Overload Principle: Training with Purpose

This article by Nate Martins was originally published on HVMN, adapted for use here on Lorieb.

How do you know you’ve hit a plateau?

Have you trained for countless hours with sparse results? Strict dieting with little to show for it? Strength training without the ability to increase weight? When was the last time you hit a PR, anyway?

Plateauing happens to athletes at all levels. It’s good for training regimens to become a way of life, but doing those sessions over and over again can become like mindlessly checking a box. Inputs remain the same–which can be detrimental to increasing performance outputs.

Incorporating overload principle into training may be one of the steps you need to get off that plateau.

Building Muscle–How it Actually Works

Overload principle states that in order for muscle to increase in size, strength and endurance, it must be regularly challenged to produce an output that is as near as possible to maximum capacity. The technique pushes the body past its limits, further breaking it down to force adaptations that lead to performance gains.

Skeletal muscle is composed of fibers that contract when our muscles are put to work. During high intensity, challenging exercise, muscle fibers are broken down. These small breakdowns are called “microtrauma,” and cause the muscle to rebuild stronger, overcompensating to protect itself from other breakdowns with new muscle-building protein.

The rebuilt fibers increase in thickness and number, resulting in muscle growth. To support this, we need enough dietary protein to ensure the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown; this is how our muscles grow.

The same process happens in all of the muscles of our body. The heart muscle also gets bigger with training, enabling more oxygen to be used by other muscles. An exercise-induced release of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) stimulates the formation of blood vessels, leading to the capillarization of the muscle, allowing increased blood flow, oxygen, and nutrient delivery (which is a critical factor in muscle growth).1 More enzymes are also produced that are utilized in energy production.

A woman squatting in the weight room using overload training, which says that muscle fibers and broken down during exercise, then muscle growth is a result of the fibers increasing in thickness and number

Interestingly, when it comes to muscular hypertrophy (the building of muscle), the exact mechanisms aren’t totally understood; there are likely many factors at play. Current hypotheses include some combination of mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue and muscular damage.

But with training adaptations like overload principle, there can be results like slower utilization of muscle glycogen, greater reliance on fat oxidation, less lactate production during exercise, and adaptations to skeletal muscle.2 To produce muscle growth, athletes must apply a load of stress greater than what those muscles have previously adapted to.3

The idea of overload principle is rooted in how muscles grow–and it begins immediately after exercise, but can take weeks or months to actually manifest.

Practice Before Overloading

Before introducing heavier weight or adding more miles to an exercise program, it’s essential to have the correct technique for those exercises cemented. Muscle memory and the repetition of techniques with proper form are crucial for executing an exercise flawlessly.

But once introduced on top of a good skill base, overload principle can be a powerful tool to reducing the overall risk of injury (as it did with this study on junior elite soccer players).4

Implementing Overload Principle

Without overload principle, fitness level is less likely to increase; training programs might not yield strength gains because the body adapts to static repetition.

There are two basic components of overload principle: the overloading, and the progression. Overloading is what we’ve discussed above, the adding of stress, weight, etc. to achieve greater fitness.

Progression is the way in which the overloading should be added to training. This can be achieved through an increase in frequency, intensity, time of exercise, or a combination of these. Workout smarter

Are You FITT?

The FITT principle is a way to approach overload training strategically and safely, by overloading these different aspects of exercise.

Frequency: How often physical activity is performed, which is normally about three to five times per week.

Intensity: How hard a person exercises during physical activity, which can be measured in different ways and is different for everyone. Heart rate is one way to monitor intensity during endurance, while weight can illustrate intensity of strength training; however, neither of these measures something like flexibility.

Time: The length of physical activity. Again, time varies depending on the person and fitness goal. Stretch-training for flexibility may take 15 minutes, but the minimum for aerobic activity is about 20 minutes of continuous exercise.

Type: The specific physical exercise one is training to improve. Someone trying to improve strength might overload weight and reps; a runner looking to improve endurance might overload distance and time.

By using the FITT principle to understand overloading, this may also help with burnout. Often, we seek performance gains, increasing intensity wildly in the hopes of achieving our goals. This can lead to overly-fatigued muscle and even injury.

Compartmentalizing overload training, and already knowing the movements on which you’ll overload, can help reduce some of the dangers of pushing your body past its limits.

How to Overload

You probably already have a training plan. It has days with long runs and short runs, rest days and strength training days.

A note: if you’re serious, it may be worth getting help from a coach. You can’t keep overloading the same thing over and over–that defeats the purpose of overload training in the first place. Always increasing the same element, like volume, may lead to another plateau. It’s important to mix it up, looking at your training plan like a journey: there will be peaks and troughs to keep the body guessing.

A runner using overload principle, which stats that runners should increase distance, increase intensity and increase speed

When Running

Running with overload principle in mind applies the same techniques as strength and resistance training: increase difficulty (in some way) systematically.

Adding intensity to your workouts is a good place to start. Speed workouts and hill training can help improve muscle strength, overall speed and eventually, race day performance. These intense workouts should come twice per week, incorporating things like interval training, tempo runs, hill workouts or lactate threshold training (which could serve a dual purpose as being both a difficult workout and help you improve your lactate threshold).

Adding duration to runs is also an essential way to overload. One long run per week should be added to a training plan. Many runners prefer to conduct these long runs on weekends (specifically Sunday), because Monday is a popular rest day. You can even add mileage to this run over the course of several weeks.

