Sometime in the summer of 2020 GPS 🏃🏻♂️ tracking in the Polar Flow app on my Android phone suddenly started producing crappy results.
Polar shortchanges me by nearly 20%!
Sometime in the summer of 2020 GPS 🏃🏻♂️ tracking in the Polar Flow app on my Android phone suddenly started producing crappy results.
Polar shortchanges me by nearly 20%!
Since 2015, when Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes introduced me to the work of Phil Maffetone, I have not tried to work on running faster. Instead, I have focused on building a really solid aerobic base. Specifically, I have tried to run at a speed that kept my heart rate near 130 bpm (which was the MAF heart rate I came up with back then).
The theory is that, by training at that heart rate, you will gradually increase the speed at which you can run at that heart rate: You get faster at that particular level of effort. Basically, you persist with that—doing your runs at that heart rate—for as long as your speed increases. Only then do you add speed work (intervals, tempo runs, etc.), and then only as a few percent of your training.
In my own rather casual way I took all that to heart. I never did much speed work anyway, but I was happy to just not do any while I waited for the magic of the MAF system to kick in. But it never did. For the past five years I’ve been running very slowly (call it a 15-minute pace) at a nice low heart rate, but I’ve seen none of the gradual improvement that was promised.
I can’t really call it a failed experiment. I’ve enjoyed these slower runs. I’ve largely avoided injuring myself. I’ve built a solid aerobic base. But I’d like to be able to run faster, and following the MAF system doesn’t seem to have done the trick.
So I’m going to gradually ease back into running faster. I’ve done a little sprinting right along (more as strength-training for my legs than in an effort to work on running faster), and I’ll boost that up just a bit. But the main thing I’ll do is just run faster whenever I feel like it.
For years now, I’ve made it a practice to try to notice when my HR goes above 130, and ease up whenever it does. I might still do some runs like that—it does help me refrain from going out too fast and ending up exhausted halfway through a planned long run. But I think I’ll go back to just intuitively running at whatever pace suits me in the moment.
I did that today, and ran 3.16 miles in 43:16, for an average pace of 13:38. Not fast. But I wasn’t trying to run fast—I just quit deliberately slowing down anytime I noticed my heart rate was over 130. For this run my heart rate averaged just 134, so I wasn’t really pushing the effort. Maybe I can still run 12-minute miles!
(By the way, I wrote about Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes in a post on it and a few other human movement books.)
This is the fourth week in a row where I actually did both my “long” run and my “fast” run—always my intention, but rarely achieved earlier in the year. 🏃🏻♂️
For some time now I’ve been aiming to do my endurance training at my MAF heart rate. MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function, and it’s the heart rate where you’re producing the maximum output without having to use anaerobic systems. Although the MAF formula just produces an estimate, there’s quite a bit of data to back it up.
If you do almost all your training at MAF, you’ll get better (run faster) at that heart rate. The idea is that you first do that, and only when your performance plateaus do you need to start doing any sort of speed work (and then not much of it).
As I say, for some time I’ve been aiming to train at my MAF heart rate, but it’s a low enough level of intensity that I’ve persistently had trouble not running too fast. I have a heart rate monitor, but it’s not very useful during a run, because my heart rate is displayed on my phone, and I don’t want to run around carrying my phone where I can see the screen. The upshot has been that I’ve inadvertently done a great deal of my training somewhat above my MAF heart rate, which rather defeats the purpose.
To get a better grip on my MAF training, I finally broke down and bought another heart rate monitor, which displays my heart rate on my wrist so I can check it while I’m running. It also has an alert function, so I can set it to vibrate if my heart rate goes above some value. After looking around a bit, I settled on the Mi Band 4 (which is available for cheap because the Mi Band 5 is now out). It does the thing I want well enough. (It also does a bunch of other stuff that I don’t care about, and some things that I do care about (sleep tracking), but that I do some other way, such as with my Oura ring.)
After a shakedown run a few days ago, where I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the device the way I wanted, today I went out for a run where I tried to use it for some proper MAF training, and I think I was very successful. I probably only spent two or three minutes (out of a 51-minute run) with my heart rate above my target.
This very easy run was nice and gentle. Sitting here at my computer maybe an hour after I got home, my heart rate is already back down to just 64 bpm, which amounts to a surprisingly complete recover. After a run only a little bit faster, I’d expect to see my heart rate stuck in the 70s for several hours.
Now to see if regular training this way produces the speed gains it is reputed to.
Jackie was fixing blue-corn pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and eating that many carbs first thing in the morning can be a problem for me. However, I have come up with a strategy for dealing with it: Getting in a pre-breakfast fasted workout. My theory is that by doing this I deplete my muscle glycogen, so that my muscles are primed to soak up all the carbs I eat, minimizing the degree to which the glucose spikes my blood sugar.
I have no data to show that this works, but anecdotally I can report that it seems to help.
I’ve been wanting to go for a run. I had planned to go for a run yesterday, but it ended up being rainy enough that I decided to postpone the run for a day. So I might have gone for a run for my pre-breakfast workout, but Jackie was hungry early, and I didn’t want to delay breakfast by an extra hour.
