Photo By: Braden Cullum
Photo Credit: Audi Nissen
Heart rate training...Helping my training or Hurting my training?
I remember, as a kid, watching the space shuttle lift off. Most kids were glued to the screen to watch the countdown and blast off. I was more tuned into the pre-countdown diagnostics. Did anyone else notice that you could train markers on each astronaut, such as minute ventilation, blood pressure, and heart rate? I remember watching closely as we got nearer to final count down, their heart rates increased. At blast off, the astronauts were buckled down, unable to move, and yet their heart rates were in the red, close to, if not at, max heart rate. It wasn’t until later that I realized heart rate cannot tell us what intensity really is. It can’t tell us how hard we are working, and it for sure can’t tell us how hard we should be working. If the astronaut was unable to move but was at max heart rate, then I know that heart rate can only be a correlate of intensity. It can only show a small picture of fitness and work effort.
I have done a number of experiments in the gym with heart rate and have found, without a doubt, that most of us who rely on heart rate to determine our level of intensity or effort are most likely leaving much of our effort on the table. Dr. Fritz Hagerman, an exercise scientist who was well known for studying heart rate in world class rowers, said that trying to predict max heart rate is ludicrous and that using heart rate as a training tool is even sillier. Everyone pumps blood differently through the chambers of the heart. Some use quick, shorter beats, while others have longer, more powerful beats. Genetics and muscle tissue type play a role. Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, notes that 40% of patients can get their heart rate to more than 100% of predicted max. This, too, is what I’ve found in my experience with using heart rate as a training tool. We just don’t ever get to where we really should be when we count on a number to tell us where we’re at. In most cases, those of you who depend on heart rate as a guide are often not working at a high enough intensity or, at the very least, are not working at the level of intensity that you actually think you are.
When training people to run two minute max efforts with two minutes of rest between each, and asking for people to increase speed only based on how they feel, and to increase speed in each interval until failure, only using how they feel as a guide, not using any external validator like heart rate, those people will 9 times out of 10 reach true max effort and intensity. Doing the same drill with people who have a heart rate monitor on and using heart rate as a guide, as opposed to feeling, I usually see a blunted effort or something that falls shy of max effort. The first group that doesn’t use heart rate is usually surprised at how fast they run beyond what they typically see line up with what they think is their max heart rate. It’s actually very eye opening for people who have depended on heart rate as a training tool. I see this frequently in the gym. I was happy to see a study come out in March 2017 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that confirms what I’m seeing with heart rate monitor training. The study found that when 2 groups followed the same training program over a 6 week period, one group using heart rate as a guide for intensity and the other using perceived exertion (subjective loading) based on how they felt during each effort, the group that used subjective loading displayed greater outcomes across the board. They produced more intensity and more results.
Photo By: Christopher Campbell
Photo by: autumn-goodman
I have spent a lot of time looking into the most effective way to approach training, from both a team perspective and an individual perspective. In general, there are 2 schools of thought, and both have one goal in mind: to create the most potent stimulus to either create an increase in performance or change in body composition.
The first philosophy is a more modern day approach to designing a training program. It’s what is called undulating. Think of undulating as variable. This looks like a typical training week where we focus one day on power, another day on endurance, another day on strength, and each day has a different stimulus. The idea is that the body will need recovery after whatever stimulus you provided so on the next day you pick something different, upper body focus on day 1 and lower body focus on day 2. A lot of research shows this approach to be effective in allowing adaptation and improvement to take place.
The second philosophy is called linear. This means that the stimulus stays the same for a longer period of time. We don’t change from day to day. We take a phase, could be 1 week or 1 month, and focus on only developing one thing; only lower body this week, only endurance work the next week, and so on and so forth. The linear approach is a more old-school, eastern-block format that was developed by sports scientist in the 1960’s.
The more modern approach, which has been adopted by most westerners, is the undulating program. I normally program in accordance with this undulating approach. However, a few weeks ago I wanted to tinker around with what it would feel like to switch things around and take 1 week chunks and focus on one single training goal for each week.
I have to say… I loved it! Here is why:
It was different, meaning it felt like I was training in a different way. It gave me a distinct start and stop period for what I was doing. I knew that, in 5 days, I was done with whatever I was working on and that sense of accomplishment felt good.
It really let me see what I need to work on. I dreaded the week that I focused on power. I knew I was going to have to do 30” sprints up hill, squat, and press heavy loads for few reps. It has always been my weak spot, but really digging into it helped me face it.
At the same time, since I was immersed in that single training goal for a week, I had a chance to really see change as the week went along, as opposed to waiting from week-to-week to see if my speeds were getting faster at the 30” sprint marks or my loads for my heavy sets of 5 squats were increasing.
