Tag Archives: heart rate

Cardiac Kid

Last month’s North Country Trail 50K was a reversal in my usual race routine: I ran an ultra as a fun break in my regular training.

This year I’m working on getting faster, and frankly it’s been a struggle after three years of training to “go long” so I looked forward to this 50K as a diverting return to familiar territory. No pressure to put the hammer down; quite the opposite, in fact.

Rarin’ to go at 6:30 a.m.

For this was the first race I ran entirely by heart rate instead of pace.

Why? To see how I would perform by staying “aerobic” which means maintaining a pace where the body is receiving enough oxygen to keep the muscles fueled. At a certain level of effort you go “anaerobic” where the body is using up oxygen faster than it comes in. This condition is standard for sprinters, but bad for distance runners if it happens too soon.

The key number to know is your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (MAHR). Go above that, and you’re running on borrowed time. It can be precisely determined in a medical lab, but there are ways to estimate it based on general assumptions on age and fitness level.

Physical age, that is, not emotional maturity. (Well, THE SIGN SAYS “Howling”!

Using the popular “Maffetone method” I estimated my MAHR to be around 130 beats per minute (BPM). I decided I could go slightly over that for a 50K and set my target average heart rate for 135 BPM, slowing down if it hit 140 or more. After twenty miles I felt strong enough to step it up, so I ran the final 11 miles at a target BPM of 145.

The result was one of the smoothest 50K I have ever run. I felt good throughout, and by focusing on BPM I could ignore my competitive instincts when other runners passed me or I saw one up ahead. I’d hoped for a finish under six hours and somewhere in the top half of the field, but got a surprise: a time of 5:36 (near my best) and a top 10 finish, too!

And a finisher’s medal that would send a horse to the chiropractor!

One more smart move was staying hydrated, learning from my digestive issues at the Potawatomi Trail 50. As it was a cool day I drank “ahead of my thirst” to make sure I was getting enough, and had no problems.

Now in the spirit of balance, here’s something I screwed up.

The race was on a Sunday, and Monday is a Body Specs gym day. Naturally I gave myself the day off, right? Umm….not quite.

Okay, I’ll admit I was partly motivated by wanting to show off the humungous finisher’s medal. But I was also feeling good enough to go. A nice, light recovery workout would be great, right? And so it seemed to go, until my legs tightened up later, and for the next two days I had to press on my quads just to sit down. (At least it was good power hike training.)

So I suppose you could say my heart was in the right place, but the effort was in vein.

Recovery Rewards, and the Spartan Penalty

“Jeff, you look five years younger,” Skip said to me as I walked onto the mat at Body Specs. “Your vacation must have agreed with you.”

It was my first day back from up north, and while I’d done some running and cycling, I’d also made myself get plenty of rest. Sleep does sometimes get shortchanged at home; there’s so damn much to DO!

Skip’s sentiment was echoed later by someone who visits our office about once a month. “You look good,” he said. “Your color is healthy.”

I knew I’d resumed my training routine too soon after Kettle Moraine, but hadn’t noticed any difference in the mirror. Sort of like watching kids grow up; it’s when you haven’t seen them for a while that you realize how much they’ve changed.

But I have noticed a difference in how I’m feeling. This month my energy and stamina are much improved. It really became evident last Wednesday. I started the day with a 6 a.m. 10K run, followed by a sweaty and reasonably brutal noon workout at Body Specs, then spent the afternoon and evening working Zero Waste at the T-Rex Triathlon. I left the park at 10:00 p.m. And I felt great.

Recycle! Or I'll EAT you!!

Recycle! Or I’ll EAT you!!

Saturday morning I ran 16 miles with PR Fitness. As it was my longest run in two months, I decided to go aerobic, with a target heart rate of 135-140. I should do most long runs this way, but it’s easy to get sucked into a faster group. This time I swallowed my ego and let the pack go on ahead. (It was hard. Really hard.)

Pace too fast 2

All went well until around mile 12, when my heart rate climbed to 145-150 and stubbornly remained there despite slowing my pace. May have been fatigue, dehydration, low blood sugar, or all three. But still a successful run. And man, did my post-race reward (a latte float with chocolate ice cream) taste good.

