Thursday, December 3, 2015

Aerobic Development

Aerobic development has taken a hit over the past few years (pun intended) with HIIT training (high-intensity interval training) coming into the spotlight.  There are always caveats to my posts and for this post I want to ensure that people understand that goals and personal history will always be important factors in deciding how to train.  I just want to make a few quick points before we get to the actual aerobic training recommendations.

First, the aerobic and anaerobic systems work together simultaneously to provide our bodies with energy, so it's useless to say one is more important than the other.  In general, your aerobic system will dominate until you start working in which you will progressively dip into anaerobic metabolism for your energy needs.  The other aspect of the aerobic versus anaerobic debate that is nearly useless is the calorie debate (i.e. for a given amount of time, HIIT burns more kcals).  By now I hope that most people realize that the purpose of exercise is not really to burn calories.  The purpose of exercise is to extend the number of quality years to your life and enable you to physically do more while you're alive.  Burning calories is just a side effect.

Second, self-experimentation is the best way to find out what works for you.  It's easy to see a fit person who is ripped and think, "if I just eat how they eat and do the exercise they do I'll look the same."  There's way more to that story, he or she could actually have a pretty crappy diet and a narrow-minded workout regimen and still look good because of genetics.  If something isn't working for you, don't give up and don't beat yourself up, just realize there is a reason and try to figure it out.  
There are many ways that we are not one-size fits all.  So keep that in mind as you read this.  I might give you what I believe to be an excellent principle, but at the end of the day, you've got to test it for yourself to really know.

Third, what works for you today may not work for you tomorrow.  Some principles will stay the same (i.e. make exercise a priority, ensure you do some strength training, ensure you don't let all of your endurance go to crap, eat real food), but other things will change over time (how much recovery you need, how strict you have to be with nutrition, how much sleep you need, etc).  Be aware of changes you might need to make by having a conversation with your body on a regular basis.  Keeping a log/diary is a great way to see what exactly works for you and what doesn't.

Fourth, when it comes to aerobic versus anaerobic, the general guideline I find to be successful time and again is build your anaerobic training on top of a solid aerobic base.

With those points out of the way, what are the general benefits of aerobic exercise?
Moderate aerobic training boosts the immune system.
Aerobic training has been shown to lower blood pressure (expanded capillary network and increased parasympathetic tone of arterioles).
Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function (better memory & mood).
Studies show aerobic exercise improves insulin sensitivity.
Aerobic exercise favors a reduction in overall mortality rates and cardiovascular disease.
May be helpful for stress reduction / management
Aerobic exercise increases endurance.

More isn't always better.  How much endurance or aerobic exercise is enough?
That depends on your goals.  If you want performance, you need to know roughly how long (days/hours/minutes) will your competition last?  Train for that.  If you want health, you need to think about what activities you want to be able to do and how you want to feel.  When I cover the MAF method in a moment, you'll see a practical test to gauge if you have maximized your endurance and aerobic capacity.

Why does Sam (me) like endurance training?
I love running & hiking trails in Colorado.  I enjoy being able to explore the outdoors easily.
When I am endurance-trained I have all day energy and I sleep well at night.
When endurance-trained I tend to have my best body composition.
My mood tends to be stable and it's easier for me to both concentrate and relax.
I recover faster from anaerobic workouts/strength sessions.
I notice less aches and pains.

Some of the benefits I notice may appear to be in direct contradiction to reports from others stating that with "chronic cardio" they find they are skinny fat, hungry all the time, tired, and develop overuse injuries.  To that I say execution is a critical component that is often over-looked.  I should also caveat that I train aerobically for health, not for performance.  I have trained for performance at various points in my life and I ran into injury and burn out often (because in my zealous love of running and fitness I was over-training).  More isn't always better, it's just more.

It is better to go into a competition 10% under-trained than 1% over-trained.

Can you believe it?  When you arrive to competition slightly under-trained, you're in a position to go above and beyond what you normally do.  You just have to realize you can mentally go harder in competition than in training.  However, if you are 1% over-trained, you do not have more to give in competition than you did in your training.  You've already begun your downward spiral in performance.  I believe this may ring the wrong bell with some people because it doesn't fit what most of us are told as athletes.  Most coaches will tell you that you have to run faster in training than you do in racing.  The fact is, many competitive running athletes (endurance) are actually over-trained.  And the worst part is, they see their low performances and just train harder.  It is difficult to be a highly-motivated athlete and not become over-trained.  I remember being a scholarship athlete and feeling the pressure to train harder than my body was actually capable of recovering.  And I did, I got the flu several times at the end of my cross country season (missed regionals in the year I had my best performances) and had chronic sinus infections every year of college from chronic suppression of my immune system.

Effective Training: You break down the body (RED) when you exercise and with recovery you compensate (YELLOW).  If you were to rest for too long of a period without a stressor, the YELLOW line would return to baseline or lower.  If you didn't work hard at all in training, you would not see the RED line dip much and therefore the body would not compensate with any meaningful changes.  This process does imply several things (such as you are relatively healthy and able to heal).

Over-training: This is one breakdown stimulus (workout) after another without proper recovery.

