Heart Rate Training Year One by Mark Stone
March 2017. A year ago I stepped out of the hospital after a week long battle with a rare blood infection and decided it was time. Time to commit to heart rate training. Since completing my first 50k the previous October I had been focused on speed training, trying to regain some of the tempo I had lost after months of focusing exclusively on endurance. I was frustrated. My usual high intensity training routines were not yielding results, and I felt I was breaking down more than I was building up -- pushing myself right to the edge of injury without meaningful results. My Spring race plans had been upended by hospitalization, so for better or worse I was truly starting fresh. It was the perfect time for a new training approach.
I've detailed the theory of heart rate training elsewhere, but in brief: our bodies have two metabolic states, each of which served a specific adaptive purpose millions of years ago. One is a low intensity, migratory state for covering long distances over extended time, which relies primarily on stored fat in the body as a fuel source. This is an aerobic level of effort, signaled by a heart rate that is roughly 75% of our maximum heart rate. Alternatively we have a high intensity state when we are in a "fight or flight" mode, for covering short to moderate distances at the maximum sustainable pace. This is an anaerobic level of effort, signaled by a heart rate above 75% of maximum, and using carbohydrates as a primary fuel source.
Heart rate training presumes that, since anaerobic activity is triggered by perceived stress and relies on scarcer carbohydrate resources, that it is unhealthy as a persistent and sustained form of exercise. The majority of training should be at aerobic activity levels, building more sustainable endurance, training the body to shed its carbohydrate dependency, and being able to gradually increase pace at low heart rate levels as the body adapts.
Heart rate training can be a frustratingly slow process; it is not uncommon for it to take 12 - 18 months to see genuine results, and it requires tremendous discpline during that time. So how has my experiene been?
Racing Season Year One
Early days of taining were tough. I was running around 13 minute miles, a pace that felt barely faster than a walk. I had frequent cardiac drift, where my heart rate would just start escalating, and I would have to slow to a walk until my heart rate came back down. I focused on adding distance, not worrying about speed, and gradually the point at which I experienced cardiac drift would extend out. By May I could turn in a 15 mile run before my heart rate would begin to creep out of Zone 2, and my pace had nudged up to closer to a 12 minute mile.
My first test came in June, with the North Olympic Discovery Marathon, a paved trail point to point race from Discovery Bay to Port Angeles. Temperatures along the coast this time of year are normally quite mild, but this year we had an early heat wave. Starting time temperatures were already above 70 degrees, and when I hit the finish line the temperature was 86.
While this was my slowest marathon ever, taking more than 5 hours to complete, heart rate monitoring saved me that day. Blood circulation is the body's primary temperature management system, and the higher one's heart rate the harder the body is working to cool down. By sticking to a target heart rate of 142 bpm, and ignoring pace, I felt confident that I was keeping my body in a sustainably cooled down state. This result stood in stark contrast to the Winthrop Marathon I'd run a few years earlier. That race was also warm, though about 5 degrees cooler on average than the North Olympic Discovery Marathon. And in Winthrop I suffered mightily, overheated and completely bonking between Mile 22 and Mile 23. From there it took me over an hour to finish.
Summer took me to my usual training grounds on the south slope of Mount Rainier, in the vicinity of Carbon Glacier. Stamina continued to improve, and heart rate continued to steady as I prepared for Baker Lake 50k in October. I reached a point where I could maintain right around 135 bpm heart rate without even having to check my heart rate; my body was just dialed in to that level of effort. A 24 mile run towards the end of my training cycle stood out. That run involved about 4000' of elevation gain, taking me all the way up to Morraine Park, and took me more than 6 hourse to complete. Over the last few miles I was certainly drained, but I was still able to jog along at a managable 12 - 13 minute per mile pace without any elevation in my heart rate.
