A few weeks ago I visited a Human Performance Lab for some testing:

*Hydrostatic Body Fat Test

*Resting Metabolic Rate Test

*VO2 Test

I want to be a better athlete and my scary goals for 2016 demand honesty and hard work. Ever since Ann started coaching me, she has encouraged me to get these tests done; and after a year, I finally got around to it. Throughout my long journey as an athlete, I’ve constantly been confronted with the truth that if I want to reach my full potential then I have to embrace all my strengths and weaknesses in honesty and then build from there.

I don’t just want to be a “good” trail runner.
I want to be great.
I want to race the toughest races in the world.
I want to race against the best trail runners in the sport.
I want to see the world from the mountaintops- from my two feet.
I want to impact the sport for the good of others and not just myself.
I want to see how far I can go…and then go a little further.

I dream big. That’s always been a part of me since I was a little girl; and I shudder to think there ever be a day that I stop…I reckon it will be the day I take my last breath.

When I decided that I wanted to be a “competitive” trail runner, I searched out the most competitive races. Where was the competition? If I wanted a good picture of how I measured up in this sport then I needed to do races where I’d be competing against 10 or 20 of the best females around; as opposed to to hunting down podiums where the competition was lacking. And I’ll pause here and say that this has not been an easy one for my pride; I would love to say that I’ve won 20 races and finished 100 ultras; but if the substance of those accomplishments were founded on me “searching for small/non-competitive” races then how would I ever know how I truly rank? And I say this strictly from a competitive mindset. I desire to compete; I LOVE to compete; it’s my job to compete; so I need to find the best competition.

So back to the performance tests I had done; and why?


To be frank, my results at Western States this year broke me down a bit. I believed with my whole heart that I would run sub-20. I trained harder than I ever believed I was capable of and I stepped up to the Start line with great confidence and determination that I would run well. The day after the race, I sent Ann a text telling her I wanted to do better next year. And I haven’t stopped thinking of the race ever since.

Intense? Yep. I totally am. I love that race; and I want to do better.

So after UTMB, I took somewhat of an off-season. I chose not to race the Ultra Trail Cape Town in South Africa because my body was so tired. And I have spent September and October doing lots of aerobic running, strength training, and resting. Basically prepping for another wonderfully brutal Western States training cycle in 2016.
With this prep, Ann has directed me to a completely different approach than I had last year:
“You’ve got 4 months of road racing.”
I remember the immediate fear that paralyzed me when she said this. I don’t race on the roads; never have. Any road race I’ve done in the past has been for fun or just to stay in shape. And when Ann says road racing, she’s not talking just a marathon- she wants me doing 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and then culminating with a marathon!

Here’s a fun fact for ya- I’ve never even signed up for a 5k! Closest thing I did to a 5k was a Breast Cancer walk with my entire family and in-laws while pushing Makenzie in a stroller! And speaking of Makenzie, she races 5ks all the time and seriously….What if she beats me!? Ha! What’s my 5k time? Looks like I’ll be finding out soon.

Yep, I’m embracing all my fears and weaknesses these next few months. Training for big mountainous 100 mile races does NOT make you faster; and Ann knows that I need to be faster. If I’m going to do better at Western States in 2016 then I need to be fitter, faster…and lighter. Which brings me to the first test:

*Hydrostatic Body Composition Analysis/Body Fat Testing

Warning: I’m now going to talk about my body.

Please Note: Do not read this as if it’s coming from your adorable skinny girlfriend complaining about the extra 2 ounces on her waist. This is more about science and not a goal to fit into a pair of jeans. (also, I can’t fit into jeans if I tried- ha ha!)

Keep in Mind: I am a professional athlete. My body is my job. I train very hard-EVERY DAY. I’m a coach, personal trainer and have a pretty good handle on understanding how the body works.

Okay, now that we got that out of the way, please read accordingly. In being honest, I needed an accurate analysis of how much fat and muscle I’m carrying on my body. Okay, so I have a lot of muscle on my body; and if it were so simple, I would get rid of at least 10 pounds of it. It’s heavy and requires a lot of energy to move around. Undoubtedly, and without going into great detail this much muscle has offered me a lot of advantages in 100 mile races; however there’s also been some numbing disadvantages; and I have science to thank for pointing this out.