I liked predictability for a change. I liked knowing what was coming next and that I could focus that week on only one thing. I don’t normally like this, but knowing it was only a short time helped.
Having this deep dive into one training goal at a time helped me not only see improvement from day to day, but it also helped me see what needed to be worked on. When I did my 3rd week on endurance work, I noticed that I was consistently tight in my left hamstring, which hadn’t been a problem the previous two weeks. It was good to see that and come up with fixes.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks in the gym, we will have a linear approach to our training. Each week will have a singular goal. I believe that it’s good to tinker and test new ideas when it comes to what we do in the gym.
How to Push Through Pain
Imagine this: you’re on the last round of a five-round, 15-thruster-per-round workout, and you can barely hang on. It probably doesn’t take much imagination. You get through the first five thrusters, and you’re counting inside your head as you somehow get through the next five. Finally, gasping for breath, you count down backwards from five to get through the last few. The bar hits the floor and you collapse in a heap. We’ve all been there. When we’re able to push through the pain using mental tactics, we can make gains in performance, get more out of our workout, and create a more potent stimulus.
No surprise -- there is research out there that supports the best way(s) to push through pain. A recent study identified the top three techniques that are the most effective in enabling us to push through pain. The study measured brain wave output and tracked Alpha-Theta brain wave stimulation, which is associated with focus, productivity, and “flow state” (being fully energized, fully involved, and completely enjoying the process of an activity). In other words, certain “mental games” have a real impact on our brain and our ability to fight through and ignore pain.
In no particular order, the top three techniques:
· Listening to music at 180 bmp (beats per minute) stimulates the Alpha Theta brain waves associated with focus, productivity, and flow state. An app called beaTunes //www.beatunes.com/en/ enables a user to see the bmp in any song, so any of us can see which music might inspire or motivate us during a tough workout. When it comes to music, we can’t please all the people all the time, but we can play music that is most beneficial for everyone.
· The mental games that we play when we are in the throws of the final rounds or the last 200 meters of a workout are proven to be effective. What works particularly well is counting techniques. Counting down reps or time intervals backwards is a way to distract ourselves from the pain or strain we feel during the tough parts of a workout. The distraction allows us to “bypass” the pain.
· I hesitate to list this one, but I have to be true to the study results. Believe it or not, swearing and profanity helps push through pain. You fu@#ing got that right! The use of swear words helps buffer pain and allows people to tolerate more reps, greater loads, and faster running for longer periods of time. Although we don’t promote this type of language in the gym, we do recommend that you save this one for when you really need it. Then let it fly and liberate yourself!
This week in the gym, we will be focusing on ladder work as part of the mental games we use to deal with pain. Ladders are a great way to watch performance increase and mental fatigue subside. Working up the ladder is challenging, but, on the way down, we get the breathing room and the ability to see the end as downhill. Each day is a different ladder style and on Saturday and Sunday we will run a 2 part workout. We will climb up the ladder on Saturday and down the ladder on Sunday. For those of you wondering what ladder work is, the best example I can think of is a burpee ladder. 10-20-30-20-10 x Reps of burpees for time!
Does Order Matter?
When I went to Drake University, I worked in the Tennis facility. Drake had a great Tennis program and an impressive, brand new facility to go with it. My job was to sit at the front desk and only let Tennis players in. The regular student population wasn’t allowed to use it. The facility was huge, with a state of the art gym and six amazing indoor courts. One day I got a call from my manager telling me to shut the facility down and get everyone out. He wouldn’t tell me what was going on; he just demanded that I clear the facility. It took me about thirty minutes to get everyone out and lock up. As the last person left the facility, three black SUVs pulled into the parking lot. About five staff and coaches walked out of the cars along with Andre Agassi. This was mid-nineties, during his long hair phase. My manager told me to lock the doors behind them and make sure nobody got in. Agassi, apparently, flew into Des Moines to train at the facility and then was driving two hours to Omaha, Nebraska to play a charity match.
I was studying health and fitness so I was prepared to geek out on what one of the best players in the world was doing for his training. I asked one of the staff members if it would be ok if I watched, and they were very welcoming. What I witnessed was a precision approach to how a training session should be run.
They started with a simple warm up, then moved to some foot agility drills. By the way, fastest feet I have ever seen live! From there they did these short, very aggressive intervals of two people hitting balls to Andre while he had to work to cover as much ground as possible. By the end of the series, he was torched, lying on the ground barely able to catch his breath. They gave him a break for about five minutes, and then he hit and played against another fresh player. This appeared to be a real “practice type match.” He was tired, but working as hard as he could. They played for about forty-five minutes. Then, finally, they finished with cool down and mobility.
