Thursday, February 14, 2013

Make your heart stronger

(Fitness Opinion)

uphill movement is ideal for cardio training.
(pix- my team's acclimatization
hike somewhere in Tibet)
Let’s talk about the human heart, how to make this muscle organ – stronger and bigger!

I recall attending Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (in the 90’s), and to this day remember (I hope correctly) that particular section on the last chapters about “Training Effect Zone” (TEZ) which I think is now commonly called ‘Target Heart Rate Zone’.

Imagine learning fitness stuff from a Corporate Training. :)

That particular heart metric/concept was something I retained, using it for my manual heart performance monitoring at high altitudes - while resting, when sick, or when bursting my lungs out during an uphill! 

Nowadays, I share the concept to erring athletes who complained about not being able to boost their performance level. As if I know anything about their sports!  ;p

On the manual heart rate monitoring - It’s probably done differently today (yeah, we have a heart rate monitor strapped around the chest), but I still find the old, manual method very useful and practical. Although my description below may sound task-heavy, it is Not. I just used it the other day semi-coaching a seasoned athlete (again, poseur me!). Here’s how I use it; when at rest - count your radial (wrist) pulse beat (or carotid/neck for those who can’t somehow locate their wrist pulse), for 10 seconds. No pulse? You’re probably dead. Go ask someone’s help! This is easy to do if you have a strapped wrist watch (pulse-count the other wrist). To give you a benchmark - my own count is normally 10 or 11 (my baseline). If one or 2 beats higher than 11, I’m probably not rested/ fully recovered/ sick or dehydrated. My TEZ starts at ~21beats/10s, max at ~27.
And what's the equivalent BPM (beats per minute) - this is simply the 'counted pulse' number multiplied by 6. Oh why 10secs? When in an activity, it’s easier to quickly gauge your rate via 10 (or even 6) second-count (not the full minute).
Here’s a calculator for your personal target heart rate zone.

To provide a different perspective or scenario -  if say I’m at high altitude (say 15,000ft) and not sick, my RHR (resting heart rate) is at ~14/10secs. The cardiovascular system adapts to the altitude by pumping more blood to get more O2 from thin air. Once acclimatized (i.e. high O2 saturation in the blood / more red blood cells), RHR should be retained to a favourable, near-sea level resting rate (for me that’s 13, if lucky maybe 12). At extreme altitude (above 18k), 14-15 RHR is already good if not a blessing. :)

If I’m AMS’d (altitude sickness) / sick (fever, etc.) / not acclimatized (at say, 18000ft), my ‘resting’ would be around 15-16secs (fast and weak). Not very good! With this, merely folding a sleeping bag, or pitching a tent are tiring effort that will shoot the heart rate up to 20+, easily! Imagine walking uphill, with a 15kg pack, higher than 24,000ft! One to 3 steps will shoot that up to 22-26+. 

TEZ is when one would actually hear his/her heart’s thumping sound (‘pa-thump, pa-thump”), coupled with open-mouth breathing sometimes. ;) Beyond one’s max (27-30beats/10s depending on fitness & age), one will collapse, or in my case – the body prevents me from collapsing so I’d throw up - forced to stop and rest. When the rate lowers to below 20beats/10secs, I’d resume, then repeat the punishing cycle (I’m talking about high-altitude environment when it’s almost impossible to operate sustainably below one’s TEZ. Imagine - if my resting is 15, my only ‘operating window’ to “pace” is 16-20 (5-beat window/10s) and hence reaching 20+ is naturally ‘easy’ (translating one’s nice climb to ‘suffering’ – for many hours!).

Pause...  (to digest).

Now, let’s go back to low-altitude/ sea-level. When we do ‘paced’ endurance, long distance sport (say 10-20km running, or 50km+ biking, or 10km+ kayaking, 1km+ swimming), we normally stay just below the TEZ so we could last (we say “pacing lang”). When I ran, my pace of say, a slow 7-min/km (using a reversed- time/distance metric) for 1-2hours, it will be around 17-18beats/10secs. If I run faster to around 4min/km, I’d shoot up to 21 or 22bps (even maybe just 5min/km if I’m already spent).

Running faster to 3min/km (or faster for strong athletes) shoots pulse rate up to 22-26 or more depending on the duration or distance.   This pulse zone is the training range that we need to make the heart stronger.
This however is something hard to sustain for many minutes, or even hours! To compare - sustaining TEZ for many hours is something high-altitude mountaineers need to endure / suffer since summit day is typically 10+ hours, big majority of climbing time at TEZ), not that they/we want to, but combination of thin air (O2 supply), late acclimatization, tiredness, sickness, uphill effort, weight carry – all contribute to a sustained HIGH heart rate). Hence, an early summit day turn-around is not normally a surprise.

'Maintenance' or Strengthening?
If one is swimming, running, cycling and most of the time just operate below their TEZ (i.e. paced!) – the fitness benefit goes to the muscle, energy system, psyche, and a ‘maintenance training benefit’ for the heart. Again, since your heart is not maxed out, this is only MAINTENANCE for your heart, and not really strengthening! I see many of my colleagues fall in this trap, not having a good coach, or understanding of TEZ made them settle down for ‘comfortable routines’ operating below their target heart rate zone. You can run every single day or do 'brick' / mixed routines - and still not make your heart significantly stronger!

Your coach knows this, and hence would normally mix training routines (interval trainings) with high intensity work out (ex. fast but short runs, heavy-gear cycling, speed swimming, or speed wall climbing). That’s not just for muscle strengthening or calorie burning, but more importantly – to boost your heart’s pumping activity (again when you hear your own heart’s thumping sound – that’s your TEZ, don’t shy away from that!)

Making it last
The next challenge is sustaining it. Often times, one stops when they feel they are ‘hinihingal’ (panting hard) or nahihilo (dizzy). Too often, high intensity routines are but short (not lasting to even 1 hour) and most ‘sport-clients’ dislike high-intensity routines. Well, LIKE IT because it’s your only way to properly train your heart!

What’s the best way for heart training in my opinion?

The normal - do the high-intensity routine w/in the lower range of your TEZ and sustain it. Ex. Fast runs, heavy-gear/fast cycling, etc. If you can’t sustain long (30min+), spread-out high-intensity routines over few days. Customize and adjust to next higher scale. (Assuming of course you know your target, if you don’t -get your baseline first.)

Or do uphill, even weighted, fast movement! Best, do it at altitude! Just stay below your maximum by either slowing down a bit, reducing weight, or pace-resting for a little while. Mountaineering (fortunately or unfortunately) is a not-by-choice cardio-vascular sport, it naturally offers heart strengthening - so a runner/biker/footballer/etc. can benefit from cross-training in mountain climbing. Cycling on mountainous terrain is also a very good option. Riding long uphills or climbing steep mountains will also offer SUTAINED TEZ-activity, again sometimes due to lack of/limited choice.

Remember the 2 factors, reaching and staying within your TEZ or Target Heart Rate Zone and sustaining it. Design your training program with these factors in mind.

So now, get out and max your heart out!  And don’t collapse… :)

Surviving a Heart Attack
Avoiding Heart Problems
Increase your Lung Power

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