The fat mystery widens

I went to The Nutritionist today. It’s been about a month since I last saw her. Since then I’ve been declared healthy by The Endocrinologist and I have had a VO2 max test at a local gym/personal training place in Hartsdale. But apparently the testers did not do a resting metabolic rate test, which they were supposed to. My data readouts also did not include calorie usage at the various heart rates, another requirement. The Nutritionist thinks the data for the latter is probably still in their machine, so she’s going to go try to get it from them. If it looks wacky, I will need to go back for a resting metabolic rate test. And if it’s not available, I’ll have to go for the VO2 max test again.

It’s been around 7 weeks since I first met with The Nutritionist and in this time, following what normal people follow to lose fat, I should have lost about 4 lbs. I have lost nothing. I have tracked every morsel of food and in fact, when asked if I’ve failed to account for the errant cookie, had to point out the cake I had for breakfast one day as well as double or triple vodka shots some evenings. I’ve been honest, even about things I’m not proud of.

It seems that on some days I am cutting too few calories, too many on others. I also am failing to take in enough carbohydrates after hard workouts. And I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. So I’m going to be given a menu of what to eat and when. We’re cutting calorie intake slightly. Then after we chase down the missing data, perhaps make more adjustments.

I would by lying if I said I wasn’t losing both faith and patience.

Here’s what the VO2 max test was like, if you’re curious. I was told that the place preferred to do it on a bike, and now I know why (wait for it). I requested a treadmill test nevertheless. I’m a runner, so I figured the calorie vs. heart rate/pace data would be more useful to me as a runner. Too bad it’s missing!

Okay, here’s what happens: They attach a big mask to your face with straps around your head. You look just like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The mask is equipped with a flexible membrane that contains a sensor that measures your intake of oxygen vs. your expulsion of carbon dioxide. From that they determine things like aerobic threshold, lactate threshold and VO2 max. I have a tiny head (no derisive comments, please), so the straps were at their tightest. Yet still the mask was loose, which means oxygen was escaping out the top, over the bridge of my nose. This was not a good thing. So one of the trainers had to stand next to the treadmill and hold the mask in place. Awkward.

The test lasted 12 minutes. The heart rate monitor was wonky at first (which is why I rarely use them anymore), plus I was nervous, so my heart rate was a soaring 104. This is double my usual resting rate. It would not come down. So we just went ahead and started the test.

After a very short warmup at 9:30 pace we launched into things, gradually picking up the pace over the next couple of minutes. Soon I was running flat at 7:30 pace. That was a pace I could run very comfortably at, which was a pleasant discovery. I think my marathon pace must be slightly slower than that at this point. After gathering some data at that pace they started to increase the incline. Little by little, the hill got steeper and steeper and my heart rate went up and up. At the 10:45 mark it was starting to feel very hard.

Throughout this process, I could only stare straight ahead and use hand motions (thumbs up) to communicate. That’s because there was someone standing six inches away holding a mask to my face while someone else’s hands fiddled with the treadmill settings. I could not see anything below the bridge of my own nose. It was disorienting and worrying. I realized at one point that the reason they’d had me sign a waiver wasn’t that they were worried I’d drop dead of a heart attack — it was that I’d pitch backward off the treadmill and crack my skull on the belt. Tremendous concentration was required to stay upright and relaxed.

At 11:30 I was struggling. The incline was up to 4%, at 8mph about the equivalent of 6:45 (although who knows how fast the treadmill was actually going). At 12:10, with my heart rate at 202, I was gasping and we stopped the test. It was close enough to max, which I have clocked at 208 at the end of an “I’m about to puke” 5K race.

My VO2 max is 45.5 at the moment, a little lower than when I’ve been at my fittest (it’s more like 47 then). That was good to see, because it tells me that the months of mind-numbingly tedious cross-training were worthwhile and even the little bit of faster running I’ve been doing lately has helped.

The guys who did the test were really nice, and we chatted for quite awhile afterward. They don’t do many of them (which is why they did mine for free — to practice). They only work with about five runners, and I got the distinct impression that I’m the oldest one. So I sort of felt like someone’s science project. They offered to let me come back to do the test on the bike to compare the results (and, now I realize, so they could practice some more), for free. I may take them up on it.

In other news, I am registered for Sunday’s Gridiron 4 Miler in Central Park. I picked up my bib and for a moment thought, with a frisson of delight, that it was number 666. The last digit was obscured by the attached D-Tag. I am, in fact, number 661. If just five people had registered before me I could have run as The Antichrist.

