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Up Your Game At The Ultimate Triathlon Testing Center

“Pros can improve by seconds and minutes, but the age-groupers we work with improve by hours.”

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Get your training, technique and fit dialed at this Boulder performance center—formerly reserved for pros but now available to age-grouper triathletes—and up your game this season.

Pro triathletes have a distinct advantage: They often have access to a team of experts providing personalized advice on swim stroke, bike fit, training zones, running form and all the X-factors that get you to the line fitter and faster.

Now, for the cost of a pair of Zipps, that same level of expertise is available to the amateur triathlete at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center in Boulder, Colo. Late last year the center debuted an assessment package called Up Your Game that offers a chance to work with highly credentialed staff armed with state-of-the-art equipment under one roof. Triathletes can choose from one- to three-day packages that feature fitness testing, nutrition consultation, gait analysis, a Retül bike fit, saddle pressure mapping, SwimLabs stroke analysis and more through a multi-disciplinary team of sports scientists, physical therapists and athletic trainers.

The mission is to help age-groupers advance by leaps and bounds, says Inigo San Millan, Ph.D., who directs the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Lab and has trained world-class athletes including a Tour de France winner. “Pros can improve by seconds and minutes,” he says, “but the age-groupers we work with improve by hours.”

Lab Rat

As someone who once shaved 45 minutes off her Ironman swim time by employing a swim coach, I am a believer in the power of expert analysis and consult. I jumped at the opportunity to test-drive a three-day triathlon package during the program’s soft launch last November. I’d been big into triathlon a few years back, including a trip to the XTERRA National Championship in Lake Tahoe and Ironman World Championship in Kona. After a few years of focusing on ultra-endurance mountain bike racing, I was ready to dip my toes back into the triathlon waters, but I knew I could really use some help, especially since I hadn’t gotten younger during my absence. I was rusty in the pool and I’ve always struggled to stay healthy when my running volume expands.

As an athlete and writer for publications like Bicycling and Runner’s World, I’ve had the opportunity to undergo an awful lot of testing over the years. As a certified USA Cycling coach and NASM-certified personal trainer, I stay up on sports science. And I was still blown away. Here’s what I learned (and you can too!).

The Swim

The facility features a constant current SwimLabs pool that is equipped with mirrors and an array of video cameras so you can watch yourself swim as the instructors analyze and capture your stroke on digital video. The program offers stroke analysis as well as lactate testing.

Stroke analysis
I’ve been recorded in the pool before, but nothing like this 360-degree fish-in-a-bowl level of scrutiny. And oh how far I’ve fallen in the seven years since Ironman—my hips are sinking as I’m slugging the water, kicking from my knees, and randomly rotating with no discernable rhythm. My analyst, swimmer Chloe Sutton, a two-time Olympian and five-time national champion in both pool and open-water swimming is poolside with plenty of advice.

We work on making my kick small and quick on the surface, creating a straighter bodyline and bending my elbows and hinging for a better catch and pull. I leave with a high-def video that shows my entire session, instructions and some side-by-side videos of me juxtaposed with elite swimmers demonstrating textbook perfect form.

I also underwent swim lactate analysis at the end of the session. My poor swimming condition made it challenging. But it was a light bulb moment when after being instructed to relax, slow down and lengthen my stroke, my heart rate dropped and lactate levels declined despite the fact that I was swimming faster.

The takeaway: For many triathletes, swimming is the hardest of the three disciplines. Technique is everything when it comes to going faster and leaving the water fresher. This analysis is particularly helpful because you can refer back to the video to refresh your memory as you practice.

RELATED: Get The Most Out Of Video Swim Analysis

The Bike

The Boulder staff use an SRM Ergometer stationary bike to put participants through a battery of tests, including “an incremental maximal protocol” or simply, a ramped test to exhaustion. The program also offers Retül bike fitting, which uses a 3D capture system to analyze your position and pedaling mechanics from every angle.

Full physiological test on ergometer
This test shows your heart rate, oxygen consumption, lactate metabolism and fat and carb burning rates, starting with an easy warm-up and ending when you hit the wall and can’t push another second. Throughout each phase of the increasingly difficult test, a physiologist periodically pricks your finger to test blood lactate levels. It’s as pleasant as it sounds, but it yields a goldmine of data including your personal lactate metabolism, mitochondrial function (how well you burn oxygen, carbohydrates and clear lactate) and aerobic abilities.

