Monday, July 11, 2011

How I Could Train Smarter: A Date with Dr. San Millan at the Human Performance Lab.

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

The Test




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 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.


  1. First how the heck did you get to do this? I bet it would cost me a million dollars! You're very blessed because I work my arse off and still weigh 123 pounds not matter what I do! I can't lose one stinking pound even with all this tri training. Very cool you got to do all this!

  2. Also I def run outside my fat burning zone way too often during marathon training..

  3. Very cool info to have! Put it to good use and kick some ass! Especially our own!!

  4. That's a lot of testing! Very cool that you were invited to do this. I'm to cheap to shell out the cash (and probably even more $$ here), but would definitely be interested in something like that.

    Sounds like you got some really valuable information! Thanks for sharing the experience.

  5. A ha! I think I need a heart rate monitor. I just figured you were supposed to "go" until you couldn't go anymore. I KNOW my heart rate is up in the clouds. No wonder I can't lose weight.

    The $350 is a but too much for me, but I am definitely saving up.

  6. Nice freebie! Now if only his name was Inigo Montoya (you have killed my father...).

  7. super interesting! That's awesome you got to have that testing done. Thanks for sharing!

  8. So interesting! I love that you were able to do this and that you shared it here. Definitely makes me want to check around and see where it might be offered in my area.

  9. very interesting!!! wish i could afford to do this. i have a feeling i train way out of my zones, but its so darn hard on the ego to just slow down!

  10. That's pretty cool. Kind of like the aptitude test I took just out of high school. I did a lot of tests that seemed simple. It had a major impact on everything I did after that.

  11. This is really interesting. Of course I am a skeptic, bc I think training is much more complex than zones, etc. I mean elites use such a variety of training methods. Matt Fitzgerals posted on competitor at some point some theories on performance and training, using up to date research, and his point was basically that things are not as simple as they look. Still, as a data nerd, I would love to know all that info. As far as weight loss goes, I think people are better off losing weight before they start an exercise program, as exercise typically works for weight maintenance (at least in the overweight). You are so skinny, jealous, I really need to watch what I eat:)

  12. "This is why we are told to do our long runs at such slow paces." I need to hear this, over and OVER. I always seem to get it in my head that if I train slow, I'll race slow. But I know that's not always the case...and my training plan for the last race (which did not go as planned) definitely proved my theory wrong (and this one = right. Duh.).

    It's so cool that you got to do this! I copy/pasted the section about his cycling memorabilia to D - something to keep in mind (he's had a side-lining ankle issue for 1.5 yrs now - can ride, but can't run). :) This was informative and it sounds like you got some great insight, just in time to ramp up your training and really tackle that bike. Age group prize on your debut?? Wouldn't be surprised...

  13. Heather - I'm with you - it's tough to get into the mode of doing your long runs slower and having the confidence that you can still run at race pace on race day. I think that's why you have to keep through tempo, speed and race pace runs into the mix.

  14. Yup, so true! And I've trained plenty of times where those speed-work days proved their point on race day. Just needed the reminder ;)

  15. THANK YOU! I've never seen an explanation for the long slow distance runs that I really understood. This is great.

  16. Not that I agree with everything Dr. Phil Maffetone is saying in this interview, he has an interesting point of view the relates well to this post.

  17. That is so cool. I would love to do that. Heck, my question to him is where I can go in SD or O.C. to have something similar.

    Awesome post SUAR.

  18. I LOVED this post as this type of training info is SO interesting to me. It is great to hear his perspective on training philosophy and it was nice to see a few details.
    We loved the pics from your ride over the weekend around the Carter Lake area. We have not spent any time up there - is it a good route, free from crazy traffic? Can you provide some route info so we can come up and try it sometime? We always LOVE to find good, fresh, and scenic rides (and runs!).

  19. Hi, it would be great if you could help me get an answer to the following:
    I prefer to run on completely empty stomach, typically I would run 12 h after last meal. I am not running to lose weight, I am quite skinny, but my question is if in this case I am burning fat regardless of the heart rate zone? Usually I run around 8 min/mile, for about 1 h.
    Thanks, even if you can't provide me with the answer. Best wishes!

  20. So interesting. Sounds like you got some great information that can really help you meet your goals and stay injury-free.

    Are the training zones specific to you, or are they age-based?

    I'm no where as serious as you are about training but I would still love to have this done. Might get me even more motivated!

  21. Kate: training zones are specific to me given my lactate threshold. You should really consider having it done. It is for anyone who wants to be active.

  22. Okay, first time comment-er here -- that sounds really interesting, can you feel my jealousy from Minneapolis? How can I convince my husband that we need to vacation in Colorado, and that one of our activities should be to do some physiological profiling?

    That said...I think the best way to increase your lacatate threshold is to run just below your threshold - the "tempo run" (or whatever the equivalent is on the bike). At that tempo pace, you are primarily using carbohydrate (more energy per oxygen used, so more efficient in that way), while your long runs are going to use more fat. So I'm not quite sure how slowing down your long runs to rev up the fat-burning machinery is going to help your lactate threshold?

    I think Greg McMillan writes about this well - check out the link if you want something clearer than what I wrote. :-)

  23. This is VERY interesting stuff. I'd love to be able to do a consultation like this here in MN... but I bet it would cost a lot of moola!

  24. Nice. You've inspired me to look up where I can have this done in San Diego (closest DECENT city). My birthday is coming up soon. Holla!!!!

  25. Amy, what I learned is that it is not based on pace or type of run but on heart rate zone. In order to increase your ability to flush lactate you need to be at a lower heart rate than you would be for a tempo run. It should be an endurance or long run pace, or at least this is what I learned. This builds slow twitch muscles which are the ones that train your body to flush lactate. I can give him your info in the Q&A and see what he says.