The bib is blue. At least my pre-injury speedster paces have not expired as far as corral assignment goes. I was on the fence about doing this race, but getting a blue bib (it’s the color of the first corral, for those of you not in the NYRR know) makes me feel obligated in a some weird way.

I have no time goal for the race. I just want to race as best I can. It’s been six months. I miss racing. My biggest worry is that my problematic adductor will rebel, as it’s wont to do lately if I try to run too fast. I have promised myself that if it really starts to hurt then I will drop.

7 Responses

  1. FYI Steve Magness has a lot of interesting things to say about VO2Max testing and its questionable value at

    Nevertheless, I’d follow-up on the free offer to try again on a stationary bike. The respiration mask will doubtless provide you a much better and more accurate seal which will translate to a more meaningful result.

    The base metabolic rate measurement is separate from the VO2 max test, and should occur first – while you’re fully relaxed. If your heart rate is above 60 beats per minute (or whatever resting pulse you measure before you climb out of bed first thing in the morning) then rest and relax longer, since otherwise the base metabolism test will produce an invalid high result translating to you being allowed a greater caloric intake than is correct for your individual metabolism and fitness level. Good luck.

  2. Thanks for the link. It’s a good article, and the one by Jay Johnson in the comment is even better. I have never taken VO2 max that seriously in terms of training. As Johnson points out, there are too many other variables that make up each of us as runners.

    I found it helpful to see my current VO2 max because I think I can probably use it as a loose baseline for confirming that I have not totally lost fitness during my months of layoff from running. But it’s just a number. Being able to run 7:30 in a high-stress situation and not feel that I was working that hard was probably the most valuable “reading” I got the other day.

    My resting pulse in the morning is usually 45. During the day it’s around 52. But the minute you put me in a “white coat” situation, it shoots way up. I figure we can just use math to futz with the numbers to determine about what the base rate is.

    But, yes, I need to get that tested first. They didn’t tell me to do any of the stuff I should have (fasting, etc.), so it would not have been accurate had I done it when I was there as it is.

    Thanks again. These are helpful comments for anyone looking into doing these tests.

  3. I’m not a nutritionist or anything, but I was just wondering if you have tried experimenting with your diet a bit. Maybe your body doesn’t respond well to dairy, or sugar, or meat, or gluten, or something like that. If I was in your predicament that’s probably what I would do. A month or maybe more or eliminating something (like dairy for example) and then see how your body responds. Take blood tests along the way to make sure you are getting the proper nutrients, but don’t be afraid to be really extreme with the diet. It’s easier to see how it is affecting you then. While I’m not allergic to dairy, I’ve found that my body doesn’t perform that well on it. Once I cut it out and replaced it with nuts and seeds and amaranth (which has tons of calcium) I felt better and dropped some fat. Now, I’m not saying that you would get the same results dropping dairy, but maybe there is something in your diet that would have a similar affect and you just don’t know what it is. I’ve found experimenting is the best way to determine how my body reacts to different kinds of food. But, once again, I’m not a nutritionist and I was just curious if you had tried the same type of self experimenting in the past.

    • I have tried various things over the past years. Low-carb, Low-fat, many tiny meals, no booze for months, etc. I won’t go into gorey detail, but nothing I did had a significant impact beyond a certain point. The issue is that, without any behavioral explanation, I’ve gained close to 10% of my body weight in a fairly short time (18 or so months) and cannot lose it using standard calorie-cutting and exercise approaches.

      I’m not an expert either and, after several years of experimenting, don’t wish to continue to embark on months and months and months (and years) of more failed self-experiments. I’d rather pay someone else to conduct those experiments. Ha ha!

      Seriously, I’m going to someone with lots of letters after her name who works with people like me. She seems confident that it’s a matter of finding the magical balance of intake and timing. I’ll continue to pursue this theory, up to a point. I told myself I’d give her four months to show results. It’s been two. Tick tock.

  4. The one by Jay Johnson in the comment? I don’t see that link. Anyway, good luck with narrowing the widening mystery. On VO2max, I pretty much thought that value was something one is born with. Is it not? Like when they tested those non-runners who were training for Boston on that TV show — one guy had a relatively high VO2max, yet was way out of shape. His VO2max still gave him the potential to run well.

  5. Good luck tomorrow!

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