Are you physically ready for ski season, be it downhill, nordic or skate skiing? Have you trained for the rigors of the sport?
If you’re not sure, the Physiology Lab at Central Oregon Community College is a place where anyone can test their conditioning before heading out on the slopes.
Two elite athletes were training for upcoming endurance events when we visited COCC’s Physiology Lab.
“Tucker (Thole) and I are getting ready for a mixed relay in ski mountaineering in Switzerland in March,” said Molly Zurn. “It will be one of six events that we do. We will each do an individual event and a team event. He will, he’s much stronger than me, put a rope on me and tow me which is something you can do in the team event. The team event takes about six hours. The relay will take 10 minutes each, so it’s quite a range of events that you have to train for.”
While running on a treadmill that tilts to replicate an uphill climb, test participants wear a mask with two one-way valves. One valve lets air in. The other valve is expired gases which is directed to a metabolic cart that has oxygen and CO2 sensors in it.
“We are measuring somebody’s maximal aerobic capacity, essentially the most amount of oxygen they are able to intake and utilize during activity. We don’t utilize all the oxygen that we breathe in. We push a lot of it back out. We are seeing essentially how big someone’s aerobic engine is,” said J.T. Strang, COCC Physiology Lab Coordinator.
Zurn and Thole are preparing to compete in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation’s Masters World Championships in Europe.
Ski mountaineering is backcountry skiing on steroids. Competitors race uphill on skis with skins for traction. They remove the skins and race downhill. Then they race up and down more hills going as fast as they can for as long as humanly possible.
Thole is training to beat certain competitors he raced against last year in Italy.
“I’m going to use the heart rate to get closer to them. So if there’s particular times in the race I can look at the heart rate, see how I’m feeling, see where they are ahead or hopefully behind. If I get ahead of them and I realize my heart rate is higher than it should be, I can slow down, let them catch up and be right there with them and then push later on so I don’t spend too much energy early and have them pass me at the end.”
Lactate threshold is the point at which blood lactate increases faster than the body’s ability to clean it up and muscle cells become acidic.
“When the acidity builds up, that’s when people start to fatigue,” Strang said. “Your legs get heavy and you have to slow down or stop.”
As a test gets progressively harder, the individual’s blood lactate level rises.
“When we see a non-linear break of typically more than one millimal between stages, that’s when we know they are at their threshold. And that is what many of the athletes who come in for testing want to identify and learn how to influence while they are training with a heart rate monitor,” Strang said. “That’s how they develop their future training program. They can tease that moment in time. They can do their interval training to try to nudge that lactate threshold further and further. The main goal of most athletes is increasing their lactate threshold over their main heart rate.”
The tests also give COCC Health Science students hands on learning opportunities.
The COVID pandemic shut down COCC’s Physiology Lab for more than a year, but it is open again to anyone who would like to test their physical fitness. There are fees associated with the different types of tests the lab offers. Call ahead to schedule an appointment.
“I’m 51 and I knew my heart rate zones had changed so I thought I’m going to come back, see where I am and what I can do,” Zurn said. “It was great confirmation to know that with the right amount of training, the right type of training and the right focus I could still get fitter at age 51. It’s pretty cool.”
Information gathered from these tests provide direction, purpose and goals for people trying to lose weight, prepare for ski season or extreme athletes trying to win endurance events.
“The only thing I care about is beating these two Austrian men, this one German, the Italians, the Swiss, the guys I raced last year. Those are the only guys I care about. If I can beat those 10 guys, then I’ll be super happy,” Tucker Thole said.