GSK testing day

Laura Penhaul By

GSK HPL logo

As a team we want to be as best prepared as possible in all aspects of the row and so being able to work with expert practitioners in human performance, is an amazing opportunity to understand how we can get the best out of ourselves from a physiological and neurological perspective.  We say that this row is 85% psychological in how we cope and 15% physical, but our psychological state will be affected by being dehydrated, calorie deficient, sleep deprived, hormone imbalanced etc. so if we can optimise these variables and recognise them, then this in turn will help our mental state.


With a science background, we recognise that our row is also an opportunity to gain some valuable data on 4 healthy females, who will be going through 6 months of sleep deprivation, hormonal control, change in diet, exposure to high temperatures and hours in the sun, plus 6 months of not walking on solid ground. With next to no opportunities of looking at 4 women doing a 6 month endurance event, we didn’t want it to be a wasted opportunity for research and development ideas that could aid the production of something that can affect the wider female community after the row. We therefore approached GSK (GlaxoSmithKline group) who are a science led global healthcare company with one of the leading research and development centres, who’s mission is to focus on ‘helping people to do more, feel better and live longer.’

The GSK Human Performance Lab ( ) is a world-class science facility focused on applying current methods to optimise performance in the elite (such as Jenson Button in Formula 1, the Brownlee Brothers – Olympic and World Champions in Triathlon, Harlequins Premiership Rugby club etc.). Alongside the elite athletes, they also like to pioneer new research into understanding the limits of human performance through assessment of extreme endurance, such as their support with Rich Parks for the fastest crossing by foot across the South Pole in extreme cold temperatures( ) and Schu Pillinger in her attempt in Ride Across America ( ).

So last Thursday saw the first day of our team testing. It started with having to come in fasted (not having eaten since the night before) which I must confess, does not sit too well with me as I love my breakfast!

The first part of the testing was our anthropometric data and body mass.


This involved going into the BODPOD which gives an estimated resting metabolic rate (calories required at rest without movement).

Then we had the usual height and weight taken, along with our girths (measurements of circumference of thighs/ calf/ forearms/ upper arms/ waist/ bum) and then skin folds to measure the amount of subcutaneous fat we have in different areas of the body. Normally in sport, you want to stay lean with minimal body fat %, however for us, we need to try and increase our fat mass and put some more muscle mass on so that we have room incase of loss of weight. In the Atlantic races some have shown anywhere up to 2 stone loss and as we are nearly 3 times the distance of the Atlantic and currently only weigh around 65kg, we have some way to go to ensure we don’t waste away!

Then we did our cognitive testing which was tested throughout the afternoon. This is a quick 2 min reactive test on an iPad and is something that Barry the Neuro Scientist has a keen interest in developing. It tests your cognitive function and reactivity whilst also creating focus on a task in hand. An example is hitting a light as quick as you can when it flashes up. I can imagine that a fighter pilot or a Formula 1 driver like Jenson would show a lot quicker reaction times than us (experience of reactions when travelling at 150mph versus 2knots, ummmm I wonder who would be more reactive?!). It is something we are keen to use when we’re on the boat though, with the theory of it giving us focus and mental preparation particularly when waking on our night time shifts.


The afternoon was then the more physical testing. We got prepped with our heart rate monitors and then sweat patches placed on our thigh, chest and shoulder blade.


The ear lobes were pricked to draw blood for lactate testing (by-product of anaerobic activity) and a card was passed around to show us what ‘rate of perceived exertion’ we felt (how hard do you feel you are working 6-15 scale). Weight was rechecked as we’d now had some food & our water bottles were weighed to get our starting point of hydration. Once all our baseline measures were collected, it was Nat and I up for the start of a 2 hour erg and then Izzy and Emma.

Training2 Training3


The first hour was in ambient room temperature and the second was in the heat chamber at 40degrees heat and 40% humidity.


Tests were repeated every 30minutes, where we had blood lactate taken from the ear immediately, given an ipad to do our cognitive assessments, heart rate noted and perceived effort recorded. Then it was straight back on to continue rowing.

physiology setup

The sweat patches were to stay throughout the 2hours and later got removed at the very end after having soaked up our sweat (nice thought!). These patches can then be analysed after, to look at exactly what concentrations of salts/ nitrates etc. we sweat out, combined with weighing our bottles and weighing us at the end of the session, it can be calculated how much fluid we lost during a 2 hour row. Combine this with knowing the concentration of salt loss, the aim is for GSK HPL team to develop specific hydration strategies for each of us. So as an example, l might sweat more than say Nat, so we may need to account for me needing say 5 litres of fluid minimum compared to Nat may only need 3 litres as a minimum, also another example is that Emma may loose more salts in her sweat so she would need to drink a more concentrated rehydration salts drink for replenishment.

At the end of the testing, there was an opportunity to jump into a fresh 10deg plunge pool, seeing as I make the athletes I work with do this all the time, I figured I should practice what I preach…


So that was our first day with GSK, for me it was the first time to being on the other side of testing and for the other girls it was the first time to experience a professional sports environment with a great team from GSK.

Over the coming months we will continue to collect further results in order for the GSK team to calculate things such as our calorie expenditure during the row so we can minimise our risk of weight loss, our bone density so we can monitor it during and immediately post the row to see the affect of 6 months at sea, along with our cognitive preparation/ readiness when we’re sleep deprived. Hopefully we will have some good data by the end of the row to help inform others of how to ‘do more, feel better and live longer’.

Huge thanks to the GSK HPL team who all put up with us for the day and the hours they’re putting in to research and gather the results; Mark Langley, Anna Anton, Tess Morris, Barry O’Neill, Matt Furber, Josh Jackman, Sarah Browne, Lee Eddens.



  1. I can’t believe that Natalia can switch so quick from Maasai-culture loving safari manager (mainly on the beach!) in Eastern Tanzania, to a Coxless (well there’s no men in the crew!!)TV long- distance rower.
    Good on you Nat for the charitable fund raising.
    I have been working for the past year with 2 Maasai guys from one of TWAV’s Zanzibari Hotel, building up a project to provide a water supply to their Arusha region village by drilling boreholes.
    Tanzania changes all of us, eh?

    • Natalia Cohen Natalia Cohen says:

      Hey David,
      It does indeed. As long as we are all making a difference (however small), it makes life an amazing journey. Thanks for the well wishes and good luck to you on your projects.
      Natalia x

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