Are you setting up your heart rate zones correctly?

Are you setting up your heart rate zones correctly? The chances are you are not….here is my guide.

Firstly, why do this? Well getting the right zones can help you improve, keep injuries to a minimal and not over train. These three key things help you in consistently training which is the key.  Unfortunately people think they are getting the zones right but most of the time they are getting it wrong just like when they say they are training easy and they are not. Getting the right zone sorted for you is a must and a power tool in improving and getting that desired personal best you want. Not to mention training in the right zones is a much smarter way to train.

Heart rate zones can be different for different activities such as my cycling zones are different to my running heart rate zones.

The biggest mistake people make is using the default zones on their watch. This is because they automatically set and are adjusted by the watch. So therefore you need to know your HR max or do a test which I will explain in a minute and manually change the zones. The next mistake is people use a HR wrist monitor on the watch – it is not as accurate than having a strap so my advice is always use a strap if you can as the wrist monitor built into the watch can be way out.

Everyone has a different HR max and the 220 minus age rule was proven not to work. For example one of my friends is the same age as me but has a much higher HR max then me.

So how do we get the zones? Well the key is to find out your maximum heart rate whilst running. This can be done by a VO2 test in a lab which will be very accurate or by running for ten minutes as fast as you can with a heart rate monitor attached to you and then take the max from there. Of course this won’t be as accurate as a lab test but it will be near it. Once you have got your Heart Rate max you then need to get the zones right. This is simple – you just use an online heart rate calculator. I have put a link HERE to what one I recommend to use. Now the reason I use this one is others can differ quite a bit and I found from the various lab tests I did and the zones I was given in the studies I took part in this one always got the zones right and the same as the sports scientists zones they gave me.

Now once you have got your zones you will need to go manually into your watch/dashboard setting and change them, once that’s done you’re ready to go. You have Zones split from 1 to 5, with one being easy training and 5 being maximal training.

Once you have the zones what should you do with the zones?

Well lots of people follow the 80/20 rule with 80% of training in zones 1 and 2 and the rest hard. For me I train hard days hard and easy days easy. There is no moderate and this is one of the biggest mistakes people make that they train too hard all the time or over train by moderate training. Heart rate running is very good and if you find you’re 60% of your heart rate max you can be improving at a faster rate than just speed training alone. Long runs at 60% can make a huge benefit by teaching your body to not burn carbs and burn fat to make you more efficient. This therefore can make you quicker. Last year I spent most of my training doing these long runs that proved to work as it has done since I started doing this in 2015. At the same time by making you more efficient it will improve your running economy.

What is running economy? Running economy (RE) is typically defined as the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running, and is determined by measuring the steady-state consumption of oxygen (VO2) and the respiratory exchange ratio. If you don’t know what VO2 is please read my old blog about VO2 (HERE)

A lot of marathon runners use this because instead of pounding away for 13 miles on a long run for example they can go longer at an easy pace and wont feel tired the following day. The key is to train at less intensity on a long run which will teach you to burn fat but also make you recover quicker. Many people struggle with the pace because it is a lot slower than they normally run and if you run up hill you need to run slower in order to keep the heart rate down. Of course it is a must to keep the speed sessions up but by just slowing your speed down a little on a long run it can be a huge benefit.  I used to do a 13 mile run every Saturday at race pace which of course felt good but took me a few days to recover and my Half Marathon time wasn’t any better. Once I had changed my training and ran at 60% I found that if I wanted to do another long run the next day I could because MY body felt fine and improved.

So my advice would be to try it for 6 weeks and see how it goes, if you don’t react to the training then at least you tried something new. But how should you train for HR? Well a simple guide can be by increasing the distance or time in your run slightly for a three week period, with each week increasing. Then maintain the third week distance/time for a further 3 weeks and see if you have improved in a race. Let me know your thoughts and progress.

I hope you found this useful – it’s a small guide which should help and give you the basics. I have written previous blogs about heart rate running which can be found HERE You can also see my YouTube video with a more in depth step by step guide on how to set your heart rate zones up HERE

All photos in this blog where taken by Jason Dodd Photography

No races? Two key things to work on!

Its been such a strange year and it is still very much uncertainty across the world. COVID-19 has affected us all this year with lockdown and one by one races being cancelled. Travel plans, training, daily life all changed and we had to adapt in these uncertain times.

For me, everything was gearing up for the 2020 European Sprint Triathlon Championships in Malmo which was scheduled for August. Despite lockdown and being restricted to going out once a day for exercise and essentials I was very much on track for this race. With my coaches we decided that with the pools shut it was a good opportunity to work even more on the bike. Although I had been training more on the bike, coach Mark Shepard said this was a great time to work more on the bike to improve. So with no swimming I did more bike sessions and also Craig Coggle, my strength coach, focused on land base workouts to keep those swim muscles going.

