There is a returning story from recovering heroine addicts. Their first dose was small. As their addiction kicks in, so does their ability to consume more. Hopefully, they are able to get into recovery. Now what happens many times when a heroine addict relapses and goes back to the drug, their body is not able to absorb the drug and over-doses occur.
This summer I have a goal: To get a podium position in an Olympic distance triathlon. It has been a long time since I have competed. The last race I did, I was able to get a podium spot. This was a much smaller race. I need to work hard to get to that point again. It is in reach…but I need to focus on what I am reaching for.
All of that being said, I need to approach this as a new athlete. I need to take all of my past goals and performance benchmarks and throw them out the window. Why? Because they are no longer relevant. My body has changed, I am a bit older, and I have not been focused the way I was focused before.
This brings me to my point: If you are new to athletics or an athlete blowing the dust off your running shoes, the most critical metric to validate your performance is…well…you probably guessed it: Heart rate. Speed goals are irrelevant. Distance goals are irrelevant. Time goals are also irrelevant. The only relevant metric when you begin training for an event is “How hard is my heart working?”
The most valuable tool you can get to help you improve your performance is a real-time heart rate monitor. There are any kinds available and you can get them at your local big box sport store or online.
If you hate the idea of sitting down with a pen and paper or a calculator to find out your heart zones, then there is another option. Your body will respond differently in different heart rate zones. If you are able to recognize what these reactions are, then you will be able to identify the zone which you are in.
There is a specific heart rate zone during running in which you are maximizing your output before feeling the physical onset of cardiac stress. This is called Zone 3. Once you move above this zone into zone 4, you are no longer able to maintain your physical output for long periods. In other words, once you move into zone 4 or zone 5, an internal stop watch starts ticking away. You only have a limited amount of time before you are forced to move down to zone 3. If you don’t…..your race and your training is done. You are burned out, exhausted, and you have no desire to get on your toes any longer.
How do I know what zone I am in? There are many ways to calculate your heart rate zones. If you haven’t done that and you are already out on the road, your body will tell you what zone you are in.
Zone 2: You feel really comfortable on your feet. You are warmed up and you are thinking, “Gosh…this exercise thing might not be all that bad. I should try picking up the pace….”
Zone 3: Breathing happens fairly automatically. Leg movement happens fairly automatically. Your brain is singing the song that is stuck in your head. Perhaps you are doing problem solving of issues at work or with people in your life. This is when you can go to your “happy place”. You don’t feel the need to move any faster. This zone is sustainable. You will be able to stay in it until your thoughts change from “what do I want to be in 5 years?” to “I want pancakes. Right now. I really want pancakes and a burger and ice cream. Right now. NOW!”. Your muscles will be the limiting factor in this zone.
Zone 4: Breathing is labored. You are intentionally forcing your muscles. You catch yourself doing occasional catch-up breaths. You are focused on what your feet and legs are feeling and you are not thinking about other things. You are thinking about your body and your performance. Again, the stopwatch is ticking. You have a limited amount of time here before you need to return to sustainability in Zone 3.
Zone 5: Your face and neck get hot. Your throat may begin to burn a little. You feel sweat everywhere. You might find you have your chin up and intentionally programming your breathing. Your stopwatch is much shorter in this zone. Much shorter. Know your limit.
As you train, your body will become more efficient. You will absorb more oxygen and expel more lactic acids. The heart rate zones will still be about the same…but you will find that you are moving faster. This is the foundation of the saying “Running never gets easier….You just get faster.”
A returning athlete generally knows what their performance once was. A new athlete doesn’t know what their performance level is. This is why speed does not matter when starting training. You can put yourself into zone 4 or zone 5 very easily and not realize it…until it is too late. Speed is not important. Nor is time. Nor is cadence or anything else.
A new or returning athlete needs to determine their performance based on exercize done at zone 3. If the athlete’s time is slower or their performance is less, then that is ok. Your first workouts when returning SHOULD NOT BE TIME TRIALS. This is what causes injury, disappointment, and discouragement from continuing. If you are able to establish where you are really at, you will then have a baseline that you can monitor your own growth from.
Again, as you are training, the training will not get easier. You will just get faster. It is important to recognize that your body is dynamic and will become more efficient through consistent training.
As I said before, I am returning to racing and I am hoping for a podium spot. I am not going to start in a podium position…but if I am smart person and I know that if I am consistent, it is in reach.
My Zone 3 is between 146-152 bpm. This is for both running and cycling. Again, I am able to determine this out in the field just by my physical response to the exercise.
An example of first exercises are as follows: Run at zone 3 (148 bpm) for a couple of minutes. Push myself up to the beginning of zone 5 (166bpm). Once I reach there, immediately drop back down to zone 3 . I stay in zone 3 for a couple more minutes for the physical responses to zone5 to subside. Once I feel comfortable again, I will push myself back up to 166bpm. I then immediately return back down to 148bpm until the effects have subsided.
This is interval training and it is set up to increase my lactic acid threshold. (more on that later)
Again, when you get back into fitness, heart rate is the critical factor. If you use any other factors, you may be artificially putting yourself into higher heart rate zones. It is too simple to hurt yourself or lose motivation if you put yourself in higher heart rate zones for too long. Be patient and deep your zones in mind. The performance will follow.