Baker Lake 50k went well. I finished in just over 8 hours against a 10 hour cutoff time, and at no point did I feel in danger of not finishing. The last 5 miles were tough, with a lot of walking, but I kept to my heart rate goal (under 140 bpm) throughout the day, and never felt that I was completely spent.
After completing Baker Lake, I was on pace to run close to 1500 miles for the year, something I'd never done before, and something my body was signaling that it wasn't ready to do. After a couple of weeks of easy recovery running, I made the decision to take the rest of the year off, rest up, and assess what I'd done and what I needed to do next.
Nutrition - The Missing Piece
Back in 2009 wWen I resumed running I showed all the signs of a sendentary middle aged lifestyle. This was aggravated by years of reduced activity level due to back injuries that had culminated in surgery three years earlier. At 6'4" I've always been a big runner, but on that first run in 2009 my weight was up to 245. I jogged a mile and a half, and had to stop twice to catch my breath.
While I didn't make huge changes in my diet at that time, I did make a conscious effort to cut back on carbohydrates. No more breads and starches with dinner, sugary desserts became an exception rather than a norm, and beer consumption was, sadly, reduced. By the time of my first marathon in 2012 I had dropped 50 pounds.
My weight wandered between 195 and 200 over the next couple of years, and then slowly started to creep up. I wasn't being quite as careful about my diet, but mainly I was just getting older. And, contrary to popular opinion, a high volume of high intensity training is not good for weight loss. Anareobic activity reinforces carbohydrate dependence, and does nothing to encourage your body to tap into fat reserves as an energy source. By the time I stepped up to the starting line at Baker Lake 50k, I weighed 212.
The best guidance I've read argues that heart rate training should be paired with low carb eating. Both lifestyles have a common goal: to reduce the body's dependence on carbohydrates, and to train the body to use its abundant fat reserves as a primary source of energy. So in late October I embarked on my most serious effort ever at low carb eating. This was not going to be a diet; this was going to be a new eating lifestyle.
Here are some numbers to frame thinking about carbohydrate consumption:
- Most people steadily lose weight when consuming between 100 - 120 grams of carbohydrates a day;
- Steady state is somewhere less than 200 grams of carbohydrates a day;
- The older you get, the lower these numbers should be;
- It's reasonable to measure in terms of net carbs rather than total carbs (subtract the number of grams of fiber consumed in a day from the number of grams of carbs consumed in a day);
- The average American consumes more than 300 grams of carbohydrates a day, and the obesity epidemic in America is really no more complicated than that statistic.
In October I started by just keeping a diary of what I was consuming in terms of carbohydrates. Here's a representative day:
- Breakfast (51 grams of carbs) - Small can of V8 juice (8 grams); Greek yogurt (6 grams) with sliced almonds and pecan pieces (2 grams), dried cranberries (18 grams), and honey (17 grams)
- Morning snack (less than 1 gram of carbs) - Two pieeces of string cheese
- Lunch (22 grams of carbs) - 8 piece sushi platter
- Afternoon snack (15 grams of carbs) - Protein bar
- Dinner (24 grams of carbs) - Pork loin (0 grams); Steamed broccoli (0 grams); Quinoa (20 grams); Glass of wine (4 grams)
- Dessert (16 grams of carbs) - Vanilla ice cream
This doesn't sound that bad, right? A few indulgences (wine, ice cream), but greek yogurt, lean proteins, quinoa all sound pretty healthy. Total it up, though, and this is 128 grams of carbs per day. And every week had a day or two of exceptions: free bagel Wednesdays at work, a couple of beers and some bar food from an evening out, a dip into the candy bowl next to the admin's desk, or that pizza delivery because you're just too rushed to cook dinner. Add it all up and I found I was averaging around 175 grams of carbs a day. For someone in his late 50s that's too much to maintain a healthy weight even an my activity level.
