I arrived at the GSSI lab (located within one of Loughborough University’s extensive sports facilities) first thing on Tuesday morning, and was initially a little disappointed that it wasn’t in an underground bunker. The disappointment stopped there though because, irrespective of its above-groundness, the place was amazing. It reminded me of Ivan Drago’s futuristic gym in Rocky 4, only with nicer décor and fewer punchy giant Russians.
I met the team: Rebecca (who I’d last seen as a speaker at Write this Run back in May), Ian and James. Once I’d been joined by my fellow guinea pig, Dan, we got on with the business of being experimented on*.The order of the day went something like this:
I think I passed this one. Well, I didn’t get any on my shoes, so that’s at least a B+.
This was in two parts. The D2 machine looks like a speak-your-weight machine on steroids and tests your hand/eye coordination and reaction speed. It consists of a big panel with an LCD screen in the middle surrounded by an array of red LEDs, and you have to hit them as they light up in a random sequence. To make it harder, every few seconds you have to read out a four digit number that briefly flashes up on the LCD screen. The whole exercise has a bit of a “sci fi torture chamber” vibe to it, to the point where every time I was a bit slow to react, I fully expected to receive an electric shock and be dragged back to my cell by a couple of Plutonian Lizardmen.
The second test was on the I-Span system, which resembles a cable crossover machine with a light-up thingy in each corner, just on the edge of your peripheral vision. You have to stand back from the machine, and then step forward and hit the lights as they illuminate in a random sequence, returning to your line after each one. These GSSI people really seem to have a grudge against lights.
I was told that the purpose of this exercise was to test my whole-body reaction time. However, after a minute of clumsily flailing around like a drunk octopus at a roller disco, it became clear to me that the real purpose of this was just to amuse my captors the GSSI team.
Hand grip strength
I’ve done this test many times through my day-job, and always been pretty awful at it. I think I would have done better this time if they’d adapted the machine you have to squeeze so that it resembled the throat of whoever invented the I-Span test.
These were a series of questions regarding diet, sleep patterns, hydration, nutrition and training. I adopted a clever strategy from my college days and just answered “C” for every question. In hindsight this may not have been the wisest move, as they were mostly yes/no questions.
This started off with the usual height/weight measuring and the use of bioelectrical impedance scales, but quickly became a bit more scifi. I was asked to sit in a giant egg, the BodPod, which uses slight changes in pressure to determine the ratio of lean muscle to fat. It looks very much like an escape capsule and makes a soothing whumwhumWHUMwum noise when you’re inside.
The final stage of body composition analysis was a ride on the DEXA scanner. This is the jewel in GSSI’s crown and an amazing piece of kit, giving a detailed analysis of body composition in just seven minutes. Actually, I think I might have shaved a minute off by virtue of being a shortarse. When the scanner got down to my feet I’m sure I heard a computerised voice say “where’s the rest of him?”
Incidentally, I spent most of those seven minutes imagining I was a tiny man trapped inside a photocopier.
I was a brave little soldier.
This is the bit you always see on the telly when people are talking about sports science, and it was brilliant. I stepped up onto an oversized treadmill before being strapped into a body harness and oxygen mask. The mask was in turn connected to a pair of big tubes, neither of which were for the mid-run delivery of chocolate milk. Shame on you GSSI, shame on you.
I was given a choice of music to accompany my efforts (although Dan had already beaten me to ACDC, and they had a distinct lack of Bavarian flugelhorn jazz) and then the test began. They measure your VO2Max by starting off at a gentle walk and zero incline, then increasing the speed every few minutes until you start working anaerobically. From this point onwards the speed stays the same but they ramp up the incline until you can’t go on anymore, at which point you simply step off the machine (and start crying and wet yourself. Or maybe that was just me). What you must NOT do under ANY circumstances (and they were frighteningly clear on this) is press the big red button on the side of the treadmill. This would have been fine, except it was within easy reach and was absolutely positively the most enticing, shiny, big red button I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t dare press it and can only imagine why it’s off-limits. Perhaps every time the button is pressed they lose 20% off their research budget, or a kitten dies, or the person on the treadmill is catapulted 30ft into the air. Actually, it really was very shiny, so it’s probably just that they didn’t want people getting fingerprints all over it.
The actual experience of running with an oxygen mask on wasn’t as weird or claustrophobic as I’d imagined it would be. The worst bit was the big tubes which were held in position by some elasticated webbing on the front of the treadmill, which made me feel like I was being led along by a head-harness and took a bit of getting used to.
