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What are we training for in the next few weeks, months,…?

Re-adjusting your goals in difficult times

… is it time to slow down to get fast?

Time to reverse and re-adjust? Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forward.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus taking hold around the world and life as we know it grinding to a halt, most of us will be thinking what’s the point in training, especially with pretty much every race cancelled for the foreseeable future.

And while there are certainly more important things to worry about than racing and training at the moment, I equally think it’s important to stay positive, reduce stress and anxiety levels and doing things which are good for your soul.

For me personally, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one, it’s continuing to exercise for as long as I can. It’s the best way to clear my mind and it can help boost your immune system. But while exercise is great for refocusing and lowering your anxiety and stress levels, it’s also important to bear in mind that it can impair the immune system at the same time, causing stress on the body particularly during higher intensity (un-aerobic) sessions.

So, with no races to train for in the near future I have re-adjusted my personal goals and will encourage especially my long course athletes to do the same – it’s time to go back to Z2 base training and work on improving our aerobic capacity.

Current health implications aside, becoming an ‘aerobic machine’ should be a top priority for all long course athletes out there. But as it takes time and does not always fit our competitive or ‘I want it now’ mindsets, it often does not get the time and attention it deserves.

It’s all about Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF)

Improving aerobic capacity

Or maximum aerobic function (also known as MAF) can only be achieved by exercising at a relatively easy heart rate, the MAF HR. To determine your MAF HR follow the two simple steps below [1]:

  1. Subtract your age from 180
  2. Modify this number by selecting one of the following categories that best matches your fitness and health profile
    • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) any recent surgery or hospitalization, or take any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
    • If you are frequently injured, get more than two colds or flu per year, have allergies or asthma, are inconsistent with exercise, or your athletic performance has plateaued, subtract an additional 5.
    • If you have been exercising at least 3-4 times a week for at least a year without any of the problems in (a) or (b), keep the number (180–age) the same. 
    • If you are a competitive athlete training for more than a year without any of the problems in (a) and (b), and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

I will say the above method may not be entirely accurate for some athletes as it can depend on other (genetic, biological etc) factors too. But in general, it is a very good starting point and once you’ve determined your MAF it is time to get testing.

The run test: after a good 15-minute warm up, you want to run approx. 8 km at your MAF HR (so for me this is give or take 131, no higher) and record your average pace for each km. Ideally this is done on a 400m track but don’t worry if it’s your normal loop around the neighbourhood or your favourite trail or even a treadmill. The important thing is to perform it in a manner which allows you to repeat it monthly, under the same conditions (i.e. similar weather, time of day, location etc).

The bike test: Based on the same principals but this time using your turbo trainer with a power meter. After a good warm up. Ride for 1hr at your MAF (please note that for most athletes your aerobic HR on the bike will often be around 5 beats lower). It’s important to keep your heart rate aerobic for the whole test and track your watts. Record it and repeat it again in a month’s time.

Time to hit Z2 training

Tests done, it’s time to hit the Z2 training – i.e. generally try and keep most of your training below your aerobic ceiling (MAF HR). Please note, it is not meant to be an average for the whole session; it’s about not letting your HR go above Z2! If you are patient and persevere with the process, you will see your speed or power come up, keeping the HR at the same level, which is clearly what we want for long course racing. Once you start plateauing on the tests, it’s time to shift focus and improve other aspects of your training… hopefully some race specific stuff!

Don’t believe me? Look up Ironman legend Mark Allen.

He used the above training principles for 13 of his 15 years as a professional triathlete. In addition to winning Kona 6 times, he also holds the record for the longest winning streak in the history of triathlon as 21 professional races. When he started the process, he was running 5:09 min/km at 155 beats per minute. In the end he was able to run at 3:19 min/km (5:20 min/m) at the same HR!

Also, a nod to the godfather of run coaching, Arthur Lydiard. Back in the 60s, at the start of the running boom, he advised his athletes (runners) that to improve (i.e. increase your run speed), you need to slow down and improve your aerobic conditioning first. He often described Z2 type training as being able to hold a normal conversation while you run. Or breathing through your nose, with your mouth shut. That still holds true to this day.

I know Z2 training is not the most popular, and a lot of people do not want to slow down as they think they will lose their speed. But if you look at all the benefits you get from improving your aerobic capacity, it’s a ‘no brainer’ from my perspective. Add to that the current environment we face with the coronavirus, I can’t help but think now is probably a good time to give it a go.

Be safe people and listen to your body!

Coach Damo

[1] Source: https://philmaffetone.com/maf-180-personalizing-exercise-heart-rate/