If possible, and without hindering my performance, I would like to be lighter, so this test was used to show me how much weight I could safely lose. If you’re not familiar with body fat percentages, here’s a chart:

In short, hydrostatic weighing measures the mass per unit volume of a living person’s body and is typically the most accurate way to measure body fat. In the past couple years, I have experienced non-stop frustration from doctors and health professionals who have calculated my body fat to be anywhere between 19-23%. I would take this information and eat and train accordingly- hoping to slim down. But I continually found myself hungry and struggling with recovery. I knew something wasn’t right. So this test was going to offer me more accurate insight.

When I arrived at the lab, I was directed to a room with a small pool and asked to change into my bathing suit. When the technician entered she looked at me and jokingly said,
“Ha, well there’s no way you’re more than 15% body fat.”
I laughed back at her, “Ummm, try adding 10% to that guess!”
“No, I test people all the time.”
“Well, I kind of hope I’m wrong, but maybe not really!”


A part of me wanted higher body fat so that she could just tell me what to do to slim down. Did I need to eat more? Less? Eliminate certain foods? Add something in? How was my training being affected by my size? I wanted answers.

She measured my height and then showed me how to lay on the rack and breathe out all my air once under water. I was to wait until she tapped me on the shoulder before coming up for a breath.

My body tensed up as soon as I got into the water; I was nervous. A big breath in; then out; and underwater I went. I did this four times and when she was done, she simply said,
“Alright. We’ll go over your results after you finish the other two tests.”

Resting Metabolic Rate Test

Google Images

I dressed and met her in another room where she hooked me up to a machine that would measure my resting metabolic rate for 12 minutes. The RMR test measures exactly how many calories one needs to eat to lose weight and function healthily throughout each day. It’s not the most comfortable test- there’s a big tube shoved in your mouth and a clamp on your nose; but it’s only 12 minutes and it’s great information to have, so I was happy to do it

I started the test and focused on natural easy breathing as best I could; drool started coming out of the corners of my mouth and my eyes quickly became heavy. I wanted to fall asleep, so every now and then I’d glance into the mirror on my right to wake myself up. I was a hilarious sight! The 12 minutes came to an end and like the previous test, she noted that we would talk about the results after I finished the final test.
VO2 Test- SubMaximal

I changed into my running shoes and met the technician on the treadmill. She placed a mask on my head. A long plastic tube was connected from the mask to a machine. She explained how the test would play out,

“Typically this will last about 8 minutes and at the very most 11 or 12 minutes. I’m going to keep pushing you harder and harder as the test goes on. You’ll be running fast and uphill if we need to get the heart rate really going.”

If you’re unfamiliar, in a nutshell this test is the ultimate measure of fitness and offers a wealth of information including cardio fitness level, personal target heart rate zones, your anaerobic threshold, and how well you recover after training.

Although battling a bit of a respiratory infection (thanks to all the traveling) I was especially excited about this test; but also nervous. I went into this test thinking that there is a “good” score and a “bad” score. Isn’t that how we’re conditioned to think? For as long as I can remember, anytime a teacher mentioned the class would be “…taking a test on Friday.” I would tense up. I was either going to get a good grade or a bad grade. So I had a choice. I was either going to study and nail the test or slack off and score poorly. My approach to the VO2 test was no different. I wanted a good score; but I feared the worst. I kept envisioning her saying,

“Well I don’t know how you perform at that level; you’re not really cracked out to be a competitive athlete.”

I suppose this doubt stems from what I’ve been told quite a bit throughout my life; which in a nutshell is,
“You don’t look the part Sally.”
When I was younger I was too small(late bloomer). Too small to make the team; too easy to push around. And in my adult years, it’s been,
“You don’t look like a runner….Wow you’re really big…Your body is terribly disproportionate…Are you a bodybuilder?”
The list goes on; and these are actual statements that people say to my face almost everyday. On one hand I take pride in not fitting into others expectations of what a runner should look like; I love challenging other’s “small thinking” but even greater is the chance to inspire others that we should not limit ourselves because of how others measure us. If you dream a dream; go get it! There will always be critics telling you “you don’t fit the part.” And sometimes it is we ourselves who are the worst of all critics.

As the test started, the technician would give me feedback on my heart rate and my VO2 number, I focused on the number 40 for a few minutes, “I gotta be higher than 40.” I giggle just typing that-like a silly kid!

