How Do I Train?
I often get asked, “How do you train?” – what heart rate, what duration, what intensity, etc… Well, here’s the general run-down:
I do practice what I preach, but also realize that I have been training and racing competitively for 20 years now. I started racing duathlons (run-bike-run) when I was still in high school, and now I’m 37 years old. I got my first heart rate monitor when I was around 18 and started racing triathlons around that age too, mostly because the duathlons were phasing out and eventually became non-existent. I knew how to swim, but I had to learn how to swim faster so I could race.
Anyway, I bring up the very brief history because I have done the one thing that most people never do in their entire lifetime – I’ve built a really good aerobic base. I’ve put in the time where I’ve kept my heart rate in the “zone” to become very efficient at endurance racing. It didn’t take weeks or months, but years. That doesn’t mean I’ve only trained aerobically week after week, but I’ve taken periods of each year where training was entirely aerobic and other periods where it was less aerobic. I’ve overtrained enough in the past to learn when to change a heart rate program, or a training program for that matter. I’ve overtrained in the past by doing too much anaerobic activity > too much hard training and too much racing followed by not enough rest. But I’ve also overtrained by doing too much aerobic training, and this, as I’ve seen with treating people in the office, can mimic the same signs and symptoms as too much anaerobic work. Speaking of overtraining, I’m well aware that many use the term “over-reaching” now rather than overtraining – citing that most athletes over-reach but do not actually overtrain. Call it what you like – they’ve done too much and fitness and health are suffering.
Yes, I almost always wear a heart rate monitor. I’d say maybe a couple times a month I might not if I’m doing a very easy recovery workout, where I know my HR is going to be very low. Otherwise, whether I’m training by myself or with a group, I wear it, and I pay attention to it. I wear it often in races, but not all the time. I’d say almost always in Ironman and usually in Half IM races too or anything over a few hours. It’s the best way to know if I’m staying within my aerobic racing zone. Otherwise, I may be pushing too hard and will bonk before the end of the race, or maybe I’m not pushing it enough and need to pick up the pace. In any shorter race I don’t bother with the monitor because I’m going to be mostly anaerobic anyway.
The majority of my workouts are done within the 180-age formula. Since I am 37 and have been racing and training for some time now, I add 5. That puts me at 148, so my zone is essential in the 138-148 HR area. When I am in shape it is often very difficult for me to get my HR up to the higher 145+ level. I have to push myself. This is the one of the beautiful things about HR training and building your aerobic base, you become very efficient. I hear patients complain all the time that they can no longer run but have to walk because their heart rate is too high. Unfortunately, most don’t stick with the program. But when you do, you’ll eventually have to work at it to stay aerobic. So now when I go out for a run and I’m going along I often look at my watch and see I’m in the upper 130s or lower 140s and I have to pick up the pace a little bit to get my HR up into the upper aerobic zone.
When you are training for some time and looking to make the next leap in fitness gains, you will see you have to often stay in the upper end of the zone. This is one thing I don’t entirely agree with Dr. Phil Maffetone on. He notes that any activity in the aerobic zone or even below the zone will provide aerobic benefits. Although it will to some degree, you will reach a point of diminishing returns. You can’t go TOO easy TOO often. If my zone is 138-148 then I’m not going to keep building my aerobic development if I’m always hanging out in the 120s. That’s a recover heart rate – one to do after a race or hard workout. The other HR philosophy I tend to follow which Dr. Maffetone does not is the HR zone related to different activities. I follow the general rule of others that if you’re on the bike, you’re zone is going to be 5-8 beats lower, and another 5-8 lower for swimming. Are you rowing, skiing, or horseback riding? That may even be specific to you too. The reason for my different view on this is because lactate levels are different with each activity – they’re higher in cycling and swimming than in running at the same heart rate. In other words, a 150 HR swimming is going to be a lot harder than running at 150.
