Low Heart Rate Training works!

In late March, I decided to change over my exercise regime to use the Maffetone Method – a low heart rate training regime intended to increase aerobic capacity.  Essentially, you ensure that all your exercise stays within a specific heart rate range, and never break out of that range – even if you have to walk to stay in it. The theory is that as your aerobic capacity increases, the intensity of activity you can sustain and stay within that heart range will also increase (ie, you get faster and faster at the same heart rate).

Take a look at this.  It’s a Strava matched run set from a bunch of runs I’ve done on the same route since November;

LHR Progress Chart, Nov '14 - May '15
LHR Progress Chart, Nov ’14 – May ’15


Point A corresponds to a run in January at nearly the same pace as today’s run (point D).  That run was done at a much higher average and peak heart rate than today.  Point B corresponds to my fastest ever run on that course, which had an average heart rate of 161.  Point C is where I first started LHR training, hence the massive dive in pace.

Now, you can clearly see that since starting LHR training, there’s been a continual improvement in pace over time, and the pace line is overtaking previous paces done without regard to low heart rate.

In short, low heart rate training works.  I’m running more often, further, with less injuries and fatigue, and I’m getting faster and faster.  At this rate, it won’t be long before I’m meeting or exceeding my previous best times – at a target heart rate that’s comfortable and sustainable.

That all said, the Maffetone method is pretty humiliating when you start off, you’re practically having to walk and being overtaken by everyone.  It requires determination and grit to stick with it.  But at that graph above shows, it works in the end.

Objective Complete – from 105kg to 79.7kg!

Well, I did it.  I’ve hit my target weight, 80kgs, for a total loss of 25kgs.  Since November (I wasn’t using Strava in September/October, unfortunately), I’ve ran 161.3km and rode 1,493km.  Of course, even though I’ve hit my goal weight, this doesn’t mean I’m “done”, not by a long shot.  The objective was to get healthy and fit, and part of that was to reach an acceptable goal weight.  I still have body fat to drop while maintaining weight – from 20.6% now to 16% ideally.  I still also have goals to meet – my midrange goal now is to run the City to Bay run in September.  And I still have the goal of staying fit.

Now for some dot points about the experience.

Things I didn’t do (that I’m glad I didn’t)

  • I didn’t join a gym.  All my exercise was walking, climbing stairs, running outside, cycling, swimming, and some pushups / weight training at free equipment in parks.  I did a little treadmill, but I really didn’t like it at all.
  • I didn’t starve myself or go on any crazy diets.  Analysis with MFP (more on this later) did show I was at a large caloric deficit on ride days, but overall I retained an acceptable (0.5-1.0kg/week) weight loss rate.  I instead focused on eating better, and cutting out the junk.
  • I didn’t exercise myself to breaking point.  As discussed earlier, I’m a big proponent of conserving willpower and maintaining resolve.  I made a point of continual, gradual improvement, not running myself to death.
  • I didn’t treat the weight loss as the primary goal.  My primary goal has always been to get fitter and stronger.  Part of that is getting down to a reasonable weight, but honestly for the first few months I didn’t even weigh myself.

Things I did do (that I wish I did earlier!)

  • The whole thing.  I’m well known for being highly motivated, determined, and wilful once I’ve decided I’m going to do something.  If I had decided to do this years ago, I’d be better off.  That said, I’ve done it now, and now is better than never.
  • Bought proper running shoes.  My old shoes were ancient and not right for me (neutrals, but I pronate my ankles).  Had I bought new shoes right away, I likely would have avoided a month’s delay from shin splints.
  • Recorded progress.  I’m a big proponent now of stats collection.  Looking back on your progress is always great for motivation, and provides some hard metrics as to how you’re improving.  Wish I’d done it from the beginning, although I don’t regret not weighing myself for the first month or so.
  • Used MyFitnessPal to track dietary intake.  Besides calories, this thing is great for tracking intake of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) for ensuring that not only are you getting enough calories, but they’re also high-quality ones.  I’ve only done this for the past month, but I wish I’d done it earlier.
  • Adjusted diet to have better-quality calories.  I’m not a big fan of the extreme diets that recommend no carbs or no fat or whatever.  My thinking is that everything in moderation is going to work better in the long run.  That said, if you have a limited caloric budget, you need to ensure that the calories you’re getting are also supplying the nutrients you need and in the right ratios.  There’s no point blowing your budget on all sugars and then having nothing left to get the micronutrients that you need.  Multivitamins are a supplement, not a substitute for eating properly.  Be cautious with stuff like protein shakes as meal replacements, they’re often very short on vital nutrients.
  • Let myself hold position if I needed it…  A couple of times I overreached on goals, and had to just hold on the last week’s goals to avoid injuries.  Rather than push the improvement until something broke, that one week of holding at previous level instead added enough conditioning that I could keep improving without regressing.
  • … but also didn’t make excuses.  At the same time, if I’d decided to do two runs in a week, I’d do them – raining or not.  A couple of times I went early or went slow because it was hot, or moved something to another day because I had to, but I never just flat out didn’t do anything because I didn’t feel like it.
  • Set defined goals.  Initially, my goals were very simplistic.  Get better.  Be able to run 400m without nearly fainting.  As discussed earlier, keep them reachable and short-term.  But don’t stop setting goals.

