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(c) 2013 Trina Lambert

(c) 2013 Trina Lambert

Earlier this year I started working out with a heart rate monitor and was very frustrated by what it told me. Still, I gritted my teeth and committed to working with it for a few months to see if I would become stronger by first slowing down. All these years I’ve been telling myself to speed up and now I have to tell myself to slow down!

At the same time, I’ve wondered how accurate the traditional heart rate ranges are for a person with exercise-induced asthma who pre-treats with ProAir, a medication known to raise heart rates. I don’t have breathing difficulties in my regular day-to-day activities, just when I’m exerting myself aerobically. In fact, if I pre-treat very long before my activity begins, I get very jumpy.

As for that question, I just found out that National Jewish Health cardiology is doing outreach into the neighborhoods by offering Walk with a Doc monthly events where a specific health topic is discussed and then people go on a walk with the health professionals present and ask more personal questions. When I wrote the program with my question, the doctor in charge suggested I come and talk with them there—which I will do at the June event. However, he did give me hope that I may not have to restrain myself at the level I am currently. You mean I don’t always have to run like an old woman??!!

Typical run exertion rates Jan. 2013

Typical run exertion rates Jan. 2013

Since I’ve been using the watch for around three months, I have finally collected quite a bit of data and there is definitely a positive trend occurring. My watch “knows” what’s happening throughout my run, but the straight data I get is more along the line of mean and mode—it doesn’t really tell me what my median heart rate is. However, I can find a summary of that data through the training load chart. Checking it yesterday, I was surprised and delighted to see that my willingness to “listen” to my watch these past several months has paid off.

According to Polar Fitness, “Training intensity and duration as well as physical parameters (for instance, age, weight) affect training load.” The training load chart is divided into three zones: red indicates “cumulative training load is on a very high level” that is potentially straining your body so much so that taking a break is recommended; yellow indicates “cumulative training load is on a high level” and training level should be reduced in intensity; and, green, which indicates “you are recovered from previous training sessions” and can increase training sessions or their intensity levels.

Typical run exertion rates April 2013

Typical run exertion rates April 2013

I’m very happy to report that I haven’t hit the red zone in over two and a half months and that my workouts in the yellow zone this month have been very close to the green zone. For the most part my highest training loads happen in ZUMBA class where I do not make any effort to slow myself down. But even those sessions have improved greatly since I began changing my running patterns by exerting myself more as the watch suggested I should.

This news makes me ecstatic because it means that very soon I should be able to begin increasing my speed without overexerting my heart. Then I’ll just be running like the middle-aged woman I am! As well as exerting myself in a much safer manner than previously. Yaroo!

(c) 2011 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2011 Christiana Lambert

The computer has not crashed yet, so we didn’t take it down after all. In fact, it took a break from ominous messages. So after I met with the accountant, I was able to prepare the FAFSA forms for this year. Then I continued by finishing my March bill-paying. I know—I have all the fun, right? Well, the ominous messages are back so maybe we’ll take down the system for Unplugged Day or whatever this is supposed to be. I call it a good excuse to go skiing and try to shake off all those unfriendly numbers I’ve spent time with this past week.

Speaking of numbers, though, I have made some peace with my heart rate monitor as far as the running goes. Yes, I let the watch tell me how often and how hard to run over the last four weeks. Though I never quite met its expectations, I did change my approach. Plus, I looked around for other interpretations of what my running heart rate should be that might better suit my own expectations.

The standard that sounds most fun I haven’t had time to do: aiming for the heart rate that allows me to hold a conversation with someone while running for 30 minutes. I might be crazy, but I didn’t really want to be known as that crazy woman who mutters to herself the whole time she is running!

Another option I discovered didn’t hold with using the 220 minus my age and then keeping me at a low percentage of my maximum. Instead the goal is to aim for 180 minus my age—which puts me right where I tend to run—well, after this past month of retraining myself.

Previously I would have considered even that heart rate too low, but now I see the value in not stressing my body too quickly. I’m still hopeful that I will return to my previous pace but while maintaining a more reasonable heart rate. After all, I thought I would just die going as slowly as that watch said I should, but now my own heart rate is what is telling me I can go faster. In other words, I can run faster while achieving the same heart rate that just last month I could only maintain by trudging.