I ramped down slowly, knocking off the obvious "cheats", then altering meal patterns, but never dropping more than about 15 grams of carbs a day in any given week. By December a typical day looked like this:
- Breakfast (3 grams of carbs) - "Bullet proof cofee", my variant is a blender full of 12 ounces of coffee, 2 tablespoons of grass fed butter, 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, and 2 tablespoons of almond butter
- Morning snack (8 grams of carbs) - Kind Bar -- read the label when selecting because these vary widely in carb and fiber content
- Lunch (5 gram of carbs) - Sliced salami (0 grams); Cheese (1 gram); Baby carrots (4 grams)
- Afternoon snack (2 grams of carbs) - Handful of raw almonds (2 grams)
- Dinner (0 grams of carbs) - Pork loin; Steamed broccoli
- Dessert (3 gram of carbs) - Herbal tea (0 grams); Tablespoon of soft cheese (1 gram); 2 nut thin crackers -- crackers made from almond meal (2 grams)
That totals 21 grams of carbs. I still have some exceptions -- wine on the weekends, an occaisional meal out that's more indulgent. But overall I've been averaging less than 50 grams of carbs a day over the last couple of months.
The result? This Saturday I'll step up to the starting line of a race weighing in around 195 for the first time in 4 years. It's surprising how little I miss. I'd like to add my V-8 juice, and a bit of fresh fruit back into my diet. I'm never giving up beer entirely. But most of what I've cut out I really don't miss.
In the past I have fallen into a common runner trap: viewing all training as a steady climb that must always include more mileage and increases in pace, with occasional brief step back periods following a big race. That approach had left my body with an accumulation of small, nagging injuries that only become more precarious with age.
Now I pursue a more periodic approach. At the macro level: November - December included 5 weeks of no running at all, the longest break I've taken since resuming running in 2009. I followed that with 8 weeks of runs that aimed to stay entirely in heart rate Zone 1 or Zone 2. I'm now wrapping up a 4 week period that mixes in tempo runs and shorter sprint workouts. Then I'll go back to 4 weeks in Zone 2. And so on, with another genuine break at the end of the year.
At the micro level, I'm no longer a slave to a training plan. I want to build a good stamina base. I want to mix in some speed work. But on any given day I run the run I feel up to, or that my life schedule allows. I trust myself to be disciplined enough overall to get to a training level appropriate for the races I want to run. I don't feel the need to rigidly adhere to doing a particular run on a particular day.
The constant in all of this is to not over extend level of effort. I should finish every run feeling confident that I could do more, and also feeling confident that I don't need to do more on that day. This controlled approach to effort is key to avoiding injury and mental burnout, and marks the end of my "no pain no gain" approach to running.
Since November, I'm doing more strength training weight training than I've done in decades. These workouts are mostly aimed at maximizing power rather than endurance. So a small number of reps and sets, but at the maximum I can handle. Progress is slow but steady. For example, I've gone from single leg presses of 55 lbs three months ago to single leg presses of 105 lbs. That's 5 reps per set, and only 2 sets for each leg.
With training runs, I've moved away from the weekly routine and stuck fairly closely to a 9 day cycle: training run one day, recovery run one day, followed by a no run strength training day, with a long run included at least every third of these three day cycles. This longer cycle -- 9 days as opposed to 7 -- gives me more recuperation time between my highest effort runs, which in turn helps reduce injury and limit training fatigue.
Training and diet have converged in interesting ways. I used to be one of those people who needed to eat first thing in the morning, hated running on an empty stomach, and always packed some carb heavy fuel with me on any run longer than 12 miles. Now I seldom consume more than my bullet proof coffee before late morning, which means that most of my long runs are done without a true breakfast. I've also stopped packing any kind of refueling snacks with me on long runs. If my body is going to be truly fat-adapted rather than carb-dependent, then that has to include long runs.
I'm hopeful and confident based on the results so far. My training approach got me through Baker Lake 50k in a more controlled manner than any marathon or longer race I've attempted so far.
