Amateur Athletes Turn to High-Tech Labs Fit for Olympians
I’m furiously pedaling a stationary bike and sucking wind so hard it feels like I’m turning blue. Strapped to my head is a neoprene face mask that makes me look like a sweaty Hannibal Lecter. Attached to the mask is a white plastic hose connected to a black box joined to a laptop computer, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Holiday 2013 issue.
This $20,000 setup, called a metabolic cart, is gauging my VO2 max, or maximum oxygen consumption per minute. In layman’s terms, we’re quantifying my cardiovascular capacity.
I’m at BreakAway Performance, a San Francisco training lab that features fancy equipment and scientific methodologies commonly used to assess elite athletes and triathletes. I’m no thoroughbred; I’m 33, with a lapsed gym membership, bad knees and intermittent backache. But today, at least, I’m being treated like a pro hopeful.
During my comprehensive three-day work-up, I’ll be put through a gamut of diagnostics that evaluate everything from strength and flexibility to ergonomics and biomechanics. Beyond the basic numbers -- my weight and body-fat percentage -- technicians will gather such geeky physiological data points as anaerobic threshold, watt threshold and power-to-weight ratio. (The latter is especially crucial for cyclists.)
I’ll be photographed shirtless in shorts, standing and squatting, to check my anatomical orientation and posture. I’ll be filmed swimming laps in a pool and subsequently taught how to boost the power and efficiency of my strokes. I’ll even have the arches of my feet measured; plastic shims will subsequently be affixed to my cycling shoes for a custom, precisely calibrated fit that decreases the stress on my knees, hips and back.
For fitness buffs who work in data-intensive fields such as finance, the allure of this sort of highly quantitative, results-oriented training is obvious.
“These people are used to looking at spreadsheets, graphs and P&Ls all day long,” BreakAway founder Joel Ramirez says. “Our data speaks their language. The parallels are uncanny. The power-weight ratio is their profit margin.”
Roman Polnar, a 35-year-old financial adviser who was once an overweight pack-a-day smoker, is now prepping for his first Ironman triathlon.
“Having someone establish a base line and create target goals was incredibly liberating,” says Polnar. “I know what I need to focus on. Numbers don’t lie.”
The prevalence of datacentric performance training coincides with the booming popularity of endurance events like triathlons, where competitors run, swim and cycle. The average U.S. triathlete is 38 years old with an annual income of $126,000, according to a study conducted by market research firm TribeGroup. Sixty-eight percent of triathletes are white-collar workers, including doctors, lawyers and accountants.
“It’s an alpha sport,” says Scott Berlinger, a triathlon trainer at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York, which guides 150 athletes using the same techniques and technology as BreakAway. “You have to have a certain amount of confidence. It also comes down to economics. These are not cheap tests.”
A typical bill for the initial tests and services I received at BreakAway is about $1,000. Follow-up consultations and training sessions cost about $150 an hour. Although die-hards swear by them, all of this technology and data go only so far.
“At the end of the day, you have to understand what these numbers actually mean and how to use them -- and a computer can’t explain that to you,” Polnar says. “A good coach can create the right relationship between what the computer is telling you versus what your body is telling you.”
Diving Into Data
On my last day at BreakAway, I arrive excited to dive into my data. I’m immediately greeted with disheartening news: My VO2 max is 23.9 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute, which is among the lowest Ramirez has ever seen. Translation: I’m out of shape (45 to 55 is average; 60 to 70 is elite).
The results aren’t all bad. Ramirez calculates my body fat at 13 percent. That puts me in the lean “athlete” range, according to the guidelines set by the American Council on Exercise. Bonus: I don’t have to worry about my weight in the power-to-weight ratio.
After a few hours, we finish discussing my Profile Assessment, a one-page document containing stats and a prescriptive eight-week training plan. I’m told to strengthen my back with yoga and build up my aerobic base. By sticking to a target heart rate of 134 beats per minute, I’ll boost my endurance without running the risk of overtraining.
Assuming I stick to the plan, I’ll soon be ready to join the ranks of Ramirez’s top-tier clients. If I don’t put in the work, however, all the data in the world won’t help me improve. Right now, I feel ready to go for it.
“Think about your potential,” Ramirez tells me. “You have nowhere to go but up.”
(Steven Leckart is a contributing writer to Bloomberg Pursuits. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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