Monday, December 3, 2012

A New Hope (Aerobic Training)


The goal of this post is to share my experience with Dr. Philip Maffetone's training regimen.  In my return to cycling, I benefited greatly from reading other cyclists' experiences, and I am trying to return the favor. My apologies for the absence of pictures, I couldn't think of anything relevant. In future posts I will discuss what I have learned in my attempts to tune my bicycle for long distance cycling, complete with pictures.

This post builds on previous posts:

Fast Twitch Slow Twitch and Training Regimens
  • In this post, I described Dr. Maffetone's training regimen, built around the concept of "maximum aerobic heart rate", which I started today.
No Second Brevet in 2012
  • In this post, I described my revised training schedule starting with November 2012 as a rest month and beginning Dr. Maffetone's maximum aerobic heart rate training regimen in December.
If you want to know what a brevet is, read the brevet FAQ

Training at Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate

If I were to distill my life experience to one phrase, it would be "It Is More Complicated Than That."   In theory, nothing could be simpler than the new training regimen I am testing: warm up for 15 minutes such that my heart rate gradually increases from resting to my maximum aerobic heart rate, ride for 45 minutes at a speed that keeps my heart rate at that maximum aerobic heart rate, then cool down for 15 minutes until my heart rate decreases to within 10 to 20 beats per minute (BPM) above resting. My experience so far (admittedly brief) has definitely been "more complicated than that."

In this article I discuss two heart rates. The first I refer to simply as maximum heart rate and is a number used broadly in the exercise literature. It is the maximum rate that a person's heart is capable of beating under any circumstances.  The other I refer to as maximum aerobic heart rate. This is a number used by Dr. Maffetone as the optimum heart rate at which to train in order to develop endurance without producing stress (e.g. overtraining). These two are estimated similarly using calculations based on age. A third important heart rate is resting heart rate which I measure each morning when I get up.

As I previously described, I calculated my maximum aerobic heart rate, based on my age and my experience, to be 113 beats per minute (BPM).  I installed a Garmin 500 bicycle computer on Friday and synced it with its associated heart rate monitor and on Saturday went on an easy 17 mile ride along Braes Bayou with my wife.  Long term, I don't plan to use a heart rate monitor on weekend rides with my wife, but I was testing it in preparation for starting the following Monday. On that ride, I found that riding at a very easy, comfortable speed, well below the speed at which I normally train, my heart rate was 135 BPM.  Because that was so at odds with what I expected, I compared the heart rate measured by the Garmin with that measured by the blood pressure meter I use to measure my resting heart rate, and they agreed.  (This comparison has been repeated multiple times over three days.)   On Sunday, my wife and I made the 20 mile ride to Canino's Market and back to buy our weekly produce.  I noticed that my heart rate was up to 120 BPM within a block or two of leaving our house despite the fact that I was not trying to ride at all fast at the start of the ride. On the way there, I rode at a pace that produced a heart rate of 135 BPM, and when we got there, my wife (who normally rides slower than I do) noted that she "could have gone faster."  On the way home, if I got up to 145 BPM, she asked me to slow down, and at 140 BPM, she was able to keep up but was riding about as fast as was comfortable for her. There is a mild uphill on the way home and I was carrying about 40 pounds of produce which gave me an opportunity to push a bit, and I managed to get my heart rate up to 164 BPM.  This is significant because calculating my maximum heart rate, the heart rate I should not be able to exceed no matter how hard I try, gave a value of 163 BPM. At 164 BPM I was definitely breathing hard, but I certainly felt I could have pushed harder. Clearly, the theoretical calculations of my heart rate are at odds with what I actually measure.