So ideally, where is your zone? Or, better yet – where are your zones? First, let me say I truly believe the 180-age formula is the best all-around formula out there. I think many people, including myself, owe a lot to Dr. Maffetone for coming up with such an easy and essentially universal formula. Of course, like anything out there, it is not for everybody. But, in my experience, (and I have a lot personally and professionally), and as mentioned before, most people think they are the exception to the formula – “How can I possibly train this easily at such a low heart rate and accomplish anything?” So for most, the 180-age formula is all they need. That’s it. Let’s face it, most people want to do one thing – lose weight. And I’d say they also don’t want to get injured and they want to be healthier too. Most only exercise a few times a week and some maybe up to five times a week. Most people are very inconsistent though. They may put in a week or two where they worked out 4-5 times then they have a couple weeks of 1-2 or zero workouts. So again, they never build the aerobic base. Consistency is so important. Even if you are one of these people and want to do a race, which I think is great, then you still need to stick with the 180-age formula until it doesn’t work for you anymore.
That brings up the next point – when does the 180-age formula no longer work for you? Well the answer is that it is really ALWAYS working, but sometimes you have to mix it up and do other things – such as train harder, or perhaps easier. If you use the Maximum Aerobic Fitness (MAF) test that Phil talks about, this is one way to know when it’s time to move on. You’re essentially charting your progress over some distance and if you’re improving, then you should be covering more distance (going faster) in the same time at the same heart rate (or the same distance at a faster time with the same HR). I use a hilly 8.6 mile loop from my house for my MAF test. Typically, I’m in the 145-146 average HR and running it in 1:02-1:03. When I’m stuck there for a while, I add in more shorter anaerobic workouts. In a real-life situation, you most likely will not progress week after week. Some will be better than others. But if you’ve gone a few weeks and there is no progress, and you’ve been consistent, and you’re feeling sluggish and tired of working out, it may be time to do one of two things – either push harder to ease-up. Wow, this just got complicated.
First, take note of two things I just mentioned. One was the consistency issue. If you’re not consistent in the workouts, then don’t expect any major improvements in your MAF. Second, you may be tired and burnt-out because you’re sick (or about to get sick) or you’re under too much anaerobic stress elsewhere. I talked about this in “My Perspective” in Maffetone’s The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. If your diet is bad – high in sugars, bad fats, caffeine, etc, and if you’re under a lot of stress, then essentially a lot of your life is anaerobic and that could be making it difficult to make any aerobic progress. Regardless of the heart rate, if you consume things like too much sugar and caffeine, you’ll be less aerobic (less fat burning) than if you did not consume those foods.
Ok, let’s say you’ve decided that you’re under a lot of stress and not feeling great, maybe getting sick or your body is aching and/or you feel an injury coming on. That would tell you to back off on the aerobic workouts some. So either less duration, less frequency, or maybe you just need some time off – a few days or a week. Stick to walking. But if you feel that the aerobic workouts have just gone stale and you’re no longer making gains in your MAF test (but you have in the past), and you’re feeling good and healthy, then it’s time to get moving on to some more anaerobic activity.
There are many different types of anaerobic activity. If you’re a runner you could do some hill workouts or some sprints. You could do a 5K or 10K race too. When you add in anaerobic workouts, you’re looking to get your HR up well over your 180-age max. For me, I’m shooting for the upper 160s low 170s if I’m doing some 60-90 second hill repeats, or the mid low to mid 160s if I’m out for a hard run, say for 30 minutes. Initially, if you’re new to this and just staring some anaerobic workouts, all you need to do is some quick 20-30 second sprints while you’re out running. Run as fast as you can for 3-4 of them. Your HR won’t respond as quickly so it’s tough to go by that. It’s great to do them on a slight decline too (going down-hill). A couple important notes to mention here. First, never do more than three anaerobic workouts in one week. Second, never more than 5-6 weeks of anaerobic activity in a “block”, then you take a rest – back to aerobic. I’ll add one more – the day after these anaerobic workouts you should be doing an easy aerobic workout, or taking the day off. So if you choose to do some sprints on Mon-Wed-Fri, then perhaps Tues and Thrs and Sat are very easy low HR workouts for 30-40 minutes, with Wed and Sunday off. Again, the specifics are different for everybody, this is just an example.
