Fitness and Health

I’ve been reading the The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Phil Maffetone recently. I have used his 180 formula when running since August of last year with some nice results, but had never read any of his books before. It’s a really great read and covers far more than simply training for races. He also explains how to improve health at the same time as increasing fitness, rather than compromise health in pursuit of performance.

I think this is an important point that is missed by a lot of people.

If you are competitive athlete, some trade-off between health and performance may be necessary (especially in a contact sport with a high risk of injury). But if you are a hobbiest racer, or average guy trying to get in shape, it starts to make less sense.

Why are we doing this stuff?

This is an important question to ask. If you are not competing in a sport*, then why are you doing this physical activity? The honest answers will be around some measure of health or to improve appearance. So, if that is the goal, why go about it in a way that makes your health worse rather than better?

That means not pushing super hard every run, it means lifting weights even if you just ‘do’ an endurance sport and it means adding some necessary variety to your training so you are fitter for life, rather than just the activity you have decided to pursue.

How do you know if you are healthy or not?

I think you can get a good idea using four measures:

  • BMI – it’s not perfect, but BMI will quickly tell 95% of folks if something is up.***
  • Resting heart rate – 60-70 is good, 50-60 is super-fit
  • Basic movement ability – the sit/stand test will work great for this
  • How often you get a cold (and how quickly you recover if you do catch one)

The first two are general fitness measures that can be screwed up by poor diet or stress, the third is a fitness-for-life test and the fourth one is the most simple measure of general health I can think of.

*Entering a race doesn’t mean you compete. By competing I mean fighting for a podium place or making significant improvements in performance** year on year.

**And by performance I mean race times going down, not distance ‘survived’ going up.

***Other option here are waist to height (waist less than half height), or bodyfat percentage (10-17% men, 18-24% women)


Winter running – an update from October to April

It’s been a long time since I did one of these posts. I have to confess to being a bit of a fair weather runner and have been running pretty infrequently over the winter months. I can deal with the cold ok, but when it’s cold plus rain/snow/ice I’d rather stay indoors and lift some kettlebells.

I took a big break in December and January but have been going out occasionally, and recent progress has been good.

This table has details of all of my runs from the last five or so months. I think the kettlebell training has had a positive effect on my overall endurance. There’s something about hoisting those things repeatedly that gives you relentless legs.

Date Distance (km) Time Ave HR Max HR Time in zone Time per km % in zone
26/10/2012 4.88 00:26:38 140 149 00:22:27 00:05:27 84.29%
02/11/2012 5.31 00:29:26 141 153 00:20:49 00:05:32 70.72%
09/11/2012 6.86 00:40:50 140 153 00:28:27 00:05:57 69.67%
23/11/2012 5.31 00:29:51 139 151 00:20:36 00:05:37 69.01%
02/02/2013 4.5 00:23:34 138 149 00:16:20 00:05:14 69.31%
08/02/2013 5.59 00:31:33 136 150 00:17:36 00:05:38 55.78%
22/02/2013 4.64 Forgot HR monitor
15/03/2013 4.35 00:23:04 139 154 00:15:48 00:05:18 68.50%
22/03/2013 4.71 00:24:07 139 150 00:17:22 00:05:07 72.01%
05/04/2013 4.71 00:24:19 139 150 00:16:59 00:05:09 69.84%

I said back in October that I would be happy when I was running 6km at under 5 minutes per km while keeping my heart rate between 138-148 for 70% of the time, and I’m now not that far off.

My pace and time in my target HR zone are both very close, I just need to push up the distance a bit. I’ve felt pretty fresh at the end of my recent runs and could happily carry on for a bit longer.

Endurance/HR training update – August – October

It’s been a good month for my running. I’ve not always gone out as frequently as I’d like, as I’ve had to rearrange traing to fit in my judo class, but it’s usually been once a week.

Progress has still been good though. The drop in temperature has had a really positive effect on my ability to manage my heart rate.

It’s obvious when you think about it – heat will make it go higher, faster. Interestingly barking pitbulls have a similar effect.

The general trend has been for the amount of time spent in my target HR zone to go up and the time per km to come down – all good.

