On Wednesday afternoon I shaved my legs for the first time in about eight weeks. Going Amazon didn’t start out as a conscious act; over winter break in Wisconsin and Seattle where no one cared about my body hair, I simply wasn’t compelled to waste the time and the water required to shave. When we returned to Princeton, the only man I was seeing around the boathouse was Tom, and since he wasn’t complaining about my hairy legs, much to the chagrin of some of my more squeamish teammates the hairy trend continued. It wasn’t until we were informed we would be having a thirty-minute test as our last workout before leaving for winter training in San Diego that it became a conscious compulsion—a superstitious act, if you will. Holding on to some of the invaluable information passed down to me by older, more experienced rowers while a rookie at Washington, I maintained the lessons learned from our salty Romanian seniors that absolutely under no circumstances were you to ever before a race: do your nails, cut or color your hair, or shave your legs. To do so meant imminent failure and bad luck for you and your teammates. So regardless of arguments of the aerodynamic properties of shaved vs. hairy legs for racing, the Amazon look had to stay through the test.
Aside from my superstitious body hair fashion statement and friendships thereby won and lost, this past test was an interesting bit of work for me in terms of evaluating fitness and racing capacity. In addition to the thirty minute test that we took on Wednesday morning, a small group of us were selected to do a lactate step test on Tuesday morning. This experience was entirely new to me, and in that respect, exciting and kind of fun. The purpose of lactate testing for rowers is to assign a physical number (500/m split, or number of watts) to an athlete’s anaerobic threshold. I am not a physiologist, biologist, or chemist, so I am not qualified to create a very detailed explanation of these terms and processes here, but the simple version as I understand it goes something like this:
There are two kinds of active work that your body can do: aerobic and anaerobic. All physical activity is done utilizing a ratio of aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. Anaerobic literally means “without oxygen” and is done via less-efficient but fast-acting energy pathways which rapidly use up the body’s energy (ATP) stores. This kind of work is short, powerful work such as sprinting or jumping. Aerobic work, on the other hand, is physical work that is done via the body’s more efficient energy pathways, and can be sustained for long periods of time. It is thought that the anaerobic threshold is the point at which aerobic activity becomes anaerobic, and lactate (lactic acid) begins to accumulate in the body tissue. The buildup of lactic acid in muscle tissue during strenuous exercise is thought to be linked to the “burning” sensation we all know and love so well. As our lactate tester told us on Wednesday, “when you cross the threshold, that’s when you start to get into trouble.”
So why determine your anaerobic threshold? That’s a great question. Knowing the extent to which you can achieve aerobic work without creating a buildup of lactic acid in your system is useful, since long periods of aerobic exercise are the best way to change your body’s physiology in ways that will eventually allow you to do more difficult work for longer periods of time (we call this “establishing a cardio base”, something I have been told many times that I do not have). If you know the workload at which your body is no longer functioning aerobically, you can adjust your training accordingly to maximize your effort without crossing over into the anaerobic zone. Lactate testing is also a useful tool for coaches and athletes to determine whether or not a training program is working for a given athlete by executing a series of steps throughout the training program and looking for positive changes in the athlete’s fitness.
The actual process of measuring an athlete’s lactate levels is done through testing blood during various levels of exertion. Thus, a step test. The first “step” has an athlete working at a level known to be below their anaerobic threshold. A blood sample is then taken–in our case an ear prick and a fashionable ear-bandaid–and lactate levels measured. The workload is then increased for the next step, and a second blood sample taken. These steps continue in this same way until a blood sample reads a lactate measurement of four milliMoles, and the body is beginning to work anaerobically. The threshold has been broken and your step test is completed. Our step test had us working in seven minute intervals. I started erging with seven minutes at 180 watts, then seven more at 200 watts, then a final seven at 230 watts, which broke my anaerobic threshold.
This kind of step testing is only one of many kinds of fitness tests available to coaches and athletes, including most commonly (for rowers) heart-rate max step-testing, and the dreaded VO2max testing. More on those two experiences as they come. For now I am happy to manage my lactate information and look for positive improvement there as my training continues, looking towards our February 6k and 2k tests. And now that we’re in the beautiful California sunshine and short-pants weather, tradition be damned: I packed my razor for San Diego.
More from California as I come down from my current state of euphoria and adjust to Pacific Standard Time.
See you out there,