Where now?

Well, I’m improving my swimming, and want to get good enough to be able to do laps independently.  If I can make 1k in the pool, I’ll be happy as a long term goal.  I’ve also got a plan sketched out for training up for the City to Bay run in September, and next year I’d like to do True Grit or Tough Mudder.

But the main objective is to get fitter, stronger, and remain healthy.  I’m getting there.

Garmin Fenix 3 – First Impressions

Since I’m doing a lot more running and cycling now than ever before, and I’m a bit sick of killing my phone’s battery running Strava, I decided I wanted to get an all-in-one device that can do running, cycling, and swimming metrics.  If I could wear it as a day-to-day watch with activity tracking, all the better.

Enter the Garmin Fenix 3.  You can find DCRainmaker’s excellent in-depth review here.  I won’t re-iterate what he’s saying there, he gets it on the mark pretty well.

I got the Gray Performer Bundle, which has the regular Gray (pretty close to black to be honest) Fenix 3 along with the HRM-RUN heart rate strap.  I also grabbed a set of the new 2015 Garmin speed/cadence sensors for the bike.  I don’t need a footpod since I don’t do running inside – and even if I did, the default WDR (watch dead-reckoning) mode that the Fenix supports would be good enough for me.

Initial Unboxing

Inside the box was the Fenix 3 (with a fair amount of charge), along with the HRM-Run strap (already paired), USB adapter cable, and USB charger (with US and UK adapters).  The charger was useless (no AU adapter), unfortunately.

Pairing up with all the devices was trivially easy.  Pairing up with the desktop to use Garmin Express wasn’t.  I had to faff around with the cable in various USB ports to find one that it liked.  One gotcha is that you have to (counter-intuitively) use the watch in ‘Mass Storage’ mode to make it work with Garmin Express.

That said, having the computer connection isn’t critical – you need it to be able to do things like set up wireless connectivity, but once all that’s done you can do all your syncing through either Bluetooth Smart or WiFi.  WiFi support does not work with WPA-Enterprise, regretfully, but I was able to get it working with my home WiFi and also the free council WiFi near work.

The Fenix 3 also supports Bluetooth for smartwatch type functionality.  While I’ve paired it with the phone, I’ve left BT off because I’ve heard reports about battery life being drastically reduced if you have BT on but the phone out of range.  This should get fixed in a future update.

The watch itself is big, both in diameter and height.  The gray color is also quite imposing.  Fortunately, my wrists and hands are large enough that it doesn’t look ludicrous.  Make no mistake though, this is a big watch.

The watch, while big, isn’t hugely heavy.  I put this down to being used to a Citizen Nighthawk with a stainless steel strap.  The rubber strap on the Fenix 3 is pretty light, so it feels OK on the wrist to me.

Activity Tracking

The Fenix 3 is primarily a sport training watch, but it does have some activity tracking abilities – such as steps, calorie burn, and an activity monitor.  Many of the features are fairly rudimentary, but like I said, activity tracking is not this devices’ forte.

The Move Bar is pretty useful for reminding you to move around periodically.  It appears to work by gradually filling a bar when you’re still, and gradually clearing it when you move.  When it fills to a limit, you’re notified to move about.  If you ignore it, it keeps filling up, so you’ll need to move more to clear it the next time.  If you move straight away when it tells you, you only have to walk for 20-30 seconds to clear it.  Good for stretching the legs.

The distance meter on the activity tracker shows the sum of all activities you’ve done today – steps + other exercises.  This is a little annoying when you ride into work because it shows you things like > 20km moved but only a small number of steps.  Would be better if non-foot exercises didn’t count on the distance there.  Oh well.

The calorie burn is inclusive of calculated base metabolic burn + estimated burn from steps / other exercises up to the current time.

Running / Cycling

Data collection seems pretty good.  Besides a few wonky bits where I came out under a bridge doing a turn, it was very accurate – right on the path.  Note though that when you’re using speed sensors as well as GPS that the watch will use the GPS in preference to the speed sensor (it’s unknown to me whether it uses the speed sensor for smoothing or not).

You get a lot of data.  From running, I got pace, elevation (barometric!), route, heart rate, VO2max estimation, cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, temperature.  From running, I got speed, elevation, route, heart rate, cadence, temperature.  You can view all this data while in the activity, and also review afterwards – and of course view online after syncing.

