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How to properly train aerobically
Aerobic fitness forms the foundation for wellness. It provides your cells with a steady source of energy and optimizes your circulation. All fitness programs should begin with aerobic fitness.
I'd like to take this opportunity to emphasize that I am in favor of anaerobic exercise, too! Just not as the foundation for your fitness.
In aerobic exercise, you are burning fuel (using oxygen) at about the same rate that you can deliver oxygen to the cells. Your heart and lungs are able to keep up with the demand for oxygen. It's sustainable over longer periods.
In anaerobic exercise, you are burning fuel (using oxygen) faster than you can deliver it. Your cells go into "oxygen debt", burning fuel halfway (converting sugar to lactic acid) on the promise that you will catch up later. It's fine for short bursts--and yes, you can make these bursts quite long with proper training--but it's not sustainable. Sooner or later the fuel will run out because it's being burned inefficiently, and the lactic acid will become toxic, causing the muscles to cramp.
I love to play basketball and it's primarily an anaerobic sport. Sprinting up and down the court, jumping, cutting quickly, all of these demand short bursts. But in between plays, I can catch my breath and catch up on oxygen. Having solid aerobic fitness allows my body to use these brief rests to their best effect, which allows me to play an hour or 90 minutes at a time. So even though my chosen sport is anaerobic, having aerobic fitness makes it safer and better.
Blood circulation brings oxygen, nutrients, and building blocks to the cells. It carries wastes away. Without circulation, the cells will be unable to do what they are supposed to do. They degenerate and die.
If you don't have good circulation, then no matter what supplements or medications you take, you will not get the full benefit of them because the cells simply aren't receiving them.
Similarly, if the tissues aren't receiving blood, then the metabolic wastes accumulate in the tissue's immediate environment. This inevitably makes the tissue unhealthy and dysfunctional. Think of tight, sore muscles. Think of hypothyroidism. Think of irregular heartbeats, headaches, dry skin, herniated and bulging discs...
The brain is most especially sensitive to decreased oxygen in the blood. Depression, fatigue, headaches, memory problems, ADD, poor coordination, balance problems, poor sleep. All of these things can be caused or worsened by a decreased oxygen supply to the brain.
This is your target heart rate. Your ideal aerobic zone is this number plus-or-minus 5. (This by the way represents about 70% of your maximum heart rate).
For a 40 year old who has not been exercising regularly, is recovering from a back injury, and is within normal weight for his height, the formula would be 185 - 40 (age) - 5 (not in shape) - 5 (recovering from injury) = 135.
This person's aerobic zone is 130 to 140 beats per minute. Above that and they would be transitioning into anaerobic exercise.
This would feel at first to many people like it is not intense enough exercise. You have to put your faith in science and trust that moderate exercise is going to help you get fit safely and deeply.
What you don't know at first is that this method is self-regulating. It keeps you safe, and increases in difficulty as you get more fit. As you get more fit, your body will not have to work as hard to complete the same task. Thus, in order to get your heart rate into the zone, you will have to work harder.
For example, a beginner might have to work quite hard to climb the stairs at Mt Tabor Park here in Portland. The beginner would probably reach their aerobic zone about halfway up the steps. A more experienced, fitter person would not have nearly as much trouble with the stairs. They probably wouldn't reach their aerobic zone at all during the 280 stairs. They might have to jog the stairs in order to get themselves working hard enough. The beginner and the experienced have the same stairs, are doing the same exercise, and might even have the same heart rate, but one is walking while the other is jogging,
In addition, as your weight normalizes and your injuries rehabilitate, you will be able to adjust your target zone up. In the example above, as soon as the back injury healed, the heart zone would increase by five. And in six months the patient would increase their zone by 5 simply because the third rule no longer applies.
Within a half a year, they would have a target zone of 140 to 150 beats per minute AND their heart would be healthier, so they would have to work harder to get their heart rate up. The system is inherently safe and progressive.
1) You like to do it
2) It doesn't hurt to do it
3) It gets your heart rate into your target range.
I shake it up so I don't get bored. I will cycle outdoors in the summer, indoors when it's raining or dark. I run any time of year (5K takes me about 30 minutes). I will do the stairs at Mt Tabor. And so on.
For the first ten minutes of activity, gradually increase the intensity of your exertion so that you gradually increase your heart rate into your target range. This takes practice, but within a week or two you will be able to slowly and gradually do this. On a cycle, you would increase your cadence and resistance. If running, you might start by walking, then doing stairs or uphill, then running.
By the end of ten minutes, your heart rate is in your target zone, you are sweating, your breathing is increased, and you're working hard. You're not straining, you're not panting or gasping, but you are working.
For as long as you want to, with 10 minutes being a minimum, keep your activity going and sustain your heart rate in its target range. The longer you exercise, the harder your heart will have to work, so your heart rate will naturally increase over the course of the Sustain. Keep an eye on the heart monitor to make sure you're not working too hard.
If this feels too easy for you and you want to work harder, throw in one-minute intervals with your heart rate ten to twenty percent higher, with one to two minute intervals back in your target zone in between.
Up to eight minutes of slow, gradual decrease in intensity so that the heart slowly, gradually, and safely decreases its effort. At the end of the Ramp Down, your heart rate should be under 105 beats per minute. You might still be sweating but your breathing should be more or less back to normal.
If you are fatigued, worn out, wrung out, and mentally drained after a workout, then you were not aerobic. You worked too hard and went anaerobic. I'll say it again: there is nothing wrong with anaerobic exercise. Anaerobic is good and important, but not as important as aerobic.
Get out there and enjoy yourself!
Questions? I'm always available by phone or email.