Using Heart Rate and Zone 2 Training to Improve Fitness

I became interested in looking at heart rate training last year when I started training for an event called 29029 Everesting. For the event, you climb a mountain, in my case, it'll be 13 times to reach the vertical equivalent of Mount Everest. You hike up, you ride the gondola down and have 36 hours to try to complete this. They provide food and a tent to sleep in and anything that you're going to need for the event.

In my case, I need something to be able to train for. I don't enjoy just going to the gym just to go to the gym but to do the training necessary for something like this forces me to improve my physical fitness, mental fitness, as well as diet and recovery.  That's why I got into heart rate training, because I wanted to make sure that I could tackle this obstacle. One of the best overall resources I have found is a phenomenal book by Ben Greenfield, where he breaks down a lot of different aspects of training, a lot of myths, a lot of misconceptions, and basically how to make the most out of the limited amount of training you timing and training that you've got. I'm just like you, I'm trying to run a business, I've got staff, I've got young children, I've got a wife, I've got a home we're trying to remodeling so I don't have just a ton of extra time and I want to make the most of it. Investing that time wisely, pays huge dividends in all of the above areas so I want to make the most use of my time, I don't want to just go out and do what I what I think felt like the best type of training because I've never done an event like this. So I started digging into different philosophies, different research on using heart rate training to guide my training.

One of the most important concepts in the book is how people train in what he refers to as a black hole. They go out and do the same walk, the same cycle, the same run, the same laps in the pool for the same distance and the same amount of time at the same speed and the same in tempo day in and day out for years and years. There's never any really net gains in fitness. Just going out and moving your body of course there's going to be some some benefit to that, however, I think your body also gets conditioned and accustom to that routine there is not as much benefit that you could be doing in that same amount of time by changing up your routine.

I want to make better use of my time, and I encourage you to make better use your time, because you're already going to be taking the time to train, you might as well train smarter. There's a couple of reasons that I think people end up training in this no man's land. One is, we know what it's going to feel like, we know we've got a set amount of time, and we become extremely comfortable with that workout. And in your mind, as long as I'm going out and doing something, then I check that box off the list.  The third reason is they really don't know what else to do. So, I'm hoping that today will shed some insights and give you some fresh ideas about ways to mix it up, use that same amount of time training, or exercising, and simply change what you're doing with that same amount of time.

One of the worst parts about this time in no man's land, is that most people are doing it in what's called Zone 3 training- known as a no man's land; you're going just harden enough to deplete your energy stores and damaged muscles, but you're not going hard enough to really elicit significant training response. So it feels like you're getting a really big or tough workout because you're depleting all of your glucose, all of your carbohydrate source but you're also not going to the extent where you see a flip in energy resources or any kind of increase in actual metabolic health and fitness levels.

We all know that person that trains constantly, and they don't get any faster in their 5K or 10K or marathon time. If that's you, or if you know somebody in that space, that's because they're always training at the same intensity. Because there’s never any variation to it, there’s never any increase metabolically to make yourself more fit. So this constant go hard at the same pace can also cause a lot of overuse injuries, leads to arthritis and degeneration in those joints , and can cause an energy imbalance which can really disrupt hormones and burn out your adrenal glands. Adrenal Fatigue is a real thing, especially in people who are training really hard.

I also believe some of these mistakes that we make has a lot to do with the concept of time. We're so used to multitasking that we try to get the biggest bang out of our training sessions, in the least amount of time, and so we think that if we go harder in a shorter period of time that we're going to make improvements and that we can check it off the list.For many of us, on days that we're supposed to go longer and slower, we end up going too fast and burn out and cut the workout short. Then on days that we're supposed to add variation and intensity, we end up continuing at the same higher pace throughout the race, because we're used to it. Again, we have a mentality that faster is better and that's not always the case, as we're about to find out.

So if any of this sound familiar to you, here are 3 things you can do to begin training smarter today:

  1. Find a challenge, or set a goal. For some people, that's 5K, 10K, or marathon. No way I could do those things-  I can train for a long distance endurance hiking event but the idea of training for a marathon makes me crazy. It’s different for everyone, right? Pick a goal, though  - it’s going to force you to analyze your training, there's a date and a time and it’s going to force you to (hopefully) improve other areas of your life like diet and sleep.
  2. Find a plan to help you train for it. For some, it may be a coach, training plan on the internet, and I’m always here for you.
  3. Stick to the plan. So many of these plans are heavily based on research, tons of participants and there's a lot of experience behind it. I've been guilty of thinking I’m smarter than the plan-  I'll change and adapt the plan. This has never worked out for me. I’m getting better with this now because I’ve started training much further out from my event date so I’m not rushed.  I may change the plan based on the day, so if I'm supposed to do, you know, an hour walk at a 15% incline on the treadmill three times a week, I'm going to do that three times a week, but it may not be on the days that they designated, it will be based on my schedule. I'm not going to change the overall volume or intensities of the plan.

There’s many different ways that some people begin to look at heart rate zones and training- anywhere from 4 - 10 different zones of heart rate.  Below, I’ll be going through the 4 Zone system I use and why I think you should be doing all of your training in 2 of those 4 zones.

