Having finished my 10K a couple of weeks ago, I am now switching my running strategy to a method of training that hopefully will improve my aerobic fitness. See, I can run fairly long distances (my longest 10K training run was 8 miles, and I did that), but in any given run my heart rate takes about 5 minutes to get up into the 170s or 180s, and then stays there for the rest of the time. I also find that for any distance over 5 miles or so, I am generally finishing on sheer force of will. I lose my form, slow down, and get exhausted by the end of the run, because I can’t seem to stop myself from starting out faster than I should. I usually do average out to an overall faster pace than I set out to accomplish (which is not necessarily great anyway; “long slow” training runs are supposed to be, well, slow), but from what I understand, in general I should be doing the second half of any given run faster than the first half. I just can’t seem to resist pushing myself overly hard to start with, then not being able to control how I finish because I’m too tired.

This started because while I was researching training plans, paces, heart rates, etc. in preparation for the race, I came across some information on a method of training for people with poor aerobic fitness that caught my attention. The descriptions at the link seemed about right for what I was experiencing, especially the following bullet points:

b. You are incapable of running at low heart rates, for example, you find you have to walk at a heart rate of 180-your age. [spacedcowgirl note: In my case, I generally can’t get my heart rate up to 180-my age when walking, but I certainly can’t keep it down there for long when running.]

[…]

d. You have difficulty completing your long training runs and your pace slows down in the last several miles, just in order to finish them.

e. You are completely shot at the end of your long training runs, or even your short runs. (You probably will be after most forms of speed work, that’s expected, to a degree).

I think this might be good for me for a couple of other reasons too; first of all (I suspect like many people who grew up dieting and viewing activity solely as calorie-burning or punishment) I have always tended to push too hard, having to actively fight against beating myself up if every workout isn’t longer or faster than the last. So for my own well-being and to avoid burnout, I want to break this cycle. I also have a very fast resting pulse (nearly 100 before I started running–even though at that time I was already a regular gymgoer doing other activities such as the elliptical–and it’s still around 80), and lowering it further is one of the outcomes that I have been hoping to see from running. From what I have read, this type of training may help.

I read somewhere (though I can’t find it now) that 6 months is the best “basebuilding period” for someone with very poor aerobic fitness. I don’t have any more races scheduled this year, and I am planning to run another 10K and possibly a half marathon next year, so the next 6 months are a convenient time for me to work on this. Plus, I was starting to get some aches and pains near the end of my 10K training program, so I think it probably won’t hurt me to take it easy for a while anyway.

So, yesterday I went out on my first low heart rate “run.” Wow, was that an eye-opening experience. I started out thinking I would try to keep my heart rate between 139 and 149 bpm–it’s harder to find information online about what the low end of the range should be, but many people seemed to be using about a 10-beat range–but soon found that I was nowhere near being able to control it that well. I soon started letting it drop to 125 during the walking intervals just to give myself somewhere to go on the running intervals. Even so, I couldn’t run for more than probably a minute at most before having to drop back to a walk for a couple of minutes.

Of course, the local high school was letting out early when I went by for some unknown reason, which meant there were little groups of teenagers seemingly everywhere I went for about 3/4 of the run. So I think I was panicking a little and my heart was going faster than it would have otherwise, because I find it stressful enough to run my fat, tights-clad ass past teenagers anyway, much less in a circumstance where I’m stopping and starting every 2 minutes and I’m sure everyone watching is assuming that I have never run before in my life. (And whether they actually were or not, this is another good opportunity to remind myself that you can’t tell a single thing about a person’s health or eating or exercise habits by looking at them.)

I did find that even within this one run, my ability to keep my heart rate down while running did improve somewhat. Eventually I got better at forcing myself to go so slowly that I had a fighting chance at staying in the range. The source I linked above indicates that a lot of runners have trouble either mentally or physically with going as slowly as they need to at first, so at least this one isn’t just me. But on the whole–although in many ways it was quite a pleasant run/walk since I wasn’t even tired, much less pushing myself to anywhere near the exhausting level I normally would–I think we can agree that the results were kind of discouraging. Still, I’m going to keep it up for at least 8 weeks and see if I start to improve.

I was thinking about this and why–other than genetics or the possibility that this training isn’t appropriate for me for some reason–I might have such poor “aerobic fitness.” Why, in other words, it’s possible that all of my knocking myself out with strenuous exercise over the years may have actually not done me much good in certain ways. And I have concluded that it’s likely the fault of… dieting and fat hatred. I realize this may seem like a stretch, but bear with me here.

