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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.


Low Tech Home Workout – Part 2: Getting Started

(NOTE: This post is Part 2 of a series that begins with Low Tech Home Workout – Part 1: Getting Ready)

lacing up the shoes

Hopefully you have got your workout shoes ready, because we are going to hit the ground running (or at least walking at a brisk pace!) This post is going to help you get started with a beginner fitness plan. In the past if exercise to you was getting up to find the remote, or if you have been away from a consistent fitness program for 6 months or longer, then this plan is for you.

In the last post we discussed getting ready for a full body home work out. The three things that you needed are:

  1. the right motivation,
  2. a few pieces of gear, and
  3. a little bit of knowledge.

Workout Goals

We covered the first two items in detail in that post, and now we are going to focus on providing you with the knowledge necessary to start your home based workout. Our goals for this program are simple:

  1. To establish fitness as a routine, and
  2. To build your heart, lungs, bones and connective tissues so that they can support the higher intensity physical activity to follow.

now or later

Although this program will result in all the benefits of exercise that are mentioned here, this is not a specific plan for fat burning, muscle building or a couch-to-5k sort of plan. This plan is to establish a fitness base. Once you have done this you can try all types of new, high intensity activities to reach your fitness goals, but now is the time to build that base with the basics.

Workout Details

The duration for this part of the plan is 6-8 weeks, after which you will be ready to go wild! This plan is a 5 day program; 3 days of which are for a HR-based cardiovascular workout and 2 days are for a full body resistance workout. Each workout should be easily done within one hour.

Weekly Workout Schedule:

  • Day 1 – Cardiovascular
  • Day 2 – Resistance
  • Day 3 – Cardiovascular
  • Day 4 – Rest
  • Day 5 – Resistance
  • Day 6 – Cardiovascular
  • Day 7 – Rest

Cardiovascular Exercise

The cardiovascular workout follows The Maffetone Method to establish a heart rate goal. The point of the workout is to stay as close to the HR goal (without going over) for the duration of the workout. Any activity can be used as long as the intensity can be steadily maintained; some good ideas for beginners are:


  • Walking/Treadmill
  • Elliptical Trainer
  • Biking/Cycling
  • Cross Country Skiing
  • Rollerblading

Cardiovascular Workout Guidelines:

  • Warm-up – 10-12 minutes (slowly work up to your goal heart rate, walking is a great choice)
  • Heart Rate Zone Training (any exercise) – 20 minutes (work up to 30 minutes duration)
  • Cool Down – 5 minutes
  • Stretching – 10 minutes

Resistance Exercise

The resistance workout emphasizes the basic moves and core stabilization. The times listed for core moves are starting points and you should feel free to increase them as you are able. Exercises with repetitions should use a 4/2 count. For example: body weight squats – count to 4 while lowering, and count to 2 on the way up (with minimal rest between reps). Sample Resistance Workout:

To begin, run through each set two times. Perform each exercise for the listed amount of time, giving yourself 1 minute between each exercise.  You can increase the intensity of the workout by adding another set, or increasing the time of each exercise, or you can reduce the rest time between exercises.

Recommendations to minimize risk of injury:

  • Always consult your physician before starting any exercise program.workout_buddy
  • Start out slowly – it takes 6 weeks to rebuild your bones, and up to 9 months to remodel ligaments. Working out too hard, too fast is the best way to damage joints and give you chronic pain. Once you have achieved a certain level of fitness, high intensity workouts are a great way to burn fat and create big strength gains.
  • Warm up appropriately – your body needs 12-15 minutes of warm up before you are ready to push it to 100%.
  • Stretch only AFTER your workout.
  • Workout with a buddy. They can provide motivation and you can make sure each other stay safe.