Despite all of this, I had a gut feeling the whole year would be a write-off – I didn’t panic because it was out of my control and the main thing was to stay safe. The European Championships had been moved a year and in the same week British Triathlon cancelled all qualifiers and National championships. As soon as I heard this Mark told me to have two weeks off and do what I fancied with no plan and all easy training – I did and really enjoyed it.

This mentally helped me so much with not knowing what was going to happen in future months; it was also time not to over train and just enjoy my hobby more and tick along.

We then ramped the training up once we came out of lockdown and focused on races towards the end of the year. I managed to race 4 times with 2 wins and a 2nd place, I also managed a PB and a course record but this was off the back of consistent training and not over doing it. It was a short season for me and now I am having a break and time out for a few weeks from training. But the key is not to get carried away with more time on your hands.

Of course no training is a waste because it has so many heath benefits so it is important to keep going and not give up. The problem is though with another lockdown in force, people will have more time on their hands. This will have a negative effect on training, with more time on your hands and if you are like me, you will want to train more and more but that’s not the way to go. The great saying is too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As a result you risk burning out, getting long term injuries and giving up with no goals. So I have two key things that you should focus on while in lockdown/winter.

Make a long term goal – this is very important in keeping you motivated. It can be anything from wanting to start running to running a marathon in a certain time. Now the key is not to over train but be patient, work towards it slowly and that way your see the progress. Have structured recovery weeks, rest days (rest means total rest) and test yourself regularly to see where you are so that you can work towards your goal. I have written it many times before that easy running means easy and can improve you a lot so don’t think that you have to run fast all the time. A well balance program has more easy sessions than tough sessions.

The second is work on something over lockdown/winter. Something that you have not focused on before. This can be a weakness of yours and you can improve a lot from working on that weakness. I improved a lot on the bike this year by working on that area. You can work on things like technique in running and swimming – this can make you more efficient and you can improve from this. Maybe you have neglected strength work and again that can make you faster but also keep the injuries away. Something I like working on during the winter is my running technique – I start doing more drills and focus on something like my arm drive. During easy runs I do a check of how I am running and seeing if I have gone back to bad habits. This doesn’t have to be a major thing it can be a little thing, but working on a weakness will give you great gains in the long term.

My conclusion is that no training is a waste but you need to be smart in your training and don’t over do it. Base training and easy training is the way forward and once you have a race that is going ahead you can ramp up the intensity. Having a long term goal will keep you motivated and training – that works for me. Always work on a weakness to improve; something people ignore and just like to stay in their comfort zones. Stay safe over this winter and keep working on your goals and move forward as we will beat this.

What is Zone 2 Training?

For most people they are under the impression that they should go hard in every session. They get fixed on certain paces all the time because they think they will not improve and therefore neglect the easy days and even go too hard on easy days as a result. The most common thought is “if I train hard and fast I will get faster” but that is not the case and you need to be clever in your training and like many of the pros they train in zone 2 to get faster. We all know that well known saying “go slow to get fast”. If you keep training hard you with keep having bad training days and likely spend a long time each year on the sidelines.

What is zone 2 training? Zone 2 is steady training just coming above the easy zone, It’s not moderate or anything above. The main benefit form zone 2 heart rate or zone 2 power is that it builds aerobic base and endurance. By Improving aerobic capacity this improves your ability to maintain a faster pace for a longer period of time. Of course you still need to do the higher intensity efforts but zone 2 is the basis and foundation from which to begin to build your faster pace. If you have a strong aerobic capacity it will also allow you to recover quicker between those higher intensity efforts.  For example, with a better aerobic fitness, you will be able to perform intervals with a shorter rest in between and hit pace stronger.

Why is Zone 2 training important?

One of my coaches Mark Shepherd is very critical on me for my training and the majority of his training he gives me is all in zone 2. He stresses the importance of zone training every week. I also believe in this training; before Mark I went on studies on how to improve and the main finding was I was training too hard although I thought it was easy. I had my zones adjusted to my heart rate max and since that study in 2015, I have improved a lot from training in zone 2. So when Mark gave me my training I was no stranger to this. Of course lots of people think they are doing it right but I see it all the time on Strava and can tell it’s wrong. Zone 2 training should be a big bulk of your weekly training and for the benefits mentioned above it also leaves you feeling like you can go on for ever, fresh, recover and therefore really target your hard runs and not get fatigued, which of course will keep the injuries away. If the injuries stay away then to me that’s a major importance in any training, not only will you get consistent training which is the key, but if you get consistent training you are very likely to improve. If you keep over training and get injured you will just end up chasing your fitness and making excuses.  With zone 2 training you should be able to maintain a conversation very easily; I always like to focus on form as it’s easy to do whilst at this heart rate. What is there not to like about it? It’s a well-known method and your body needs to repair – you just cannot keep breaking your body down with hard training. I always point out to people even the best marathon runners in the world run slow miles.

