Heart Rate Training Zones: A New Approach

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Heart Rate training zone systems take for granted that a fairly high level of sustained aerobic effort is comfortable or consistently sustainable for most people, which of course it’s not. Most runners just take for granted that it’s normal and never consider that what they consider “easy” or “recovery” is in fact still too hard.

One of the reasons a runner’s aerobic development improves more quickly than their neuromuscular development is because running itself is very demanding. On both fronts you’re being pushed very hard. However, your aerobic and hormonal capacities bounce back much more quickly than your muscles, bones and joints.

Still, it’s incredibly stressful on your body chemistry to go that hard that often, and the fatigue can snowball too quickly for you to be able to handle a high volume of that kind of aerobic training.

In my cross training, I find I need to go pretty hard to get to Zone 1 in most heart rate training zone systems… somewhat too hard for the purposes of whatever cross training I’m doing. The level of effort require would leave me rather tired and possibly sore. This supposed recovery exercise ends up not helping me recover much at all.

It’s not that most runners are just stronger. They just spend all their lives in this perpetual fatigue, physical and adrenal. The long term effects on their health are taken for granted as aging or wear and tear, when in actuality it’s probably preventable… without compromising your fitness or development.

My most recent heart rate zones of choice were a standard 50/60/70/80/90/100 split based on the Karvonen Formula, which uses heart rate reserve. This is a function of your resting and max heart rates, and the zones are proportioned against those rates. Zone 1 for example would be 50-60% of the gap between your resting and max heart rate (your “heart rate reserve (HRR)”), zone 2 60-70% of the HRR, etc.

With a max HR of around 184 beats per minute, this sets my minimum training heart rate around 120 (depending on what my resting heart rate is at that time), with zone 1 peaking at about 130-135. This is about where most heart rate zone systems would put zone 1, and is considered a “recovery” heart rate.

On the spin bike, even at a brisk but easy effort, my heart rate is around 105-110. On the ARC Trainer I can get to 125-130, but only with a more moderate effort. On the rowing machine, a concerted effort typically gets me to about 110-120.

However, when running, I rarely can cruise at a heart rate below 130, no matter how slow and easy I run. I basically have to stop and walk/run to average a zone 1 heart rate. This is not a product of lacking fitness: Even at my peak condition and training in Chicago, it took the right combination of circumstances for me to average 125-130 at an easy effort.


All of this is to say that maybe our view of heart rate zones and “recovery zones” is a bit warped and could use an adjustment.

This is especially true in our coronavirus circumstances, where if we go to the gym (and in many cases train outside) we need to wear a mask while while exercising. We can’t huff and puff at full volume and expect max results if a mask is filtering much of the air taken in or expelled. I’ve talked before about this being a long term training benefit, but in the present it makes the effort required for aerobic training a bit too much.

Bear in mind as well that, to maintain the typical intensity for a full volume of training, you have to consume a lot of carbohydrates, which can cause a variety of inflammatory health problems if consumed in the large amounts that most endurance athletes tend to require.

One of the reasons low-carb diets tend not to work well for endurance athletes is because they train at an intensity where they need a lot of glycogen, and that can only come from and be replenished from a carbohydrate rich diet.

Could it be possible to scale back carb consumption to a more (shall I say) human level, rely more on slower fat burning, and still be able to train, perform, and develop at a high level.

I say yes, and I say the key to doing so is combining (now-)traditional 80/20 training principles with a revised approach to heart rate zones.

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Should You Intermittent Fast? A Basic Primer on Intermittent Fasting

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First, in brief:

Intermittent fasting can work sometimes with exercise, depending on what you do and how.

You should avoid intermittent fasting if you work out in the morning.

The more training you’re doing, the less likely it’s a good idea.

Most of those who practice intermittent fasting and train effectively only strength train as their only meaningful, intense exercise. Generally, their only aerobic training is whatever walking they do during the day, or very brief high intensity interval training… if they do any cardio at all.

