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Train Smarter--Not Harder

When it comes to training, many people (including us) tend to take the “go hard or go home,” approach. And while it’s fine to commit to something and be “all in,” sometimes going harder isn’t always the best answer when it comes to reaching your goals.

If you follow along on our social media pages, you know that both Wes and I have set some pretty big goals for ourselves this year. Wes has decided to run a full marathon in September, while I am shooting for a half-Ironman in October. Both of these events require a pretty rigorous training schedule, and while it would be nice if that was all we had to do all day—that isn’t the case. We have clients to train, cycle classes to teach, our “real life” jobs—oh and did we mention our families and trying to have the occasional social life? It’s hard, not to mention physically exhausting to squeeze it all in---and by Friday night it is not uncommon to find me in bed before 8 p.m. completely spent.

But recently my triathlon coach, Brandi Shipman, introduced us to Professional Competitive Ultra Distance Runner Amanda McIntosh. Amanda is the 2005 World Master’s 100K Champion (among other things) and has coached many a runner to victory by using Sub-Max Vo2 Testing. What’s that? It’s a way to identify your current fitness level and proper workout heart rate zones for improved training and performance.

Amanda explained to us that most people workout much harder than they need to, either because they think they have to meet a certain pace, or because they are weekend warriors trying to cram it all in within a short period of time.

“The problem with that is when you are always working above your anaerobic threshold you are not going to improve your performance,” she explains.

But let’s back up a second---what is your anaerobic threshold and why does it matter? That’s the point when your body stops burning fat and switches to carbs for energy. Why is that a problem? Because when you work out too hard and burn up all your carb stores, you have no fuel for the next day or the next workout. When you stay in a fat burning zone, you are training your body to burn fat first so that you have more carbs to last you through the entire workout or event. Eventually, your body learns to adapt and becomes faster and more efficient at a lower heart rate—the ultimate goal for any endurance athlete.

To determine our thresholds, and heart rate training zones, Amanda gave Wes and me breathing masks, chest strap heart rate monitors, and then put us on a treadmill. The goal was to determine our “comfortably fast running paces” by taking us through a slow warm-up and then increasing the incline rather than the speed to add intensity. We used perceived exertion on a scale of 1-10: One being a conversational pace and 10 being “get me off this treadmill NOW.” The test concluded with a two -minute walking recovery to see how fast our heart rates returned to normal, which indicates how fit we actually are. Once the data was collected and analyzed, we learned our correct heart rate zones and the point at which our bodies cross over to that carb burning state.

So why can’t you just use the zone chart at your gym and do the standard “220-my age” to find your heart rate? Well, you could—but it could be anywhere from 15-20 beats per minute off.

“Everyone is different, it’s not aged based,” explains Amanda.

Case in point? By the age method, Wes’s threshold would be 184---it turns out that it is much lower than that. If he were to train at the 184 rate, he’d be exhausted and much less efficient.

Now comes the fun part---applying what we learned to our training—or as we call it, “learning to run at a snail’s pace.” It takes some getting used to—but the results are truly amazing. As you train your body to become more efficient in the fat burning zones, you start to see your pace pick up, and (even better) you don’t feel trashed after a super long run.

After the initial test, there is an 8-week base training protocol that our coach created for us based on our results. Then we will do the test again to see where we are—stay tuned…..

--bonny