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During training, a heart monitor can help athletes develop their body's aerobic system, which includes the red, aerobic, "slow twitch" muscle fibers. This process is referred to as building an aerobic base, and is the foundation of good endurance. Especially important, as outlined below, is for each person to find their specific training heart rate that will allow this optimal aerobic development.

Building a great aerobic base is accomplished by training exclusively aerobic for a certain number of weeks and months. During this period, anaerobic workouts (including higher heart rate training, competition and weight work) should be avoided. Anaerobic activity can actually impair the aerobic system, therefore, each workout during aerobic base training should be only aerobic.

The aerobic system plays a vital and primary role in all physical activity. For example, between 95 and 99% of the energy used for endurance sports, including competition, is derived from the aerobic system. This is true for events lasting more than a few minutes, and races from the mile to the marathon, and beyond. In addition to the traditional endurance events such as running, biking and swimming, aerobic-based sports also include tennis, golf, basketball and most others.

There may be several physiological reasons why anaerobic workouts can reduce aerobic function:

  • Anaerobic activity can lower the number of aerobic muscle fibers, sometimes significantly. This can happen in just a few short weeks of anaerobic training.
  • Lactic acid, produced during anaerobic work, may inhibit aerobic muscle enzymes necessary for aerobic function.
  • Anaerobic training increases the respiratory quotient (a measure of fat- and sugar-burning) indicating the body is burning less fat.

In addition, excess stress in any form (mental, physical or chemical) can inhibit the aerobic system due to increases in the stress hormone cortisol. This, in turn, can increase insulin levels, further inhibiting fat burning and increasing sugar usage (and adversely affecting blood sugar). Anaerobic training increases cortisol too, often dramatically.

Building a great aerobic base takes at least three months. For athletes who have lost their competitive edge, have chronic injury or ill health, have difficulty burning body fat, or are just starting an exercise program, a longer base period - up to six months or more - may be needed. Some athletes have learned that training aerobically is all they need to compete better than ever.

This approach is sometimes difficult initially for athletes because in almost all situations training at the prescribed level is painfully slow. In addition, there may be a social issue as your training partners may want you to work harder. And, because a normal 5-mile run, for example, will take a longer period of time at a slower pace, instead of "miles" it's best to workout by "minutes". Our athletic culture is still entrenched in the myth of "no-pain, no gain" making proper training a mental challenge at times. But serious training requires discipline. Hang in there: improvements in speed, health and fat-burning are on the way!

What's the best heart rate for aerobic training? The answer to this is individual, and key to building a great aerobic body. Many are familiar with the old heart rate formula: 220 minus your age, multiplied by 65% to 85%. But this method has no scientific or clinical basis. For example, an individual's maximum heart rate is supposed to be represented by 220 minus the age. However, if you've ever pushed yourself on the track or in a race to find your highest heart rate, it may not be close to this formula as more than half of the population finds. Then there's the percentage factor: which do you use - 65%, 75%, 85%? That's an extremely wide range, and impractical. Rather than guess, use a scientifically-based formula.

One effective way of finding an optimal heart rate for aerobic training - called the maximum aerobic heart rate - is to evaluate certain physiological parameters on a treadmill, such as respiratory quotient versus heart rate. Seeing the success of this approach, I ultimately found a simple mathematical formula that predicts the same heart rate (typically within one or two beats), and in the early 1980s began using this 180 Formula. (Treadmill testing is still ideal but not readily available, and is relatively expensive.) One unique feature of the 180 Formula is individualization - the person's general health status is factored into the equation, something automatically incorporated into treadmill testing, but not part of other formulas.

The 180 Formula
To find the maximum aerobic heart rate:

  1. Subtract your age from 180 (180 - age).
  2. Modify this number by selecting a category below that best matches your health profile:
    1. If you have, or are recovering from, a major illness (heart disease, high blood pressure, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or you are taking medication, subtract an additional 10.
    2. If you have not exercised before or have been training inconsistently or injured, have not recently progressed in training or competition, or if you get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, or have allergies, subtract an additional 5.
    3. If you've been exercising regularly (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems listed in a or b, keep the number (180 - age) the same.
    4. If you have been competing for more than two years duration without any of the problems listed above, and have improved in competition without injury, add 5.

For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into category b:
180 - 30 = 150, then 150 - 5 = 145.

During training, create a range of 10 beats below the maximum aerobic heart rate; in the example above, train between 135 and 145 staying as close to 145 as possible. To develop the aerobic system most effectively, all training should be at or below this level during base building. As the aerobic system develops, you will be able to run faster at the same maximum aerobic heart rate.

Once a great aerobic base is developed, an athlete can develop anaerobic function, if desired. In some cases this may not be necessary or the time and energy is not available for such endeavors. (Successful anaerobic training can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time, a topic discussed in my book, Training for Endurance.)

One other significant benefit of applying the 180 Formula is the biochemical response: production of free radicals is minimal at this training level compared to training at higher heart rates. Free radicals contribute to degenerative problems, inflammation, heart disease, cancer and rapid aging.

As important as finding the correct aerobic training heart rate is the process of self-assessment.

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