So, I did what’s becoming my standard HIIT workout: I warm up with 3×25 Hindu squats, and then I do 3×25 kettlebell swings with my 53 lb kettlebell. It’s a quick workout—it’s all done in 20 minutes, including some amount of pre-warmup warmup—and it’s of high enough intensity to burn off plenty of glucose.
After breakfast (and a bit of digesting) I went ahead and got out for my planned run. After the persistently sore foot I’ve been dealing with for months now simply refused to get better, I had taken a full month off from running to see if all I needed was plenty of rest to fully recover, and that may have done the trick—I went out for a 3.33-mile run, and I had no foot pain whatsoever.
I don’t wear my Oura ring for the kettlebell workouts (or other workouts where I have to grip something, because handles, bars, and (gymnastic) rings don’t play well with the Oura ring). However, my Polar heart rate monitor will tell Google Fit about my workout, and the phone app for the Oura ring will read that data and give me credit for what I did while the ring was off:
My peak heart rate during the kettlebell swings would have seen me to much higher activity levels than the just-barely “High” levels shown, but that’s because it’s an interval workout. A set of 25 swings takes me just about 50 seconds, and then it takes about 3 minutes for my HR to drop low enough that I can do another set. The software is averaging those periods together. Unless I’m doing sprints (which I didn’t today) a run is just a steady-state effort. I try to keep my HR down in the MAF range, but didn’t manage it today (because of the prior HIIT workout).
I’d heard this, but I’m not sure I really believed it.
I’ve been running in “barefoot” shoes for a good 5 years now. The improvement in my gait was dramatic and immediate. But serious barefoot advocates are very firm about the point that it’s only when you run with actual bare feet that you acquire the huge upside that comes with barefoot running.
Reduced injury rates (due to the improved gait) are one of those upsides. Increased running efficiency (due to the improved gait, but also due to not having to carry the weight of a shoe on each foot) is another upside.
But there are alleged to be further sources of improved efficiency that come from barefoot running. When you’re actually barefoot, you’re going to hit the ground much more gently (because without cushioning it would hurt to hit the ground hard). Your foot is going to hit the ground with zero forward velocity (because if your bare foot slides along the concrete, the friction will cause blisters almost immediately).
In both cases—not slamming your foot into the ground, and not grinding your foot into the ground—the upshot is improved efficiency.
But it’s one thing to hear that “improved efficiency” is a thing, and another to actually see it. Check out this comparison of a run from one month ago, versus a run today.
Here’s the first three-quarters of mile of a run from one month ago, wearing minimalist shoes:
I left off the first few tens of seconds because it took until then for my heart rate monitor to stabilize on my actual heart rate. Then I went on for about three-quarters of a mile (out of a longer run) to match the distance that I ran today.
The things to note are that I ran at a 14:20 min/mil pace (very slow), that my heart rate averaged 117 bpm, and that the majority of my run was spent in zone 3.
Now check out my graph from today’s run, run with actual bare feet:
I’ve matched the distances (the former is the first part of a much longer run, the latter my entire barefoot run today). Today’s run was at a considerably faster pace (37 seconds per mile faster), while at the same time keeping my heart rate considerably lower (averaging 109 bpm, entirely in zone 2).
I have to say, this is very promising for future endeavors. I need to boost my confidence a bit, so I feel comfortable going for longer runs barefoot. I also need to get a bit more familiar with pacing—my MAF heart rate is probably more like 124. I need to figure out what it feels like when I run that pace barefoot. Because: who knows how fast I can run at that heart rate barefoot?
(The shortcode below won’t work until I get an updated version of the plugin for displaying GPX maps.)
HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is one of the metrics that the Oura ring tracks. I’ve begun to learn a bit about it, and thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far, and then share a small personal observation.
Very briefly, HRV has to do with the variations in the timings between heart beats. If your heart rate is 60 beats per minute then about one second will pass from one heart beat to the next—but only about one second. In actual fact, sometimes it will be a few milliseconds more, and other times it will be a few milliseconds less. Those “more or less” amounts are your heart rate variability or HRV.
Most of what I know about the HRV comes from an interview on Human OS Radio podcast with Phyllis Stein, Director of the Heart Rate Variability Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, called Introduction to Heart Rate Variability (HRV). It’s definitely worth a listen, if you do the podcast thing.
A lot of HRV is related to respiration. I noticed this when I got my first heart rate monitor thirty years ago: Every time I inhaled my heart rate speeded up, and every time I exhaled my heart rate slowed down. This effect is pronounced enough that the Oura ring can calculate your respiration rate just by watching your heart rate speed up and slow down with each breath.
HRV is widely used as an indicator of the balance between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems: If your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning well you’ll see quite a bit of variation. When it’s not functioning well—for example, when you’re persistently stressed—the amount of variation in your heart rate will decline.
