Working Out Without Burning Out – Understanding Your Heart.

I sat on the couch after a short run. I was breathing hard and felt a little woozy. The next three days I was sick. That was the story over and over again when I tried to start exercising…again. I was unsure why it was so hard to start. Why I always ended up worse because I would feel so sick after a workout. Then something changed. I got an apple watch.

I didn’t really know what to do with it. It was a fun toy. Then I went on a run. It displayed my heart rate (HR). That was cool. I still ran the same as I did before. I would say to myself I am going to run to that sign, or that fire hydrant, or the corner, or till the car, and then sprint to the finish.

I started to noticed patterns with my HR. I noticed that when I felt like I couldn’t go any farther it had reached a certain point. Most importantly I noticed that when I kept at a certain rate I could keep going for, what seemed, as long as I wanted to.

Running with my son in our first 5 mile race. There was lots of walking, but we finished.

I eventually changed my routine from landmark goals to HR goals. I would run till my HR hit around 180 in my case, then slow down or walk till it reached around 150, then I would run again. I was eventually able to run without walking. I found that I could run miles by changing my pace instead of walking. I still remember the first time it was the aches and pains of running a long time that made me stop instead of exhaustion.

HR Zones & Your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR)

The different ways I felt correspond to what are called zones. Zones are areas of HRs that map to different processes that your body goes through at different efforts. I didn’t realize it but I was training by zones. The HR at the top was in zone 5. At the bottom I was at a zone 2 or lower zone 3. I didn’t know about zones at the time, but I started to get a feel for when my heart was working at certain levels. Soon I didn’t have to look at my watch to know what HR I was at or zone I was in.

One of the important changes our body goes through is around how it uses oxygen. When you are using oxygen to convert energy that is called aerobic. Zones 1-4 are aerobic.  The oxygen breaks down the fuel needed for your muscles to continue working.

Zones 5 & 6 are anaerobic. This is “not air”. This is when the process of your muscles getting fuel with oxygen is replaced by a process that doesn’t use oxygen it uses lactate or lactic acid instead. This is because you aren’t getting enough oxygen to support your muscles and results in a sharp increase in the production level of lactate. This point of sharp increase is your LTHR and is the HR that your body increases production of lactate to make up for the lack of oxygen.

When you are thinking of aerobic vs. anaerobic think of the difference between a sprinter and a distance runner. A sprinter has large muscles that are quick and fast but can only sustain for a short time. A distance runner has small muscles that are slower but last for a very long time. The anaerobic state of your excercise utilizes the quick (or fast twitch) muscles while the aerobic utilizes the distance (or slow twitch) muscles.  

The way to run the fastest the longest is to run right at that lactate threshold. When you pass the lactate threshold then you are producing more lactic acid than you can flush out of your muscles. You get lactic acid build up which causes high amounts of fatigue. In order to flush the lactic acid you need to bring your HR back under the threshold.

When you train by zones you are training your body by utilizing the benefits of aerobic and anaerobic processes. Utilizing these in the right way makes it so you can run faster longer. Essentially making your race pace faster.

Before we dive into your LTHR and deeper into zones please know that you need to talk to your doctor before drastically changing your exercise regimen. One of the reasons for this is that your heart needs to be able to handle the change. Gradual is important. Exercise is good for your heart unless you have certain conditions. Please check in with your doctor. If you ever find yourself fainting during a workout, get checked out. Some of these bad effects are amplified by caffiene, my rule, stay away from it.

The journey of training by HR begins with finding your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR). Important note, this isn’t the same as the max HR. You may see other articles or zones based on the max HR. I have found the LTHR to be much better and have centered everything here on the LTHR.

Finding an accurate LTHR

To find your LTHR you have to get your HR to a high rate for an extended period of time. There are several ways to find it and depending on your commitment and need for accuracy you can pick which is best for you. All of these require a HR monitor, a clear route without things that would make you stop like stop lights and traffic, and a good warm up. The methods are listed in least accurate to most accurate and interestingly enough least effort to most effort.

