Warning: Long, yet informative post ahead. And, kind of scientific if you like that sort of thing.
When I started running almost three years ago, I blasted into the sport rigorously and recklessly. This is kind of how I approach life. 100 eff’ing percent.
Not knowing any better, I assumed more was more, so I ran and I ran and I ran. I trained as fast as I could and went as far as my legs would take me. I raced often and hard. Exactly one year after I started running I was sidelined with a stress fracture of the cuboid bone.
I recovered, with some lessons learned. I followed the Run Less, Run Faster program to a tee. I welcomed Bikram yoga (and sweaty crack) into my life. I did not overdo it. During my second marathon, I qualified for Boston only four months after my stress fracture.
Again, I threw caution to the wind and started training hard for my next marathon. No breaks, no down time. I stopped cross training, I forgot about recovery days. I put in high mileage weeks and never missed speed and tempo workouts. Ten days before my marathon I was stopped dead in my tracks with stress fracture #2, this time of the hip.
Bone tests, blood panels, gait analyses all confirmed what I had suspected: the injury was due to overtraining. Where had I gone wrong? I had some good guesses.
- Little to no cross training
- No recovery weeks
- Not enough attention to nutrition
- Running while fatigued
- Running my long runs at paces that were too fast
- Basically, not giving my body a break.
Never once did it occur to me to try to find out what was going on behind the scenes in this body of mine by having a physiological consultation. I went purely based on feel. If I was tired – well, weren’t you supposed to be tired when you were training for a marathon? If I had aches and pains – well, weren't you supposed to have those when you were training for a marathon? Yes and no. In marathon training you will surely push your body to new limits. However, you always must give your body a chance to recover while adapting to the new stress you're putting on it. This is how you get stronger.
All of this came full circle this week when I visited Dr. Inigo San Millan, Director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Health & Wellness Center, for a physiological performance evaluation. Finally, the guess work would be over. I would know what was really going on while I pushed my body to its limits. I would know if I was training correctly. And, most excitingly, I would know what I was truly capable of if I just trained the right way.
Dr. San Millan, a friendly, intelligent, expressive and animated Spaniard, invited me into his office which was decorated with a framed yellow jersey (a Tour de France pro he had worked with in the past) as well as a signed Garmin jersey (San Millan traveled with the Garmin team to oversee the physiological testing of Garmin's riders). San Millan explained the tests that he would perform and what the results of these tests would mean:
- Body Composition: Weight/height check and body fast test (anthropometry)
- VO2 Max: Maximum capacity of an individual's body to transport and use oxygen during exercise. San Millan explained that V02 max used to be the best indicator of an athlete’s fitness and performance. Now it is only good information – there are many other factors to be considered.
- Lactate Profile and Metabolism: Blood lactate concentration is likely the best indicator of athletic performance these days. As exercise intensity increased, blood lactate production increases as well. The net blood lactate accumulation is the result of the lactate production and lactate removal. Measuring lactate can help predict athletic performance.
- Heart Rate
- Substrate Utilization: The heart rates at which fat and carbs are burned
He also would be giving me training recommendations based on the information he collected.
He emphasized how important he feels it is for the average athlete to have this test done of they want to lose weight or are training for a race. He stated, “These tests are not just for the pros!” The average Joe doesn’t just go out and run around the block. He trains for marathons and maybe wants to place in his age group or qualify for Boston. Yet, he has a job, kids and a life outside of that. He is at great risk for overtraining and fatigue and needs to know how to train properly.
In addition, many people start exercising to lose weight, but are unable to do so. This is because they are not training at the target heart rates in which their bodies burn fat. They are training at higher heart rates where the body is burning glucose. To lose fat, you must train in the correct zone and most people do not know what that is! Enter San Millan!
Let’s get this party started
You can almost see my crack!
Weight: 110 lbs.
Height: 5’ 5”
Body fat: 10.7%
Yes, this is a very low body fat percentage. I told you I am a lean machine! While he did not seem concerned by my percentage, he did want to make sure I wasn’t burning through calories too quickly while working out and that I was getting enough fuel. Agreed!
San Millan fitted me with an oxygen mask which would measure input and output. He told me he would be pricking (she said “prick”) my ear lobe every five minutes to collect blood for the lactate metabolism test. I would warm up for a few minutes and then he would start increasing my watts/kg every five minutes. I was to stay at 85 to 95 rpms throughout the test.
As a side note, athletes can choose to be tested on the bike or treadmill. My running is pretty strong, but I have been struggling some on the bike. In the half ironman I will be on the bike for over three hours and I really wanted to find out how I could perform more effectively. I do hope to go back for the run test as well.
I was on the bike for about an hour including the warm-up/c0ol down. The actual test was 25 minutes. That means he increased the watts five times and took blood five times. Near the end of the test I was pushing it almost to my max.
Go eat a hamburger (just kidding)
Vo2 Max: Way above average. YES!! The average for a woman my age is 31-33 ml/kg/min. I was at 47, the highest range for 35-45 year olds. This means that I transport and use oxygen very efficiently. San Millan went to far as to say that my Vo2 max was likely as good as the top finishers in a triathlon.
So, then what's the problem?
Lactate profile/metabolism: Although I take in and use oxygen well, things start to break down from there. Initially when my watts were increased, my lactate held steady. Once we took bigger jumps the lactate started to build in my muscles and I was unable to flush it out. That means that I was tiring and quickly.
What to do?
The only way to have a higher lactate threshold is to train your body to flush out the lactate more efficiently. The way to do this is to train and heart rates where you are burning fat, not glucose (you will be building your slow twitch muscles). This is why we are told to do our long runs at such slow paces. This enables us to go stronger for longer during our actual race. This is not to say you don’t need to train the fast twitch muscles as well. That is what hill work, intervals and tempos are for. You need to use both systems to be the most efficient and strong athlete you can be.
Also, if you do want to lose weight, the same would apply. You need to spend more time in the fat burning heart rate zone.
Given that, these are my heart rate training zones:
My long rides should be done in zone 2. Tougher, faster rides in zones 3/4.
Anyone have a heart rate monitor they want to get rid of?
Nutrition: San Millan found that I do not burn calories during exercise any faster than the norm. Given that, the recommendations for carb fueling (he prefers to use grams vs. calories):
Training: 50-70 grams/hour solid and fluid combined
Competition: 80-100 grams/hour
Examples of Solids:
1 sports bar: 30-45g
1 gel: 25 g
1 banana: 51g
1 Fig Newton: 11g
Snickers, Twix, etc: 30-40g
Small PB&J: 18g
1-17 oz sport’s drink: 40-50g
$250 for a full physiological test. Includes Vo2 max, lactate test, fat and carbohydrate metabolism, energy expenditure and advice/explanation/recommendations (2.5 hours).
My two cents: For $250 you can gain major insight into the inner working of your body while you train. You can find out your potential as an athlete as well as how you could train more effectively in order to meet your personal fitness goals such as a new PR, a BQ, a place in your age group. Or, maybe you want to avoid injury and just be the strongest, fittest athlete you can be. If you are exercising and cannot lose weight, San Millan can tell you why. Knowledge is power. Consider it. If you’ve got the budget for it, then do it.
For more information or to schedule a consultation, call Dr. San Millan at 720-848-8208. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @doctorinigo.
Later this week I’ll be doing a Q&A where you can post questions for Dr. San Millan about training, physiology, whatever!
Fine print: I was invited by the Human Lab and the Weber Shandwick PR Firm to undergo these tests in exchange for a review/informational post about the testing and the program. I did not pay for the tests.