There are also tools that can help overload training. A weight vest can be added while running or walking to increase lower-body strength and endurance. And running with a training mask on can make your respiratory muscles work harder, which increases respiratory compensation threshold (RCT) and can improve endurance performance.5

Ample recovery time is also important; muscles need time to recover. Work in a rest day after a day of overload training. Since you’ve just pushed yourself further than you’re used to going, recovery will help encourage those gains. If resting isn’t an option, try alternating hard training days with easy training days.

When Weight Training

You probably already strength train or cross-train between regular workouts–these strengthen muscles and joints, decreasing the risk of injury.

The type of strength training varies by athlete depending on their goals. Many employ circuit training, weightlifting or plyometrics training. In general, overloading would include increasing the number of sets or increasing weight used in this training.

The safest way to overload is first to increase reps or sets, getting as comfortable as possible with the exercise, then increase weight. For example: let’s say you’re doing three sets of eight reps of bicep curls with 10lb dumbbells. When overloading the following week, jumping to 15lb dumbbells would be a 50% jump in weight–which is too much to overload. Instead, overload by increasing the number of reps or sets. Try for three sets of ten reps or four sets of eight reps before increasing weight.

On the flip side, someone pushing 100lbs on a bench press would likely be able to increase weight to 105lbs–that’s only a 5% jump in weight. For exercises with larger muscles, the overload increment can also be larger. Still, it’s best to focus on increased reps or sets before jumping up in weight.

To approach overloading systematically, make sure you keep a training log to track each increase in weight for all your exercises.

Overloading Outside of Exercise

Even though overloading happens in the gym, building muscle happens outside of it. All that overloading might be for naught if you don’t recover properly.

BCAAs: These branched-chain amino acids provide the body with building blocks to maintain lean muscle mass.6 The body breaks down protein into these amino acids, which then are sent throughout the body to be used again in protein building–and thus, muscle building. One study even showcased they alleviated skeletal muscle damage.7

HVMN Ketone: Can be used before, during and after workouts. HVMN Ketone has been shown to increase the efficiency of working muscle by 28%,8 and in testing, athletes went ~2% further in a 30-minute time trial.9 For recovery, HVMN Ketone decreases the breakdown of intramuscular glycogen and protein when compared to carbs alone,9 while also expediting the resynthesis of glycogen by 60% and protein by 2x.10,11

Protein: Whey, casein and soy protein are the most popular choices here, and all should be taken post-workout. Whey is a great source of BCAA, and is absorbed the fastest by the body. It’s largely considered the most effective protein for building muscle.12 Casein protein is slower to absorb, so it can be taken before bed. One study showcased consuming it before bed led to a 34% reduction in whole body protein breakdown.13

Overloading to Measurable Gains

Overloading may be the best way to break the body out of its routine and spur the growth you’ve been looking for. By pushing the body past its limits, even for a set or an extra mile, your body will adapt to be able to handle that stress during the next training session.

It’s important not to over-overload. This can lead to injury and be detrimental for your overall training goals by putting you on the sidelines for a few weeks. Measured overloading is the best approach, tracking the increases to understand how they’re helping work toward your goals.

Take it one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be off that plateau and on your way to climbing a whole new mountain. You train, you work hard, you put in the hours–you should be seeing results.

Scientific Citations:

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Cross Training, add it to your workouts

Originally posted on HVMN by Nate Martins, this article on cross training was adapted for use here on Lorieb.

Dedicated training is something to be admired. Many athletes strive for the ability to get up and get out every single day whether it’s for a specific race or event or even, simply driven by a goal. Often that can mean adhering to a training plan based on both repetition and incrementally increased difficulty–monotony and overuse be damned.

But you may get hurt. Or plateau. Or experience a disruption in your training schedule. These can all be detrimental to accomplishing a goal. Then there’s also that inevitable boredom of doing the same training day in and day out. You swear that footprint on the trail was yours from yesterday.

Enter cross training, an exercise program usually employed outside of these intense training blocks to add some variance (physically and mentally) to workouts. It keeps the body guessing, and has many athletes reap the benefits for their main sport: decreased injury potential, and added strength to the most-used muscles.

Here, we’ll detail the science behind cross training, how to work it into your schedule, and some new exercises to try. Your main sport will thank us.

This is Your Body on Cross Training

Simply put, cross training is training in another discipline in improve your main sport. The options are almost limitless–runners can strength train, swimmers can paddle board, cyclists can do yoga. The goal is to supplement your main sport with training that’s beneficial for certain muscles, movements, or even, your brain and mood.

For most athletes, the inclusion of cross training into a workout plan is triggered by an injury sidelining them from regular training. I was no different–hours of basketball and running led to knee pain (from patellar tendonitis, known as “runner’s knee” or “jumper’s knee”) . But I was stubborn. When I should have stopped the joint-pounding activities, I continued to beat them like a drum. It got to a point where the pain wasn’t worth the workout; but I couldn’t give up working out all together. So I started swimming and incorporating yoga into my routine, which delivered positive and painless results.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Up to 56% of recreational runners experience injuries, with most of those relating to the knee.1 Supplements can help (like glucosamine, which promotes the development of cartilage), but up to 75% of those are overuse injuries.1

Since a majority of injuries happen due to time dedicated to a single sport, cross training can help prevent injuries for the simple fact that it forces athletes to spend less time training singularly. Cross training doesn’t just maintain activity by reducing the risk for injury–it also can increase performance.

