September 17, 2012

Heart Rate Mentoring - getting fitter.

My trusted Polar RCX5 (with GPS)
One of the things I've been wondering about is the actual measure of my fitness improvement over the past season.

I know I'm fitter, but how can I measure this or have it quantified? 

There are a couple of ways of looking at this. The most accurate way of measuring fitness is compare results from Functional Threshold Performance tests (FTP- link goes to Training Peaks) completed on a regular basis.

Joe Friel defines FTP as:  

"Functional threshold power or pace (FTP) is the highest mean average power or pace you can maintain for one hour."

Power being for cyclists, Pace for runners.

There are a number of ways of determining your Functional Threshold Pace as a runner but in general the advice for a simple, repeatable, non-invasive method is:

"Your Functional Threshold Pace will be the average pace from a recent race or very hard training run of 45-60 minutes in duration." Again, from Training Peaks. So, just measure / record your pace in a hard training session over 1 hour and average it.

Its easy to do, I just haven't done it!

This winter I will do regular checks on my measurable fitness by using these recommended tests for both the bike (I have the LOOK Kao Polar Power pedals) and my run. I have a nice 12k route on a quiet road which I'm currently using quite regularly so improvements can be measured. I will also be doing FTP tests for my swimming, possibly with the added benefit of a Garmin Swim watch to help track data (at least until Polar do swim technology!)

I had testing done back in 2007 in Trinity College in the Sport Science department. This was the 'invasive' type of testing mentioned above. Pin pricks whilst running increasingly faster tempos on a treadmill wearing a face mask meant that blood lactate levels (lactic acid that appears in the blood as a result of anaerobic metabolism when oxygen delivery to the tissues is insufficient to support normal metabolic demands) were constantly monitored until I went redlining in the anaerobic zone. Results were 14km/hr or HR above 174bpm meant I was 'redlining' and a VO2Max of 54ml/kg/min (VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen in millilitres, one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Those who are fit have higher VO2max values and can exercise more intensely than those who are not as well conditioned.)

This test is far too old for me to use as a measure anyway.

Unfortunately, all I can give as a measure of fitness improvement is anecdotal evidence of comparing last years 'apples' with this year's 'apples'.

This year has been a consistent year of training and as you may know, I'm now in a build phase for targeting Dublin City Marathon in 6 weeks.

What have I done?

Polar Personal Trainer has a built in training program which synchronises with my Polar RCX5 watch. Every session I complete of the plan is measured by the website and based on training load and results I am assessed as:

You are recovered and ready to train more. If you're continuously in green, increase your cumulative training load. You can either add more training sessions to your weekly plan or make the training sessions more intensive. This will help you improve your performance faster. Intensive training sessions and races should preferably be done when you are "in green".


You are not fully recovered from your previous training sessions. Your cumulative training load is on a high level. You can still train but should avoid high intensity training and/or races.


You have not recovered. Your cumulative training load is on a very high level. If you continue training when "in red", it may lead to a state of overreaching.

These little flags are shown above each days activity and taking my activity from this time last year you can see based on cumulative from pre 19th Sept by the end of my session on 20th Sept I am 'red flagged'. I skip the session on 21st and by the weekend I'm recovered and run the LSR (Long Slow Run) on 25th, again end of day I'm 'red flagged'

This pattern continued through Dublin Marathon 2011 and I suffered some niggling injuries through this period (over training) which threatened my race.

2012 I focused fully on working with the endurance training plans set by Polar Personal Trainer and every now and then the program would increase the intensity of the plan based on the previous set of results. Just once this year, in the middle of racing season, it moved me down a level as I wasn't hitting the targets. Program reckoned it was pushing me too hard!!

Sticking with the program (in the absence of further scientific proof) I am now comparing  roughly the same period this year with last year.

See the difference?

No 'red flags'. That's the first indicator to me.

Now you're missing the distances from the 15th 'Long Pr...' but that is the Long Progression Run from Saturday just gone (link to Blog post). Despite a jump in volume way outside the recommended 10%  per week, my aerobic improvements over the year mean my training load is more evenly balanced & placing less stress on my recovery process.

Just to give comparison I've pulled the data on the LSR run from 25th September 2011 and setting the summary lines next to each other the comparative differences are quite apparent:

25th September 2011

15th September 2012
Distance of both runs is roughly the same. To my mind the glaring indication of hugely improved fitness it the efficiency of the running. 
  • My average pace has improved 1:11 mins/km
  • I can sustain a higher HR Average for longer.
  • I now consume less calories in a higher intensity effort (HR) over the same distance.
Happy Days!!

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