Now that I've incorporated periodicity and committed low carb eating into the training plan I feel like I have the complete package. And I'm seeing results. My Zone 2 pace is ramping up faster now than it did when I embarked on this endeavor a year ago. I'm confident that by the Fall race season I'll see better times than I've had in several years.
Doing long training runs with no fueling is not as difficult as I had feared. Last week I did a 16 mile run and my energy level felt very steady throughout.
Training fatigue is gone. Focusing on lower heart rate levels and extending from a 7 to 9 day cycle has allowed me to recover more completely, making my training more sustainable.
My body is still battling my low carb diet. Small changes in carb intake can produce big swings in my weight. I can go up or down by as much as 3 pounds in a couple of days. My resting heart rate has elevated dramatically, from 49 bpm last August to 66 bpm today. I attribute this to my body scouring my blood stream for carbohydrates that simply aren't there in the accustomed quantity. Losing weight is challenging, but doable. Training the body to adapt to a new set point weight is extremely difficult; it may be months still before my metabolism has stabilized.
I'm rethinking the virtues of recovery runs versus shake out runs. This requies a little explanation.
I run two days in a row and then one day off. Most of last year this meant a higher effort, higher heart rate run on the first day of each pair, and then a lower effort recovery run on the next day. So that might be long run in Zone 2 followed by a short run in Zone 1, or tempo run in Zone 3 followed by a run in Zone 1. The theory is this: a lower effort run helps loosen up muscles that tighten after a big effort; the recovery run also promotes blood flow out the very smallest capillaries, which is beneficial for recovery; finally, running on "tired" muscles forces your nervous system to recruit slightly different muscles for the work, further enhancing stamina over the long term.
A shake out run, by contrast, is a lower effort run the day before a bigger effort run. So the pattern would be the opposite; a short run in Zone 1 followed by a long run in Zone 2, for example. The purported benefits of the shake out run follow some of the same principles as the recovery run. With a low effort run to loosen up stiff muscles on one day, you are better prepared for a bigger effort the next day. Getting good blood flow going on one day gives you a quicker and easier warm up on your run the next day.
Now that I'm using more periodicity and following a less rigid training plan, I sometimes flip from the recovery run pattern to the shake out run pattern. For example, if I'm scheduled to do a long run on a Friday and recovery run on a Saturday, I might flip these so that the long run doesn't disrupt my work schedule. In the last two months I've also been doing a lot of Zone 2 - Zone 2 runs, instead of Zone 2 - Zone 1.
I've noticed that typically I get a better pace for the same heart rate level on the second day, not the first. Even though it seems counter-intuitive to me, I'm beginning to conclude that in my particular case, shake out runs are more beneficial than recovery runs.
For me, part of the appeal of distance running has always been that it is an intellectual challenge as well as a physical challenge. One cannot blindly push the body to its limits and expect results. Safely and effectively getting performance out of the body at the limit of sustainable effort requires thought and planning. It also requires a willingness to discover and innovate. No two runners are the same; our bodies do not respond the same to stress and effort. This is why running a marathon or ultra marathon is so difficult. No matter how much you read, discuss with other runners, and plan, the only way to understand how you should approach these endurance limits is to try for yourself. And the only way to improve the result is to discover, learn, and innovate within your own personal endeavor.
Having reached a dead end with traditional high intensity training, I knew I needed a change. From the beginning heart rate training felt right for me. Even so, the past year has been full of surprises. From puzzling over how to calculate heart rate zones to how to align eating and exercise to decrease carb dependency, there is so much that I had no inkling about a year ago and am only now beginning to really understand.
And I'm conscious of the passage of time. More of my challenges as a runner are now age-related. While I expect to be an endurance runner for many years to come, the time in which I can run an ultra with a competitive cutoff time may be much shorter. Sustaining my running in the years ahead will require more discovery, and more evolution. I'm confident, though, that heart rate training will be the foundation on which my running endeavor is built.