The energy rebound is coming just in time. For one thing, I’ll be starting Aikido again in September. And this month, I took up the #22 Kill Pushup Challenge, which is 22 pushups a day for 22 days. Any kind of pushups count, so I’ve been varying them. Skip helped me out on Day 1 by assigning me extension pushups. The photo below shows me in the middle of one. Trust me, behind that extended arm is a face full of pain.

Body Specs - extension push-up - cropped

I’ve also done decline pushups, five-finger (fingers extended, tent-style), and hands on wobble board. And yesterday I forgot to do them, so today I assigned myself the Spartan Race failure penalty:

Burpees 2These are called burpees. The penalty for failing an obstacle at a Spartan Race is 30 of them. Every time you fail an obstacle. Ooof.

Am I running Spartan Races, then? Not yet, but I was recently provided with an advance reading copy of Joe De Sena’s new book, Spartan Fit! in exchange for reviewing it and spreading the word about it.

Spartan Fit cover

Review to follow, but I will say you would benefit from this book if you’re interested in improving your ability to face life’s obstacles of any kind. Stay tuned!

You Gotta Have Heart (Rate)

My first marathon this season is just ahead, and it’s taper time! Cutting back on distance and speedwork a bit allows my body to rest and heal up, so I’ll be at peak form on race day. The nasty cold I’ve just gotten over helped enforce that rest, at least. Not that I appreciated it.

One temptation tapering runners have is to use the extra time and energy to try something new and different. Hey, I could start those judo lessons, or try out the Eskimo Diet (mmmm….seal meat). Well, you’re not supposed to do this. Stick to the familiar. And as a serious runner (well, as someone who takes running seriously), I rigorously follow this advice.

Except when I don’t.

This week I tried something new (gasp) in my running – usually a no-no right before a race. On the other hand, this change just might win the approval of my coach. Because it involved me running slower.

I'll believe it when I see it!

I’ll believe it when I see it!

First, allow me just a little history to set the context.

Last Saturday, I went out for my first group run since I’d caught that cold. Coach put me down for 14 miles at an 8:20 pace. I felt well enough but told her (and myself) I would run easy and only so long as I felt (reasonably) comfortable.

The first seven miles went fine. I felt a bit winded but chalked it up to the hills on the route. I started the route back – and heard three women coming up behind me.

Cue my stupid male instinct. Easy training run? Recovering from an illness? Screw it – no way I was gonna get chicked! So I stepped it up – for a few miles, anyway. At the final water stop I graciously let them go ahead. I’d made my point. Yeah.

Gwen here won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I'll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

PR Fitness runner Gwen won the Kalamazoo Marathon last year. I’ll let her chick me. Mainly because I have no choice in the matter.

It wasn’t until I checked my splits afterward that I found out what I’d really been doing. 8:20 pace? Not exactly. I’d ended up running mostly under 8:00, and during my push I’d been doing 7:30 – uphill. Well, pushing the pace is fairly routine for me, and I have to admit to taking some perverse pride in it. No harm, right? Doesn’t it show how fit I am?

And yet there are those articles that say runners often do their slow runs too fast. And for five years now Coach has been trying to get this into my thick head. But what, exactly, is “too fast”? And why is a faster pace so bad?

Well, my recent fitness tests, as well as a couple of books I’ve been reading, have finally given me something quantitative to work with. And this means adding a tool to my training that I’ve had for years, but never really figured out how to use.

Heart Rate Chest Strap Monitor

The heart rate monitor.

Heart rate training is popular among elite cyclists, and to some extent among runners. Instead of running at a specific pace, you run at a specific heart rate, or in a heart rate zone. The advantage is that you can tell when you are running aerobically vs. anaerobically. The threshold is known as the Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, or MAHR.

Why is this important? Because of the differences in how the body produces energy. When running anaerobically (above MAHR), the body uses carbohydrates for fuel, of which there is a limited supply. Eventually, fuel runs low and the runner has to slow down, or bonks.