What I'm going to recommend is doing 80% of your training done in what's called Zone 2 training the other 20%, you want to do high intensity interval training at a Zone 4. That 20% is vitally important because if you're going to get all the benefits from doing that high intensity training, it has to actually be hard. It has to be high intensity at the top end of what you feel like you can handle and should be mentally, very difficult, not just kind of hard, you should feel pretty tired and mentally fatigued after that.

There’s a lot of research to support this Zone 2 and Zone 4 training variation. One specific study took a look at running athletes and in Group 1, they did 80 percent of the training in either Zone 1 or Zone 2 and the other 20% in higher intensity workouts.  The second group spend 2x as much time, so 40% of their training at a much higher level and heart rate. They trained for the same amount of time and volume, just at different levels. And at the end of one month, the group that that did 80% of training at lower intensity out performed the other group. It sounds very counterintuitive because we've been taught, the harder you work, the better you're going to get and that works to a certain degree, but at some point, there's a law of diminishing returns and so 20% seems to be pretty close to that.

What are the 4 zones of heart rate?

Zone 1 is recovery zone - it's easy aerobic training, just to get the blood circulating and moving helps remove inflammation from your system. It does not cause muscle breakdown. Think of a light swim, walking the dog, an easy yoga class, just enough to get the blood pumping. It's basically 50 to 60% of your heart rate max.

Zone 2: This is where I want to really see most of you. This is going to be 60 to 75% of your heart rate max and this is where you're really building endurance. This should be the bulk of your training if you're doing exercises that lasts more than two minutes because it's going to work on increasing the number of mitochondria in your in your cells which is phenomenal at regulating blood glucose levels and getting you to use more fat as an energy source.

Zone 3: 75 to 85% of your heart rate max. You’re stilling building endurance at this stage but it's going to feel like you're going uphill, you're gonna start to feel burning in your legs and this is where your body switches from aerobic to anaerobic so you'll start to build up lactic acid. Concentrating in this zone is going to lead to burnout and not a lot of major efforts and this is what I referred to as No Man’s Land Training.

Zone 4: Race pace - 85 to 100% of your heart rate max. This is going to be where lactic acid really starts to build up more quickly, you’re not going to be able to maintain this intensity and activity for very long. Think hill repeats, stair repeats and this where your leg starts to feel like rubber.

So what is Zone 2? The King of Zone 2 is a guy named Dr. Phil Maffetone. He developed a math formula, which gives you a number to under and still be in  Zone 2. It's where the high end of zone two is and where technically your body would start to switch from using an aerobic system to an anaerobic system and where you'll start to produce lactic acid so we want to stay below that threshold. There's a phenomenal, phenomenal interview that this Dr. Phil Maffetone did with on a podcast with Peter Attia that I highly recommend going to check that out. Dr. Maffetone is a cardiologist who has been working with athletes for years and what he noticed is that a lot of the athletes coming in were very unhealthy cardiovascularly and metabolically.  Their lipids may look good and they may be running fast but overall health was still very poor. He goes through his story a lot in his book and on this podcast, but he starts really looking at ways to improve people's health, while also improving their performance. He found this formula and now it’s called MAF Heart Rate Formula.

My number is 137 based on my age and above factors.  As I train, I'm constantly looking at my watch and adjusting my intensity making sure I stay under that number for a bulk of my training.  It's much slower than what I used to train at.  If I start to jog, I have to jog very slowly. If I'm doing an incline on a treadmill, it's much slower than I would typically like to be going and the longer I go a lot of times I'll have to even go even slower as my heart rate climbs when I become fatigued but I know that fitness wise, I'm following my plan.

HIIT Training - Zone 4 Training:   Ideally, 20% of your training. Should be very, very difficult as you're doing it. The classic example is going to be 4-6 rounds of a 30 seconds max effort followed by 4 to 4:40 minutes of recovery walking, jogging, cycling. What I’ve noticed is as I’ve been doing cycling intervals on a stationary bike is that by the time I’ve gotten 30 seconds in Zone 4, it takes me almost the full 4 minutes to get back down to Zone 2. You'll notice that because of you're using a lot of energy, it'll take you less time after the first one or two reps of this intervals to get up to that Zone 4. 

This training can be done at any levels, whether you’re in high school trying to improve your cross country time or whether you’re in a different stage of life and you're looking to just go out and do some walking, you can you can incorporate these styles of training.  If you’re a walker - increase your cadence and speed for 30 seconds or find a small hill to go up to increase your heart rate.  You don’t have to be training for an event to gain the benefits of this type of  80/20 training.

Gear:  To know what my heart rate is while I train, I wear a chest strap with every workout and I connect it to the app My Fitness Pal.  I’ve found that to be a little bit more reliable than just relying on my Apple Watch. It still connects through the app to my watch so I can see from my watch what zone I’m in without having to look at my phone while I’m training.

So to wrap it up - if walking or jogging is your jam, don’t change the amount of hours that you spend walking, change the intensity that walk or jog.  If you typically walk for 10 hours/ week, 8 of those hours should be at a slower easier Zone 1 or Zone 2 which you can figure out using the MAF Method.  The other 2 hours should be at a much higher intensity which you can track with many types of heart rate training devices.   You won’t have to change the number of hours you train - you just have to change your focus with training.

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