A study of 27 male runners were assigned one of three different resistance training regimens (in addition to their normal endurance training): heavy resistance, explosive resistance or muscle endurance training. In all three groups, running endurance performance increased.2 The heavy-lifting group in particular saw improvements to high-intensity running characteristics, like sprinting at the end of the race.2

The benefits of cross training aren’t just physical; there’s also a potential mental benefit of switching it up. Mental fatigue can impact physical workouts–you may be less likely to workout knowing that you’re facing the exact same exercise every day. Especially if an athlete is in-season or training for a specific event, cross-training can provide an exciting challenge. It’s easy to be training heads-down; cross training can help you see the forest between the trees.

Implementing Cross Training

Divorce yourself from the idea that cross training takes away from your regular training schedule. While you’ll inevitably be spending time away from your sweetheart sport, absence makes the muscles grow stronger.

There are three main groups of cross training for endurance athletes: strength training, aerobic low-impact work and aerobic impact work, and each can be part of a cross training program.

Strength Training

Touching upon all major muscle groups is important for effective strength training.

Incorporating strength training into an endurance regimen can enhance physical fitness, as it did in this meta-analysis of distance runners.3 Even just 30 minutes per week, once or twice a week, can suffice. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be done in a gym; you can take the at-home approach to incorporating plyometrics or things like push ups.

Regardless of where you strength train, a full body workout will maximize the time you spend training. Consider hitting all the major muscle groups such as arms, chest, shoulders, back, core and legs (more on this later).

Aerobic Low-Impact Work

Probably the reason many athletes experiment with cross training: take stress off those weary joints and reduce injury risk.

Low-impact activities or no-impact workouts can be done two or three times as week. It’s easily implemented, as it can replace an active recovery day or even a harder workout day depending on the exercise; so for those who think they’re losing gains because of cross training, you may actually find yourself enjoying the cross training more than your main exercise.

Cycling, swimming and rowing are some of the most popular low-impact workouts. For flexibility and core exercises, yoga and pilates are go-tos. And you may even be able to workout longer and more frequently using these types of workouts due to the lack of stress they cause the body (swimmers can work out every day, and they’re hitting all the major muscle groups). For example, if you planned on running 45 minutes, you could easily spend 70 minutes cycling.

Aerobic Impact Work

Maybe the reason you’re reading this article is because of too much aerobic impact work.

If you’re training, the amount of aerobic impact work will likely be higher (and may be your only focus during that training block). But in the off-season, or times when you’d like to give your body a break, aerobic impact work should be done once or twice a week. As a general rule, cross-training is meant to limit the impact on the body.

Typically, cross training is meant to offer your body a break from the impact it faces during regular training. You can play team games, train run, circuit train or do CrossFit as a cross training method, as the impact is likely different from your normal routine. But be mindful: any impact work still puts strain on the body.

The Importance of Rest

Before getting into the specific exercises to try, remember the need for rest. Your muscles are asking for it.

The goal of every training session is to break down muscle and without recovery, a portion of that work might be wasted. During recovery, the body begins the process of rebuilding what has been broken down.

Muscle protein synthesis can increase by as much as 50% in the hours after a workout, helping encourage muscle growth.4 Concurrently, muscle fibers are rebuilt. These processes are a normal part of exercise, and recovery allows the muscles to become stronger. Fluid restoration is also key, as it helps deliver nutrients to organs and muscles through the bloodstream. And acids (via that hydrogen proton associated with lactate) accumulate during workouts–so recovery provides time for the body to restore intramuscular pH and blood flow for oxygen delivery.

In-season, professional triathlete, Kelsey Withrow, is laser-focused on training. When she’s not training, it’s all about recovery.

As a professional triathlete, I focus all my time on swimming, running and biking. The rest of the time is for recovery.

Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete

Even though cross training is meant to give the body a break from regular training, it’s still is a source of stress and requires recovery time (or you might burnout). For most athletes, it’s difficult to slow down. Many of us are goal-oriented, hardworking and ultimately–a bit stubborn. Budgeting recovery time is essential, as is providing your body with the necessary fuel to recover properly.

Doing the same exercise can be mentally exhausting, leading to a mental fatigue that wears down on your desire to even do the workout. Research has shown that the mind is usually a good gauge of the body,7 with a mental strain reported by a questionnaire being closely related to stress signals in the hormones of the body. By switching it up with cross training, and also ensuring rest days, the mind will get a chance to recharge too.

Cross Training Exercises

Now is the time to incorporate cross training workouts. The exercises below touch on several different areas of exercise, from strength training to both low-impact and impact aerobic activities.

You can begin by folding in some additional exercises to your existing workouts. Runners may try hills or cyclists may try 30 second sprints–this isn’t cross training exactly, it’s just extra training. The benefits of cross training come with learning something new and focusing on different areas of the body that regular training can neglect.

Try working some of these exercises into your routine. It’s important to pick which is best for your personal needs.

Swimming

A great whole body workout, swimming is one of the low-impact exercises most often used for recovery or cross training. Interestingly, reports show many people enjoy water-based exercise more than land-based exercise.8

Swimming works the whole body; it increases heart rate without the joint-pounding stress of running, it builds endurance and can also build and tone muscle. Because of these benefits, it’s a great option for recovery–a study showed that patients with osteoarthritis showed reduced stiffness, joint pain and overall less physical limitation.9

It also torches calories. Swimming has shown improved body weight and body fat distribution when compared to walking.10 An average person can burn almost 450 calories when swimming at a low or moderate pace for one hour. At increased pase, that could go north of 700 calories. For comparison, running for one hour at a leisurely pace burns about 400 calories.