30 min effort – This is a simple test. Instead of doing an hour effort, just break that in half and do an all out effort for 30 min. Then take the average HR of that 30 min effort. The average is your LTHR.

20 min average – This test is almost as simple as the 30 min effort. You will be doing a 30 min all out effort. You shouldn’t feel like you can keep going at the end. With this test there are two segments. The first 10 min are the same effort level, but will be ignored in the HR average calcuation. It doesn’t mean this segment isn’t important. It is very important in order to get your heart to where it needs to be to make the last 20 min average accurate.

60 min effort – The LTHR is the HR you can sustain for an hour. Given that, having your effort be a whole hour would give you a more accurate result. You would need to be well rested, well warmed up, and will probably need to recover for a few days afterwards. This is similar to the 30 min effort but actaully the full hour. Pace yourself correctly so you can finish.

Doctor assesment or professional coach – Finding your LTHR is most accuratly done with a medical professional that takes your 02 input and blood samples while doing an increasing effort. This takes time and money. I haven’t ever done one of these.

Actuals and zones

These numbers are mine. They are not yours and yours will be different. Your numbers will even be different between running and biking, and should be done for both. Don’t use my numbers as a goal or a comparison. Compare your numbers to your numbers. They aren’t a sign or test of health. They are a measurement for developing a custom, effective workout. With that here are my result with the LTHR tests.

TypeRunningBiking
30 min170.5158
20 min172160
60 min172159

As you can see the 20 min and 60 min were extreamly close. I trust the result for running as 172 has been a HR that seems to be a rate I can maintian for a long time without feeling overly exhausted. The biking numbers are different because of the mechanical advatage of a bike. The feelings were far different between the bike and the run. Despite some cars and round-abouts the numbers that I got on the road were identical to numbers I got on the trainer using zwift. So they seem to be very consistant and accurate.

Zones

Here are the heart zones. If you search you will get a few different variations some more simple and some more complicated. This has been the best representation for me.

ZoneRunningBiking
1< 85%< 81%
285-89%81-89%
390-94%90-93%
495-99%94-99%
5100-106%100-106%
6> 106%> 106%

plugging in my numbers I get:

ZoneRunningBiking
1< 146< 129
2146-153129-143
3154-162144-149
4163-171150-159
5172-181160-168
6182+169+

Here is a little form that will calculate and display your Zones, just enter your LTHR for running and/or biking.

Zone Running Biking
1 < <
2
3
4
5
6 + +

Below is a chart for reference. Print it out and put in your numbers for your different activities. This will help you as you follow or build your own workouts based on your zones.

Download a printable version here

What Happens in Each Zone?

You have gone out and done efforts and calculated your LTHR and zones. Now what? Well, that kinda depends on you. What are some of your goals? My goal for the rest of the article is to arm you with knowledge to create your own workouts based on what you want to accomplish along with some of the sessions I did trying to grow my distance and increase my speed. In order to start building your own sessions you need to understand the nature of each HR zone.

Zone 1 – Active Recovery (all day)

A recovery zone is specifically for resting your body after a workout. The idea is that this zone is better than complete rest. Going for a nice walk is better for recovery than sitting and watching a movie for example. This would be a nice walk, up to a very easy jog or bike ride thinking about the view or the company far more than the workout. The light workout generates enough blood flow to flush out the lactate and heal damaged muscle fibres.

Zone 1 is a casual to brisk walk.

Zone 2 – Warm Up / Cool Down (all day)

This zone puts your body concentrating on your slow twitch musculare groups, the ones that operate on aerobic processes. You have plenty of oxygen so your body is able to easily flush out any left build ups. This zone is a great zone for warm ups and cool downs.

Zone 2 is a light jog.

Zone 3 – Recovering From the Match (5-6 hours)

This zone is in the aerobic area using oxygen instead of lactate and your body can flush away some of the stores that might have been accumulated during higher intesity workout.

