Smarter Conditioning

I'm not shy about admitting my mistakes.  It's how you learn and grow.  I think it's also important to show that you're always trying to get better.

Most of my mistakes have been with my own training, using myself as a guinea pig.  But some mistakes have also been with clients.  This week, I'm fessing up to the latter.

When I was a newly minted personal trainer, high intensity, short duration work was the flavor of the year.  Nothing captured this trend better than the popular Tabata protocol - hard 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, continuously for four minutes.  "Research" had shown it would elicit the same adaptions as a long steady state session.  Even better?  High intensity work like that is gold for fat loss, even if it makes you hate life.

 The true name for the AirDyne..

The true name for the AirDyne..

On a personal note, I was also chasing dem gainz. Conventional wisdom at that time was any long, slow cardio was anathema to muscle building.  I thought that after only 30 minutes I'd be withering away to nothingness....at 196 pounds.  Yes, the irony was lost on me in the moment.

So when it came to conditioning I wanted something that would be both fast and efficient. Naturally, I looked to high intensity intervals.  And that proved to be a terrible idea.

Numerous sessions had to end early after just one short AirDyne bike sprint.  Even worse?  When they came back the following week, they told me they didn't feel right for hours afterward.

I stopped doing this type of conditioning with people pretty quickly.  After all, the last person I want to be compared to is Jillian Michaels.  But I struggled to figure out why it was happening.  Was it dehydration?  Low blood sugar?  Something else altogether? I can still remember the day when I realized how and where I went wrong.

Leading up to our wedding, Lindsay and I had to go through the Catholic joy of pre-cana.   For those that have similarly enjoyed this rite of marriage, you'll find it unsurprising that I sneakily checked my phone and read this Mike Robertson post, You Need Long Slow Cardio.  Even though I hated any form of cardio, it kept my mind off the dreaded "Are you living together?" question and response.

The key takeaways - long, slow cardio will help you recover between exercises and training sessions; it reduces stress by shifting your body out of the "fight or flight" response; it makes your heart stronger and more efficient; it doesn't hurt dem gainz like I once thought it did.  But the most important part?  You need long, slow cardio because it's the key that unlocks higher intensity work.

 Seems legit.

Seems legit.

I suddenly realized where I had gone wrong with conditioning.  While I was careful to make sure I progressed people on squats, pushups, and deadlifts correctly, I was failing to do that with conditioning.  In essence, I was putting 300 pounds in people's hands and saying "Go!" No wonder it didn't end well. 

So far this blog post has been very cathartic, but I'm not sure how much you've taken from it.  I'm getting there.  The reason I decided to share everything above is because I see people making this same mistake with their own conditioning and training.  A few examples of what I mean:

  • Deciding to go for a 5+ mile run, after not previously running for months.
  • Hard interval work intended for elite athletes.
  • Seeing who can run 6 lengths of a tennis court in 30 seconds, as many times as they can. (Thank you, college baseball preseason)

I love the intensity but progressing slowly is still the key measure for success.  We want slow, sustainable progress.  It's one thing if someone has a resting heart rate below 60 beats per minute and already has a robust base of conditioning.  It's quite another if someone's resting heart rate is near 80 and they sit at a desk for 60 hours a week.

My high school track coaches were on to something when they said long runs build a big base.  I didn't want to believe them then or for the following ten years.  But one of my biggest mistakes reinforced one of my favorite quotes:

"When the student is ready, a teacher appears."