The first few minutes went by quickly and we had some difficulty getting my heart rate up; each time she would increase the speed or incline my heart rate would go up and I’d notice some excitement on her part, but then I’d immediately recover and my heart rate would drop back down.

“Okay, you’re all over the place…I’m gonna increase the incline again- let me know if you’re okay.”
We were now 8 minutes into the test and I had yet to feel any real stress. So up the treadmill went and faster I ran. 10 minutes passed, then 11 and I began to wonder if I was doing the test right, until at minute 12 my heart rate started to really go up and stay up. I was running at 9.3 mph with a 6.0% incline when I finally hit 150bpm.
“Are you okay!” She yelled over the roar of the treadmill and my pounding feet.
I wanted to cough up the phlegm that had been hovering in my lungs and my nose started to drip. I looked in the mirror at my now red face, we were now 13 minutes into the test.
“Let me know, are you okay?”
I nodded as my chest heaved; I wanted a full breath with that mask off my face; I was uncomfortable.
I raised my hand to end the test.
That first breath without the mask was glorious!
“Could you have kept going?” she asked
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“That was one of the highest scores I’ve ever had.”
I smiled, then wondered how many people she had tested. Ha!

The Results

It was time to listen to the results. So I followed her over to a small table in the corner of the room. I felt like a 2nd grader at a teacher conference. I sat tensely as she read off my scores and explained what each one meant. I was shocked:

Body Fat- 11%
RMR- Resting energy expenditure- 1500 calories
VO2 Test Score- 55.2

“Also, you should know that you are NOT 5’5, you are actually 5’6.”

Yes, the last time my height was taken, I was 5’5. Did I really grow? Ha ha.
For the next half hour our discussion was centered on my weight and body mass. She explained that my body fat was already very low and losing anymore would be unhealthy; at most I could lose 2-3% as a minimum of 8% is needed for cushioning internal organs, insulation in hot and cold temperatures and for defense against infection. I wasn’t happy. She smiled sympathetically when I asked,
“How do I reduce my muscle mass?”

“I’ve only had one other client ask me that and he was a professional MMA fighter who needed to drop to a lower weight class.”

She explained hesitantly how it could possibly be done; the act of “cannibalizing” muscle. How timing my meals would be important; what types of workouts to do and not do; but her hesitation left me wondering. I appreciated her honesty as she said,
“I just don’t want to risk doing something that’s going to affect your performance. Do you build muscle easily?”

I gave her a half joking half pouty, “Yes, I walk past weights and they jump into my thighs.”

She laughed and took a few minutes to encourage me; it was much of what I’ve heard from other trusted coaches and friends, which is roughly,
“This is your body and you can’t look at all that muscle as bad; embrace it.”

So there it is; in the open. My strengths; my weaknesses; my goals; my struggles; my hopes.
This is my starting point and I’m going to embrace it. I’m a big runner, but I’m strong and fit.
I haven’t done road races in years, but I’m going to start and even if I finish with an embarrassing time, I’m just gonna train harder. And when it’s time to start my training for Western States 2016, I’m gonna be better and fitter…even if I look like a bull! Bring it on!

Thanks so much for reading, I’ll be updating you here on my journey to improving myself as an athlete as well as on my journey to Western States 2016.

Stay Gritty my Friends…the BEST is still yet to come!


Author Sally McRae

More posts by Sally McRae
  • Stewart

    Wow Sally-laying it all out there… You totally look like a runner, especially when you leap for joy at the finish line! Now that you know what an amazing engine you’ve got Anne can work on your gears. You’re going to have a great winter!

    • Sally McRae

      Always laying it out there! Ha! =) Appreciate the feedback; and YES working with Ann has been such a blessing; very grateful she had me do these tests- she is an incredible coach…legend. So humbling working with her.
      Hope all is well with you Stewart! Thanks again!

  • I am so excited for you and all the wonderful adventures kicking butt your going to have. Thank You for sharing and being so honest. You have an incredible coach and your such a hard worker. You are a great role model for girls and woman of all ages. I wish you success in all you do.

    • Sally McRae

      Hi Gloria! Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Appreciate the kind feedback…it was my hope that others would find a bit of encouragement through some nitty-gritty insight- ha! =) So thank you! Blessings to you!

