WEIRD SCIENCEFinding out how fat you are, where that fat is and then having your running style and body strength examined with a fine tooth comb can be a harrowing, but worthwhile experience. MR took a deep breath and went under the microscope. As the treadmill whirs ever faster and the sweat starts to cascade into my eyes, the thought occurs to me that, to my right, down on the shop floor, customers are peering up through the glass, wondering who on earth that heavy-set bloke is running like his life depended on it. “Up to 16 now, OK?” inquires my tormentor. I raise a hand and point a thumb skyward. OK for now, but I'm not far from having to cling on for grim death here.
This is the Asics Running Lab, perched above the shoe and apparel giant's newest flagship store in London. Only a few hundred metres away lies Hyde Park, where in August 2012 Alastair Brownlee had collapsed in exhaustion after securing Olympic Triathlon gold. I felt as though I was about to strike a similar pose. The Lab is the latest place you can come for a thorough analysis of your running ability. First, runners are stretched out on a physio table for a look at leg alignment and range of motion in the joints (it's more complicated than making sure you have two sprouting from your hips), then step into a small silver box for a 3-D foot scan, which in my case reveals my little toes are as useful as a pork chop to a kosher butcher. They just hover off the ground like redundant cocktail sausages. “They can't be much use to you when you run,” says Lydia Meddings, running services manager of the store. She consoles me with the news that it's actually quite common (Don't all write in at once. Actually, do). Then comes the bit I'm dreading. I hop on to a set of Tanita scales that not only weighs me, but gives me a reading on the calories my body burns daily even if I don't do exercise, and hunts down my visceral fat – the stuff that hugs my internal organs and can be very harmful. My calorie burn – known by its proper name as my basal metabolic rate - is slightly above average for my age and size at over 2000 a day, but my visceral fat score 8 out of 13. "Ideally we'd want you down around 3, but you're not in the danger zone," says Lydia. If she was genuinely worried, she had a good poker face.
Still, if this was a school report card, the teacher would just have ticked the box 'causing concern'. My body fat percentage is 22.7. An endurance runner's ideal range is 13-17. I used to be a prop forward, my legs still look thick and bulky and I've never been Mo Farah. I can’t think of any more excuses. Following the scales of truth I'm strapped into a contraption that resembles a dentist's chair to have my legs individually tested for strength. Having been through a course of physiotherapy to sort out some left leg issues earlier on the year, it comes as no surprise to learn my right side is still significantly more powerful. Testing each side to exhaustion takes it out of me but proves I’ve got plenty of work to do on that left quad. Then it’s on to the treadmill, with a face mask clamped over my gob (my wife asked where she could get one) and a heart rate monitor around my chest. The idea of this test is twofold. The pace is increased with each passing minute to test my anaerobic threshold while cameras front, back and on my left record each step, later to be analysed by Lydia to pinpoint imperfections in my style. I last nearly quarter of an hour on the machine before wobbling my hand in Lydia’s general direction to signal I am about to fly off the back like Ronnie Corbett in a Peter Kay video. The final part of the test is to hop on a more conventional treadmill for a gait analysis. The results of all this will take a few days to be collated and posted out to anyone brave enough to subject themselves, but for your money you get a predicted half marathon and marathon time. I’m gobsmacked that my half marathon time is a full eight minutes quicker than my four-year-old PB. My marathon time mocks me: 3:59. My current PB? 4:00:27.
More importantly, guidance on how to improve anything wrong with my running technique and any muscle imbalances I have is all provided in an easy-to-use booklet accompanying the results, containing training advice and exercises, with the page numbers I need helpfully referenced in the report. The predicted times provide the motivation for sticking to the regime and, one imagines, that fact that you’ve just parted with £200.
Lessons from the lab
A test like this will throw up any combination of areas for improvement, but here are three key upgrades you could profit from1. Increase your basal metabolic rate
“Your BMR is how many calories you burn on daily basis just for your body to complete basic function,” says Meddings. “So if you lay in bed all day, you would burn that amount. “You can increase it to a certain degree, but it will never change hugely. One way to improve it is by changing your training and not always doing same runs at the same pace. Change you programme and do some speed work and free weights. You should also eat smaller meals more regularly rather than three big meals a day.”
2. Boost your anaerobic threshold
This is the pace at which you begin to exercise without oxygen as your main fuel. Meddings says: “By training at that pace, you’re training as hard as you can while still using oxygen. If train above it, you’re training anaerobically, so lactic acid will build up and you won’t be able to train for long. By continually trying to improve your time at your anaerobic threshold, your body becomes more efficient at dispersing lactic acid.
“Increasing your time at threshold is all about variation. The specific session people tend to get wrong is their speed work. They will tend to do two minutes hard, then walk for a minute. You should do two minutes just above 10k pace then one minute just under 10k pace, so you’re consistently running. People don’t do that correctly because it takes a lot of effort. Focusing on these speed sessions will also help massively with running form.”
3. How to burn visceral fat
Meddings says long endurance runs are the key to lowering the deadly internal blubber. “Lots of people start to exercise for fat loss purposes and won’t notice or see that they’ve lost weight, because when you first start to exercise you lose fat from the important areas first,” she says. “So the first place you’ll lose fat will be from around your internal organs before you see the outside fat start to decrease. Long runs over an hour at a lower heart rate are the best for decreasing visceral fat.”