The temperature reads high initially because of the proximity to your body, but once you start moving it settles down from simple airflow.

Battery use is pretty low.  Leaving the watch in the default Smart GPS mode, with GLONASS enabled, a 1hr ride into work cost me only about ~6% battery.  Not shabby at all.


All in all, I’m pretty happy with it.  It does what I wanted – replaced my phone as a fitness recording device, and also has enough functionality for me to stand in as a regular wristwatch & basic step tracker.  I haven’t done much with the navigation and route features, but with what I typically do I don’t need that (if I’m desperate for a map, I have a phone).  It also replaces my old cycling computer entirely, with more features and better sensors.

Plus, it looks pretty good.

Some thoughts on exercise and willpower…

At the beginning of September, 2014, I hit a crossroads.  I was 105kg, unfit as hell, and worsening.  I decided that I wasn’t going to keep going down that route.  I had to improve my fitness and drop the weight – for myself and for my family.  A lifestyle change and a bunch of remedial work was required to fix up decades of sloth.

I’m not there yet.  But as of last week, I hit two of my major milestones I was aiming towards.  I ran 5km in one go without stopping, and I’ve lost a total of 20kgs of weight.

So, I thought I’d share some of my observations about willpower retention and how it relates to improving fitness.  This has been my experience – yours may be different.

Firstly, some dot points.  We’ll discuss these in more detail later.

  • There is no magic bullet.  Improving your fitness and losing weight is a simple equation – your calories in must be less than your calories out.  Fitness is improved by exercising.
  • You have limited willpower and decision-making reserves (link).  Every time you brute-force through something, or do something that causes you to make a decision, you are expending a limited resource you have, and weakening your resolve to continuing.
  • Meeting and reaching objectives provides motivation and replenishes willpower.  By setting yourself reachable objectives, you can measure improvement, which helps toughen your resolve.
  • Know when to stop pushing the envelope.  Over-exercise injuries can set you back significantly and greatly harm your resolve.  Aim for a fixed improvement value, and meet it.
  • Undereating is just as bad as overexercising.  Having too large a caloric deficit saps endurance, harms fitness, and drains willpower and resolve.
  • And lastly, your resolve is your most powerful tool.  Resolve will keep you going when you encounter setbacks and difficulties.  You should therefore keep it well-honed, and use it for the right tasks so it’s there when you really need it.



Willpower Capacity

It turns out that people have limited reserves of willpower (ego depletion and decision fatigue).  Expending willpower on even completely unrelated tasks impacts your ability for self-control and self-discipline later on.

As a result, if you know that you are going to need willpower reserves later in the day for a particular task, try and cut down the number of willpower-sapping decisions you need to make throughout the day.  Even things like picking out what clothes to wear, what lunch to pack, what to have for breakfast and so-on will sap your willpower for later.

Keep your willpower reserves full for the important stuff.

There’s a hard truth about exercise that I’m going to lay down now.  It never gets easier.  But, and this is important, with time you will go further, faster, be stronger, and recover quicker.  If it’s getting easier you’re not improving.  You’ll need that willpower to keep pushing that envelope.

Meeting Objectives

You’ve already presumably got a long-term objective.  But that’s a long way off, and (in my case) a 20km ride to work looks like a long way away when you can barely make it down the street without seeing stars.  Focusing only on long-term objectives destroys resolve.

Instead, select short-term objectives that you can meet, and focus on improving upon them.  Taking a leaf from Project Management is SMART.  We’ll take the letters as being;

  • Specific & Measurable.  Objectives should be specific – eg, run 1km at a pace better than 6:00/km.  Metrics are great to collect, they provide fixed yardsticks that you can measure your improvement against.  Not just ‘I feel better’, but specifics such as ‘I ran 1.1km today, last week I ran 1.0km, so I have met my 10% improvement goal!’
  • Achievable & Realistic.  Objectives should be meetable, and within safe bounds.  Most professionals recommend about a 10%/week improvement.  Therefore, don’t run 1km and declare you’re going to do 5km the next week – that’s an unachievable, unrealistic objective and you’re setting yourself up for failure and injury.  Pick objectives that exceed your current metrics by about 10%, and meet them.
  • Short-Term.  Objectives should be meetable in the short term – so not things like “lose 20kg by next year”.  Matter of fact, I’ll touch on what I think about using weight as metric at all in a minute.  Instead, something better like “improve running distance by 500 meters next week”.

Selecting goals that push you within safe boundaries and are achievable are important.  I’m a big fan of collecting metrics (speed, heart rate, pace, distance), since they provide measurable data to see your improvement.  And seeing improvements provides motivation.