Running aerobically (at or below MAHR), by contrast, mainly burns fat, of which the body has a much larger supply available. The longer the run, the more important this source of energy is. So ultrarunners (ahem) should really be interested in running aerobically as much as possible.

Dr. Phil Maffetone, one of the pioneers of heart rate-based training, has a method for estimating one’s MAHR. Doing the math, I came up with 131 beats per minute (BPM) as my MAHR. So for me to run aerobically, I need a pace where my heart rate stays at, or just below, 131 BPM.

What is that pace? There was just one way to find out. I strapped on the monitor, set my Garmin to display heart rate, and out I went for a six-mile run. I though I might have trouble holding a particular heart rate, but it turned out to be pretty easy.

Pace too fast 2

I held 131 BPM for two miles, with splits of 9:33 and 9:43. Just for fun, I also ran one mile at 135 BPM, clocking 8:55. People often find their MAHR pace is annoyingly slow at first, but for me it was okay – very comfortable, not snail-like. Maybe over 10 miles or more it will get annoying. Just one way to find out! More to come as I continue to experiment with this.

Brave New Wearable World

My Garmin GPS watch has a built-in heart rate monitor. It communicates with a sensor that I strap around my chest. Then while I’m running I can read my heart rate real-time on the watch. It’s a very useful feature.

I don’t use it.

Why not? Well, the strap is annoying to wear. And I don’t know what my target heart rate should be for a given workout anyway. So even if I were to use it and collect all the data, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Which is one of the issues that wearable tech is bringing to the forefront, in particular in the medical device field. Here’s what just one new device called the Simband can collect and track:

Simband fitness trackerThe Simband … can keep tabs on your daily steps, heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and how much sweat your sweat glands are producing.

I’m not disputing that this can be useful. And there’s nothing revolutionary about what it’s collecting. But this technology promises to disrupt the established medical model. We’re moving from doctors collecting selected information on an as-needed basis to handling floods of information coming in 24/7. It’s a change from assaying some ore samples to trying to filter out a few particles of gold from an onrushing river.

email_overloadThe fast growth in gadgets that can track your vital stats has the attention of the Food and Drug Administration as well. Medical devices are heavily regulated worldwide and must receive FDA approval before they can be sold in the U.S. The key is figuring out where an app crosses the line from providing information to attempting a diagnosis or prescribing treatment, and thus becomes a medical device.

So early in 2015 FDA published guidance that differentiates so-called “general wellness” products from those that pose risk to the user or provide medical advice. (If you’re one of those perverse individuals who likes reading government documents, you can access it here.) But here’s the gist of it: devices that strictly track information you would use for training or general health improvement are not subject to FDA regulation.

So the tracking of heart rate, calories consumed, sleep patterns and the like are fine. And the annoying app CARROT that I mentioned last time can suggest you are gravitationally challenged as long as it doesn’t diagnose you as clinically obese. (Some comfort, eh?)

It wasn't me! My phone said your butt looked fat!

It wasn’t me! My PHONE said you have enough butt for both of us!

Behavior is another hurdle to medical wearables becoming commonplace. According to a 2013 study, while one in 10 Americans owned an activity tracker, nearly half had stopped using them after six months. And the main consumers of wearable tech right now are millennials – young, healthy, and who readily embrace new tech. It’s unclear how the older and less affluent – those most likely to have chronic health issues – will embrace the new technology.

Finally, there’s the problem of protecting against those you don’t want seeing your training and/or medical history. Data privacy regulations like HIPAA are all well and good, but (surprise!) not everyone respects them. There are lots of people and organizations out there who would find your personal medical data very useful. Can a phone, watch, or other wearable keep data safe, or can the “cloud” can be made secure? I guess we’ll find out.

And perhaps I will be kicked into this brave new world anyway. Last week after the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon, my watch went kaput. So I will be getting a new one which will most likely have a heart rate monitor easier to access and use. And, no doubt, many other features I didn’t know I couldn’t live without. I can’t wait.

How did people ever run without all this stuff.

How did people ever go running without all this stuff?