  26. I am so jealous! I have always wanted to have that testing done! Maybe someday....

  27. Very interesting. I really need to know what my fat burning rate is. That way I can be more efficient in my fitness.

  28. During my training I never could let myself do my long runs slower. I am now wondering if it contributed to the stress fracture I got during the marathon. :( I will be heeding all of the advice you offer from this!

  29. What a great experience!! I wish I could afford such a great test, but it definitely exemplifies that I should slow the F down on my runs...

  30. since i just took the rrca coaching class all this made complete sense !!! i just ran with a friend who is starting her training for nyc marathon and we did 3 miles but she was trying to go as fast as she could, i was trying to tell her that she needs to build up first and going slower at first is better.

    love the information.

    can you please ask the doc where in NJ i could have this done. 250 is nothing for what i believe is very important information....

  31. This is super rad. I mean like the best blog post ever. But I need to read it again in the morning after some sleep. Bookmarked, on my to do list...

  32. This is all such valuable training info for you. And pointing out that these guidelines are specific to you and your results is so responsible. It is challenging to train in heart rate zones without a HR monitor... you can do the old count for ten seconds and times by 6 trick, but man does that get harder as intensity of workout goes up :P So great for you to have this! Even though he had no concerns about your low body fat %, do you? I know that often when a female's % gets very low, they cease their period which can lead to bone density issues... among other things. Knowing that you've had the stress fractures, do you take supplements or something?

  33. This was great. Thanks so much for sharing all of this information. So cool!!

  34. XLMIC- I'm not too concerned. Have never experienced period problems and my bone density is good. I take major supplements inc. calcium and vit d as persribed by my doc. I am naturally very lean, always have been, as are all the women in my family.

  35. WOAH WOAH WOAH. $250?! I think that's an absolute STEAL to get such an extensive (and exhaustive) physical test done. I think that's cheaper than the spider-killer-vacuum contraption from SkyMall.

    And it's so much more scientific than having my Wii tell me that I look like a beach ball.

  36. That was well worth waiting for. Very interesting.

  37. I really liked the information.
    It helped explain how I weigh more now than when I was running (slower!) mileage a couple of years ago.
    Have to see if there is a Dr. Millan in my neck of the woods.

  38. Well, if I lived in the Denver area, I'd plunk down that $350 and get it done with Dr. Millan. Cool stuff. I really want to know more accurately what my HR zones are. Based on some of those age/resting rate calculations, mine are a solid 30bpm lower than yours. I've been meaning to get some similar testing done for a while...maybe I'll actually get around to it soon.

  39. Loved reading thus but am surprised to see that the zones aren't pace but heart rate. Our lactate training/results incorporate HR for my bike training but not running as there are so many things that can influence HR.

  40. What a great post. Any chance there is info on Dr's that do this kind of testing in other areas, like California?

  41. Very cool! Would love to do day, when finances are better. You can sort of do your own VO2 testing and body fat composition and get some numbers. Not as accurate, agreed, but for those who couldn't swing this. But nevertheless, this is awesome. I've been using HR zones and encourage my clients to do so. One thing that me and those lovely people at RRCA disagreed on. Your endurance HR is a lot higher than mine! I'm hovering in the low 130s.

  42. I love all this science. Have you started to implement this information yet?

  43. Does he recommend anywhere in NY??? I would love to do it!

  44. So interesting, I'm looking forward to the q&a session too.

  45. I've been using a HRM for all (well most) of my runs lately and found it really useful. I'd love to have testing like that done, but don't think they have anything like this in my area. I may have to go look and see what's out there. Thanks for sharing your testing and results.

  46. Your numbers are outstanding--you do have an ass like a pro--just need to lactate like one now...wait, what?

    This information was so helpful to read about and emphasizing LSD helps me with training...I know I have not done that.

    RLRF was a great plan--I just pooped out on the XT unlike you who dominated it.

    SWASS-sweaty ass; we both wrote about moist butt cracks today!

  47. I LOVED this post. I read it twice!! You are very blessed to be able to do that. I sure would love it. I have a question to make sure I read/understood what you wrote. To burn fat I need to do more speed running? For example, if I run 8 miles slow and easy vs 8 miles @ race pace, I would burn more @ race pace? My body doesn't go into "burn" mode at a slow pace? Thanks for the info. :)

  48. Great topic, and I am right there with you! I am currently in the midst of a program created for me based on heart rate training and its changing my running life. The hardest part has been reminding myself to slow down, but I am MUCH more efficient already. I love it.

  49. Amazing how people will spend $130 on shoes, $100 on clothes, $50 on gels etc, but balk at the thought of spending the money for a test that will make all of those other expenses worthwhile! No shoe is going to make you faster or thinner!

  50. Vanessa: you burn more fat at lower heart rates which means slower paces. Or at least that's the way I understand it. When you go faster you burn glucose.

  51. Love this; I just started reading your blog. I just finished my first half marathon in June. At mile 10, I swore I was done and wasn't going to do it again. Crossed the finish line and thought, "next time will be better." WTF. So, I signed up for the Chevron Houston marathon and made the lottery. So, I guess I'm running a marathon. I am in so much better shape than I was last year this time, but cannot even imagine myself at the level you are at. Kudos to you! I know I can do more and better--just hard to imagine it getting easier. Thanks for the info and the funny stories. A great boost to my day.

  52. Well, you inspired me to get off my ass and actually get around to scheduling something. I go in for part one of my testing (treadmill) today! Wish my place did the lactate testing too.

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