Outside of the aerobic benefits, swimming (and water training, like deep-water running) has shown to improve cardiovascular health and lung capacity.11,12,13

To incorporate swimming into your cross training routine, first find a place to swim. Then gather the necessary tools (like goggles, swim cap, fins, etc.), and brush up on form before jumping in the pool. Try it one to three times a week for 30 minutes to start.

A cyclist riding through the city with the benefits, concerns and ways to try cycling beneath him.

Cycling

Another low impact workout, cycling is a great way to reduce stress on those joint while still clocking in the aerobic hours.

Similar to swimming, cycling burns calories at an impressive clip, anywhere from 400 – 1,000 per hour depending on the intensity of the ride. And since cycling is also a resistance exercise, it’s not just burning fat–it also builds muscle.

A systematic review analyzed the benefits of cycling, showcasing a myriad of results. There was a positive relationship between cycling and cardiorespiratory fitness, cardiovascular fitness and general fitness.14 Whether on the road, the track, or in the gym on a stationary bike, the benefits of cycling as a cross training mechanism stem from the fact it’s a low impact, muscle building, aerobic workout. It can help athletes train if they have experienced an injury.

There are several ways to train on a bicycle. You can ride hills to build muscle and strength, or do shorter sprints to build speed. There’s also an option for endurance, with riders cycling hundreds or thousands of miles over the course of a long session. For beginners, get a feel for the workout on a stationary bike. As you advance, visit a local bike shop to get your bike properly fitted.

Strength Training

Many endurance athletes don’t consider strength training as part of their workout routine, but it can help prevent injury while improving strength for your main sport. For runners, maybe that’s improved core strength for economy. For cyclists, maybe the outcome is a higher power output. Regardless of your sport, strength training is imperative to improving endurance for runners15 and cyclists.

In a study of postmenopausal women, high-intensity strength training exercises showed preserved bone density while improving muscle mass, strength and balance.16 It can also help prevent injury. In a study of soccer players who strength trained in the offseason, hamstring strains were lower (and that group also saw increases in strength and speed).17

You spend so much time beating your body down in-season, but I find that I’m healthier and stronger when I lift. With long distance, being strong helps. I try to put on a lot of muscle during a short period of time.”

Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete

The mental benefits of resistance training have also been documented; studies have shown it improves anxiety and depression.18,19

A good strength training regimen will focus separately on different muscle groups. There are several options for lifters of all different levels, but starting with some simple bodyweight exercises (like push-ups or pull-ups) can allow you to build toward free weight training, weight machines, or rubber tubing. A meta analysis of periodized training–varying your strength training workouts–has shown results for greater changes in strength, motor performance and lean body mass.20 So don’t get stuck doing the same routine over and over again. A good way to push yourself is to incorporate overload training into some of that strength work.

If you’re strapped for time, a full-body workout once or twice a week (with dedicated recovery time) should suffice. Make sure to also spend some time nailing down form in the weight room, as improper form and too much weight can lead to injury.

Yoga

An ancient practice designed to create a union between the body and mind, many athletes seek out yoga for its ability to increase strength and flexibility while also promoting mental health benefits.

Yoga can improve performance by targeting specific aspects of flexibility and balance–one study, which took place over the course of 10 weeks in male collegiate athletes, saw improvements in both balance and flexibility.21 In older adults, studies have shown improved balance and mobility.22 Strength is also a target of many yoga programs, especially in the core. Even a study in which a specific pose (sun salutation) was used six days per week for 24 weeks, participants saw increased upper body strength, weight loss and endurance.23

But with yoga, the body is only half the game. It has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (the stress hormone),24 along with the ability to lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety.25 There have even been studies which showed overall quality of life improvements in seniors.26 Maybe part of these mental benefits are linked to better sleep quality. One study illustrated that a group participating in yoga fell asleep faster, slept longer and felt more well-rested in the morning.27

Yoga isn’t an aerobic workout, but it stretches muscles, builds strength and has been shown to improve mood. Because it’s low-impact, yoga can be done every day. Typically gyms or studios have beginner classes, and they will typically last between 60 and 90 minutes. Athletes can use yoga as recovery days, so between one and three sessions per week would be perfect.

Remember: listen to your body. Athletes always want to push the limit, and many may scoff that yoga is difficult (compared, say, to running). But extending a stretch too far, or practicing yoga without learning form, can lead to injury.

Other Exercises

There are different activities that may be considered cross training, outside of the usual suspects we detailed above.

Hiking, for example, is a great way to build strength and get outside during a recovery day. Same goes with exercises like kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding28–these can help build upper body strength while encouraging an athlete to get out of their comfort zone (literally, and figuratively).

“I spend a lot of time training indoors, so getting outside is a lot of fun. I’ll do one long run per week outside, and I’ll bring my dog. It’s a reset for me.”

Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete

We wouldn’t recommend team sports because there’s a risk of injury. But tennis might be an exception. While there are of course injury concerns with every sport and exercise, tennis has shown to improve aerobic fitness, lower body fat percentage, reduce risk for developing cardiovascular disease and improve bone health.29

For more passive cross training, think about everyday things you can do to improve strength and balance. Even investing in a standing desk, or sitting on a medicine ball at work can encourage better posture and more movement overall.

