Improving Metabolism

In reviewing my training log, I have not taken two days of rest in a row since May 17th and 18th – right before the Cleveland Half Marathon and I had a bug that gave me a low grade fever. I even swam the day after the race. Taking two days of rest after this race is definitely something my body needs, but my mind is getting antsy. My quads are still sore, so I know the rest is helpful. It also tells me that despite the things that went wrong, I gave it all I had.

Since I have no workouts to write about, I will take this opportunity to write about something I have been thinking over for a while now. Metabolic training. Endurance athletes by nature are competitive. Either against others or themselves. Regardless of the source of competition, the drive is still there. As a result, all too frequently most athletes, especially self coached athletes, go hard or go home on almost all workouts. At first glance it makes sense. In order to swim, cycle, or run faster one must swim, cycle, or run fast. Right? Yes. Sometimes. When this is done every time, it is easy to cause damage. Not just risk of injury, but it can mess up your body’s efficiency and ability to properly burn energy. That is exactly what I did when I started training intensely two and a half years ago.

Fat is the best source of energy to burn. The more fat you can burn at higher intensities, the easier your workouts feel. When fat is not being burned, carbohydrates take over. Carbs are not a sustainable fuel source while working out. Even the thinnest athletes (myself included) have 60,000 to 80,000 calories of fat on their bodies.  I am around 60,800. (at 12.5% body fat and 139 pounds that is 17.375 pounds of fat @ 3,500 calories in a pound of fat) A marathon would burn between 2,500 and 3,000 calories for most athletes, so I have plenty of fat to fuel me. According to myfitnesspal.com I burned 3,949 calories in my race on Sunday – and the scale shows I didn’t lose an ounce. Tapping into our body’s ability to burn more fat and less carbs is the key to improving efficiency. Unfortunately, when I was training hard in every workout, I taught my body to hold on to fat and burn carbs. I was not getting faster and my scale showed my fat percentage was increasing to 14% or so. Yes, I know that is still low for a woman, but when I am used to 12.5%, it was concerning. I weighed the same.

I took a metabolic test at my gym – Lifetime Fitness. The first test I took in March of 2010 showed my zone one in a heart rate beats per minute of 121 to 131, each zone up to zone five increased by ten, so zone five was 161 to 171. I burned 4.7 calories of fat per minute and 4.9 calories of carbs per minute in zone one. Zone two and three, my fat burn was almost the same as zone one and my carb burn increased to 6.0 in zone two and 8.0 in zone three. Zone four is where the anaerobic threshold is, so fat stops being burned here and carbs take over. By September of 2011 when my scale was telling me something was off – I had not gained an ounce by my body fat was on the rise, I went back for another test. My zone one was now in the heart rate range of 85 to 91, zone two was 91 to 118, zone three was 118 to 146, and my anaerobic threshold  (AT) was 146. In 18 months my zones were significantly reduced and my AT went from 151 down to 146. My fat burn? It declined from 4.9 calories per minute in zone one to 2.3. By zone three I was only burning 1.1 calories of fat per minute, down from 4. I looked great on the outside, but I was very inefficient.

That was when I started spending more time doing slower workouts. I have written before about how agonizing it was to run in my zone two – in September of 2011 that meant keeping my heart rate under 118. Translation – brisk walk. This helped for a while and I made some progress. By February of this year my zone one moved up to 86 to 95 (not a great improvement) but my zones two and three improved, my AT was up to 153, and my fat burn was up to 2.5 calories in zone one, 3.5 in zone two, and 3 in zone three. In June I started working with my trainer who specializes in metabolic training. My June results showed my AT had stayed the same, by my zones one and two had improved. My zone three was the same. Also my fat burn hadn’t improved. I had plateaued again. She put me on a very specific training plan. Some days running (err jogging and walking) to stay in zone two, sometimes into low zone three, and some speed and tempo workouts that pushed my zone four. As I proclaimed on this blog in August when I retested, it had really worked. My AT is up to 158 (!), my zones one and two improved to where zone two is 108 to 133, and zone three is now 134 to 158. My fat – it is burning. Now in zone two I am at 3.5 calories a minute and 3 calories a minute in zone three.

Besides being more efficient, I am faster. Despite my trials on the run on Sunday, I stayed in my high zone two and low zone three the entire run, even when I was running 10:15 to 11:00 minute per mile pace. When I took the test in March of 2010 and had good zone and fat burn results, I was running 13 minutes per mile close to my AT, which was 151. Now my AT is 158 and if I want to run and maintain that heart rate I run a 9:20 minute per mile pace.

I know this is one of my longer posts, but it is important information to share. Reading books and reports help, but I want to share what I have experienced. Right from the triathlete’s mouth if you will. Speaking of mouth – I also read a book on nutritional periodization to improve metabolism. It is helping too, but that is another long post one day. I have written before of the encouragement others bring to my life. Friends and family first and foremost. But coaches and trainers are essential too. These professionals really know what they are doing. My trainer helps bring me back to reality – either pushing me more than I think I am able or slowing me down for reasons she knows are better for me. On top of that, she has become my friend too. All the more reason to be enriched and encourage.

17 thoughts on “Improving Metabolism

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    1. Books by coach bob seebohar are great… Start with his first book…metabolic training efficiency ….introduction to the ideas ….nutritional periodization…he has a blog and is on Facebook too…he shares alot of his first hand experiences with training and nutrition along with his experiences of working with elite level athletes!

  1. This is one area that I’ve really become interested in and it was great to see this post and your approach. I’ve recently realized I have very poor aerobic conditioning and my workouts have almost always resulted in anerobic zone workouts, which seem to encourage less emphasis on your cardio system. I’ve recently started to focus on aerobic/cardio workouts and am finding them painfully slow (as you put it – almost walking) as I keep my heart rate below a certain level.

    Its great to see that its worked for you and I plan to stay with it in hopes that I can someday see similar results.

  2. Do you have any specific websites or articles that could help me figure my heart rate out? I still haven’t used my monitor and it’d be interesting to know how I’m doing!

  3. I’m so glad you wrote about this! I’ve read your post several times and I’ve recalculated my training heart rate zones (for cycling) because I think mine were a little higher than the fitness article link you provided. I’m trying to improve my overall fitness and lose weight but I haven’t concentrated on my heart rate, per se. I’ve used my breathing and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) as a guide and I’ve been keeping track of my max HR, along with my avg HR. I’ve also been using my cadence in low, easier gears to judge how hard I’m working. After about 5 weeks, I’ve increased my cadence from 80-85 to 88-95 at a steady/tempo pace that is easy to sustain for some distance. I haven’t been dropping weight like I think I should, so I’m going to pay more attention to the HR and see if that makes a difference. You have gotten me thinking! I may have to slow down a little 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I ran 18 miles yesterday and was amazed at how well I did and stayed mostly in my zone two. The first few weeks are not easy, going slower than you know you are capable. But after about three weeks it kicks in. Keep at it!

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