How to work it out?

Firstly you need a watch and a heart rate monitor. You need to know your heart rate max and once you have that you can put your heart rate in many calculators online HERE or watch my YouTube videos HERE and you will get your zones from there. You do need to make sure the HR max is right, you can do tests like: 5k Time Trial, FTP test, coopers test, VO2 Max lab test and so on etc or even use a recent race result. Do not use your watch automatic/present zones as 9/10 times they are wrong zones. Once you know your heart rate max you can get your zones.  Don’t go by pace or mileage, I just go by time and follow the zone strictly. By sticking to lower heart rates, over time you will find that you are likely to increase your pace at the same heart rate output. This is due to increased aerobic efficiency – yes I had to walk up hills to start off with but that was a way my body was telling me I am pushing too hard. You may have to walk but in time it improves. When you become more efficient in time you will then be able to do more training hours at a lower heart rate. Check out old blog HERE about if Heart Rate training is worth it.

Why do people ignore this method?

People are simply not patient and they expect instant results and that won’t happen overnight. At least 2/4 of my runs a week are in zone 2. When I first did this training it was a few weeks before I saw my pace improve, but found I could train more and on the hard sessions go harder. Over the years the pace is sometimes at a pace which I was doing back in 2015 too hard. I have improved a lot from this but it takes times, it could be weeks or months to see improvement but you have to keep at it and your see the benefits. Stick with it and you will make improvements and of course with anything you will struggle to get quick results so why break your body and get injured when you can train smart?

My conclusion is it is a big topic and this is a quick simple blog about this; I have written many in depth blogs in the past and YouTube Videos so check them out. I train like this, my athletes do and I have many friends doing this training who have all gone to do well whether it’s a PB or a medal. I believe in this and when I look back over the years I have improved so much and continue to improve. The medals I have won are due to training smart and not over training. Thanks for reading and what do you think about zone 2 training?

Check out my YOUTUTBE video on this subject HERE

A study on different exercise bouts result in different physiological and performance responses

So I was approached while doing my speed reps on the track in Canterbury back in the summer by a guy called Antonis Kesisoglou who asked if I could be on his research project for his publication. I have been on a few tests before mentioned in previous blogs that have helped me to improve. So when he asked me if I wanted to help, I couldn’t say no. I was preparing for the European Aquathlon Championships so I had to wait until my season had ended to go on this test while I was still in great shape for it; we didn’t want to disturb training beforehand. Antonis said he wanted to test me as I had a world class engine, I am not sure I agree with that but I know I had good fitness levels and met the criteria of being able to run 1,500m sub 5 minutes. Antonis is from the University of Kent and is a Dr in Sports and Science, he comes from a strength and conditioning background and has coached Olympians.

So more about the study….

Antonis was conducting a study to examine how different exercise bouts result in different physiological and performance responses. Current models provide disproportional estimates of training stress especially when comparisons are made between very short and intensified bouts, to long and moderate effort activities. In this study, he wants to examine whether a running performance exercise bout (1,500 meters time-trial) is a valid model for assessing training stress imposed by different durations and intensities of exercise. It is his aim to improve existing methods for calculating training load, where the duration of the exercise bout is not overemphasized.

Visit 1 included a two-phases ramp incremental (Phase 1- Lactate thresholds determination, Phase 2- Determination of VO2max) test  for assessment of the maximal aerobic power output on a treadmill ergometer. For phase 1, I was asked to perform 4 or 5 submaximal bouts lasting for 5 minutes, with 1 minute of rest in between. Measurements of blood lactate were collected during the 1 minute rest bouts, and Phase 1 was to terminate when my blood lactate concentration levels elevate above 4 mmol.L-1 (i.e my second lactate threshold- MLSS). With 15 minutes of rest in between, I was asked to re-start running at a speed -3 km.h-1 of my final speed in phase one. For example if my final speed at phase 1 was 16 km.h-1,  I would be asked to start stage 2 at 13 km.h-1. Treadmill speed then increases by 1 km/h-1,  till the point that I cannot run further (i.e cannot keep up with the speed increments). Once phase 2 is completed, I was asked to provide my last lactate sample. With 40 minutes of rest in between, I was then asked to perform a 1,500 meters time-trial for familiarization purposes. (e.g the speed was regulated by me, whilst I attempted to cover the given distance as fast as possible).