Cross Training for Athletes

During peak training season, athletes feel the grind. You’re putting in the hours with a race or event or goal in mind, laboring over the same path, the same laps, the same routine, with little variance.

Cross training is meant to serve as a break, but one that’s productive. It can be a break from your normal routine, both physically and mentally. But it can also invigorate the mind, providing it with a new task to learn, a new challenge to face. And of course, the physical benefits of testing the body in new ways are evident.

To incorporate cross training, try one or more of these exercises a couple times a week. See how you feel. You’ll likely find one you enjoy more than others, one that maybe provides better results than the rest. It’ll take some time to find a balance.

Scientific Citations

VO2 Max: Training to Use Oxygen Efficiently

Written by Nate Martins • January 3, 2019. Originally posted on HVMN, adapted for use here on Lorieb.

VO2 max (V=volume, O2= oxygen) is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen utilized while exercising. It may seem simple and inherent: you breathe in, you breathe out, you keep the workout going.

The importance of maximal oxygen consumption for exercise and the idea of the VO2 max was brought to into the fold by AV Hill, a Nobel Prize winner from Cambridge, in the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s however, that methodological studies were conducted to gather the accurate physiological elements required for VO2 max measurement of an individual.

Tools to measure VO2 max were created by Henry Taylor and his colleagues over the course of 12+ years at the University of Minnesota lab. Studies were conducted on military draftees who were conscientious objectors. These subjects were essentially at Taylor’s disposal. Over a 12-month timeframe they exercised for one hour a day, six days a week. Data was obtained using methods that were groundbreaking at the time, but are still used today.

Currently hundreds of labs all over the world can conduct a VO2 max test. It used to be only elite athletes that had access to these tests but they’ve since become a prevalent benchmark in endurance sport for those at all levels looking to improve their athletic performance.

Why consider testing VO2 max as part of your training? It’s possibly the barometer for aerobic fitness.1

Why Muscles Need Oxygen to Function

Muscles (and all cells) require energy production to function. Energy inside cells comes in the form of ATP. Most of our ATP is created through the breakdown of metabolic substrates (food) using oxygen, resulting in CO2 and water. This means oxygen is really important. As you exercise energy requirements go up, so you need more oxygen.

Oxygen is absorbed into the blood by the lungs. It binds to a special protein called hemoglobin inside red blood cells. It then travels in the blood, and is pumped by the heart to the rest of the body, getting released in the tissues (including muscle) where it is used to breakdown our food to release energy.

The harder we exercise, the more we breathe and the more our heart pumps. This pumping helps to deliver more oxygen. These are some of the critical factors that influence an individual’s VO2 max.

However, muscles can make energy without oxygen in a process called anaerobic respiration. The only fuel that can be burned anaerobically is carbohydrate, being converted into a substance called pyurvate through glycolysis and then into lactate via anaerobic metabolism.

Build up of lactic acid happens when production occurs faster than our ability to clear it out. The blood becomes more acidic, which in turn can compromise muscle function.

Clearly, fuel source is an important factor relating to the amount of oxygen consumed. At higher intensities of exercise, muscles burn mainly carbs and at lower intensities, they burn more fat.2 Burning fat uses more oxygen than burning carbs, but we have more energy stored as fat, so you can keep going for longer when burning without running out of energy. Muscles are like engines that need gas (oxygen and fuel) to function.

What’s Behind a VO2 Max Number?

The maximal rate at which an individual can process oxygen is usually expressed in milliliters of oxygen per minute per kilogram of bodyweight. This is the relative number most often considered a VO2 max. An average, untrained male age 20-29 has a VO2 max of 35 – 40ml/kg. The average, untrained female of the same age has a VO2 max of 27 – 30ml/kg.

You’d imagine endurance athletes, who need to make energy during long periods of aerobic exercise typically have the highest maximal oxygen uptake. Masters of endurance performance, like cyclists and runners, are usually near the top, with more explosive athletes, like weightlifters, near the bottom.4

Elite male runners can have VO2 max values of 85ml/kg; elite female runners can have values of 77ml/kg. Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour de France five times, reported to have had a VO2 max of 88 at his prime, with Lance Armstrong at an 85.

Which athletes are at the peak of VO2 Mountain? That’s cross-country skiers. Bjørn Dæhlie, a Norwegian cross-country skier, recorded a VO2 max of 96ml/kg. The result came out of season for Dæhlie, and his physiologist claimed he could have gone over 100ml/kg. He had the record for years but in 2012 was dethroned by another Norwegian, an 18 year-old cyclist named Oskar Svendsen, who reportedly logged a 97.5ml/kg. Remember, these scores don’t appear in peer-reviewed literature, so questions always arise about their accuracy.

Animals have also been tested. Thoroughbred horses have been measured to have a VO2 max score of 180ml/kg, while Siberian huskies who ran the Iditarod notched a whopping 240ml/kg.

How to Find Your VO2 Max

Do you know how many milliliters of oxygen per minute per kilogram of oxygen your body can consume at all-out effort? Probably not. Professional labs (and sometimes training facilities) with exercise physiologists can provide these tests, which are typically conducted by breathing into an oxygen mask while walking on a treadmill for a certain amount of time at a specific pace. The only downside: it’s expensive.

