Would you want to know the exact date and manner of your own death? Would you want to know if your spouse is cheating on you? Would you want to know your body fat percentage, or your ultimate potential as a runner, or whether people have secretly been laughing at the ridiculous manner in which you run? For me, the answers to these questions are no, yes, no, no, and NO! And although the first question is not yet possible to answer, and I am assuming that I already know the answer to the second, the answers to final three were offered up to me at absolutely no charge (financial, that is, though the emotional costs are staggering) a couple of months ago. I was, at the time, injured (because I usually am), so I declined to accept the invitation to participate in this research study at the local university. I have, however, had similar testing conducted previously, and several of my friends and teammates did participate in this university research study. We therefore now know just how fat we are and just how fast we can or can’t be. Is this information helpful and enlightening? Hells no. This little research project reminds me of a game that I and my fellow mean-spirited group of bitchy middle-school “friends” used to play at slumber parties in which we would form a circle of evil and go around telling every other girl our favorite thing about that person… and our least favorite thing! “Your pajamas are pretty cute, but you, yourself, are ugly and no one will ever invite you to another party.” Next up!
Possibly because I am a pessimist (actually, a realist, and I will be writing more about this issue in future posts), I cannot see how this situation is anything but a lose/lose. Let’s consider the two possible outcomes, shall we? For the purposes of argument, I will address the question of ascertaining one’s vO2 max, which is supposed to be at least moderately related to one’s ultimate potential as an endurance athlete. Option 1: you learn that your vO2 max is very high. If this is the happy outcome of your torturous treadmill test, you probably initially feel elated—I am an elite distance runner! But are you, in fact, living up to your physical promise, or are you now faced with the knowledge that you have been underperforming for the last two decades? All you really know is that you can be fast, that you should be fast, while also realizing (perhaps not for the first time) that you are also too damn lazy to be fast. And this is the” best-case scenario” outcome!
If you haven’t already jumped to the opposite possible outcome, let me spell it out for you—Option 2: You are already as good as you can ever be, so you might as well enjoy your lifelong plateau of performance and let go of your ridiculous striving for personal improvement. You’re welcome—that information is provided au gratis from your scientific vO2 max test. You can feel smug in the knowledge that you are living up to your potential, but the bad news is that your potential is, sadly, quite low. You have overachieved given what little natural gifts that have been bestowed upon you by the running gods. Sleep well at night; your conscience is clear.
While these two options seem like theoretical extremes, and you might be thinking that it is more likely that the information will be somewhere in between, in my own previously happy household, we have one of each of these situations, and, when living together in close quarters, I can assure you that the even worse worst-case scenario is what we are now facing. Whichever dire situation you may be facing, you will think that the other’s situation must be better. One of you thinks of the other, “Enjoy your elite potential; you will never make anything of your God-given talent because you drink too much and are morally weak.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the couch (with plenty of room in between now, thanks to Mr. vO2 Max Testing Machine), the other actually says, “At least you know you are doing the best with your unfortunately slow body. I, on the other hand, am in quite the quandary now that I know that, instead of being quite a bit faster than you, I should actually be way faster than you. I should crush you. You should not even be able to see me by a few minutes into the race.” You get the idea.
There is actually a third option that is sufficiently rare that I hesitate to enter it into the fray here, but it happened to me, so that pretty much is reason enough to make it wildly interesting. It is possible that, due to the nature of the testing equipment (but certainly not due to any clinically significant psychiatric symptoms attributed to the runner herself), a participant may be unable to complete the vO2 max testing process. It is necessary to give a brief description of the testing process and apparatus in order to properly visualize this possible scenario. To test one’s vO2 max requires running on a treadmill at increasing velocity and incline until one screams out the “safe word” (I use the same one that I use in the bedroom, in order to avoid confusion, and mine rhymes with brother trucker),signaling that the researcher should turn off the treadmill immediately.