If you don’t do much exercise at all, then yes intermittent fasting is a good idea. And you should probably get some exercise, but intermittent fasting is a good habit.

A General Overview of Intermittent Fasting:

Instead of traditional fasting, where you may go a day or more without eating… intermittent fasting is about eating all your day’s meals in a short window of time and not eating the rest of the day.

Even if you eat a similar number of calories, the long break from eating gives your body an extended metabolic break, which can help reduce inflammation and better promote healing and recovery. This is actually more of the benefit of intermittent fasting than the potential fat burning improvements that can occur during the fast.

There’s no calorie restriction on how much you eat during the food window. But, obviously, it’s going to be harder to overeat in a single 8 hour window than it would be if you ate meals throughout the day.

Still, it is possible to outeat the fast during the 8 hour window and still maintain or gain weight. The fast doesn’t cause you to lose weight in itself. While it’s obviously more difficult in a shorter window of time, you can still overeat. That said, intermittent fasting can help with food portion and weight control.

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A Quick Cross Training Workout For The Spin Bike

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The following cross training will really challenge your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Definitely don’t do this cross training workout if you’re sore and recovering from some other hard lower-body workout.

I would save a workout like this for base training, if you’re coming off an easy workout, or you’re not actively training for a goal race in general.

The Workout: Start the spin bike at the lowest intensity, level 1.

Every time the minute counter turns over (e.g. at 1:00, 5:00, etc), adjust the level to match the number in the minute column. So at 2:00 you’ll set the level to 2, and you’ll increase the level by 1 every minute thereafter.

If the lowest spin bike levels feel too light and easy for you (for example you normally do easy spin bike sessions at level 4), you don’t have to start at or go down to level 1. If you generally bike easy at level 4, then for any level 4 and below you can just go at level 4. In this example, you do the first 4:59 at level 4, then at 5:00 you switch to level 5.

Once you get to a level that’s too tough, take it back down to a low, comfortable level. Then once the timer reaches 10:00, repeat the process by adding the digits in the minute column to determine the level, e.g. 11 –> 1 + 1 = Level 2… or in the level 4 example above, that person can just stay at level 4 for now.

If you can get to level 10 or higher without needing to slow down, great! You don’t have to add the digits at 11:00 or higher just yet. Just keep climbing levels until you need a break, then add the digits of the next minute to see how far down you can take the spin bike’s level. For example, say you get tired after 16:00 at level 16. Then at 17:00 you take it down to level 8 (17 –> 1 + 7 = Level 8).

If you’re a super strong cyclist and plan to go longer than 25 minutes, you may be able to reach the bike’s maximum level 25 (most spin bikes only have 25 intensity levels). If you get to 26:00 in this case, just take the spin bike back down to level 8 (26 –> 2 + 6 = Level 8… you must be super strong if that’s too easy for you; if so you can set the level higher to whatever level you prefer to cruise at). Then from there build the levels back up each minute. Do note that this workout method after you max out the bike won’t get you higher again than level 14 once you do so, so if maxing out is your goal and you can max out the bike then you may want to stick to 30 minutes or less.

Regardless of your abilities, you can repeat this level-up process until your spin bike workout is finished, whether it takes 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 3 hours, etc.

You could also do this workout on an elliptical, rowing machine, or ARC Trainer. But it can be very demanding to do more than recovery-level training on these devices. To do a workout like this on a machine like those may defeat the purpose of cross training unless you’re in an offseason, or are a triathlete or similar and this sort of demanding training is in line with your key workout needs.

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Building Better Base Fitness, and Using the Gym While I Can

Shortly after the New Year began, I poked my head into my gym to see how they were handling Nevada’s 25% max capacity restrictions, and found that it was mostly business as usual. Because of this particular facility’s vast space, even with a crowd they don’t come close to capacity, so as long as some machines are shut off, as long as everyone is wearing masks and spaced apart, everything can proceed as normal.