During lab tests, a facemask is placed on subjects to measure the volume and gas concentrations of inhaled and exhaled air. Similar to lactate testing in a sports lab, athletes run on a treadmill (or sometimes use a stationary bike or rowing machine, depending on sport) and the exercise intensity increases every few minutes until exhaustion (read: you start having tunnel vision, hit the red stop button and collapse into a sweaty heap). The test is designed this way to achieve maximal exercise effort from the subject.

Usually, heart rate is measured through the test so you get data on your resting heart rate all the way up to maximal heart rate. Athletes will receive their ideal heart rate zones for warm-up, aerobic, anaerobic and uber-tough intervals.

The most valuable of this group might be the heart rate between aerobic and anaerobic exercise: the anaerobic threshold. Training will be geared toward improving this point, at which the body begins to accumulate lactate in the blood.

Similar tests can be replicated outside of labs with less accuracy.

Simple Heart Rate Test

Another way to roughly estimate VO2 max also makes use of heart rate measurement. First, find your resting heart rate. Most fitness trackers can provide this number, but if you don’t have a fitness tracker, you can go old school. Find your pulse and set a timer for 60 seconds, counting the number of beats in a minute.

Then, find your maximum heart rate. This formula might oversimplify things, but it’s effective for the purposes of a loose VO2 max calculation. To find your max heart rate, subtract your age from 220. So, if you’re 30 years old, your maximum heart rate is 190 beats per minute (bpm).

Use this formula to find your simple VO2 max: 15 x (max heart rate / resting heart rate).

For example, if your maximum heart rate is 190 and resting heart rate is 80:

VO2 = 15 x (190/80)

VO2 = 15 x 2.4

VO2 = 36.6

This isn’t the most accurate formula, but it can provide a good starting point for training to improve VO2.

The Rockport Fitness Walking Test (RFWT)

This walking test can also calculate a VO2 max, and studies have proven its accuracy. First, stretch and warm up. Then, find a track or mostly flat surface on which to walk a mile as fast as possible. It’s important to walk, and not to cross over into jogging territory. After walking exactly one mile, note exactly how long it took and your heart rate at the end of the mile. Using those numbers, you’ll be able to find an estimated VO2 max using this formula:

VO2 max = 132.853 – (0.0769 x W) – (0.3877 x A) + (6.315 x G) – (3.2649 x T) – (0.1565 x H)

W = weight (in pounds)

A = age

G = gender (1 for men, 0 for women)

T = time to complete the mile (in minutes)

H= heart rate

VO2 Max for Cyclists

Power is the golden egg of data for cyclists. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, as it provides some insight into finding a VO2 max, when combined with some field testing. Pedal for 20 minutes at a maximum, yet sustainable, effort. Cyclists should monitor their power meters, maintaining consistent intensity while incrementally increasing wattage the first three minutes until finding a power output that can be maintained for the rest of the test. This should be a wattage similar to high-intensity rides or races. Use this formula to find your VO2 max:

VO2 max = [(10.8 x W) / K] + 7

W = average wattage

K = weight in kilogramsStill searching for that PR?

Improving Your VO2 Max

Two major factors contribute to a high VO2 max: the amount of oxygen you can transport and your muscle physiology. Oxygen transportation includes a strong heart pumping blood through the body, with hemoglobin-dense blood, a high blood volume and high capillary density in the muscles. Better oxygen transport leads to higher VO2 max. Muscle physiology means how many muscle fibers you have, how big they are, how many mitochondria there are, and how strongly you can activate them during exercise. More aerobic, oxygen guzzling muscles equals a higher VO2 max.

Similar to lactate training, a training program can be implemented to improve VO2 max and help increase physical fitness, improving the way your body utilizes oxygen. Training is designed to have you spend as much time as possible at 95% – 100% of your current VO2 max.

Limiting factors like gender, genetic makeup, and age all have an impact on an individual VO2 max, but training can always improve this number. Because lactate threshold and VO2 max are linked, check out our blog for additional ways to train with lactate in mind.

A note: since body weight is a factor in VO2 max, less body mass will inherently improve your score.5

Interval training often results in the most improvement of VO2 max.6

High-Intensity Training: Long Intervals

If you are good at pacing yourself, sessions made up of long (4 minutes or so) intervals at your hardest sustainable effort are a good way to increase VO2 max. Between each interval, you should keep moving; active recovery will keep VO2 elevated during the process. Plan to do 4-6 sets.

The 4×4 minute workout is a classic in all sports: running, cycling and rowing research has proven its efficacy.7 First, always remember to warm up properly for at least ten minutes. Then conduct four maximal 1,000 meter runs (or sprint four minutes) at 85% – 95% of your maximum effort with two to three minutes of recovery between each run. For cycling, find a section of road or a climb offering a challenging grade that you can work for 4 minutes. To mix it up you could try alternating between standing and seated efforts each minute

The idea is to save enough energy so that your last set is the hardest intensity. If you are running on a track or watching your power on the bike, ensure you’ll be able to go your hardest on the last set. Pace this right and you should be dreading the last interval. By holding a pace that’s at the upper limit of your ability, you overload your heart, lungs and muscles, forcing them to adapt to deliver and take up more oxygen.

In one research study, athletes who did a similar workout improved their VO2 maxes by 10%.7 Time to exhaustion, blood volume, vein and artery function all improved after the training period.

