During my 15 years of racing in the sport of triathlons I searched for those few golden tools that would allow me to maximize my training time and come up with the race results I envisioned. At the top of that list was heart rate training. It was and still is the single most potent tool an endurance athlete can use to set the intensity levels of workouts in a way that will allow for long-term athletic performance. Yes, there are other options like lactate testing, power output and pace, but all of these have certain shortcomings that make them less universally applicable than heart rate.
In our sport there are three key areas of fitness that you will be developing. These are speed, strength and endurance. Strength is fairly straightforward to do. Two days per week in the gym focusing on an overall body-strengthening program is what will do the trick. More time for a triathlete usually ends up giving diminished returns on any additional strength workout. These two key days are the ones that will give you the strength in your races to push a high power output on the bike, to accelerate when needed on the run and to sustain a high speed in the water.
Next are the focused workouts that will give you raw speed. This is perhaps the most well known part to anyone’s training. These are your interval or speed sessions where you focus on a approaching a maximal output or your top speed at some point in each of these key sessions. But again, developing speed in and of itself is a fairly simple process. It just requires putting the pain sensors in neutral and going for it for short periods of time. A total of 15-20 minutes each week in each sport of high intensity work is all it takes.
Now for the tougher part…the endurance. This is where heart rate training becomes king. Endurance is THE most important piece of a triathlete’s fitness. Why is it tough to develop? Simply put, it is challenging because it usually means an athlete will have to slow things down from their normal group training pace to effectively develop their aerobic engine and being guided by what is going on with your heart rate rather than your will to the champion of the daily training sessions with your training partners! It means swimming, cycling and running with the ego checked at the door. But for those patient enough to do just that, once the aerobic engine is built the speedwork will have a profound positive effect their fitness and allow for a longer-lasting improvement in performance than for those who blast away from the first day of training each year.
What is the solution to maximizing your endurance engine? It’s called a heart rate monitor.
Whether your goal is to win a race or just live a long healthy life, using a heart rate monitor is the single most valuable tool you can have in your training equipment arsenal. And using one in the way I am going to describe will not only help you shed those last few pounds, but will enable you to do it without either killing yourself in training or starving yourself at the dinner table.
I came from a swimming background, which in the 70’s and 80’s when I competed was a sport that lived by the “No Pain, No Gain” motto. My coach would give us workouts that were designed to push us to our limit every single day. I would go home dead, sleep as much as I could, then come back the next day for another round of punishing interval sets.
It was all I knew. So, when I entered the sport of triathlon in the early 1980’s, my mentality was to go as hard as I could at some point in every single workout I did. And to gauge how fast that might have to be, I looked at how fast the best triathletes were running at the end of the short distance races. Guys like Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina were able to hold close to 5 minute miles for their 10ks after swimming and biking!
So that’s what I did. Every run, even the slow ones, for at least one mile, I would try to get close to 5 minute pace. And it worked…sort of. I had some good races the first year or two, but I also suffered from minor injuries and was always feeling one run away from being too burned out to want to continue with my training.
Then came the heart rate monitor. A man named Phil Maffetone, who had done a lot of research with the monitors, contacted me. He had me try one out according to a very specific protocol. Phil said that I was doing too much anaerobic training, too much speed work, too many high end/high heart rate sessions. I was forcing my body into a chemistry that only burns carbohydrates for fuel by elevating my heart rate so high each time I went out and ran.
So he told me to go to the track, strap on the heart rate monitor, and keep my heart rate below 155 beats per minute. Maffetone told me that below this number that my body would be able to take in enough oxygen to burn fat as the main source of fuel for my muscle to move. I was going to develop my aerobic/fat burning system. What I discovered was a shock.
To keep my heart rate below 155 beats/minute, I had to slow my pace down to an 8:15 mile. That’s three minutes/mile SLOWER than I had been trying to hit in every single workout I did! My body just couldn’t utilize fat for fuel.
So, for the next four months, I did exclusively aerobic training keeping my heart rate at or below my maximum aerobic heart rate, using the monitor every single workout. And at the end of that period, my pace at the same heart rate of 155 beats/minute had improved by over a minute. And after nearly a year of doing mostly aerobic training, which by the way was much more comfortable and less taxing than the anaerobic style that I was used to, my pace at 155 beats/minute had improved to a blistering 5:20 mile.
That means that I was now able to burn fat for fuel efficiently enough to hold a pace that a year before was redlining my effort at a maximum heart rate of about 190. I had become an aerobic machine! On top of the speed benefit at lower heart rates, I was no longer feeling like I was ready for an injury the next run I went on, and I was feeling fresh after my workouts instead of being totally wasted from them.
So let’s figure out what heart rate will give you this kind of benefit and improvement. There is a formula that will determine your Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate, which is the maximum heart rate you can go and still burn fat as the main source of energy in your muscles. It is the heart rate that will enable you to recover day to day from your training. It’s the maximum heart rate that will help you burn those last few pounds of fat. It is the heart that will build the size of your internal engine so that you have more power to give when you do want to maximize your heart rate in a race situation.
Here is the formula:
1. Take 180
2. Subtract your age
3. Take this number and correct it by the following:
-If you do not workout, subtract another 5 beats.
-If you workout only 1-2 days a week, only subtract 2 or 3 beats.
-If you workout 3-4 times a week keep the number where it is.
-If you workout 5-6 times a week keep the number where it is.
-If you workout 7 or more times a week and have done so for over a year, add 5 beats to the number.
-If you are over about 55 years old or younger than about 25 years old, add another 5 beats to whatever number you now have.
-If you are about 20 years old or younger, add an additional 5 beats to the corrected number you now have.
You now have your maximum aerobic heart rate, which again is the maximum heart rate that you can workout at and still burn mostly fat for fuel. Now go out and do ALL of your cardiovascular training at or below this heart rate and see how your pace improves. After just a few weeks you should start to see a dramatic improvement in the speed you can go at these lower heart rates.
Over time, however, you will get the maximum benefit possible from doing just aerobic training. At that point, after several months of seeing your pace get faster at your maximum aerobic heart rate, you will begin to slow down. This is the sign that if you want to continue to improve on your speed, it is time to go back to the high end interval anaerobic training one or two days/week. So, you will have to go back to the “NO Pain, NO Gain” credo once again. But this time your body will be able to handle it. Keep at the intervals and you will see your pace improve once again for a period. But just like the aerobic training, there is a limit to the benefit you will receive from anaerobic/carbohydrate training. At that point, you will see your speed start to slow down again. And that is the signal that it is time to switch back to a strict diet of aerobic/fat burning training.
At the point of the year you are in right now, probably most of you are ready for this phase of speed work. Keep your interval sessions to around 15-30 minutes of hard high heart rate effort total. This means that if you are going to the track to do intervals do about 5k worth of speed during the entire workout. Less than that and the physiological effect is not as great. More than that and you just can’t maintain a high enough effort during the workout to maximize our benefit. You want to push your intervals, making each one a higher level of intensity and effort than the previous one. If you reach a point where you cannot maintain your form any longer, back off the effort or even call it a day. That is all your body has to give.
This is what I did to keep improving for nearly 15 years as a triathlete and it is the basis for the coaching methodology at my coaching web site markallenonline.com where since 2001 Luis Vargas and I have coached hundred of triathletes to great results. It is certainly a challenging methodology for many but the rewards are huge. I invite you to become one of our athletes. Luis and I will personally answer any questions you may have about this methodology and how to overcome many of its challenges. See you at the races.