WTF Is My Hand Doing? And Other Thoughts From Swim Physio Testing

By Alison Freeman

As many of us triathletes approach the off-season, we tend to think about how we can improve for next year. The off-season is an awesome time to focus on one sport at the expense of the other two and make some big gains in that sport. And if you come away from your tri season post-mortem realizing that it’s time to step up your swim, I highly recommend booking time at the CU Sports Medicine & Performance Center (CUSMPC) for a round of physiological testing in the swim flume.

I did physio testing on the bike at CUSMPC last spring and found that to be incredibly useful. I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical about whether the swim physio testing was going to have the same impact. I love it when I’m proven wrong!

WHAT IS IT?
Similar to bike or run physio tests, the swim physio test measures your heart rate and blood lactate levels across a range of swim paces, with the goal of scientifically determining your individualized training paces. Beyond that, you also get the benefit of a swim stroke analysis, complete with before and after video of your technique.

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
In swimming, there is a distinct intertwining of effort and technique: if your technique is flawed (and really, whose isn’t?), then you’re less efficient and it’s going to take more effort to swim – at any pace. The swim physio testing begins by identifying your swim training zones, which are cool to know but aren’t game changing. The stroke analysis is where the magic happens.

Jared Berg, CUSMPC’s testing specialist who’s also a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a former pro triathlete, focuses on stroke improvements that will reduce your effort level and/or improve your pace within your training zones. In other words, (cue lights and “aha” music) Jared looks for ways to help you swim faster while expending less effort – IMMEDIATELY. Not after four months of hitting the pool three to five times a week, but within just a few workouts.

HOW DOES IT WORK?
Swim physio testing takes place in a swim flume, essentially a treadmill for swimming … which I translated to: bo-ring. I was so wrong. I hopped in, started warming up, noticed the mirrors on the bottom and sides of the flume, and was immediately fixated on WTF was my right hand doing and now I understand why my masters swim coach keeps telling me to straighten my wrist. Seeing yourself swim is about as eye opening as it gets.

Flume Video

The testing itself takes approximately 30-45 minutes and goes like this: after your warm up, Jared takes you through a series of four minute swim intervals at increasingly challenging paces. The first few are endurance to tempo pace, as in: no big deal. But by the third I was sucking wind and by the fourth I was desperately trying to just keep my feet off the back wall. The only reason I survived the testing is because in between each interval Jared has you pause swimming to check your heart rate and lactate levels. I used that time to gasp for air and beg for a countdown during the final interval so I knew how much longer I’d have to suffer.

After you complete the testing portion you move on to stroke analysis. Jared sets up two incredibly high end, super cool underwater video cameras in front and side view positions. You’ll swim for a minute to capture your baseline stroke, then Jared reviews the video with you and provides an overview of what looks good and what needs improvement. Next he’ll pick one element for you to concentrate on, have you swim a minute focusing on this particular improvement, and show you side-by-side before-and-after videos to see how you did. After that he’ll move onto a second point of focus and repeat the process. All in all you’ll walk away with three or four discrete form points that you will have practiced in the flume and can continue to work on after your session. More importantly, these form points are specifically selected to provide near-term results – as in, you’ll swim with less effort and/or faster almost immediately.

How did this shake out for me? Well, it turns out the alternate-side breathing that I thought made me super cool was in fact my undoing. Jared noticed during my physio testing that my lactate levels were unusually high during the initial rounds of testing. He had me change to a single-side breathing, galloping style stroke (a la Katie Ledecky – even cooler!) to improve my oxygen levels and reduce lactate levels, and then gave me some specific form points to concentrate on to maximize my stroke efficiency for this new style.

Think it all sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo? We put it to the test. I came back exactly two weeks later – after only three swim workouts – and re-did the physio testing. My lactate levels started lower and stayed lower during the initial testing intervals, and my heart rate stayed lower as well. My stroke rate was lower across all the intervals, and I was able to add a fifth, faster interval that had been impossible two weeks prior.

I still have work to do to get faster and refine my stroke, but now I know what to work on. And with Jared’s help I will come out of the water at my next tri feeling less tired, and therefore having more energy for the bike and run. #ForTheWin!

HOW DO I GET STARTED?
Just pop on over to the CUSMPC website’s page on performance testing and select “Physiology.” Scroll down to “(SWIM) Lactate Profile,” click to pop up the scheduling tool, pick a time and you’re good to go.

While you’re at CUSMPC for your swim physio testing, be sure to check out their state-of-the-art facility. They offer everything from physio and metabolic testing to physical therapy to an alter-G (anti-gravity) treadmill. It’s all open to the public, and it’s right in our own back yard.

Alison Freeman’s bike phsyio testing at CU sports performance center

WHY IS A LAB LACTATE TEST WORTH THE PAIN?

