Monday, April 4, 2011

Keeping it Slow and Steady

These days this is my challenge. I remember what it was like to have the wind flow past my face. These days, the only way that happens is when I’m running into it. I feel like I’m the underpowered Yugo (no offense to anyone who may have owned one) in the slow lane of the freeway. I hear steps coming up behind me and I watch a back disappear ahead of me. It can all get very frustrating and discouraging.

How did I know I was ready to get back to training? When I felt good about slowing down as someone passed me. They say slow and steady wins the race. But why?

The key is our body’s aerobic engine. As we increase the intensity of our workout, our muscles respond by breaking down Adenosine Triphosphate (any biochemists out there?) or ATP. The reaction is known as hydrolysis, and happens when a water molecule (hence the requirement for hydration while exercising) reacts with an ATP molecule to create  fuel for our cell’s little engines. Well, without getting too technical, that little water molecule is split into a Hydrogen ion (H+) and a hydroxide ion (OH-) during the process. The hydroxide binds with phosphorous compounds to create a phosphates. But poor little H+ is left to be dealt with by our bodies. And if I remember Chemistry 101 correctly (it’s been a long ass time since my Biology Degree days), that little extra proton decreases our body’s pH level, which starts decreasing our body’s ability to aerobically create energy as described above. Once we are no longer able to aerobically create energy, our body, in it’s infinite wisdom, tries to take other less efficient paths to fuel our little microengines. As those less efficient paths take toll on our systems, we begin to shut down and reduce the efficiency of our workouts until we are left on the side of the path puking and gasping.

So, I just counted that paragraph. 211 words basically saying that if we work out too hard, we reduce the efficiency of our workout. And efficiency is what it’s all about. How do we maximize the efficiency of our workout? By exercising at the point where we are at a balance – where the production of hydrogen ions is balanced by our body’s ability to flush them from our cells. When we reach that point where we are producing more ions than we can flush – we are at that magical point called “Lactate Threshold” – the point where we can workout for about an hour before we essentially shut down.

How can we make sure we are exercising at an appropriate level? There are two ways:

Perceived Effort

Notice that Lactate Threshold is at an intensity level that most people can endure for about an hour. Also note that an hour is about the length of time it takes for most folks to complete a 10K. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that running at just below (around 80%-85%) your 10K race pace is that place where you are efficiently building your aerobic capacity.

Heart Rate Monitoring

If you’re like me, you like gizmos and gadgets and data. I wear my HRM religiously. For us data geeks, Lactate Threshold occurs somewhere between 80% and 90% of maximal heart rate (MHR)*. Therefore, to maximize aerobic conditioning, we should be running at a pace that puts our heart rate at somewhere between 70% and 80% of MHR. What I have done is program my Garmin heart rate zones, and then set the target for any aerobic workout (easy run) to stay in this zone. If I get a little too aggressive, Garmin yells at me and I back off. (These days that sometimes means a brisk walk).

So you may be asking at this point – “So why should I care? I just want to run a sub two hour half marathon.”

Here’s why. A two hour half marathon (conversely a four hour marathon) is running a 9:09 per mile pace. All of us can run at that pace. The magical question is “for how long?” I know right now, I can hold that 9:09 pace for probably 200 meters (half a lap). How can I get myself to the point where I can hold that for 13 miles? Simple. By training my aerobic engine to efficiently work for at least one hour, so I can through myself into anaerobic metabolism for the other hour. And the only way to get there is to efficiently train that aerobic engine mile after mile and hour after hour! That’s what “training” is all about.

So – avoid the pitfall of putting “speedwork” into your training plan – especially if you’re not ready for it. Don’t turn training runs into races. Slow down when training to speed up on race day.

* It’s important if you are adopting a heart rate training methodology that you test your maximal heart rate. Google “maximal heart rate test”. Don’t rely on calculations (220 – age). The calculations are normalized over a population.


  1. Much as I like gizmos and gadgets, I'll stick to the Do I Feel Like I'm About to Puke method. A little edgier, riskier, serendipitous. :-)

  2. Thanks for the info! That was a good post.

  3. Good post Glenn, although the HRM frightens me so I leave it at home :-))