High-Intensity Training: Short Intervals

If you can’t bring yourself to suffer four minutes of near-max intensity, you can go for shorter intervals–but they have to be an even higher intensity to provide a benefit. Short interval sprints of under one minute can also improve VO2 max as long as they’re conducted at almost maximal effort level.

The exercise test here is 8-10 sets of 1 minute sprints. Again, make sure you are properly warmed up–these workouts carry a risk of injury because of the amount of power produced. You have to give it your all during each interval without holding anything back.

From the same study mentioned above, those doing ten sets of one-minute high-intensity sprints on a treadmill at maximum rate (with a 1 minute rest in between each interval) increased VO2 max by 3%.7

Time to exhaustion, plasma volume and hemoglobin mass increased with this routine. However, results demonstrated that long interval training garnered the most dramatic results.

VO2 Max: Training Your Body to Use Oxygen

Being able to use a high volume of oxygen with a high degree of efficiency is one of the best indicators of endurance fitness there out there. Many factors contribute to this measurement, but what it comes down to is training–athletes must train to increase VO2 max.8

Some athletes are better equipped for high VO2 maxes. Runners, cyclists and rowers sit near the top of the totem pole, but cross-country skiers have typically reigned supreme. Regardless of your sport, a high VO2 can be a great gutcheck for your fitness level at a physiological level.

Because oxygen is so vital to our muscle function, we should be adept at using it efficiently. Training, backed by science

Scientific Citations

Ignite the spark, a new idea in education

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Recently I attended a talk entitled “Ignite the Spark”   It was presented by two high school teachers who believe students that exercise before class increase their attention span, improve their grades, improve their fitness level, decrease absenteeism as well as suspensions, and lower depression rates.  They have put this theory to test in several high schools in the Ottawa area by implementing a short exercise period first thing in the morning or at lunch time.  Sessions can be held right in the classroom and do not have to involve any special equipment.

This makes complete sense to me as a mother of three boys.  Boys are notorious for short attentions spans, especially in the early school years.  I remember years ago that my brother failed grade one, along with 6 other six-year-old boys.  I’m positive it was because his middle-aged female teacher could not relate to or handle little boys.  When my sons were in primary school, I helped out in their classrooms.  One day I arrived to a grade two class to find the substitute teacher in tears because one of the students spilled paint on her silk blouse.  The students were sitting at their desks with their heads down on the desk in punishment.  The teacher was very young, perhaps 25, but again, no experience handling small children.

Both of these experiences show that teachers have to find a way to relate to their students.  The best way to get students, especially young children, to perform at their best is to exercise their brains so their strengths are optimized.  Sitting in a classroom all day with no physical activity is the fastest way to slow the children down both mentally and physically, preventing them from reaching their full potential.

Igniting their spark sound likes a healthy alternative to me, promising great results for teachers and students.

Why Planks are the Best Exercise

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Planks are the best form of exercise because they are easy to do, can be done anywhere, and work many muscles at the same time, especially the all important core muscles.  You do not need fancy equipment or clothes or an expensive gym membership to perform planks.  All you need is your body and floor space.

There are a few guidelines to follow to maintain the proper plank position:

  • The elbows are directly under the shoulders
  • The legs are stretched out like when doing pushups.
  • The buttocks (gluteus maximus) are tensed

As a beginner, start with the simplest variation (level 1) where your knees and forearms rest on the floor.  As your core and other muscles get used to the planks, you can progress to the next level.   These variations with the forearms on the floor are great for those who suffer from arthritis whose wrists or hands cannot support their weight.  If your arthritis prevents you from trying the other variations, simply do the level one variation more often and for longer periods of time.

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Stay in this position for as long as possible, but do not forget to breathe.   Keep your back straight (like a plank) from your knees to your head in this pose, or from your heels to your head in the more advanced pose shown below.  Do not let your stomach and hips sag as indicated in the bottom picture, and keep your head in line with the rest of your body, like the top picture…

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Other, more complicated and strenuous variations of the plank are also available:

Start slow and let your body decide when to move to the next level.  You will be amazed at how great you feel…

#4 of 4 Healthy Resolutions for 2015: Exercise More

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Sorry, I had to include exercise as one of my healthy resolutions for 2015.  It is probably the most common resolution made, but also probably the least successful resolution.

Exercise is one of those things that the more you do it, the easier it gets to be, and the less you do it the harder it seems to be.  As you age it seems to get worse, especially if you suffer from joint pain or other mobility issues.  I do suffer from mild arthritis, but I realize that the more I move, the easier I can move, and the longer I will be able to keep mobile.  The problem is finding the motivation to keep moving.  The trick, I think, is to incorporate some form of exercise into your daily routine so it becomes a habit instead of a chore.

In my very seasonal landscaping business I have no trouble staying fit and limber from April through October, in fact some days I put in six hours of gardening and then can hardly get out of my van when I get home.  When the season winds down late in October, my body seems to do the same.

Exercise does not have to be expensive or complicated.  My favorite form (other than gardening) is walking.  My husband and I try to get a one hour brisk walk in every evening, but I must admit the cold and/or icy weather is certainly a deterrent.  Another form of exercise I enjoy is yoga.  During gardening season, I do yoga stretches before leaving the house in the morning and as soon as I return home.  If I forget to do this before I leave, my back reminds me within thirty minutes of work and then I have to quit earlier than anticipated.