While running balls-to-the-wall, one also has a clip placed tightly around one’s nose and must breathe exclusively through a tube kept in place by a mouthpiece similar to those worn by football players. These mouthpieces tend to be one-size-fits-all, but my mouth has been professionally diagnosed—by a dentist, mind you, as well as by many laypeople—to be shockingly small. In fact, as an aside to this already tangential story, my entire head is off-the-charts small for a grown woman, even when my overall small stature is entered into the analysis. In my former occupation I was in a psychiatric neuroimaging research group that conducted MRI scans of the brain, and my research group routinely used my head to simulate a child’s head whenever a “pediatric” test subject was needed to try out a new protocol. I’m not proud of this, but what I am proud of is that, despite my tiny cranium, my frontal lobes are huge. Gigantic. And perky, if I do say so myself. So, back to my tiny mouth situation. The mouthpiece was way too big for my mouth (as many normally-sized things are) so I was having excessive difficulty in keeping the mouthpiece in place. Because I was clenching my jaw so tight, my whole body was tensing up, and I may have gotten a wee bit claustrophobic and experienced mild panic. The take-home-message, if you really need to be told, is to always travel with your own custom-sized mouthpiece. For obvious reasons.
While knowing your running potential should be the bigger issue, we all know that what a woman really wants to know is, “Does my butt look big in this?” And by “this”, when you are having your body fat tested, what you are asking, in essence, is, “Does my butt look big in my BUTT?” Now we’re hitting at the heart of the issue, aren’t we? And if you are unlucky enough to be answering this question with underwater weighing, you have the added “benefit” of knowing that this method is incredibly accurate. No consoling yourself with platitudes such as, “I don’t think that silly young research assistant really knew what s/he was doing.” This weighing technique is an unfailingly true measure of your body fat, and your body fat is an unfailingly true measure of who you are as a person and how deserving you are of love, happiness, and good fortune. Let’s get the party started! Strip down, make sure the research assistant is of the “he” variety of the s/he possibilities, breathe out all of the air in your lungs, and get under that water! As opposed to the aforementioned vO2 max test and the two equally bad, but opposing, outcomes, now there is really only one bad outcome: Yep. You are fat.
As an aside, I realize that weight is a very touchy issue for women in general, and that, for distance runners, this preoccupation with weight is multiplied by a factor of our current body fat percentage. So I should no doubt take care to tread lightly here. You may have noticed from my writing style that I tend to tread about as lightly as a pregnant elephant…pregnant with twins. (Does such a thing even happen—do elephants ever have twins? Maybe I’ll do some research for my next blog.) The bizarre thing about body fat is that, while it is obviously somewhat related to endurance success, it is only somewhat related to endurance success. To illuminate this commonly held but nonetheless erroneous belief in the direct correlation between fatness measures and speed, allow me to use myself as an example. My nickname is Jungle Chicken. I will explain why only this once, and hereafter it will be the stuff of legend. The jungle chicken is a very elite species of chicken known for its lanky and unkempt appearance, irritating and erratic behavior, cacophonous squawking, and overall scrawniness and scrappiness. All of these traits describe me with alarming accuracy. If distance running were merely a matter of leanness, we could all line up on a scale and simultaneously weigh ourselves, with the leanest in the land declared the victor. That seems a fair bit less painful than the unpleasantness of racing, in fact. That we must be forced to go through with the race underscores the fact that there is more to running far and fast than simply running light. I always get my scrawny ass handed by me on a plate by women who are carrying more body fat than I am. They also happen to be carrying a lot more lean muscle mass than me, more oxygen-carrying capacity than me, and probably more will and drive than me. They are possibly also nicer and harder-working people than me, and so fate looks upon them kindly. The Jungle Chicken might beat the Butterball, but it doesn’t necessarily beat the organic, free-range chicken. Now do you understand? If not, I don’t know how else to explain it. This is an excellent metaphor.
So with that said, allow me to outline an explanation that was given to one of my teammates with respect to why her body fat percentage so much higher than expected. The answer can be given in one word: boobies. Boobies are not typically composed of lean muscle mass. So if you have larger breasts, this factor alone may be to blame in artificially inflating your overall body fat percentage. (You can also artificially inflate your boobies, but, again, that’s a different blog post.) This is an ego-saving justification if ever I heard one: I’m not fat—I just have larger breasts than your typical runner. Jungle Chickens are not known for our breast meat. We are known for our impressively large frontal lobes and freakishly small beaks. I mean mouths.
Since I don’t have a great conclusion to this amusing, albeit rambling, anecdote (and don’t want to think of one, because I’m lazy, as has been pointed out to me by my physiological testing), let’s instead recap what we have learned here in this post:
- The origins of my nickname
- Why you should always travel with your own custom-sized mouthpiece
- What to tell people if they ask why your body fat is so high
- Why you never, under any circumstances (even free ones) should ever attempt to learn anything about yourself that you are not forced to know. Self-knowledge, in the wrong hands (yours) is not a good thing.