I recently went to the relatively new and categorically state-of-the-art CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center (CUSMPC) for some physiological and metabolic testing. Before the testing, I was taking on a tour of CUSMPC. I had *no idea* that I had access to a world-class sports performance facility practically in my backyard. In addition to physio and metabolic testing for bike and run, CUSMPC houses orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, an AlterG (anti-gravity!) treadmill, two methodologies for high performance bike fits, running gait analysis, swim stroke analysis and physio testing, and cycling classes (think spin classes but BYO bike). All of which is open to the general public. Who knew? Clearly not me.

But back to the matter at hand …

WHAT IS IT?
The physiological and metabolical performance testing done at CUSMPC measures your heart rate, blood lactate levels, fat and carbohydrate oxidation rates, and VO2 across a spectrum of workloads – either paces on the run, or power outputs on the bike – with the goal of scientifically determining your individualized heart rate, pace, and power based training zones as well as establish ideal racing paces. The tests are conducted by Jared Berg, a certified strength and conditioning specialist as well as a former pro triathlete and current coach, and have been tailored by him to reflect the physiological demand of endurance events.

Even if your eyes glazed over as I described the testing, what should have jumped out was the idea that your ideal racing paces can be scientifically defined based on your physiological and metabolic profile.

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
If you’re looking to run and ride recreationally, and participate in triathlons for fun and fitness, then maybe you don’t care about your dialing in your training zones and race paces. But, if you’re starting to get serious about improving your performance, these pieces of data are pretty critical.

Many of us do field tests (such as 20 minute time trials for the bike and 5k time trials for the run) to estimate our lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR), functional threshold power (FTP), and run threshold pace. We then use these results to determine our training zones (more on that here). This is an easily repeatable and cost-effective approach – and a good start.

The results of field tests aren’t going to be as precise as a lab test, but typically – about 80% of the time, according to Jared – are reasonably accurate. What tends to be less accurate / less personalized, are those standard percentages that you use to set your training zones. Just check out how drastically my heart rate zones (left) and power zones (right) changed in the chart below. The blue zones are based on the standard percentages, and the green zones are the personalized zones set by Jared, based on my testing. Training zones are definitely not one-size-fits-all.

HOW DOES IT WORK?
Your time with Jared at CUSMPC will start with a weigh in and caliper test to measure body fat percentage, and some guidance on where you’ll want to be by race day. (Compared to my scale at home, I weighed in a few pounds heavier but my body fat came in a few percentage points lower, so: Win!)

We then set up my tri bike on CUSMPC’s Wahoo Kickr and I warmed up at a super easy effort level for a solid 30 minutes. (You can also use their spin bike with a built-in perfectly calibrated power meter, or you’ll be on a treadmill for the run test.) Once I was sufficiently warmed up, Jared had me don the only moderately annoying mask, necessary to measure oxidation rates. We then kicked in with the test: intervals of either five or ten minutes, at increasing power levels, and ear pricks for blood samples every five minutes. Just ‘cause sweating your ass off while breathing through a mask isn’t quite enough fun for one day. All-in-all, I was on my bike for well over an hour, and given the effort level of the test was totally able to use that as my bike workout for the day.

After the test was over, I cooled down and Jared used that time to run all the numbers. That’s where the real insight comes in. Once you’ve changed out of your sweaty, smelly bike clothes, you’ll sit with Jared in a consult room and review your test results. Jared first takes the time to provide background on things like typical lactate profiles across a range of athletes before diving into your specific results. Then he’ll show you your data through a series of graphs, explaining and interpreting all the details and answering questions as you have them. In addition to providing your lactate threshold heart rate and functional threshold power, Jared will dial in your training zones, suggested race targets for power and/or heart rate, and race-day fueling guidelines tailored for your glycogen stores, race intensity and race distance. He also provides recommendations for your training – how much time to spend training in each zone to achieve your desired race results.

HOW DO YOU GET STARTED?
Signing up for physiological and metabolic testing at CUSMPC is beyond easy. Just go to the CUSMPC website, review the services, pick a time slot, and – viola! – you’re good to go. Wondering whether to do the testing on the bike or the run? Interesting question. I prefer the testing on the bike because the uncomfortable mask doesn’t drive me crazy as much on the bike as when I’m literally gasping for air on the run. Also, if you bike with power then you will definitely want to test on the bike so you can get your FTP checked as well as your LTHR. If you still can’t decide, I’d go with the discipline in which you’d most like to improve.

Final tip: I highly recommend adding a sweat test onto your physio and metabolic testing. The sweat test will reveal your sweat rate and concentration, which then determines your fluid and sodium requirements during training and racing. That’s the kind of information that can save your race – it’s a no brainer add-on.