Perfect Pace

Thank God for Covert Bailey.

Who is Covert Bailey? He’s yet another exercise physiologist. (They breed like rabbits.)

In his lectures and books, Covert shares fitness advice with “ordinary” folks, rather than experienced athletes.

Last night, I was re-reading his excellent book, Smart Exercise: Burning Fat, Getting Fit.

In the chapter titled “The Aerobic Zone,” Bailey addresses the puzzling question of exactly how fast we should run within the “aerobic training zone.”

When we talk about the aerobic zone, 65-80 percent of maximum heart rate, everybody asks, “Where in the zone should I exercise?” Or, “Should my pace be a little on the easy side or a little on the hard side?”…. You’ll improve most quickly by exercising at the upper end of the zone, around 80 percent. But that doesn’t work for everybody. In recent years, more and more research shows that exercising at the lower level of the aerobic zone is far more beneficial than we used to think.

The advantages of lower‑level exercise were first noted in older people. A study was done comparing two groups of men averaging seventy years of age. Half ran around a high school track every day at a speed that got their hearts up to 65 percent of maximum. The other half went around the track with their hearts going at about 80 percent of maximum. Both groups were tested periodically to see if they were getting fitter. Were their lungs getting better and their hearts stronger? Were the fatburning enzymes in their muscles increasing? Surprisingly, the researchers found that the men who exercised at 65 percent showed more improvement than the men who exercised at 80 percent. The reason is that at age seventy, your body doesn’t repair itself as fast as it did when you were twenty. When the men who exercised at 80 percent rested, their bodies said, “Do you want us to grow enzymes or repair tissue? We can’t do both.” They needed to rest more or to exercise at a lower level.

How can we find our own best training pace?

I’m sixty-eight, so I’m a candidate for the study mentioned above. Yet my optimal training pace appears to be quite a bit higher than 65% – in fact, it hovers between 75% to 80%.

The reason I’m able to run faster and still thrive is because I give my body lots of rest. I run hard just once a week, and the rest is one pukey little 30-minute jog, and a session of 30 minutes easy plus moderate plyometrics. I also do strength work and some easy hiking.

How do I know 75% to 80% is my optimal pace? Because my body tells me. It’s really very simple. I feel best at that pace. And because I like running faster than 65%, I’m willing to pay the price of limiting my hard running to just one day a week.

What science tells us about running is usually too general. It tells us how the average body responds. But it can’t tell us how our specific body will respond, because there are simply too many variables. There are endless factors that can make us slower or faster on a given day: the weather, our stress level, sleep patterns, diet, current fitness, etc.

When we learn to pay attention to the feelings of joy and harmony, and unhappiness and disharmony that we experience when we run, we begin to be able to tune our training precisely to our body’s present needs. How we feel when we run is valuable input. It’s far more precise than science and reason unaided.

We need both. We need calm, clear reason. And we need calm, clear feeling.

Without reason, feelings can become too personal and emotional, prejudiced toward what we want rather than what’s most beneficial. And without calm inner feeling, logic can lead us into a ditch.

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