Your risk of overtraining involves many other factors aside from your workouts.
  • Life Style:
    • Inadequate sleep, irregular routine by day
    • Use of alcohol and nicotine
    • Excess of caffeine
    • Bad living conditions (noise, overcrowding, inadequate light, etc.)
    • Over stimulating company
    • Lack of free time or inability to make good use of free time (no relaxation)
    • Nutritional deficiencies (lack of vitamins)
    • Rush and hurry
    • Frequent necessity to adjust body-weight
    • Taking on more stresses when already at capacity
  • Environment:
    • Over burdening with family duties
    • Tensions within family (parents, husband, wife)
    • Difficulties in personal relationships
    • Dissatisfaction with career, studies, school
    • Bad assessment and marks in school, in studies, etc.
    • Conflict of attitudes to sport (family, superiors)
    • Excess of stimuli (TV, cinema)
    • Increased burden in one area of environment (e.g. final exams, A levels)
  • Health Upsets:
    • Feverish colds, stomach or intestinal upsets
    • Chronic illnesses
    • After effect of infectious illness
How do I work aerobically and build endurance without over-training?
The first lesson that people should know before committing to training their aerobic system is should rarely feel hard.  Not all exercise is difficult by default.  In fact, you should be very choosy with how you expend your energy.  Higher-level athletes do not train hard daily though it may seem that way when they describe their hardest week of training in the whole year.  But it's not reality, they don't do that all the time and they have a ton of recovery built around all of those training sessions.  There are world-class marathoners, guys who run around 5-min/mile for 26.2 miles, who do their easy runs at 9- or 10-min/mile paces.  The average person would run with them and say it was too slow.  What are they doing?  They make their easy days easy so their hard days can be hard.

If you're new to aerobic training, or its just been awhile, consider doing what many professionals do and train by heart rate.  While perceived exertion is a reasonable way to train, it must be understood that heart rate does not always correlate to perceived exertion.  For example, when I've worn my HR monitor on easy runs, I was surprised to find that I had to walk up almost every hill in order to stay in my aerobic heart rate.  While my body felt completely fine to jog the hill my cardiovascular system was telling me it wasn't quite so easy.  Anyone training without an accurate HR monitor could easily over-train and assume that because the pace feels easy, it is also easy on the body.  If you knew my history as a marathoner, this might surprise you.  Historically I am an excellent pacer.  I have run marathons where the second-half of the race was 30 seconds faster than the first half...without using my watch to pace me.  If the question is how can I train sustainably, get healthier and more fit without over-training, then heart-rate training is the way to go.

Don't assume your effort.  Buy or borrow a HR monitor and see what your body is telling you about your aerobic capacity. If you normally run a 7-min mile but aerobically (at your max aerobic HR) you're running a 9-min mile, you aren't actually maximizing your aerobic base.  Maximizing your aerobic capacity by training at your max aerobic HR is relatively easy and will pay huge dividends when you increase the intensity of your workouts later.

There are several formulas out there to try.  Feel free to test a few methods to see what works for you.  If you have the opportunity to be tested in a laboratory this will be more accurate than any formula.  That said, my favorite formula that I have used over the years is the Maffetone Method or "180-formula."

The 180 Formula
To find your maximum aerobic training heart rate,
  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting among the following categories that best matches your fitness and health profile:
a)  If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
b)  If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
c)  If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same
d)  If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into category (b), you get the following: 180–30=150. Then 150–5=145 beats per minute (bpm).
Now to blow your mind.  When just starting out, there is no need to train above this heart rate to improve your aerobic development/base.  Training at that heart rate without going over will help you fully maximize your aerobic capacity.  Training above that HR will exponentially take you into anaerobic metabolism, so you aren't building your aerobic base anymore.  Once a month run, do a 10-minute or so warm up, then run 3 miles on a flat track at your max aerobic heart rate (that you calculated above) and record your mile splits.  If you don't have a track you can use a treadmill but you need a place where traffic won't interrupt you and hills won't be a factor.  Average your mile splits to determine your average mile time.  Each month you should see your average mile time quicken for the same HR.  Eventually you will see your progress stagnate and that is your cue to begin adding faster running and speedwork to your routine (if you desire to get faster).
Some people find it takes 6 months or more for their purely aerobic work to manifest all its benefits.  If you'd like to read about endurance athletes who have used this method after having issues with over-training, just google "Mark Allen training methods" and read what you find.  He won Kona six times, arguably the best ironman ever, by using a 3-step mesocycle in which he maxed out each component before moving onto the next level.  He first trained aerobic endurance, then strength, then speed.  Many athletes today only pay lip-service to the aerobic endurance aspect of training because they're in too big a hurry to get to the sexy workouts.

Science has proven that sedentary behaviors shorten life span and this is even taking into account someone who is "active" and exercises vigorously for 1-hr a day.  Sitting all day is bad for you.  This is an interesting concept that I've taken to the performance world...what I mean is the average American doesn't have an aerobic base due to sedentary lifestyle factors.  Some of these same people are trying to do HIIT workouts on top of nearly no exercise foundation.  The risk of injury, burnout, and over-training will be much higher and the benefits lower than what they could achieve if they took a longer road.  Not many people want to take the longer road.

Because your aerobic base is essentially your level of cardiovascular function (mitochondria, fat-burning ability, capillary network, aerobic enzymes, etc), having a high cardiovascular function tends to have a healing and recovery effect on the body (compare to an extreme example of diabetes, which inhibits blood flow/cardiovascular function, wounds heal much slower if at all).  When heart rate training is done correctly, you should feel more energized after the workout, as though you could do it again.  I know this is counterintuitive to many short-cut exercise regimens today.  10-minutes to this, 20-minutes to that.  But if you have the patience to build a solid aerobic base, your platform will physically and biochemically support the harder training to come.

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