Whatever exercise regime you decide to pursue, remember that exercise can be addictive; the more often you do it, the more you look forward to it, and most importantly, the better you feel…

The Best Things About Working in Someone Else’s Garden…

I am very fortunate in my business Gardens4u to be able to work in other people’s gardens.  Why?  Because I learn a lot, and we are never too old to learn…

  • I discover new plants, some I have never seen or heard of before and some I have just never tried in my gardens.  For example, I had never heard of montbretia and never seen verbascum, both beautiful perennials I will be sure to add to my gardens:
  • I discover new ways to improve my own gardens.  For example, one client whose garden I just finished getting ready for winter dumps the soil from her various and many pots of annuals into a wheelbarrow, adds some mulch, then spreads the whole mixture around her gardens.  The soil in her gardens is extremely nice to work with!  Mine is heavy with clay, so any suggestions to improve it are greatly appreciated.  Anyone who enjoys gardening knows a garden is always a work in progress.
  • I can admire, and perhaps copy, other ideas for whimsical touches in the gardens.  These whimsical touches are what makes each garden unique and special to the owner.
  • I am often offered clumps of plants I admire as well as seeds from the spent flower heads.  I do love to experiment with new seed varieties!  I share most of these clumps of plants with other clients, but have stuck a few in empty spaces in my gardens.
  • I get paid to play in the dirt!  One of my neighbours laughed at me returning from work very muddy one day, and suggested I need an outdoor shower.
  • Gardening is great exercise!  As long as I remember to stretch properly before and after my hours in the various gardens, I can handle up to six hours a day, and can honestly say I am in the best shape I have ever been in!  Basic Yoga poses are my favourite stretches…
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  • I meet new and interesting people.  I am definitely a people person, and one of the things I miss most about my old job in the health care industry is the social interaction.
  • Too bad my season is winding down.  I will have to find another way to keep in shape over the winter months…

SIMPLE STEPS TO LOSE WEIGHT

 

 

Fat storage is directly linked to two hormones; insulin and cortisol.  Insulin is controlled by the food you eat, and cortisol is controlled by the amount of stress in your life.  Increases in either or both of these hormones causes your body to store fat. Unfortunately, poor food choices and stress often occur together, and like the chicken and the egg story, which one comes first is debatable….

Eating the wrong carbohydrates  (sugar, bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, processed snacks etc) causes increases of insulin in your body.  Eating good carbohydrates (quinoa, fruit, vegetables, bread with sprouted grains) controls your blood sugar and insulin levels.

To help keep your insulin level in check and keep your body in a fat burning zone, follow these simple steps:

Read labels:  avoid -processed and packaged foods like cereals, muffins, chips, crackers, genetically modified corn, soy and wheat, hydrogenated oils, canola oil, corn syrup, margarine, sugar and artificial sweeteners.

These products not only increase your blood sugar and insulin levels, they are treated as foreign toxins in your body, causing inflammation in many organs.  Avoiding these products will not only make you lose weight, but other health issues such as eczema, asthma, arthritis, will improve too.

Stick to the outer aisles in the grocery stores; they contain the fresh produce, meat, dairy etc, while the inner aisles typically hold the bad stuff.

Clean out your kitchen pantry, getting rid of any of the above items.

To control cortisol levels, try to reduce the stresses in your life by following these steps:

Get enough  sleep.  Sleep deprivation stresses your body.  If you cannot get enough at night, try to sneak in a nap during the day, since even a short 30 minute nap is beneficial for you.

Get some, but not too much  exercise.  An exercise regime that is too strenuous will temporarily stress your body, causing a spike in your cortisol level.  Your exercise regime does not have to be complicated or expensive.  Go for a brisk walk every day, or at least every second day.

Surround yourself with positive people.  Negative people are stressors you do not need.

Spend more time doing the things you like to do.  Take up a new hobby or rediscover an old one.

Other points to remember:

Good fats burn body fat:  Avoid  margarine, canola and hydrogenated oils.  Choose eggs, olive oil, avocado, almonds, coconut oil and cold water fish.

Stay hydrated:  Drink lots of water.  Carry a water bottle around with you while running errands, chauffeuring your kids, and especially while exercising.   Add a splash of lemon juice to your water to liven up the taste.

 

Good luck!

Bye Bye Asthma…

In one of my first posts, I think I told you how the last time I went to my respirologist to check on my lungs, he told me the condition of my lungs had improved.  I had been diagnosed with asthma several years earlier, with my symptoms and test results getting worse each visit to the respirologist.  Since my father had recently died from pulmonary fibrosis, and my mom from lung cancer before that, the deteriorating condition of my lungs was worrisome.

At that 2012 visit, I didn’t tell the respirologist about my wheat allergy news (discovered by a naturopath) and the fact that I had been wheat-free for almost one year before this round of testing as I wanted to see if there was a change in the pulmonary (lung) function test results first.  His response to my belief that my wheat-free diet was the reason for the change in my lungs was skeptical, as not many doctor like to be told that advice from a naturopath is sound.  His comment at that time was “well, whatever you have been doing, keep doing it.  Come back and see me next year”…

Well, i just returned from the annual respirology appointment, and my pulmonary function test results were even better than last year!  In fact, the respirologist  feels he doesn’t need to see me anymore, unless my symptoms return.

Although some things, like smoke and strong chemical smells, still bother me, I know to avoid them.  I also know that daily exercise and reduced stress make a difference too; my new career takes care of that aspect…