Visit 2 included a standardized warm-up (see details for warm-up protocol below), followed by a 1,500 meters time-trial. I was instructed to cover the given distance on an all-weather synthetic track surfacing in the shortest time possible. This exercise bout was used as my performance trial (e.g my best running performance). 

At visit 3, I was asked to perform a 12-minutes time-trial running, followed by a 1,500 meters time-trial (with 5 minutes recovery in between).

In visit 4, I was asked to perform a 12 minutes maximum effort, self-paced, intermittent running bout. The work-to-rest ratio lasted for 60 seconds. Work ratio was fixed in terms of distance. In other words, I was asked to run a maximal effort of 150 meters and recover for the remaining part of the minute. After 5 minutes of recovery, I was asked to perform a 1,500 meters time-trial.

In visit 5, I was asked to perform a self-paced moderate, continuous running which lasted for 25 minutes, followed by a 1,500 meters time-trial (with 5 minutes recovery in between). The intensity that I ran was regulated via the 0-10 RPE scale. As such, my 25 minutes run had to reflect to a 7 out of 10 intensity (hard/heavy intensity).

Lastly, visit 6 consisted of a 25 minutes, moderate self-paced running, intermittent running bout. The work-to-rest lasted for 60 seconds, with the work distance fixed,  similarly to visit 3. Again, a 5 minutes of recovery was provided, prior to a 1,500 meters time-trial. Similarly to visit 4, I had to regulate the intensity via the 0-10 RPE scale, so it reflects to a 7 out of 10 intensity (hard/heavy intensity).

For all visits, no verbal encouragement was provided or feedback regarding how I performed each trial (i.e how much time I had run or how much I had left).  I was also asked to wear a chest strap transmitter interfaced via short range telemetry with a wrist unit (Polar V800, Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland), which displayed my heart rate responses in beats per minutes and helped to measure my running speed. Alongside real-time cardiac assessment, I was asked to answer some questionnaires prior, during and after the completion of the exercise. For example, in visits 2-5, I was asked to subjectively rate the workload I had perceived between the 1st and the 2nd bout of exercise (I.e immediately after the cessation of the 1st bout). I was asked to rate how I experienced the first exercise bout and provide a number from 0 to 20 for the six following categories:  Mental Demand, Physical Demand, Temporal Demand, Performance, Effort and Frustration.

Alongside with NASA-TLX, I was asked to answer another scale for assessing training load (I.e how hard was my session). In particular, I was asked to subjectively rate the intensity of my 1st exercise bout via the usage of the RPE 0-10 scale (Borg et al., 1987). My potential motivation was assessed prior to all 1,500m time-trials, via the usage of a 0-9 analogue scale (0 =Not motivated at all, 9 = Very motivated to do well). Lastly, my perception of effort (I.e how hard do I feel the task?) was assessed via the 6–20 Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale (Borg, 1998) during exercise. I was asked to verbally answer how hard I perceived the task every minute for all 1,500m time-trials, while all the rest exercise bouts I was asked every 2 minutes.

In all visits, I was asked to wear a mask for analysing my ventilation, in other words how much oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and total volume of air (VE) I breath in and out every second. This happened in the lab (visit 1) and at the field via the usage of a portable analyser (Visits 2-6). Antonis said that usually people feel the mask a bit tight in the beginning but this piece of equipment is designed for maximal tests in the laboratory and the field, so it would not limit your breathing rate or create feelings of anxiety. At the beginning of each visit, a standardized warm-up was provided for all visits. In particular, I was asked to perform the following self-paced routine, where intensity was regulated via the 6-20 RPE scale (Borg, 1982) in the following order: 800 meters of jog (RPE 9-11), 800 meters of run (RPE 13-15) and 400 meters of intermittent running (100 meters of  RPE 18-20: 100 meters RPE 9-11). My total time commitment for this study was no longer than 7 hours.

Is there anything I needed to do before each visit?

Before each visit I was told I should:

•             Avoid heavy sessions the day prior to the test. Easy/light sessions are okay.

•             Not exercise on the morning of the test or warm-up prior to the test (warm-up will be included in testing sessions).

•             Please make sure you bring appropriate sport clothing with you.

•             Eat and drink the same food in the 24 hours before the test.

•             Eat at least in the 3 hours immediately before the test.

•             Abstain completely from caffeine and alcohol in the 24 hours before all visits.

•             Tell Antonis if you currently have or you recently had an injury or illness of any kind.