I had been developing a home strength training plan during the preceding weeks with useful results (and I’ll share this at some point soon). But with my gym open and available, I’m taking advantage of the strength training and cross training equipment while it’s currently available.

After taking a few weeks off from training in December, I wanted to ramp back up into training. But I didn’t want to just run and run as I did in the past, as I found the demand of so much running led to me running slower than I liked or having to take more total days off from training.

I knew from the past year or two that I could comfortably cross train while ramping running back up, allowing me to quickly rebuild aerobic fitness and augment strength while my neuromuscular fitness developed more gradually.

While I’ve only been able to run a few miles every other day, and do some additional neighborhood walking… I’ve rode the spin bike at the gym every day, plus strength trained with full weights every other day.

The following quality workout day looks initially daunting:

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A Home Endurance Workout Series Using 5-lb Dumbbells

My 5 pound dumbbells

With Nevada’s “Pause” lockdown reducing gym capacity to 25%, going to the gym to strength train or otherwise exercise could become largely impractical. I don’t foresee the restriction being lifted anytime soon. Plus, with New Year’s having arrived, what little capacity is available is likely getting swallowed up by many poorly-planned New Year’s resolutions.

Until a couple weeks ago, I hadn’t lifted weights at all, since I hadn’t been to the gym at all. I’ve had personal dumbbell weight sets at varying points in my life, but the last few years certainly hasn’t been one of them. My only free weights are a pair of 5 pound dumbbells that I once used in a clown theatre piece years ago. I long since figured I’m probably not getting swole off such light weight.

Or so I thought.

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The Work In 2021

Happy New Year 2021, everyone.

I’ve spent the last month mostly thinking about what I want to focus on consistently doing in 2021. Unlike most, I didn’t run myself into the ground with excessive workouts in 2020, instead taking the time to reflect on where I was at and where I need to be going in 2021.

Living with my family is the first time I’ve been able to clearly evaluate where I’m at and where I need to work toward, while not simultaneously scrambling to maintain my existence while living on my own. Coronavirus aside, it ended up being a good decision to move back from Chicago in 2019. I was treading water financially and that situation probably was not going to get better had I stayed, let alone after Chicago’s mostly draconian approach to lockdowns let alone all the violence that erupted during last summer.

In 2020, I took a lot of extended time off from working out. I did train during extensive periods in 2020, but with no goal races to eventually run, I had the freedom to just break it off once I needed a break. Unless I decided to never run races again (hint: highly unlikely), I probably will never again get a period in life like this, with the total freedom to not worry so much about maintaining peak conditioning. Being over forty, I’m not in a condition to train that hard all the time and not see ill effects.

Over the last month, I’ve thought about how I want to handle training in 2021. I don’t expect races to fully return before late 2021, and realize this situation could continue into that winter and push everything back into spring 2022. I don’t plan to run Vancouver before 2022 (and thankfully they’re allowing 2020-deferrances to register at a steep discount for any marathon through 2023).

I was considering another marathon in May, but now it looks like most if not all big races in early 2021 will be wiped out. I’m willing to risk being wrong about that while training on my own terms.

If 2020 was about recovery from the continuous stress and demands of the previous several years, then 2021 for me will be about building the person that can excel at the ambitions I will have for 2022 and beyond.

The following are not necessarily New Year’s Resolutions, as I’ve already been working on them to some extent in late 2020, and I’m mostly just initiating them now because after the recent conclusion of my last work project (plus most of the rest of the world being idle at this time) I’ve got suitable free time for now to be a good time to start. I could have started this in March or June.

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Reverse Engineering a 1RM Formula to find your training weight

In personal training you can use max-effort reps on an exercise with any weight to estimate a trainee’s one rep maximum (1RM, the most weight you could possibly lift one single time at full strength) for an exercise without the risk of having them actually go and try to lift the maximum weight they possibly can.