I still don’t know how exercise-induced asthma affects heart rates in general or mine in particular. I have no idea if I will ever be able to run up a hill without breathing heavier (and my heart beating faster) than someone who does not have asthma.

Also, I don’t know if I can get myself to dance in ZUMBA at a rate that would make my monitor happy. All I know is that while I can slow myself down for running, I don’t even want to dance if I have to cut back as much as it recommends.

Which may mean that, though I am working at a higher level than most everyone in the class, I am not likely going to lose much weight in ZUMBA. Now that’s just crazy! I guess I’m going to have to look to running more for burning those calories than to ZUMBA.

Perhaps the running will eventually prepare my heart better for all that jumping and spinning. Or not.

Numbers are not all that life is about—having something you love goes a long way toward reducing the strain your heart experiences when dealing with disk space, taxes, bills, and all the other can’t-avoid-them numbers in your life. Sometimes you know something is good for your heart simply because you love it—now that’s heart-healthy in and of itself.

(c) Christiana Lambert 2010

(c) Christiana Lambert 2010

What I’d really like is to hear from someone who started out hating using a heart rate monitor watch, stuck with it, and found out that he or she did improve over time by following the program. Everyone I speak with—of a certain age, of course—seems either to disagree with what information the watch gives out or not want to pursue what it suggests. My biggest question is whether or not the data really says what it purports to say. In other words, if I slow down as it tells me to do now, over time will I be able to speed up again?

A fitness instructor yesterday told me she tried hers for a couple months, but didn’t like having to think so much while running. She says she goes running to let her mind be free, not to be told constantly to run at a much slower pace. I hear her on that.

But what if jump-starting my heart rate so quickly really is a sign it’s not ready for the pace I want to run? Might a heart build its endurance quicker by not facing the stress caused by extreme intensity?

I’m new to all this, but can tell that the fitness community is divided by the validity of the whys behind this kind of self-monitoring and whether or not it helps—in the long run and/or the short run.

So often I feel personally affronted that this watch—a watch for goodness’ sake—is telling me how fast I should go. Yesterday I was reading the ending of some running book where the author described a runner he observed and concluded that she was just starting out. That person could have been me right now and I’ve been doing this off and on for over thirty-five years! I still want to put a sign on my back that reads, “I can run faster but the watch won’t let me!”

Then I take a deep breath—which usually reduces my heart rate, right?—and celebrate the small victories. I thought that small computer brain came up with the threshold heart rate between fat-burning and fitness-burning based upon my age, weight, and height only and that it would remain static if those numbers remained constant. Turns out somehow it “knows” how well I’m doing and has decided to move up the threshold by 4 beats. Ha!

And back to the results in yoga that I mentioned in an earlier post. My heart rate is often lower in yoga—while moving—than it is just sitting here thinking and typing. It drops to 57 and 58 several times during class. I realize that to verify that the results show a statistically normal distribution (i.e. the traditional bell curve), one has to get to N=30, but my early results are suggesting to me that my mindfulness and breathing have a lot of power over my heart and however much it ticks.

Which also tells me that if I just stop fighting this thing, then maybe it will do for me exactly what it should—which is improve my endurance safely over time so that I can improve my performance and speed.

Which could bring me full circle back to how I have run when I was in shape for running.

Over time I tend to develop an internal clock based on how I feel. I was that person in track who usually hit the interval targets, not overshooting or undershooting them, even when we did as many as 20 200 meter runs. I’m also the person who once won a contest based upon guessing my finishing time against several women who timed everything they did to the last second—without their watches they were lost, but I just ran as I always did.

By giving into the (artificially-intelligent) wisdom of the watch now, I hope that down the road (with all those miles to go before I sleep) I will have re-developed the accuracy of my inner watch so that it runs in sync with the monitor and vice versa. This seemingly rigid tool I have been fighting really does have the potential to set both my body and mind free—if I just let it do so.

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