Thirty-five years ago, while developing the 180-Formula, MAF Test and other key endurance approaches, the first training zones included only two: One being aerobic, the other anaerobic. Simple.
As heart-rate monitoring became more popular, others started creating various exercise heart rate zones. These were often based on some percentage of VO2 max, even though few athletes actually underwent this test in a laboratory. Others used “maximum heart rate” as a guide, and although this determination also was quite random in respect to individuals, it quickly and unfortunately became the foundation of most formulas.
Meanwhile some athletes simply make up their own zones, which seems to defeat the purpose of a zone. And of course, there remains the majority of exercise enthusiasts who don’t even think about their heart rates when training, and just go do it. This can result in training benefits or overtraining issues very similar to those obtained by using the subjective zones that have become popular.
In addition to heart rate numbers, some zones are represented by commonly used exercise terms, such stamina, recovery, endurance, cardio and others. These typically have no real scientific definitions but are just social images with no definitive meaning. (Of course, the terms aerobic and anaerobic are also not defined appropriately by the mainstream: See “Think you know what aerobic means?”)
It did not take long before I realized my two original zones were actually much more complex than that. Based on the neurophysiologic response to exercise — in particular, the specific nerves and muscle fibers being associated with each rise in heart rate and level of exertion — it was clear there were dozens of zones. In fact, each individual beat is sort of a zone unto itself.
Consider that you’re heading out the door for a workout. With a starting heart rate of, say, 54, you begin walking faster bringing the rate to 72. As you start jogging slowly, you reach 87 and gradually speed up based on how your body feels. After about 20 minutes and now running at a faster pace, you reach your MAF HR of 155 and are feeling great. These are the 101 heart rate zones, at least in this runner’s case.
By slowly increasing your heart rate from resting up to the MAF zone, you have just gently gone through the full spectrum of nerves that, when stimulated, contract important muscle cells, or fibers. The entire process, including the actions of the nerves, muscles, and heart, is controlled by the brain.
If you want the best workout, gradually raising the heart rate is important. This stimulates all the nerves and contracts all the muscle fibers along the way as well.
When working out in zone modes, however, athletes often jump from one zone to another, skipping many of the training benefits for certain muscle fibers. This “jump” phenomenon, despite the explanation that a particular zone has a spectrum of heart rates that blend into the one above, is common. I discovered jumping years ago. It was easy to see when observing a runner on the track. More objective evidence became possible when more sophisticated heart-rate monitors allowed us to evaluate an athlete’s beat-to-beat workout by uploading the data. Without slowly raising the HR so that all beats were part of the workout, most would literally jump from 120 to 130, for example, or 145 to 165. Likewise, during the end of the workout when the heart rate should gently descend, athletes would often jump down to the workout’s end. This is something to be avoided.
Now we know that by not stimulating a variety of muscle fibers, each innervated by a different nerve and commencing at a particular place in the brain, jumping can lead to an incomplete workout. There’s another serious problem with jumping: It tends to reduce one’s warm-up and cool-down capabilities.
Two Key Training Components
Every workout, whether easy or hard, and each competition, should begin with an active warm-up. Too many athletes jump through this preparatory phase of training. This prepares the body for the most efficient and safest workout possible. The warm-up increases fat-burning and circulation through the muscles, raises the lung capacity to increase oxygen uptake, improves flexibility, helps process carbon dioxide, and generally increases body temperature to signal other necessary metabolic actions that are very important. No athlete wants to skip this step.
Cooling down is vital too. It serves as the first stage of recovery from the workout. Even competition deserves some kind of cool-down to help start recovery, even if it’s just walking around the finish area. An active cool down sets the pace, so to speak, for the body’s recuperation process over the next 24 to 48 hours or more. This too is something we all want to take advantage of at the end of each workout.
Imagine you are in a jet taking off. You slowly ascend for about 15 minutes or more. This is like a warm-up enabling you to reach a cruising altitude. You maintain that level for a period of time, which is like the middle part of your workout, say at your MAF HR. About 15 minutes or more before landing — before the workout ends — you start your descent. By slowly bringing down the HR you land safely and begin your important recovery process.
By slowly ascending to your workout level, whether it is an aerobic or anaerobic one, and properly performing a cool-down, you go through all the heart rates along the way rather than jumping from zone to zone. This makes each workout highly efficient.
The only important distinction that needs to be made is whether you want the workout to be aerobic or anaerobic. Either way, you still slowly elevate the heart rate to a certain level, maintain it (or apply some variation in pace and heart rate), then return, stimulating all the nerves and muscles via the brain to obtain a comprehensive workout. This provides a complete aerobic workout, or a complete anaerobic one.
So there are really still just two simple zones, unless you want to count your heartbeats.