Notice how I didn’t mention weight in those metrics?  There’s a good reason for that.  I’m not convinced that focusing on weight is a valid metric at all – it encourages shortcut-taking (ie, starving yourself), and weight in particular tends to swing around by a fairly large amount when you’re getting your diet under control, which leads to loss of confidence.  Weight loss will happen if you boost fitness and manage caloric intake/expenditure, but I consider it more a consequence of other factors that I do have control over, rather than something that I should be directly measuring performance against.

Another point comes from the Seinfeld Productivity Method (link).  The concept here is simple – don’t break the chain.  Establish a routine of some variety (build in a little flexibility), such as run twice a week, ride twice a week.  Stick to it, no matter what.  Don’t break the chain.  It doesn’t matter if you do your full run or ride each time.  It doesn’t matter if you have to vary the day you do it on.  Just stick to it.  Habits are built from repetition, and maintaining that chain provides a precedent for keeping it up even in the face of difficulties.

I’m also a big believer in not setting goals against other people.  You are not in control of another person’s achievements, and you are not them.  Doing so is either setting yourself up for hubris (you picked someone who you can achieve more than), or for disappointment (you picked someone who can achieve more than you).  Instead, set your goals against yourself.  Aim for improving you, not beating them.

Don’t push it too hard

When starting an exercise program, you tend to be full of willpower, but short on conditioning and fitness.  Therefore, it’s very easy to push yourself way too hard – resulting in injury or loss of resolve.

Most experts seem to indicate that an improvement rate of about 10% per week is safe and achievable.  So, my technique is simple.

  1. Set an objective that is 10% higher than the previous week.
  2. On the first session in the new week, reach that objective.
  3. If you feel fine upon reaching that objective, pass it by another 10%.  But, if during this extension you feel ANY discomfort or issues, stop immediately.  Don’t risk injury in an extension effort.
  4. If you pass that objective by the extension 10%, stop.
  5. On subsequent sessions in that week, aim to just meet what you did earlier in the week.  Do not try and exceed your earlier efforts.

The advantages I find in this technique is that you can still extend yourself, but you reduce your chance of hurting yourself by overextending.  And when you get to the following week, you can tell yourself that you met last week’s objectives at least twice, and so it wasn’t a fluke.  You can repeat that, and beat it again.

However, knowing just where you should set that benchmark to start off with is hard.  Look, here’s the thing.  It doesn’t matter if you start at walking 100 meters a few times a week.  Those 10% (20% with extension) improvements add up pretty fast.  What matters is that you set a starting point that extends yourself a little but doesn’t hurt you.

Don’t pick a starting point that makes you faint, see stars, or have chest pains.  You want a starting point before that level of effort.  Work up sensibly, and avoid injuries.

Caloric Intake vs. Expenditure

In spite of what weight loss business will try and tell you, weight loss is a pretty simple equation.  Your calorie expenditure needs to exceed your calorie intake.

But, there’s some important technicalities.  Trivially, your body’s mass is made up of fixed mass (organs, bones) and variable mass (water, muscle, fat).  Ideally, you want to be burning away fat but retaining muscle, fixed mass, and retaining the correct amount of water for the remaining mass.

When you run at a caloric deficit, your body has to derive its energy requirements from somewhere.  It doesn’t all come from fat – some muscle is burned as well.  In the case of extreme caloric deficits, you can actually lose significant amounts of muscle while also shedding fat. This is usually considered a bad thing.

There’s also other detrimental effects.  Running at a severe caloric deficit can cause lethargy and the hunger effects can sap willpower and resolve and lead to binging.

So, you want to run at a deficit, but not too severely.  Several guidelines I’ve come across indicate about 20% is safe.

Note that there’s a little catch here.  You can eat more if you exercise more, and indeed you should eat more.  By the same token, if you’re not exercising at all your caloric demands will be very low, and therefore your intake should be low too.

This is why a lot of diets fail – many diets are tuned assuming that the dieter will not be stepping up their caloric expenditure and so may be 1200 calories a day or something (my rough BMR is about 1900 kcal/day).  A 1200 calorie intake with a 1900 BMR would be somewhat OK although on the high end (0.7kg weight loss a week), if you did nothing except sit all day.  If you went onto that diet and also threw in two 1600 calorie rides and two 500 calorie runs per week, your total intake would be 8400 cal/week with an expenditure of 17500 calories.  This is a deficit of over 50%.  That’s likely not going to be sustainable in the long term.

It’s little wonder that many diets fail in the end – starving yourself doesn’t do you any good at all.

Maintaining your Resolve

So, the running thread throughout this whole lengthy post has been about maintaining your willpower, and keeping your resolve through measuring your efforts, noting improvements, and ensuring you’re doing things in a safe, sustainable fashion.  Measure your progress against you, not against others.  Improve yourself.

Building up a base of previous efforts, and gradually exceeding them gives you the grounding to be able to say to yourself “I can do this“.

Your starting point doesn’t matter.  For that matter, the final goal you’ve set for yourself doesn’t matter either.  What matters is the improvement.