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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Heart Rate Training for (NON) Dummies

exhausted athlete

High intensity training is the super hot topic these days, for many good reasons. There are numerous benefits to this type of training, from is positive effect on fat burning to muscle mass building. However it is not the only beneficial way to train.

If you are a fitness beginner or you have the desire to train for an endurance fitness event, low intensity cardiovascular training is a wonderful tool you should learn how to use most effectively. Don’t be like the guy in the picture above, learn how to train smarter (then you can train harder)…

This post includes advise from one of the great fitness coaches, Dr. Phil Maffetone. Dr. Maffetone has worked with some of the most successful distance racers in the world, including Mark Allen, 6-time Ironman World Champion.

mark allen winning

So this guy knows high performance fitness and endurance.

Almost everyone has at some point been exposed to the typical heart rate charts in the fitness clubs and gyms, but most of us didn’t really understand what they mean or how to use them.

Hr chart

Basically at certain levels of exertion, our body uses different combinations of carbohydrates and fats to meet its energy needs. This ratio varies depending on the intensity of each activity.

The rule of thumb:

  • The lower the intensity of the activity (lower heart rate or HR) the more energy is derived from fats. (long term energy stores)
  • Higher intensity activities (higher HR) result in more energy derived from carbohydrates. (short term energy stores)

Different exercises can build different aspects of fitness, higher intensity typically builds more strength and power, and lower intensity training leads to more sustained energy levels as fat is burned during the exercise.

The Maffetone Method of heart rate training desires to find that point where you can train at your highest intensity while still primarily burning fat for fuel (this point is called your maximum aerobic heart rate or MAHR). The result of this is an increase in performance without keeping your body in the redline area for an extended period of time, the benefit is that you can perform high endurance activities with minimal risk of injury.

In the ideal circumstance, you could determine your MAHR exactly using sophisticated equipment in a clinical setting. However because most of us don’t have access to those facilities, Dr. Maffetone developed a very handy formula we can use to accurately estimate our MAHR at very low cost.

(In fact, it’s FREE! and the formula doesn’t require a calculator like the one at the gym!)

The Maffetone Formula is:

180 – age +/- [conversion factor] = goal heart rate (MAHR)

To determine your “Conversion Factor”:

  • -10 bpm: On medication or recovering from major illness
  • -5 bpm: New to training, training inconsistently, noticed regression in performance or suffer from asthma or allergies.
  • +0 bpm: working out 4+ times per week for up to 2 years without illness or injury.
  • +5 bpm: training with good progress for greater than 2 years without illness or injury.

Example: 40 year old just beginning training, no medication or illness : 180 – 40 – 5 = 135 beats per minute. Quick, easy, clear.

hr monitor

To use your MAHR effectively, you will need to keep your heart rate constantly monitored. Doing this adequately requires a heart rate monitor. Like a good pair of workout shoes, this is not the area where your should scrimp to save a few dollars. Investing in a high quality HR monitor will directly improve the quality of your workouts. (And NO you cannot make do by simply taking your heart rate for 6 seconds and multiplying it by 10 every few minutes!)

Now once you have your HR monitor and your MAHR, do you know how to make the most of these tools? You should begin by establishing a performance baseline for your training using the MAF Test.  This test is a basic tool for measuring your functional capability, using a set time or a set distance. This is how it works:

  • Choose an exercise. Any measurable activity may be used (except weight lifting).
  • Set a specific distance or an exact amount of time to exercise. (i.e. 1 mile walk/run or 3o minutes of treadmill work).
  • Do an adequate warm up first (10-15 minutes).
  • Perform as close to your MAHR for the entire duration of the chosen activity (without going over) for the set distance/time .
  • If you are using a set distance, log the amount of time it takes you to arrive at the given distance. This will be the variable you compare to other tests.
  • If you are using a set time, log the distance you were able to go in the time allowed. This will be the variable you compare to other tests.

You should do this test at the very beginning of your program and then monthly for as long as you exercise. With consistent training at or near your MAHR (and NOT over), you will notice that the variable (the time required to do a particular distance or the distance you can go in a given time) will begin to improve. 

Repeated testing is key because you will begin to see patterns emerge and you will be able to recognize problems earlier with more consistent data. Plus it is a great way to see your progress and a little encouragement is always welcome!

Whether you are a elite athlete or a weekend warrior you are going to find training much more enjoyable when you are training in the proper zone.