Easy Does It
That old adage—“No pain, no gain”—can take a hike
illustration by Gayle Kabaker
In the world of fitness, doing something is always better than doing nothing. But one mistake that almost all of us make when “doing something” is doing too much, too soon—which only results in soreness, fatigue, and frequently injury. In other words, there’s a reason why most of us end up quitting a fitness program within the first six months of starting one.
“Our perception of the results we’re going to achieve and the amount of work that’s required is a bit skewed,” admits Chas Gonello, personal trainer and owner of Spartan Fitness in Lenox. “I definitely have to work with people to get them grounded to reality.”
Maureen Namkoong, who has degrees in exercise science, athletic training, and sports medicine and is now the director of Fitness and Nutrition at Everyday Health—an online health and wellness website based in North Adams—would agree. “The biggest mistake people make,” says Namkoong, “is not realizing where they are right now. They go too hard, too fast, and then give up,” she says. “It’s an all-or-nothing mentality.”
In his recent book, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower, Matt Fitzgerald lays out a compelling argument for doing most of our training (80 percent) at a very low intensity, much easier than most of us are doing it now. His claim, one he backs up with study after study, is that even elite athletes make the mistake of not making their easy training easy enough. It’s much better to go very easy, exercising below your 65-percent maximum heart rate (HR) for most if not all of your workouts, than to do even moderately hard workouts day after day, something that nearly all recreational athletes end up doing. “Junk miles,” they’re often called, that simply wear us down without providing any faster fitness gains.
Being in somewhat of a fitness rut myself, I decided to try this kinder, gentler approach, using a very basic HR formula to ensure that my workouts remained aerobic (very easy) rather than anaerobic (very hard). The Maffetone formula, named after its creator, Phil Maffetone, suggests using 180 minus one’s age to reach a number to gauge our intensity more objectively. Given that I was in reasonably good shape, I received a five-beat boost, and so my top number was 130—meaning my recommended HR “zone” was 120 to 130 beats per minute—a pace where I could easily hold a conversation, whether I was running, biking, orwalking up a hill.
Maffetone recommends that people do every workout at their target “easy” pace for the first six months to properly build up their aerobic base before attempting anything more strenuous. (If you’re over the age of 65, have a medical condition, are on any medication, or have recently been injured and/or are returning to working out after a layoff, subtract five beats.)
If you’re a runner, like I am, you may find that it’s actually quite difficult to run this slowly. You definitely have to leave your ego at the door. When I began, my 15-minute-mile pace often required me to slow to a walk in order to keep my heart rate under 130, especially if I had to go up any hills or even the slightest of inclines. But after I got used to the tortoise-like pace, I began to feel the benefits immediately.
I was no longer tired all the time—a lack of energy is something I’d been fighting for sometime. I slept better. I ate better. And, most important, I stayed injury-free. My fitness and mile pace at the same effort slowly showed improvement, not to mention coming to the next day’s workout with enthusiasm rather than dread. It also helped me keep my weight down—the long-held theory that working out in one’s aerobic zone burns more fat seems to hold true.
“Long duration, steady state—it kind of gets the short end of the stick,” says Gonello. “It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t have as many people standing up for it because it’s cheap and easy. I could easily sell more memberships and classes, but I choose to take a more honest path, which is to sometimes say to someone: ‘Maybe you need to just get outside and go for a hike.’ ”