I learned that I’m a “world-class” fat burner, which is awesome—until I have to burn carbs. Then my lactate accumulates pretty quickly, and show-stopping fatigue hits fast. The verdict: My aerobic base had degraded following a season of racing and several weeks of mostly high-intensity work. San Millan recommends more Zone 2 base training for the next two months to build mitochondria, the cell’s energy producing furnaces, which will continue to improve both my ability to burn more fat and increase lactate clearance. By spending three to four days a week doing Zone 2 work, I could improve my capacity to use the lactate I’m producing and work harder and longer before fatiguing. I went home with a detailed physiological performance evaluation complete with heart rate, power and threshold data plus recommended training zones to share with my coach.

The takeaway: There is no triathlete, age-grouper or otherwise, who couldn’t benefit from this level of evaluation. It highlights your strengths and weaknesses, takes the guesswork out of establishing training zones, and provides detailed recommendations that can serve as the foundation for creating your own training plan or, better yet, to guide your coach.

Retül bike fit
I met with cycling biomechanist Charles Van Atta, who wired up my arms and legs and recorded me as I pedaled. Various screens show the angles of my arms, legs and torso as well as planes of movement. Van Atta looked for deviations from the norm that could result in wasted watts or an increased risk for overuse injury.

I’ve had numerous fittings over the years (though none on this particular bike), so I was not surprised that my fit was fairly well dialed. Van Atta did note that my left knee tracked a hair more side to side than he’d prefer and that my toe-down pedaling style didn’t allow for as much heel drop as he would like to see for engaging the calves and generating maximum power from every pedal stroke. He tweaked my saddle position a hair down to allow more heel drop. Since my feet have low arches and tend to collapse inward, he placed 1.5 mm varus wedges under the footbeds of my shoes to stabilize my foot and minimize side-to-side motion. I also left with a homework assignment: 1 minute on, 1 minute off drills for lower heel position while pedaling. We finished with saddle pressure mapping to ensure none of my sensitive tissues were bearing any undue burdens. They weren’t, but if they were, he had a host of saddle shapes and widths right there for testing.

Out on the road, the adjusted position was especially comfortable for seated climbs, where dropping heels can really help produce more watts when you need them.

The takeaway: A bike fit is a good educational experience even if you’re happy with your position. Plagued by aches and pains on long rides? It’s a must. Aiming for Ironman? It can be the difference between wrapping up 112 miles comfortably ready to run and hobbling your way through the marathon.

The Run

The center offers a two-part gait analysis that starts with an observational and hands-on clinical evaluation to examine your anatomical structure, strength, flexibility and range of motion relative to your goals. Following the evaluation, you run on a treadmill while video is taken to evaluate running gait.

Biomechanics and gait analysis
Within 52 minutes of meeting physical therapist and exercise physiologist Tim Hilden, who acts as head of the center’s Gait Analysis Lab, he identified and helped rectify a series of ongoing lower-body joint issues I’ve had on and off for years. Hilden works his magic by getting “your story,” and that means everything—what you did as a kid, your athletic history, injuries and issues, hopes and dreams, day-to-day life. He listens to your story as he assesses how you stand, walk, perform single-leg squats and as he tests your flexibility and muscular strengths and weaknesses through a series of tests on the assessment room table.

I relayed bouts of IT band issues, random medial left knee and right hip aches and pains. Stuff that all came and went but put a damper on distance running over the years. On my back, legs bent 90 degrees, I’m stunned when I can’t resist against even minor pressure as he pulls my right foot and easily straightens my leg. Legs straight, I’m equally stunned when I can’t keep my right foot pointed toward the ceiling and it flops helplessly to the side as he uses two fingers to press it outward. I tell him I’ve been diagnosed with weak glutes and have done a billion clamshells to no avail.