First, take calories in-calories out monitoring such as Activity Points, which I recently chucked. (This is specific to Weight Watchers, but I think a similar focus on exercise “intensity” applies to most diets.) I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially you get more of them if you work out at a more intense level, measured either by heart rate or perceived exertion level. For that reason, since I started WW, I worked out at or above 85% of my maximum heart rate as often as I could. I often cut warm-ups short and started out at an exhausting level so I could get my heart rate up really high and keep it there, because if I didn’t, I felt like I was being “lazy.” (Incidentally, I knew this probably wasn’t good for my heart, but I wanted as many APs as possible, so I did it anyway.) I was also afraid that I would accidentally slip below the zone for “high-intensity” activity without knowing and therefore overestimate my Activity Points, so it seemed safer to stay well above the cutoff.

(I hesitate to make this comparison, because I have never experienced the horror of anorexia and I don’t want it to sound like I’m trivializing the condition in any way, but this type of behavior–which so many of us engage in–strikes me as perhaps a distant cousin of how folks with eating disorders live in constant fear that they may accidentally be ingesting more calories than they realize. Whatever the case, I consider this behavior destructive to me personally, but I couldn’t seem to break away from it while APs were in the picture.)

Secondly, and this is more general, all of us who grew up fat know what a relentless push there is from early childhood to diet and exercise. I was encouraged to run, ride bikes, and do aerobics from a very young age–and perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad thing, except that I was at the same time made very aware that these activities were “for exercise” and to burn calories, which I feel kind of sucks as motivation for anyone and can be especially problematic for young children. (Though it wasn’t all bad; I do remember greatly enjoying exercising with my Mousercise record. 🙂 ) Maybe it was partially the fact that it was the ’80s, age of “no pain, no gain,” but I think it was also the fact that I was the fat kid that made me feel like no level of exertion was enough. The more I sweated, the more I felt like it was my fault for being so fat and out of shape. It was this weird dichotomy where I wouldn’t have felt like I had done “enough” if it weren’t grueling, but the fact that it was grueling made me feel ashamed because I assumed whatever I was doing would have been easy for the thin kids.

This carried on into adulthood. It manifested itself in the idea that if you are fat, you are held to a higher standard than everyone else. After all, thin gymgoers are just there to stay thin (never mind that they are actually there for a variety of reasons), but as a fat person you have to get thin. Until you get thin, you aren’t allowed to rest. What’s more, you’re fat and lazy, or so you’ve always believed; you can’t trust your body to tell you whether a workout is too hard or too easy or whether you are too fatigued or injured to continue, any more than you can trust your body to know when you’ve had enough food. Better to exercise as much and as hard as possible, and eat as little as possible, just to be on the safe side. The risks of appearing foolish, deluded, or lazy, or of not atoning sufficiently for your sin of being fat or “greedy,” are just too great.

Now, I am not a physiologist, and actually I don’t really know if there’s anything to the low heart rate training regimen I’m undertaking; it’s just something I’m going to try to see if it helps improve my fitness. I also realize that different things work for different people, and there is nothing inherently “better” about working out at a lower intensity, any more than there is about working out at a higher intensity. Maybe some of you have found that you get bored at lower intensities, or that your fitness level stagnates unless you work a little harder. Or perhaps your aerobic fitness is already good, and you wouldn’t get the same utility from a program like this as I am hoping to. And “aerobic fitness” is both kind of a vague concept, and only one measure of fitness and health–perhaps your goals are different. So obviously this is a very individual thing.

But speaking for myself only, all of this makes me a little mad. All my life I’ve been told, implicitly or explicitly, that harder is better. If I wanted to get thin, after all, I’d have to overcome my “lazy” nature and really bust my butt. And I believed this and believed that following this strategy would make me not only thin, but fit. If the sources I’ve seen are to be believed, this strategy has worked for me to a point (don’t get me wrong; I’m still very proud of my running accomplishments, and pleased with the endurance, strength, and mental health improvements that I have experienced as a result of increasing my cardiovascular activity and strength training over the past few years)–but may also have increased my risk of injury and burnout, as well as being possibly useless or at least suboptimal for improving my aerobic fitness. What a fucking shock–messages sent to fat people about what they need to do “for their health” may actually be ineffective or even detrimental, and furthermore actually rooted in hatred of fat people and their perceived “moral failings.”

But because I am so much more capable now of seeing this kind of stuff for what it is, and so much more focused on taking care of myself than I used to be (though I still have a long way to go), let’s look forward instead of back. I’m excited about this training because for maybe the first time in my life–and maybe it just took being a little older to come to this point–I have a plan that is truly focused on improving my health (and, as a secondary goal, improving my running performance, which is sort of separate from health but also worthwhile for me), not weight loss or calorie-burning. Maybe I’m making more progress on this HAES thing than I thought.

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