Training, down to a science |

Training, down to a science

Melanie Wong
A cyclist undergoes human performance testing at the labs of Dr. Inigo San Millan. The test look at an athlete's blood for signs of overtraining and adaptation, while an oxygen intake test measures the efficiency of gas exchange while exercising. Once only available to professional athletes working with researchers, the method is now available to the public, including at the Vail Vitality Center.
Special to the Daily |

VAIL — You fuel, train, recover. Whether you’re training for a big race or simply to keep in shape, that’s the formula you follow, but it’s measuring the results of your work that can be tricky — you could use a timed interval, enter a race, step on the scale or subjectively gauge how your body feels. Should you go harder? Back off? Change your diet?

Endurance athletes have their widely accepted methods of monitoring training, whether that’s heart rate, split times or power wattage. Dr. Inigo San Millan and researchers at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine, however, believe all the results are right there in your veins, and they’re bringing the method to the Vail Vitality Center.

Human performance testing, once only available to professional athletes working with sports physiologists, gleans results from a single blood test to see how your body reacts to the rigors of training and racing. From several vials of blood, the test sheds light on everything ranging from liver and kidney function, to inflammation levels, to autoimmune function, to complete blood counts and vitamin deficiencies.

Not just for athletes

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And why would an athlete need to know all that? Kidney function can point toward dehydration. Inflammation points to the fact that your body is trying to repair itself. The presence of certain enzymes indicate muscle breakdown and drops in hemoglobin levels indicate overtraining, for example.

San Millan and researchers pair the results of the blood test with a lactate clearance and threshold analysis — while the athlete is on a treadmill, bike or whatever form of exercise, physiologists measure their oxygen exchange and pinpoint exactly where the body stops burning fat and starts running solely on carbohydrates and storing lactic acid.

According to Nick Edwards, assistant director at the Anschutz Wellness Center’s Sports Performance Program, that tipping point can be raised, so that your body is more efficient for longer. You do that by training right underneath that tipping point.

“After a few months of training, you can actually increase mitochondrial density,” Edwards said. “By testing, you’ll get numbers for speed, heart rate, power and calories per hour to train at.”

For years, San Millan and his team have had success with Olympic athletes, professional football teams, World Cup skiers and ProTour cyclists. Now, they hope that recreational athletes, or even people looking to simply improve their wellness or manage a disease, can benefit as well.

“A lot of people try fad diets and fall off the wagon,” said Edwards. “A lot of people try a trainer who will help them get to their goals or try to find someone who has all the right answers. Honestly, it comes down to the cellular level and what your body is doing internally. There’s not a blanket plan for everybody. This helps find the individual adaptations to help dial in a specific training regimen, change their diet, whatever.”

Training too much

Change wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for when I stepped onto the treadmill at the Vitality Center, located at the Vail Athletic Club in Vail Village. But what I found was that the blood test alone can tell you surprising amounts of information about your health. Upon meeting with Edwards, he had already seen my blood test results and made some observations.

There were signs of intense muscle repair — evidence of a severe ankle sprain sustained a week before.

I had an elevated white blood cell count — a tip-off that I had gotten extremely sick five months earlier.

The test also revealed I was low on iron — not uncommon in active women.

More importantly, those enzymes that indicate overtraining — those were at suspiciously high levels, indicating that if I didn’t back off with physical activity, I was headed toward being overtrained.

The oxygen intake test showed even more.

My heart rate and gas-exchange numbers stayed low and steady as I walked on a treadmill, slowly ramping up the speed. But the moment I broke into an easy jog, my heart rate shot up — we had found my lactate threshold.

Many of the people who come through the testing offices are actually overtraining — and that includes everyone from recreational athletes to elite level competitors. It’s more common that the physiologists are telling people to scale back than to ramp it up, Vitality Center Director Jeff Morgan said.

“If you don’t work in the right zone, you won’t make improvements,” he said, adding that people who push their bodies too hard actually are impeding progress. “There’s also truth in the idea of ‘less is more.’ We give more to depleting our bodies than we do storing up energy.”

Edwards gave me a training plan to raise that threshold level and build in some rest time, and sent me on my way.

Worth the cost?

The catch is that the test comes at a big price tag. Through the Vail Vitality Center, the full test costs $649. A package that includes a yearlong gym membership, periodic testing, a training plan and work with a trainer costs $1,500. That’s no small cost for a training plan, but some people have seen results.

One client at the Vitality Center achieved a marathon personal best after following a training plan based on the testing. Another client was overweight and even had a personal trainer with whom she worked. However, the test showed that she was consistently training at 30 beats above her optimal heart rate. With a new plan based on new numbers, she successfully shed her extra weight.

At the least, said Edwards, it helps you prevent a burnout or an injury.

“There will come a point when you overtrain that your muscles won’t be able to uphold the workload, and you’ll see dips in performance, get sick or get injured,” he said.

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 and

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