“That’s because your muscles aren’t getting the signal to fire,” Hilden says. “It’s like turning down the dimmer switch on a light bulb. It’s not a problem with the bulb, but rather the electricity getting to the bulb. All those PT exercises don’t have a chance at making you stronger when the electrical input is compromised.” He gives what I have a name: S1 neuro weakness. The right side of my sacroiliac joint is all locked up. He manipulates the joint to free it. We do the tests again: Like a light switch, I can fully resist. “You’re not ‘fixed,’” he cautions me. “This could happen again. I want you to babysit this.” He instructs me to have someone test me regularly. If it returns, he’ll contact my sports therapist to get it freed again. Then we head to the treadmill where video cameras capture my stride from every angle to the fraction of a second. My form isn’t bad. My arm pump is brisk and tracks through a healthy arc from front to back. General hip-knee-ankle alignment is good. But my feet are slow—around 160 foot strikes per minute—and noisy, and I’m leaning too far forward from the waist. It doesn’t look or sound very pretty.

Hilden cues me to pull my hips underneath me. I automatically straighten up. Then he starts a metronome and instructs me to synchronize with it and quiet my feet. I comply. Quicker and quieter and straighter, I look and feel like a whole new runner. Psych! “You’re not ‘fixed,’” Hilden says again, bringing me back to reality. “You need to practice this or you’ll unknowingly slip back into old habits. I see it all the time.” He has me switch back and forth between old form, which is now surprisingly difficult to do, and new form. I am to do these switching drills progressively for a month to make them stick. I leave enlightened and elated. Since my evaluation, I have ramped up my mileage from nearly no running to a 20-plus-mile week with zero issues.

The takeaway: Raise your hand if you’re an Olympic- to iron-distance triathlete and have never suffered a bout of IT band pain, plantar fasciitis, knee pain or other niggling musculoskeletal issue that disrupted your training and/or racing. Thought so. A biomechanics and gait analysis can work wonders to improve your form and help prevent injury no matter what level triathlete you are.

RELATED: 5 Exercises To Bolster Your Running Form

The Great Outdoors

All your tests are done in the controlled environment of CUSM&PC’s world-class facilities, but don’t think you’ll be cooped up indoors for your entire stay. The point of going to Boulder is to get outdoors. That’s why the center is billing the Up Your Game packages as a “traincation.” To that end, you’ll be treated to guided rides and runs with members of the sports performance team as part of your experience.

I got a chance to ride up the iconic Flagstaff Mountain with a few coaches and physiologists so I could assess my bike fit, run through my prescribed training zones and ask questions. The following day I got to test my new running gait in the wild and enjoy the stunning foothill trails of Chautauqua Park. I appreciated how easygoing, approachable and fun the staff was along with being experienced and knowledgeable. p

Bang For Your Buck

The cost of this service is very reasonable considering you’re getting the undivided attention, analysis and advice of some of the brightest brains in the business. Prices may vary according to season (visit Bouldercoloradousa.com/upyourgame), but range from $900–$1750.

Know Before You Go

Best time to go: Anytime, really. But if you’re training for a big event, plan your trip to give yourself ample time—at least six to eight weeks—to make training adjustments based on your results. “It’s like a training checkup,” says lead exercise physiologist rob Pickels. “How are you right now? And what do you need going forward?”

Where to stay: There are two cooperating Up Your Game host hotels in town. The Millennium Harvest House (Millenniumhotels.com) and the Historic Hotel Boulderado (Boulderado.com). Both are within 10 minutes of the center, and you can’t go wrong with either.

Bike shop needs: University Bikes (Ubikes.com) in downtown Boulder can receive, build, hold, pack up and ship your bike for you for an added fee. It’s been around since 1985 and the mechanics are knowledgeable about all things two wheels.

Eats and treats: It’s Boulder—toss a spoke wrench and you’ll hit a great place to grab a bite or a drink. Be sure to check out Cured, owned and operated by former pro cyclist Will Frischkorn and his wife coral (Curedboulder.com) and grab some Joe at Amante in Uptown (Amantecoffee.com).

Adjust for altitude: Remember, Boulder sits 5,344 feet above sea level. Hills you’d generally hammer up will leave you sucking wind. Arrive early if you can to acclimate a bit.

RELATED – Triathlon Tour Guide: Boulder, Colo.