Here’s the stats for the last month or so:

Date Distance (km) Time Ave HR Max HR Time in zone Time per km % in zone
29/08/2012 6.11 00:36:19 140 155 00:23:33 00:05:56 64.85%
02/09/2012 7.36 00:42:41 140 151 00:30:14 00:05:47 70.83%
08/09/2012 7.3 00:41:06 142 153 00:31:49 00:05:37 77.41%
13/09/2012 3.8 Forgot HR monitor
21/09/2012 5.75 00:30:16 140 151 00:20:32 00:05:15 67.84%
28/09/2012 5.75 00:30:31 140 151 00:21:35 00:05:18 70.73%
12/10/2012 4.4 00:23:56 139 152 00:15:22 00:05:26 64.21%

And some comments:

  • 151-2 bpm is when I realise I am out of the zone. My monitor does beep but it’s pretty quiet and this seems to be the point I notice I’m working a bit too hard.
  • It looks as though my % in zone peaked on 8 September, but that is misleading as it was also one of the longest runs. The amount of time spent warming up and cooling down is the same no matter what distance I cover so time in zone is more likely to be high on a longer run.
  • 21 & 28 September show good progress. This is exactly the same route. I was a little bit slower second time , but the time in zone increases nicely.

The best measure of progress I have is the very first and last runs.

Date Distance (km) Time Ave HR Max HR Time in zone Time per km % in zone
28/06/2012 3.8 00:23:00 142 160 00:15:03 00:06:03 65.43%
12/10/2012 4.4 00:23:56 139 152 00:15:22 00:05:26 64.21%

The time spent running is roughly the same but the distance covered, and especially the pace, is way up.

I’m pleased with how this is going – it feels like a nice four months work.

It’ll be interesting to see where I am when the progress plateaus. If I can get to a point where I’m consistently in the zone for 70% of a 6km run, where the time per km is under 5mins, I’ll be pretty happy.

Endurance/HR training update – June to August

Ok, I now have a fair bit of data from my heart rate monitor and have been for a few runs and bike rides with it.


Initially I was surprised how slow I had to go to manage my heart rate. I had been aiming for this style of training for a little while using nasal breathing to check my pace rather than a HR monitor. It turns out I was way off.

Anything remotely resembling a hill sent my heart rate way out of my target zone of 138-148 BPM and I had to walk for a lot of my usual lunchtime route.

It was pretty humbling, but also enlightening – I have obviously been relying too heavily on my anaerobic system.

I’m finding it much easier to manage now. The time I’m able stay in the zone is increasing, which in turn increases my average time per km simply because I’m doing more running and less walking.  

Here are some stats:

Date Distance (km) Time Ave HR Max HR Time in zone Ave time per km % in zone
28/06/2012 3.8 00:23:00 142 160 00:15:03 00:06:03 65.43%
12/08/2012 4.73 00:30:21 136 153 00:17:32 00:06:24 57.77%
18/08/2012 4.18 00:24:24 142 153 00:18:23 00:05:50 75.34%
26/08/2012 7.26 00:42:54 139 154 00:28:32 00:05:54 66.51%
29/08/2012 6.11 00:36:19 140 155 00:23:33 00:05:56 64.85%

As you can see from the table, the first three runs are of comparable distance and the amount of time I was able to say in the right zone steadily increases. The total time in the zone for the last two longer runs is way above what I could manage a couple of months ago – and at a faster average pace.

This is exactly what I want to happen – I hardly had to walk at all on the two longer runs, which compared to walking a significant amount of my earlier, shorter runs is a massive improvement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still running very slowly on these runs but it’s great to see things progressing in this way.


It’s a very different story on the bike. I find keeping in the right zone much harder. It’s difficult to maintain a constant level of effort for a few reasons:

  • Going downhill – this obviously takes a lot less effort so my HR goes down. On a steep hill I’m barely working at all so will be way below the zone. 
  • Traffic lights – there are quite a few of these on the roads near me which inevitably makes bike riding a bit more stop-start. 
  • Going uphill – a slight incline is good, and actually makes it easier to stay in the zone, but anything remotely steep sends my HR out of the zone very quickly. Dropping down gears helps but doesn’t control it. I can manage my heart rate when running by stopping and walking up the hill, when riding a bike on a busy road that’s much harder, and more dangerous, to do.

The result is not being in the right zone for the bulk of the ride. I have the odd spike where I’m going uphill but spend a lot of time with my heart rate below my aerobic zone.

