unless it’s on the board its meaningless.

For now, I retain my focus on learning to run better on the shorter distances and can instead steel my focus around a simple truth – anything less than 2:37 at the end of my running career would be a failure. But then, I never intended to be satisfied easily, so this really changes very little.