Okay, enough about you – back to me. Haha. As initially mentioned, I am mostly training in the 180-age zone but depending on the time of the year, I modify this somewhat. I like to use the zone training found over at Joe Friel’s site TrainingPeaks. To use the zone formula there you need to know your lactate threshold (LT). Yes, I know mine. It is around 173 for the run and 167 for the bike. I’ve had it tested with a lactate meter and gas analyzer too. Now, putting my LT in the formulas on that site, my Zone 2 (aerobic zone) comes out 147-157. Yes, that is a bit high for my aerobic training zone. I am typically lower than that, but as I get closer to my race season I will bump up my shorter (30-60 min) workouts to this zone, so essentially I am breaking the 180-age rule here. But my longer workouts are still in the upper 130s and the lower 140s. The formula breaks the HR training now into 5 zones:
1 – Recovery
3- High Aerobic
5- High anaerobic above LT
However, I am really following 3 zones.
ZONE 1 – Recovery – heart rate under 140 for long runs and easy workouts- recovery days
ZONE 2 – AEROBIC – 140-155 HR, depending on the time of year and the workout. For example, I may go out for a 60 min run and keep it in the 145 HR range, or a 45 min run 150 area, or a 30 min run stay in the 140-150 but push 5minutes at 155 HR.
ZONE 3 – ANAEROBIC – this is my 160-175 range where I’m, well, very anaerobic. Short sprints, hill workouts, that sort of stuff done here.
Again, I’m doing different workouts at certain times of the year based off my racing schedule, my fitness level, and other factors too – how I feel, progress, stuff like that. It’s always good to note your PE – Perceived Exertion. If you’re aerobic and it feels hard – you can’t talk to your partner (or yourself) then you’re most likely anaerobic. If you’re in an anaerobic HR and it’s easy – well, you might need to go faster/harder. Pay attention to how you feel!
Every workout should have a plan. This is very important to remember. Whether it’s a recovery day, easy day, hard day, long day, you can’t just haphazardly workout. Your workouts should be tailored to your overall goal. If you’re training for an Ironman or marathon, then there is very little, if any, need to do anaerobic work. Sure you’ll most likely be anaerobic towards the latter end of the race, but that doesn’t mean you need to train at those high HR levels. Races like that require a strong aerobic base. I think the current Ironman and half-marathon craze is well, crazy. Back when I started racing IM races in 1996 I had a good 5 years of racing under my belt, consisting of many Half-IM distance races. Today many people enter an IM race before they’ve even done any triathlon. The mentality out there is that if you haven’t done an IM, then you’re “not a real triathlete.” So people don’t care about breaking 2 hours in an Olympic distance race anymore. It’s considered more honorable if they drag themselves through a full IM in 15-17 hours. I don’t quite understand that. The same thing is happening with the half-marathon craze. Those races are booming. I know people who have never raced and just started a running program yet already signed up for a half in just a few short months. Why? So you can get the 13.1 sticker on your car? The problem with doing this is that these individuals don’t spend the time to build their aerobic base. They train too hard – at heart rates I can’t conceive. Professional marathoners might race at a 5:30 min/mile but a lot of their training is much, much slower – often at 7:30 or 8 min/mile, if not even slower. Their heart rates are very low. It’s so aerobic. Yet, the average new runner out there wants to do their half marathon at an 8 or 9 min/mile yet they train at an 8 or 9 min/mile or even faster. And it’s all very anaerobic to them. Now if they trained aerobically, which for many means only walking, there would be no problem here. But few, if any, do. They are in a time crunch. So they train hard, eat wrong, can’t sleep, and are too stressed out – they’re a disaster. I get to fix the injuries they create and all the anaerobic (health) problems they’re dealing with.
Building your aerobic base takes time. And when you have it you’ll love it because you won’t get injured, you won’t lose your fitness when you take a week off for a vacation – and you’ll feel good because you’re always burning fat and not running off sugar. Use the 180-age Formula, until you plateau and then tweak it so it works better for you. That could mean going faster, or slower. It’s okay to mix it up – actually you need to eventually mix it up – but the 180-age formula should always be your general foundation.
Let me hear your questions and comments!