Although the tests we'd received so far were challenging in their own ways--apparently skills like being able to do consecutive push-ups deteriorate when not used for say, five years--what we were about to face was certainly more difficult and more fun than the strength exercises.
Friendly Erica Enevold, an exercise physiology technician in the lab, explained what a sub-maximal, incremental, continuous aerobic power bike protocol test is, exactly. She then strapped a heartbeat monitor around my chest, secured a snorkel-like tube into my mouth with a full headgear mechanism, squeezed my nostrils closed with something resembling a futuristic clothespin and put me on a stationary bike for a 16 minute ride. After each four minute interval, the difficulty is cranked up, while the rider is asked to maintain the same rotations per minute. It's not easy, but as Enevold explained, it is crucial to understand how well the body is absorbing oxygen into the blood.
"What we are looking at is the efficiency of our cardiovascular system," said Enevold. "How efficient the heart and lungs are at taking in oxygen and transporting it to the working tissues and those working muscles actually using the oxygen. So, by means of this metabolic cart, we're able to collect all of the expired air that you're breathing out during the test through that tube. It goes into the analyzer and we can take a look at how your body is using oxygen, and how that's going to progress through the test."
Since cycling is about the only sport I can honestly say I've been doing on a regular basis, I didn't find the pedaling as difficult as some might. As well, the test is designed to be sub-maximal, meaning subjects are tasked with performing just below their own comfortable maximum. This means no matter how accomplished you are as a cyclist, the test will be a useful challenge.
The difficult part was undoubtedly the tube stuck in my mouth. Not being able to close my lips or breath through my nostrils was an unpleasant feeling for someone unaccustomed to scuba diving. It was nice of Enevold to try to downplay the conditions beforehand, however.
"It's not overly comfortable, but you'll get used to it as the test goes on," she lied.
By the third stage the top of my mouth felt like a piece of asphalt baking in the sun, my legs were burning from keeping the steady pace, the headgear was causing sweat to pour from my brow, and I felt like I was starting to accomplish something. It felt good.
By the fourth stage however, the feeling was more like pain. I was glad to be counting down to the finish, and even more glad to watch Jon get on for his turn.