A CPT has a trainee lift as much weight as they can for 4-6 reps, working up until they reach a failure point, then use that max weight and the number of reps performed in a mathematic formula that can estimate a 1RM, which you then use to program workouts for that exercise.

This is similar to runners using conversion charts to figure out from a previous 5K or 10K time how fast you could run a mile, or how fast you could run a marathon, without you actually going out and try to do either. Weightlifting and endurance running of course come with different goals, but both use formulas and estimates to determine how to train.

There are a lot of 1RM formulas, and each certifying organization seems to recommend a different one. NFPT for example uses the Brzycki Formula. Meanwhile, NASM just gives you a chart, and that may have been calculated from just about anywhere.

To digress a moment, I personally use the Epley Formula. For what I’m about to describe, I have found it from experience more accurate for training purposes, as well as accurately gauging my actual one rep max. Various studies also indicate that it’s among the most accurate of the formulas.

I tell you all this because I actually used the weights I used during swolework not just to determine my 1RM for those weights, but also reverse engineered the formula to get a more specific answer for weight to use in exercises.

For example, at one point I was doing four 6 rep sets of lat pulldowns at 85 lbs, for me pretty heavy. I was giving close to max effort on these 6 reps each set, and I wanted to focus more on endurance with more reps, 12 reps to be exact. But I didn’t want to take the weight so far down that my strength wasn’t being challenged.

So first, I would use the Epley formula to estimate my 1RM, presuming that 85 lbs was the most weight I could lift in one 6 rep sitting.

Weight: w = 85
Reps: r = 6

1RM = w(1 + (r/30))
1 + (6/30) = 1.2

1RM = w * 1.2
1RM = 85 * 1.2 = 102 lbs

I can use this formula backwards by applying some algebra, understanding that any equation divided by itself equals 1.

If I divide both sides by (1 + (r/30)), I can isolate the weight w to one side, and basically create a reverse engineered formula where I can use my known 1RM and a selected number of repetitions to determine how much weight I need to use for that number of repetitions to get the maximum benefit from the workout.

1RM / (1 + (r/30)) = w

So, knowing I want to do 12 reps (r = 12), and knowing my 1RM = 102, I can determine the amount of lifting weight to use:

102 / (1 + (12/30)) = w

(12/30) = 0.40

102 / 1.40 = w

w = 72.9

I can’t get a lat pulldown machine to give me exactly 72.9 pounds of resistance (unless maybe I have one of those expensive Tonal machines), but I can get a multiple of 5, so I round down to 70 lbs. Sure, I could try rounding up to 75 lbs and see how that goes. But it’s probably safer to round down and get through a whole workout with relative ease before deciding to add that 5 lbs.

So then I do my 12 rep sets of lat pulldowns at 70 lbs weight, exercise from there, and get the max value out of that 4 sets. And in my experience, this weight ended up giving me exactly the right challenge for that portion of the workout.

Note: Sure, that’s in line with NASM’s 50-70% max recommendation for stabilization and endurance. But rather than using their wide range (51-72 lbs) and just randomly picking a weight within that, I get a firm answer that’s in line with the specific number of reps (12) I’m using. Let’s say I do 15 reps instead, r = 15.

102 / (1 + (15/30)) = w

(15/30) = 0.50

102 / 1.50 = w

w = 68

At 15 reps, it would be more appropriate for me to use 65 lbs. If I were to use the same weight, it might be too much, unless I rounded up to the nearest 5 lb increment from 68 for, say, the last 1-2 sets, e.g. I did the first 3 sets at 65 lbs, and the last set at 70 lbs, or maybe the first 2 sets at 70 lbs and then the last 2 sets at 65 lbs, etc.

In fact, a logical progression for me from sets of 12 endurance-themed reps at 70 lbs, instead of increasing the weight, would be to increase the number of reps to 15 at the same weight, and see if I can handle that. If I can, it might work out to bring the number of reps back to 12 while increasing the weight to 75 lbs.

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