  • MJruns

    Thank you for your honesty and sharing all those thoughts – I’m always surprised

    when someone “like you” (that I admire on so many levels) has them. And impressed and grateful when you share them, it helps to know we all struggle with that sometimes.

    You have always looked like an amazing champion runner to me – road, trail and ultra!

    If I had to trade looking fast and BEING fast, even though my internal voice protests, I’d pick BEING fast. (I think you’re both)

    I have always looked at your pictures – your energy, exuberance, joy and love of life and running as well as your results and (let’s be real) utterly awesome ripped fit physique and think “I wish I was like that, I want to be so much stronger like that so I can be faster and have more fun, enjoy it more!” Watching your hill bounding video both inspires me and depresses me – I wonder if my body will ever let me get even close to that, and how good it must feel to be able to do that.

    You’ve got some tremendous gifts to work with – a superstrong, very fit, healthy body, determination and focus and strength of will and work ethic, and the amazing Ann. I have confidence you will reach your goals, and I look forward to following your journey.

    (Digression into my situation is below, and from my POV….I’m NOT a pro athlete 🙂 I’m a 49 year old age group marathoner with age, day job and some health stuff to deal with as I go after my ambitious goals and dreams)

    I’m an ectomorph – tall, boyish (broad shoulders, no hips, small bust, long limbs). I might be relatively naturally slender, but I have a lot of medical/physical issues, including GI problems that restrict my diet and a pretty low metabolism post-cancer, so I monitor what I eat and watch every calorie like a hawk (not so fun, and way too much food guilt). People feel free to comment about how I must be able to eat whatever I want or how I’m “so” thin. You might look at me and think that I “look” fast. But I feel wimpy, don’t have much energy a fair amount of the time, and have imbalances and weaknesses that hold me back. I don’t build muscle – almost at all, certainly not easily. After much effort, I finally almost don’t have hollows in my glutes. That’s an accomplishment for me, and it took months of consistent daily exercises. I am sure you have issues you deal with too, but I just wanted to share that I might look like I could be faster than you, but it’s highly doubtful, and I’d rather be strong and fast and look less “slim” – I keep reminding myself that the numbers on the chip time, Garmin or treadmill matter more to me than the ones on the scale! I’ve even stopped weighing myself.

    I want to do one of these test packages! I have a scale that supposedly does body fat so I have some sense. I had a less-fancy RMR test recently, and was disturbed as I think my number was lower than it had been 1-2 years ago, and none of the explanations fit. I’ve never had a VO2max test, but suspect given my shallow breathing it wouldn’t be that great. But the data might be helpful, perhaps I should search out a place.

    (end digression)

    As the Buddhist saying goes “you’re perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement” – enjoy the journey from your already-awesome self to even more awesome! Thanks for taking us along.

    • Sally McRae

      Hi MJ! Thank you so much for taking the time to read, comment and share on Twitter…means a lot to me. I encourage you in ALL your dreams…and the goals you have laid out for yourself- they’re worth all your hard work! I genuinely hoped my honesty (and a bit of comedy) would come through on this post. I’m all human and will always have things to learn and work toward, but I think that’s what makes life so great because it’s within our hard work that we learn a little more about ourselves and it is also there that we are able to connect with others…and where our compassion grows. If we think we’re perfect and have learned all there is to learn, well; we’ve stopped living…and it’s much more difficult to connect with the people around us. I am excited for the hard work ahead; and I’m even more thankful for the body God gave me now that I have a bit more accurate info; “this is my starting point and if I look like a bull…bring it on! I’m ready!”
      Appreciate you and your thoughts- hugs and blessings to YOU!

  • Zach Bitter

    Cool write up Sally! When I hear about “the perfect runner’s body I always think of Chris Solinsky. Way to embrace!!!


    He later did this. Making him one of the few to go sub 27 and sub 13 in the 10k and 5k respectively.


    • Sally McRae

      Zach! Thanks so much for reading/commenting! and Chris Solinsky is my hero! What an inspiration; thank you for sharing his story. I’ve always been inspired by athletes who don’t look the part but smash their sport regardless….Spud Webb is another incredible example! Hard work and consistent dedication trump ALL…and that’s the path I’ll be sticking too. I hope you are well and training and racing is going strong for you; I’m sure our trails will cross soon! =)

  • Summer

    Thanks for sharing Sally!! Those are some great results!!! You are in awesome shape!!! I wish you great success with achieving your goals!! Keep shooting for the Moon!!