Based on my first two days' experience, I revisited my calculation of maximum aerobic heart rate.  Because I could easily exceed my calculated maximum heart rate, I wondered if 163 BPM was an underestimate.  This might not be surprising given that the Wikipedia article on heart rate states that maximum heart rate can vary from person to person, among people of the same age, by as much as 60 BPM.  Thus, if 163 BPM were an average maximum heart rate for a man my age, my actual maximum heart rate could be as high as 193 BPM. Even if my maximum heart rate were low by 30 BPM, it is not clear if my maximum aerobic heart rate would vary similarly. Despite all these uncertainties, I guessed that I should add about 10 BPM to my maximum aerobic heart rate. Another way to think about this is that as part of calculating my maximum aerobic heart rate, I subtracted 5 BPM based on my subjective judgement of my training experience. By evaluating my training experience somewhat differently, I could have added 5 BPM, a different justification for increasing my estimated maximum aerobic heart rate by the same 10 BPM. Thus, before starting any training, I increased my estimate of my maximum aerobic heart rate from 113 to 125 (rounding up a bit.)

Even having revised my maximum aerobic heart rate upwards, I found completing the training regimen without exceeding this heart rate very difficult.  I decided that, at least at first, I would do my training rides on the Rice Track so I could focus on maintaining my heart rate without worrying about traffic.  It is just over a mile and a half from my home to the Rice Track.  Even though I tried to ride slowly, my heart rate was up to 120 BPM within a couple of blocks.  Worse, my heart rate would get up to 135 or 140 BPM in the process of crossing busy streets or otherwise navigating the suburban landscape between home and Rice.  Once I got to the track, I started my Garmin set to alert me if 1) my heart rate exceeded 125 BPM and 2) when I had completed the 45 minutes of training.  My heart rate was still elevated when I started which accounts for a maximum heart rate durring the training ride of 132 BPM.  My average heart rate for the 45 minutes was 121 BPM, I covered 7.75 miles, and rode at 10.3 MPH. This felt painfully slow (and is much slower than I normally train), but even at this speed it was a struggle to keep my heart rate from going above 125 BPM.  Of the estimated 25 laps I did, my guess is that for no more than 5 was I able to avoid going over 125 BPM.  Dr. Maffetone does warn that this is what one will experience at first. What is supposed to happen is that my speed will increase at a constant 125 BPM heart rate.

Once I completed the 45 minute training ride, I decided to revisit the question of my actual, maximum heart rate.  I picked up the pace for a few laps, and then did one lap all-out, which left me thoroughly winded and uninterested in going faster or even continuing.  From everything I have read, this is less effort than is required to actually reach maximum heart rate (fainting and the desirability of having a defibrillator nearby are often mentioned in this context) but even at that I reached a heart rate of 173 BPM.

According to this training regimen, I should finish with a 15 minute cool down during which my heart rate should decline to 75 to 85 BPM, 10 to 20 BPM over my resting heart rate.  I went a few more times around the track to begin the cooling off process and then headed home.  On the ride home, as on the ride there, I found it difficult to keep my heart rate below 135 BPM, so once I got home I circled the block to try to get my heart rate down.  By slowly, I mean I did more coasting than pedaling and tried for a speed of 5 MPH.  I was never able to get my heart rate below 115 BPM, and it would pop back up to 120 if I let my attention lapse for just a second.  After giving up and sitting at my computer for 30 minutes, my heart rate was still 105 BPM.  It has now been over three hours, and my heart rate is still 96 BPM. Clearly my heart rate does not decline after exercise as quickly as Dr. Maffetone would expect.

Out of fairness to Dr. Maffetone, I have not exactly followed his program.  On both Saturday and Sunday, I rode at a heart rate much higher than he recommends.  (I had an even faster ride on the previous Thursday, before my heart rate monitor was installed.)  Even today, on my first ride of the program, I added that gratuitous attempt to measure my maximum heart rate at the end of my training, before beginning my cool down.  Realistically, my life priorities dictate that I am not going to cut back on the weekend rides with my wife (which I had previously considered recovery rides.)  That said, for the remaining four training days of the week, I will make every effort to conform to Dr, Maffetone's plan.  I anticipate trouble with the warmup, and there would appear to be very little I can do about the cool down, but I will do my best, and will stick to the program during the 45 training ride.  Each week, regardless of what the post is about, I will post a MAF test for that week at the end of my blog, a measurement of average speed obtained at a heart rate of 125 BPM.

Here is the first:

December 3, 2012: MAF Test = 10.3 MPH

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