I had a chance to talk with his strength coach after they finished and he broke the session down for me. He stressed the importance of the order in which the training session took place. He was very clear that the agility was a stimulus that was about muscle and brain connection. Less work, more thought. He explained that sometimes they would lift heavy before a workout like this. It was a similar stimulus to the agility in terms of it not being conditioning, but more power. The agility and heavy strength was less of an out-of-breath type stimulus, but more of a focus and concentration type stimulus. It’s aggressive work with a lot of recovery. This type of stimulus elicits more of a hormonal response than a metabolic one, meaning that it might not feel like you are working hard, but you are working hard in a different way, increasing metabolism and output of human growth hormone. This had to always come at the front of the session, because doing it while fatigued served no purpose at all. You just don’t have the energy to be quick and aggressive or lift heavy loads at the end of a session. Then he would dose up what he called the meat of the session. That was the 2 v. 1 drill that left Andre on his back gasping for air. Train hard for short periods of time, but make it a sprint, aggressive. It taxes a metabolic system that not only helps increase performance, but leaves a lasting metabolic effect. Lastly, work hard, but make it something long. This is where Andre played his practice match.
In order to preserve each stimulus in the way we want, we should take a look at the order in which we go through a training session.
Most potent order in which to train:
Power and/or Agility
Short, aggressive workout
Long, tough, sustainable workout
*Yes, all of this in one training session!
Of course, this is a formula that is proven to be effective, but, like with anything else, we sometimes have to add variation. So, while you might guess at what order we will be doing things in the gym next week, I reserve the right to flip it around in the name of variation.
It’s a Process
I try to always practice what I preach. When I wrote about the 4 things that everyone should be able to do now and forever, I made sure that I was able to do them all. One of those things is to cover 5 miles on foot. I typically do this every spring by myself. This year, I set out on my annual 5 mile run with my friend and coworker, Willis. Willis is not only younger, better looking, and much more athletic, but he can run 5 miles much faster than I can. My usual 5 miles turned into a gruelling race that was symbolic of me chasing the heels of youth. At about mile 3, I decided to let it go and Willis ran ahead of me, out of site. In that moment, I knew that I was in an uphill battle against ageing and decreased performance. And I knew the best plan to stay as close to the performance of my former 25 year old self was to implement a new process in my training schematic. I decided that I wanted to be able to run for 10 miles. This happens every once in awhile for me. I get inspired by something and begin a new process to implement a new goal into my training schematic. The last time this happened was when I watched the World Cup 3 years ago. I decided I wanted to start playing soccer again. It took some time to gain back my touch and skill, but I managed to do it. Training to run 10 miles is a much harder and more frustrating task. However, I realize as I go through this process, it is no different than starting any other new movement practice or adding anything new to your current movement practice. It’s no different than deciding that you want to do a pull up or run a sub 7 minute mile. The process is the same. When you become aware of the fact that adding something new into what you do on a daily or weekly basis has a process, then it becomes easier to manage. Here is what I have found helpful in my process of implementing something new.
Skill First - Whatever it is you are trying to learn or do, first master the skill or technique involved. For me, I began to dig deep into running mechanics and becoming a more efficient runner. I do running drills before I run each time.
Slowly Dose in Intensity - Once you start to understand and can show effective mechanics, then you can add in intensity. After I was able to express a gait that didn’t have a heel strike or use my hamstrings, I started to introduce 200 or 400 meter runs into my workouts.
Add Volume - You can now add more repetition. I did this by adding in running longer distances once a week.
Allow for Change to Occur- Remember that the new stimulus must be followed by some recovery in order for adaption to take place. I tackle this by only throwing in running or running drills a few times a week. The rest of the time I make sure to follow the guidelines of high intensity interval training along with recovery. For me, each week looks different. Typically I train 3 days on and 1 day off or 5 days on and 2 days off. My recovery days are spent either working on a skill like running mechanics or digging into mobility.
Tinker- Be open to bringing it back to the drawing board and taking a new approach to the process. I started off by trying to run too much each week. When I backed it down, I was more effective, felt better, and started to see results.
It all comes together by being open to learning something new. Your process could be as simple as being able to do a pull up or moving from swinging a 30 lb kettlebell to a 40 lb kettlebell. Of course, like with anything else, it takes time to go through this process of adding in something new. The body has to take time to adapt before you see change. Take your time, be patient, and use a coach as a resource for guidance.