Here are the bike stats:

Date Distance (km) Time Ave HR Max HR Time in zone Ave time per km % in zone
30/06/2012 5.44 00:19:50 133 158 00:07:29 00:03:38 37.73%
30/06/2012 5.57 00:15:37 118 140 00:00:13 00:02:48 1.39%
07/07/2012 10.97 00:27:58 132 154 00:09:33 00:02:32 34.15%
22/07/2012 13.26 00:35:12 135 152 00:15:12 00:02:39 43.18%
29/07/2012 13.6 00:39:48 124 159 00:07:07 00:02:55 17.88%
05/08/2012 14.41 00:39:10 131 155 00:14:07 00:02:43 36.04%

The issue with hills is really obvious in the first two bike rides in the table. This is me riding to and from a local climbing wall, which is mostly uphill on the way there, so obviously mostly downhill on the way back. My max HR on the way back was barely in the target zone and an average of 118 means I will have spent a fair while below that. Considering my HR is about 60 when I’m sat on the sofa that is nowhere near a higher enough level of effort to get the effect I’m looking for.

So what next

To get the effect I want on the bike, I need to spend a lot more time in the saddle to build enough strength to maintain the HR on a bit of hill, and find some routes with fewer traffic lights!

As my main aim with this is to strengthen my aerobic system, not become an awesome bike racer, I’ve been focusing on running instead. I’m able to train the right way much easier and I also enjoy getting out on the trails more. My foot injury meant I couldn’t run at all so I’m loving just being able to do it again.

I’m still using my bike, but more as a fun means of getting from place to place than for any specific training purpose.

I’ll keep posting my running progress over the next few months.

Endurance/heart rate training update

I had planned on posting an update on this before now but wanted to include some of the statsI’ve been getting from the HR monitor.

Because my foot had stopped me running for about a month the run data was a bit sparce. I had planned on writing something this week but foolishly forgot to take my HR monitor to work on the day I went running.

I’ll do it next week instead – which will hopefully give The Internet something to look forward to 😉

Endurance training

I’ve recently increased the amount of endurance exercise I’m doing. 

The weather is good at the moment, I’ve recently bought a bike and enjoy running so getting out into the sun and building some endurance seems like a fine idea. It also fits nicely with one of my reasons Dads should train – to keep up with your kids.

You can’t keep up if you have no gas in the tank. 

I’ve also been inspired by the great series of posts Andrew Read about his training for an Ironman event. He is a strong dude and plans to stay that way, but also wants to become an endurance beast.

I have no intention of taking it quite to the extremes Andrew is, but it’s interesting to see someone train two opposites of the physical spectrum at the same time. It shows it can be done.

But I thought cardio was bad

Yeah, me too. Traditional cardio training has had a really bad rap over the last few years. It has been accused of causing heart attacks and generally turning you into a big girlie man.

But does that make sense? Humans are species that have thrived on adaptability. We’ve moved to and settled in all corners of the world. This was done long ago, before cars, and would have involved a hell of a lot of walking, and likely a bit of running – that’s cardio, but more specifically that’s aerobic cardio.

Aerobic training

The main message from the early posts in Andrew Read’s series is that the key to successful endurance training is having a solid aerobic base.

It is the aerobic system that is designed to keep us going for long periods of time and it is trained by longer, slower paced sessions – much slower than you think. The reality is when most of us think we are training aerobically we’re not. The pace is too fast and reliant on the anaerobic system.

This system is not designed to maintain activity for long periods of time and doing so puts great strain on your system (hence the heart attacks etc).

For more detail on the difference between aerobic and anaerobic training, and why a well developed aerobic system is a good thing, I recommend reading this post by Sock Doc.

The simplest way to do aerobic training is to strap on a heart rate monitor and keep your heat rate in the aerobic zone (check) using a formula created by Phil Maffetone.

It is pretty simple. Take 180 minus your age and your range is between the number and ten beats below.

For me that’s 180-32=148 so my range is 138-148 – if I keep my heart rate within that zone I am training aerobically.

It involves training at a much slower pace than you might be used to. There is also a slight change in mindset – from managing your pace to managing your state. Instead of constantly trying to run faster for longer periods of time, you maintain a relaxed heart rate and your pace at that HR increases over time.

My limited experience so far has been great. Running and biking often made me feel sluggish and grumpy the next day but not with this style of training.

Training this way a few times a week has had no negative effects on my strength training, I’ve been sleeping like a log and feel great the next day.

My next post will give some more detail on what my training has looked like.