Spartan Trifecta Training - Heart Rate Training Explained

Our Spartan Trifecta Training plan, and indeed, our overall training philosophy at The BTG aims to build the most well-rounded, resilient kind of fitness, which encompasses a balance of all of the following:

  • Movement Quality - being able to move your body through space and your environment with fluidity, balance, and efficiency.
  • Relative Strength - strength vs. bodyweight, rather than max outright strength at the expense of other attributes.  As Mark Twight of Gym Jones put it "you have to carry the engine".
  • Burst Output (Interval Conditioning or Anaerobic Capacity) - being able to perform at a very high output for a brief time, recover, and perform again quickly with little to no loss of power / performance.
  • Endurance (Steady State Conditioning or Aerobic Capacity) - being able to perform at a more moderate output for a longer period of time continuously.

Over the years, I've seen people who can move really well, but are very weak and their movement breaks down as soon as you give them any load.  Others who can run half marathons without breaking a sweat, but are gasping for air as soon as you get them working HARD for 30 seconds.  People who are super strong, but are carrying so much extra body weight around or are so inflexible that they can't do much else.

What we're aiming for here is BALANCE.  I'll be the first to admit that I am not currently well-balanced, having spent most of my training time over the last decade focused on being strong and explosive, and on higher-intensity interval training.  I can move pretty well, but my endurance is terrible.  I have a heart like a hamster's at this point - LOL.  I know that a couple of our other BTG Spartan Team members are pretty much in the same boat, which brings us to the Heart Rate training part of our plan.

The heart rate training portion of the Spartan Trifecta Training plan is geared towards developing a good base for that last attribute, Endurance.  Its goals are to help develop cardiovascular efficiency, specifically to increase the cardiac stroke volume (I.E. how much blood each squeeze pushes out), and to also try and shift our bodies' energy store usage during endurance activity more towards burning stored fat for fuel rather than burning glucose.  Basically, we need to get really good and efficient at working slow, and that threshold of what our bodies consider "slow" will gradually move up the scale to where we can actually move pretty fast / work hard without our bodies seeing it as much of a demand.

How Does It Work?

The methodology is really quite simple, and can be used with pretty near any continuous-type exercise, including walking / running, cycling, rowing, etc.  You do need a heart rate monitor to really dial it in, but you could "guesstimate" the level of effort based on your ability to maintain relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing throughout.  Truth be told, I had to work much slower and easier than even that guideline would have it to keep my heart rate in the correct range, and had to back my efforts off even more as today's 20-minute session wore on, so really - if it's at all an option, get a heart rate monitor.

Calculating Target Heart Rate - The Maffetone 180 Formula

There are a number of different heart rate range calculation methods you can use, but for the sake of simplicity, I would recommend the one promoted by Dr. Phil Maffetone, which has been called "The 180 Formula.The information below is borrowed from the preceding link - for more info, go there.

To determine the MAXIMUM training heart rate, subtract your age from 180, and modify if needed based on the following criteria.  Only choose ONE of the modifiers, whichever is most appropriate for you:

  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  •  If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180–age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

So, for me the target maximum heart rate is 180 - 41 - 10 = 129 bpm, because I'm 41 years old, and am now on daily medication.  That is actually well below the bottom end of what my target "cardio" heart rate range would be using the Karvonen method, which is what I would otherwise use.

Going slow / easy enough to keep my heart rate below 129 bpm is almost infuriating.  For reference, my Airdyne output today for 20 minutes trying to keep down that low (actually, I cheated a bit and set my limit 5 bpm higher) was only 128 watts average, compared to a "normal" session for me of something more like 220 watts.  I started out at only 55 rpm, and had to keep backing off as time wore on, ending up down around 45 rpm by the end, which is SLOOOOOW.

Fat-Adapted Aerobic Performance

In order to make the adaptation to burning more fat for fuel during aerobic work rather than glucose, it's important to create a glucose-depleted training state prior to doing the heart rate training work.  There are a few ways you can do this.

First, and my least-recommended option, would be to go strictly low-carb with your diet for a brief period of time while beginning this kind of training.  How low-carb?  Aim to eat NO starchy carbs (potatoes, rice, wheat or other grains), NO added sugars, and minimal fruits.  You need to replace those calories with something else, so up your protein or healthy fat intake, and be sure to eat LOTS of fresh veggies.

Remember also that this is ONLY FOR 3-6 WEEKS!  Restricting your carb intake this much is NOT healthy or optimal for performance or recovery longer-term. You may be tempted to keep eating this way because you may see a sudden drop in body weight at first.  Know that this is almost entirely water weight, and is not true weight loss.  The reason for this drop in weight is that your muscle glycogen (the storage form of glucose) helps retain water in your muscle tissue, and by carb-depleting your body, you're losing that beneficial fluid retention.

Second, you can deplete your muscle glycogen stores by doing your strength and/or (preferably AND) interval training first, and following it immediately with your heart rate training.  This is a good way to go IF you have the time and if you're a bit of a masochist.  Personally, I don't want to spend hours on end in the gym at once because I get bored, but I'll do this when I have to.

To use this second method effectively, you have to work HARD on the strength and interval training first, totalling about 45 minutes to an hour of work.  Your muscles should feel TIRED at the end, and then you need to do your heart-rate work.  If you're like me, this will feel even more mind-numbingly boring than normal because you've just spent a bunch of time going hard and having fun, and now you have to obey the digital no-fun police for 20 minutes to an hour.

Third, and my preferred method, is to do the heart rate training first thing in the morning, in a fasted state.  There is a fair bit of debate about the pros and cons of fasted cardio for fat loss - that argument is not really relevant here, because fat loss is not our actual goal, and the main drawback (the cortisol spike from cardio work) only really kicks in with moderate to hard effort.  You have to go SO SLOW to be below the target heart rate range that the effort is easy-moderate at best.

Updates to Follow

All this is great in theory, but will it work?  It should work for everybody, but I'm only able to validate whether it works for me.  I will update with the progress following this method as time goes on so we can see whether it really works, but the logic is sound, and the anecdotal evidence with those who have used the "Maffetone Method" is promising.  I would expect to see results, if any will come, within the next few months.

I'll be judging the results based on whether I'm able to increase my steady-state work capacity on the Airdyne while keeping my heart rate below the target.  Also, I should be able to maintain the same output and heart rate for a longer time, rather than having to back down my effort as time goes on.  We'll see how it goes!