Have you taken all this on board? It does seem a bit complex but it’s not too bad once you are doing the study. So what did we find for me…

We found my V02 max was higher than previous tests and therefore I saw an improvement here. My Lactate threshold took longer this time before I dropped the speed. Due to my aerobic training throughout the year I had developed an engine that made me more efficient and therefore able to sustain a faster pace longer. When sitting down and discussing how to improve this area there was a few suggestions to help. One I found interesting was that I could drop one easy long run in favour for a bike session to improve there, or if I want to improve my running speed I would need to hit my intervals at a harder pace than normal and to have shorter recoveries. So in the hindsight I need to improve my anaerobic system and running harder would help improve this. So this is something I will put in to place in my training.

What else did we find?

•             Immediately after warm-up, use some exercises to activate gluteus min and max, as well as oblique’s activation. That will help you with posture and stability when bounding (I.e light form of a Plyometric activity).

With Antonis being a strength coach he found a weakness with my hip so I will be focusing on improving this.

•             Guide you training by feeling (RPE scale). It is currently one of the best way to guide your training.

So to be purely guided by feel and not to be a slave on what my watch says, this is something I have been practising a lot and I know that feel is much better than going by what your watch says.

•             A short, high intensity interval training session an it’s effects on how your body feeling the day after, cannot be accurately estimated via wearables.

•             Use a training log, apart from wearables. Use the NASA-TLX scale for monitoring your sessions (as well as the SRPE). It’s a promising tool for exercise monitoring

•             Keep an eye on your speed sessions, alongside your HR responses

•             Remember that in 2 sessions resulting the same total work, the one which is performed in a intermittent way is always harder than in a constant way.

•             When a session is performed in a maximum effort (I.e 10/10), the effects of exercise duration plays a minimum role. A 10 minutes all-out and a 20-minutes all-out session will result similar decrements in a subsequent performance.

As you can see we found a lot of things to work on and help to improve my running. I found the study tough in certain visits such as the 10 minute TT followed by the 1,500m TT but different and very enjoyable. However what we did find was that I was very good at pacing and going by feel. In conclusion every study I have been on I have learnt something new in order to make me improve. I think any study is beneficial and even if you only implement one suggestion into your training you can improve from it. I am looking forward to seeing how it plans out.

Heart Rate running – is it worth it?

I have decided to write a Blog on Heart Rate running and my take on it.

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For most runners they are under the impression that they should run full speed at all times because that will make them go faster and running at a slower pace will slow you down. Well this is not the case, why not try heart rate running. It is very simple and all you need is a running watch and a heart rate monitor.

So what is Heart Rate running? Well the key is to find out your maximum heart rate while running. This can be done by a VO2 test in a lab or by running for ten minutes as fast as you can with a heart rate monitor and then take the max from there.

So what’s next once you have your heart rate max?  Heart rate running is very good and if you find your 60% to 70% of your heart rate max you can be improving at a faster rate then just speed training alone. Long runs at 60% to 70% can make a huge benefit by teaching your body to not burn carbs and burn fat to make you more efficient. This therefore can make you quicker. Last year I spent most of my training doing these long runs that proved to work. At the same time by making you more efficient it will improve your running economy.

What is running economy? Running economy (RE) is typically defined as the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running, and is determined by measuring the steady-state consumption of oxygen (VO2) and the respiratory exchange ratio. If you don’t know what VO2 is please read my old blog about VO2 (Here)

A lot of marathon runners use this because instead of pounding away for 13 miles on a long run for example they can go longer at an easy pace and wont feel tired the following day. The key is to train at less intensity on a long run which will teach you to burn fat but also make you recover quicker. Many people struggle with the pace because it is a lot slower than they normally run and if you run up hill you need to run slower in order to keep the heart rate down. Of course it is a must to keep the speed sessions up but by just slowing your speed down a little on a long run it can be a huge benefit.  I used to do a 13 mile run every Saturday at race pace which of course felt good but took me a few days to recover and my Half Marathon time wasn’t any better. Once I had changed my training and ran at 60% I found that if I wanted to do another long run the next day I could because the body felt fine and improved.

So my advice would be to try it for 6 weeks and see how it goes, if you don’t react to the training then at least you tried something new. But how should you train for HR? Well a simply guide can be by the distance or time in your run to be increased slightly for a three week period, with each week increasing. Then maintain the third week distance/time for a further 3 weeks and see if you have improved in a race. Let me know your thoughts and progress.

My conclusion is that it worked for me and still works, I am able o run longer and further and I do not feel as tired the next day. It has also helped me keep injuries away and I am still improving from this. I definitely recommend giving it a try.