    • Sally McRae

      Thanks for your kindness Summer and really appreciate you reading! Blessings to you!

  • Adam Marshall

    It’s fascinating how we so easily think less of ourselves and more of those we admire. I was really surprised at your self-doubt while reading this, and then shocked that I would be surprised at something so human. Big fan. Thanks for another great post.

    • Sally McRae

      Hi Adam! Appreciate you taking the time to read and comment! Thank you! My personal style/approach to writing and speaking is to do it with honesty. I try to think back on how I felt at the beginning of various adventures in my life- and each time, I just wanted someone to shoot straight with me- someone who was going to be honest and open- a true mentor. So my posts always focus on that. If my audience can gain any type of encouragement, insight, helpful information to make them better, then I feel like I’ve done a good job. I think it’s important to know that while many successful people/athletes exude confidence ALL of them have also dealt with a lot of failure and self doubt, BUT it’s how they have responded to it that sets them apart from the rest. I believe that if we can continue to encourage those around us that it’s okay to have fears and uncertainties, but to KEEP GOING then we’ll all be better for it. I don’t ever want to be put on a pedestal…it’s a scary place to be. I’m 100% human; have failed more than most; and have more imperfections than I’m able to count, but…I’ll never be afraid to try a little harder, learn more, or fail. I’m stoked after taking those tests to have more of an honest look at what I have to work with…and boy am I ready to WORK! =) I hope you have a great week- thanks so much again for reading/commenting! Blessings to you!

  • William Read

    I am a fan of yours and enjoyed reading this. You are a really fit athlete and I think this contributes to your ultra running success. I would really question the benefit of losing weight. Been down this road myself and regretted it. It did help me be a faster 5/10K runner but it was not good for my body because it made me weak and under muscled. I was 5-10 or 11 and weighed 137 lbs at the peak of this insanity. You can check me out on Instagram (autisticdaddy) to see what I mean. The only purpose to losing weight for you would be to increase your VO2 max which is why I did it. That might be helpful for a 5k as these races are VO2 max-fests but ultra marathons are not, so increasing your VO2 max is unlikely to improve your 100 mile time. I really believe that having the extra muscle and strength is helpful for maintaining form while being on your feet for so long. I don’t think it is any accident that your top ultra marathoners are bigger more muscular looking people than your typical elite marathon/5K type. I am amused at the number of ultramarathoners that do business in modeling because of this. I do think running some 5K races to help train you for sustained fast running will benefit you. Don’t worry about your times, you are a good runner and will do well.

    • Sally McRae

      Thanks for the feedback William. The body fat test was taken for the very reason of staying healthy and not embarking on anything that would hurt me as an athlete. Like I mentioned in the post I just wanted answers after a few years of confusing information from doctors and frustrating training. I am a health and fitness professional and know very well the effects of losing too much weight; and yes, VO2Max test results are most enlightening for shorter distances- I wasn’t too concerned about that…I actually wrote from a comical standpoint on that one- personally I believe that hard work trumps genetics, but the test was genuinely still fun/interesting to do! Thank you so very much for reading! All the best to you!!

  • Camerøn Adamsøn

    Sally- I would really suggest you look into getting a dexa scan. It is the only true 100% accurate measure of body fat percentage. It will be more accurate than underwater weighing

  • RandomCommenter7

    Great post Sally! Many thanks for being so open about your training, this has been a truly inspiring read!

    I saw your tweet about your 2016 racing calendar being finalised. Are you planning on doing a post on that? Would love to read how you and Ann decided on which races to do!

  • Thanks for sharing your adventure Sally! I really enjoyed reading about it. Those are really impressive numbers!

    Personally, I’m happy to settle for whatever my Garmin says my VO2 max is. Well, I would be if I thought it were accurate, but has me at 55 too, and we both know that can’t be right! 😜

    I look forward to seeing how you fare on the roads. I haven’t seriously raced anything shorter than a half either.

  • Absolutely loved this post.

  • Jeffrey Chase

    Hi Sally, I assume you did these tests in Orange County? Where did you go? I live in North OC, and would be interested in having the same tests performed (if they aren’t too cost prohibitive) to establish a baseline performance level before I start training. Loved this post by the way. Thanks.