It was at this point that James realised he’d left a bit of blood still in me, so in went the needle again.
I think it was something to do with comparing the results pre- and post-exercise, or maybe James just really likes blood.
This should really be called the “nyyyyyyrghhhhh test”, based on the noises coming from both Dan and I during the last few seconds of it. You clip onto a modified static road bike with electromagnetic resistance gubbins on the back wheel, and then after pootling around for a bit you have to sprint for the longest 30 seconds in the world while people shout at you. I’m assuming that they were shouting something to encourage and motivate me, but I was in such a world of pain and fatigue that, for all I know, they could have been shouting the names of their favourite wombles or a nice recipe for scones. The purpose of this test is to measure peak power output, and to harvest the tears of grown men.
The sit down with a nice cup of coffee test
I’m pretty sure I aced this one.
Within a few minutes, the results were in (other than the blood tests, which come back a couple weeks later and will hopefully clarify once and for all whether I’m more chimpanzee than human). Dan and I were each given a 26-page folder containing a personalized breakdown of our results. Well, I say breakdown; compared to Dan’s results mine were more of a seven car pile-up. Most runners get a little bit tingly wherever stats are concerned, and this folder was a goldmine of facts, figures and sweet, sweet graphs. You know how you can get those personalised books for kids, usually around Christmas time, where they star as the princess/space adventurer/plumber**? Well this was that, but for runners.
There was some really interesting stuff in my folder, but (thankfully) not too many surprises…
- I’m the same height that I thought I was. Good start.
- I’m lighter than I have any right to be, given my recent lack of training and the fact that whenever I walk through the kitchen late at night, cheese keeps jumping out of the fridge and into my mouth.
- …having said that I do still have a cuddly tummy. That might not be the exact wording used on the report.
- According to the DEXA scan, I have an obese right ankle.
- I have treacherous urine. When I provided the sample at the beginning of the day it was the colour of fake tan (“significantly dehydrated”) but then straight after that it became a much healthier “angel tears mixed with lemon juice” colour. It’s just occurred to me that I spend a vastly disproportionate amount of my time either weeing or looking at my wee.
- Eye-hand reaction speed = above average. As someone who can’t even change a TV channel without kicking myself half to death, this came as a bit of a surprise.
- Whole-body reaction speed = below average. Ah, that’s better. My only explanation is that my eyes and hands have been sneaking off for secret training sessions while the rest of me wasn’t looking.
- Hand-grip strength = below average. Explains why all those toddlers keep managing to steal my snacks.
- Wingate results: Peak Power = Fair, Mean Power = Average, 30s Fatigue Index = Above average. To be honest, I wasn’t too bothered about the results of the Wingate test, as this type of fitness isn’t really much of a factor in my chosen sport***.
- VO2 Max look reasonably good (50.8), but I haven’t had a chance to properly go through the stats yet. This is the part of the report I’m really looking forward to poring over. In a few days the report will just flop open at this page, like the bra pages of a Littlewoods catalogue in a teenage boys room.
Rebecca went through the results with us, and we discussed ways to improve them. I was quite interested in “fasted running” (i.e. going out for a morning run without having consumed any calories since the evening before) in order to teach your body to burn a higher percentage of fat as its primary fuel rather than going straight for the delicious carb-y glycogen. I’ve not skipped breakfast in as long as I can remember, but I might have to give this one a try.
I did my best not to compare my results with Dan’s, seeing as he’s an ultra-running fitness machine and I’m, by comparison, mostly custard. In general though, my results were more or less where I expected them to be: almost certainly alive, and with a respectable level of fitness but plenty of room for improvement.
Massive thanks to the GSSI team for what was a very interesting day out. I did my best to hide my cheesy grin, but it was tons of fun playing “athlete” (And occasionally, when nobody was looking, “trainee astronaut”) in their awesome lab. As you’d expect, there’s a lot of demand for this kind of testing and they do have a hefty waiting list at the moment. However, if you want to follow the team on twitter I’m sure they’ll announce when spaces become available:
If you want to learn more about what they do at GSSI, head over to www.gssiweb.org/* They probably prefer a term like “participating in an array of physiological testing” but mine’s better. ** I had a strange childhood. *** Anyone who’s seen me run will probably tell you that no type of fitness is much of a factor in my chosen sport (“amateur interpretative waddling”)