Sunday, January 31, 2016

Aerobic base training

You may have gathered from my previous posts that I'm a bit of a nerd.  It's true, I like facts and figures, statistics, logic, science and technology.

This is one of the main reasons why Heart Rate Training appeals to me.  I like to know that whatever type of training session I am doing has a purpose, that there is logic to it, and that my fitness should improve if I stick to the plan.

There is an absolute wealth of information on the web on the subject of aerobic base training, all written by experts (or mostly by experts) with far more credibility than me.

All I want to do in this post is provide my own summary of what I have researched so far, and if you like what you read then I would encourage you to take some time and research it further.

You may be thinking "who does this guy think he is, Alberto Salazar (coaches Mo Farah) ?" or "that's waaaaay too complicated for me, I'm only walking to <insert Parish here> in the Parish."

All I would say is it makes absolutely no difference if you are starting from couch potato or if you have been walking/running for years, Aerobic base training will help you improve.  It also doesn't matter if your goal is to complete 5k, 50k, 85 miles or 100 miles, Aerobic base training will help get you there.

You may now be thinking "hang on a minute, I thought he was doing Heart Rate training but now he's waffling on about Aerobic base training!  What gives? "  Don't worry, read on and all should become clear.

Prior to Heart Rate Training I always believed that 'No pain no gain' was the only way to train.  If I didn't finish a training session completely out of breath, legs screaming at me full of lactic acid and then confined to the sofa for the rest of the day (after a long walk) then I felt I didn't try hard enough.

Now I know that's not true, and in fact it's quite the opposite and should be "No pain = no gain".

There are two basic forms of exercise: Aerobic and Anaerobic.

Wikipedia defines Aerobic exercise as "physical exercise of low to high intensity that depends primarily on the aerobic energy generating process. Aerobic literally means "relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen", and refers to the use of oxygen to adequately meet energy demands during exercise via aerobic metabolism. Generally, light-to-moderate intensity activities that are sufficiently supported by aerobic metabolism can be performed for extended periods of time."

Compare this to the Anaerobic definition "physical exercise intense enough to cause lactate to form. It is used by athletes in non-endurance sports to promote strength, speed and power and by body builders to build muscle mass."

So, the best way to train for distance events such as the Parish walk is to ensure the majority of your training is Aerobic.  This will increase your aerobic base.  The key here is to ensure you stay out of the Anaerobic zone, and one such way to achieve this is by following a Heart Rate training method.

The other way is to train at a slower pace than you would race, but personally I don't like that method as I never seem to figure out what that slower pace should be as it seems too generic, e.g. "your long runs should be x minutes/mile slower than your best 10k race pace". 

Training to a lower heart rate will automatically give you that slower pace, but more importantly that lower rate is completely unique to you.

If your heart rate is low, you know your muscles have enough Oxygen to generate the energy you need to walk/run while also avoiding the production of the waste product of Anaerobic exercise - the dreaded lactic acid.

If you ever had legs full of lactic acid you will know how horrible it is. 

I'm not saying Anaerobic exercise is wrong and is to be avoided at all costs because that's not true.  There is a time and a place for it, but it should be avoided as much as possible while you are building your aerobic base.

If you have read my earlier posts on Heart Rate training you will recall that I use 4 zones:

Zone 1 = Easy/Recovery.      55-65%  My range is 125-135
Zone 2 = Endurance.             65-75%  My range is 135-145
Zone 3 = Stamina.                 75-85%  My range is 145-160
Zone 4 = Speed/Strength.      85%+     My range is 160+

Aerobic training takes place in Zone 1 and 2.  Anything less than Zone 1 and you aren't really going to improve your fitness a great deal.

Anaerobic takes place in Zone 4, and I know that's true due to the very quick build up of lactic acid whenever I'm in this zone.

Zone 3 is a grey area which I haven't quite figured out yet.  When I train in this zone I do get out of breath, and I do get a build up of lactic acid, but I can generally hold that zone for an hour or so before I start to struggle, so is a mix of both Aerobic and Anaerobic, but I'm not yet sure if it's a good zone to be in for training.  For races, at least for 20k and below, this is where I am.

You may have heard the phrase "train slower to race faster", and indeed there are several books on the subject, and that's exactly what training in the Aerobic zone is all about.

Here are some of the benefits of training in this zone and improving your aerobic base:
  • Your body adapts to improve transport of oxygen to the working muscles;
  • Increases mitochondrial density.  Mitochondria are structures within muscle cells that produce energy from fat and carbohydrate oxidation.

    Think of them as tiny power cells for your muscles.  The more you have the better;
  • Reduces the amount of lactic acid produced by the muscles;
  • Increased storage of energy molecules such as fats and carbohydrates within the muscles, allowing for increased endurance;
  • Improving the ability of muscles to use fats during exercise, preserving intramuscular glycogen. 

    If you have heard the term 'hitting the wall' this occurs when your glycogen stores are depleted.  The brain's only source of fuel is glucose (which glycogen is) so when the stores are depleted and there is no more glucose available in the bloodstream the brain will start shutting down anything that is competing for the glucose, i.e. your muscles.

    'Carb loading' is a method used to ensure your glycogen stores are fully topped up before a big event, so if aerobic training makes you more efficient at using glycogen then it has to be good.

While training slower to race faster may be counter intuitive, over time you will soon find you are walking/running just as quick as you used to but are significantly more efficient at that pace, allowing you to maintain it for longer, and push harder/faster for longer too.

It really doesn't matter what distance you are training for either, although if you are a sprinter looking for a fast 100/200/400 metres you will probably spend most of your time Anaerobic training.

The chart below (from Sports Medicine Journal 2001) shows the split between aerobic and anaerobic at various distances:

Event            Aerobic %      Anaerobic %
Marathon            97.50                2.50
10k                     90.00                10.00 
5k                       84.00                16.00
1 mile                 80.00                20.00

So even if your target is a 5k, approx. 84% of that race is run aerobically so doesn't it make sense to spend most of your time training in that zone?

I have been following this Heart Rate approach consistently now for 4 weeks and I am definitely seeing results.  I will post more about that later, but for now I'd like to leave you with a great analogy involving a tube of toothpaste that I read somewhere about "training slower to get/race faster".

Imagine a full tube of toothpaste, and all of the toothpaste inside is your potential for improvement.

For a complete beginner that tube of toothpaste may be quite large, a "family sized" one for arguments sake, whereas for experienced walkers and runners who already follow this type of training it may be quite small, or a "travel sized" one.  For most people (which is where I think I am), it would just be a regular size.

The point is, everyone has a different potential for improvement.  According to studies, potential for improvement doesn't just depend on your current fitness level but is also genetic. 

One study suggests that 85% of people are 'normal' responders to a training plan, and 5% are 'super' responders. Unfortunately, this means 10% are supposedly 'non' responders so will not improve their performance no matter how much they train.  The analyst in me just had to call that point out, but let's be positive and ignore that study and just say we are all normal responders!

Anyway, back to the toothpaste.  The biggest mistake many runners/walkers make is training too fast, i.e. they are straight into the anaerobic zone.  In other words they are starting to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle/top of the tube.  Sure, they will see some quick results, but they are leaving all that potential behind.

Compare that to aerobic training, by slowing the pace/heart right down and slowly working through a training plan you are starting to squeeze the tube from the very bottom, releasing all of that potential for improvement.

I hope you found this interesting, and if you did I would encourage you to hit Google and do some more research.  It's a huge topic and I'm still learning.

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