Since I got my Oura ring, I’ve been tracking my HRV, looking to see if this or that bit of self-care practice will increase it, and I’ve noticed one thing that seems kind of interesting: Very often my HRV will be quite low in the first half of the night, and then be higher (and with higher variability in the variations) in the second half of the night. Here are three recent examples:
I speculate that this is related to the fact that I’m still digesting supper at bedtime, or perhaps that alcohol I’ve consumed is not fully metabolized yet. I’ve been hoping that life would produce a natural experiment to test those two theories, but so far haven’t gotten one. (That is, days when supper or cocktail hour were very early or had to be skipped have also been days when some other factor—such as illness, an unusual bedtime, or unusual stress—confounded things such that I couldn’t really draw any conclusion about the effect on my HRV.)
For a week now, the forecast has been that yesterday would be the first really nice day of the season, and I had decided a week ago that I’d go for a long run.
I tried to set everything up for good readiness, with a medium run back on Monday (so it wouldn’t be too long between runs), and then ordinary amounts of walking on Tuesday through Friday.
However, it wasn’t to be. I felt weak and sluggish right from the start, and found that even just maintaining a slow pace required that I ramp up my heart rate as the run went along:
(All that stuff in the yellow is too high, which is basically the whole run. I kept it almost in the green for the first mile, but after that it was way too high the whole time. The tiny bit where it spiked up into the red at the end was when I was sprinting to the button to get a walk signal.)
I have to say that my Oura ring warned me that my readiness was only so-so yesterday:
The main negative contributors, from the Oura ring’s perspective, were a mediocre night’s sleep, and a slightly elevated resting heart rate—and in particular, a resting heart rate that took most of the night even to settle down to that slightly elevated level (the “recovery index” part):
Last night my sleep was much better:
But it didn’t lead to a much higher readiness today, because yesterday’s run, even though it was a pretty feeble effort, was enough to mean that today I should at least somewhat take it easy:
As it happens, I was pretty happy to do that. I got a reasonable amount of movement today, while nevertheless taking it pretty easy. Included in the day’s movement was the first bit of barefoot walking of the season. I also spent just a few minutes punching the heavy bag, mainly to get some photos for an Esperanto blog post on one aspect of my summer training plans.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been having some trouble sleeping. It’s not a constant problem, but it has become more frequent than the rare thing it used to be.
I think the problem is just a string of one-off instances of stress. During this period I had one older relative begin having cognitive difficulties and have to move to a facility that could provide additional care, my cat got sick and eventually died, had some personality clashes related to volunteer work I’m doing grow into a problem that eventually involved lawyers, and had another older relative began showing signs of cognitive difficulties.
Each of these resulted in a pattern where I’d fall asleep just fine, but then wake up in the middle of the night and start ruminating about the issue of the day and be unable to fall back to sleep for an hour or three.
In the past when I had problems of this sort they tended to be short-lived. I’d stress out about something for a night or two or three, but the issue would be resolved soon enough and I go back to sleeping fine.
Here the issues have stacked up, new ones following the old ones. Further, some of them don’t go away. They linger on.
As I say, I think that’s what’s happening here. Ordinary life stresses have simply come at me a little too hard and a little too fast, with the result that my sleep has been impacted.
However, maybe that’s not all that’s going on. Maybe there’s more to it. I know there are some other issues. For example, if I don’t keep my carb intake down my nasal congestion returns, and that dramatically interferes with my sleep.
Given that I’m not sure what all might be wrong, I thought it might make sense to investigate further—gather some data, and see if I couldn’t find some patterns in my sleep problems. To that end, I bought an Oura ring, a tracking device along the lines of an Apple watch or a Fitbit, but with its focus specifically on gathering and analyzing data about sleep.
I’ve only had it for a week so far, and I’m really just getting started at looking for trends in the data. For example, three nights ago I slept poorly (awake for almost 2.5 hours of the almost 9 hours I was in bed).
One possible reason was a too-large meal too late in the day. (It was the Winfield Village holiday party.) One piece of data that suggests that possibility is that my body temperature was elevated by 0.3℃ during the night—perhaps because of increased metabolic activity digesting all that food.
Interestingly, I got more deep sleep than I had all week up to now, perhaps because I went for a long run the day before. (Deep sleep is where you get the physical recovery from things like heavy weight-lifting sessions and long runs. Maybe the first few nights had less deep sleep simply because I didn’t need more than that, because I hadn’t had the hard workouts that require deep sleep for recovery.)
Here’s the next night, where I spent less time awake and almost as much time in deep sleep:
My body temperature was still up, though, even without the big meal. We had turned the thermostat down one more degree, but that’s about as low as we want it, so last night I rearranged the covers, removing the down comforter, going with just the wool blanket. I don’t know if that was a key change, but I slept very well last night:
Not only were my quantities of total sleep and deep sleep good, some of the other metrics were good as well. My temperature deviation was -0.3℃, which suggests that maybe I’ve got the covers and thermostat thing balanced just about right. My resting heart rate was down to 47, which suggests that I’ve recovered completely from the long run I took three days ago.
My hope is that by paying attention to this sort of thing, I can gradually eliminate these sorts of problems affecting my sleep. Of course that will leave me with the stress-related problems, but I think I know how to handle those—fixing the ones that can be fixed, accepting the ones that can’t be fixed, and engaging in appropriate self-care to help myself handle the stress better. And, of course, get enough sleep.
A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”
It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.
It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.
A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.
Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.
But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?
Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.
They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.
As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.