When racing you can think of your extended efforts like a match. You only have so many matches before you run out of energy or your lactate levels rise too far causing too much fatigue. This zone is where you can recover after lighting a match. Your breathing will return to normal and you will start to feel the fatigue going away.

Zone 3 is a quick jog or a slower run.

Zone 4 – Home (2-4 hours)

This zone is your happy place. You feel great here. You aren’t past your lactate threshold but you are working hard. You are enjoying your workout here in all aspects. You can enjoy the view, talk to your group a little, and enjoy the feeling of a good workout.

Working at the top of this zone can help improve your LTHR by training your body to produce less lactate and your muscles to use oxygen more effeciently.

Zone 4 is a typical run just before you start breathing hard.

Zone 5 – Burning the Match (10 – 90 min)

This is a lower percentage of anaerobic effort. You are producing more lactate than you can flush away and can stay here for a limited time. When entering this zone you start to breath much harder. This is the zone you might be in if you starting climing a hill and try to keep about the same pace. You may dip in an out of this zone while trying to stay close to Zone 4.

As mentioned in Zone 3, this is where you burn your matches. The race to the finish, the push up the climb, the effort to pass the next runner. Your focus ends up on the effort. You can’t last here. You don’t have too many matches because you are filling up your lactate stores here.

Training here can help will cause soarness and need recovery, but it will train your body to operate better with higher levels of lactate and help you to have a faster pace in Zone 4.

Zone 5 is a good paced run. You will be breathing hard.

Zone 6 – High Intensity (30sec – 3min)

This zone is for explosive efforts. You simply cannot endure this kind of effort for more than a minute or two. Usually in bursts of 30 sec.

This zone rips your muscles and fills them with lactate. This can be explosive sprints, lifting weights or resistance training. Including efforts at this level in your training is essential for increasing performance, but not a good place to be if you are just starting out.

Zone 6 is a full out sprint.

HR Delay

Before you head out with your HR moniter you need to know that your HR is never an instant change. This isn’t the HR monitor being slow it is how your heart works. It reacts to what your body is doing. You are going to need to get a feel for what different zones feel like. When you change between zones you are not going to be able see what HR you changed to. Zone 6 you will never see the correct HR because the effort will be over before your HR will register.

Your HR will also be different depending on other conditions. What you eat, your overall body temperature, how well you slept, how much recovery you had. There are a lot of things that effect it. For example, yesterday was a colder day for me but I still went out in a short sleeved shirt. The shift in my overall body temp brought my HR down about 5 beats per minute (BPM). My HR wouldn’t go up to my LTHR even though it felt like it was. Sometimes these shifts happen and it is important to get a feel for what your body is doing and listen to it instead of only focusing on the numbers.

Workouts

These are some workouts that I have created. Each is designed for a specific goal. Use these in connection with a natural unstructured workout. If you are just starting out, begin with working on distances. Get to the 5k mark (about 3 miles) for running and about the 20 mile mark on your bike. Then start working on the other skills.

Download a printable version here

Distance

This first workout is similar to what I did when I started. This will increase your distance. In the beginning for running I used it to get to 1 mile, then 2.  Now I use it to run 14 miles. The general rule of this is to feel your body. Listen to what it is telling you.

Negative Splits

This workout will improve both speed and distance work. The focus to this is to get negative splits, meaning your second segment should be faster than your first, your third than your second, and so on. You should end your workout faster than you started it.

Speed

This is a tough one. Work on this only after you have achieved a good distance. Use this for when you want to increase your race pace.

Follow your Heart ❤️

This informa
tion really helped me to get started and continues to imrove what I can do. I remember the first time I hit 2 miles in one run. I was so excited. It was similar to the first time I hit 8 miles in one run. It is pretty amazing when you can look back and say that you have run a half marathon distance. You can do it! Small goals and knowing how your body lets you know how it is doing will let you improve little by little. Enjoy those small victories.

I have loved working by HR. It is nice to have an idea of how your body is doing during your workouts. Most importantly I have a better connection to the health of my own heart. I have become aware of how my heart and body feel at different efforts while I run, bike or swim.

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