Aerobic Training & Conditioning – Benefits
Often people take up exercise to lose weight and regain health, with many never achieving this. Conventional wisdom and training philosophies have led us to believe that exercise, especially the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy, will not only make us thinner but also stronger and healthier. Watch any marathon, Ironman or other ultra-endurance event and a noticeable number of participants are overweight and/or carrying an injury. Surely, if these athletes are spending hours upon hours training, getting stronger and burning extensive calories then why aren’t they at ideal body composition and/or injury free? This is because the exercise component of weight loss/weight management is overemphasised and misunderstood by conventional wisdom and training regimes at times don’t balance fitness with health.
When one subscribes to a pattern of chronic exercise in pursuit of extreme or narrowly-focussed fitness goals, it can promote fat storage, illness, injury, accelerated ageing, reduction in cognitive function and ultimately burnout. The complete opposite of why one started in the first place.
The good news is there is a very simple way to achieve this idyllic state of optimal health, improved fitness and performance whilst drastically reducing risk of injury, illness and burnout and that is to develop your aerobic system.
Our genes thrive on frequent everyday low-level movement and aerobic conditioning. This basic requirement can be met through a combination of structured aerobic workouts, efforts to increase everyday movement and mobility exercises. The greatest benefits of exercise relate, not to the oftentimes goal of burning calories, but rather to the movement of muscles and joints and to the optimisation of adaptive hormones.
What is Aerobic Training and how to calculate it?
Aerobic means “with oxygen” and hence indicates a level of effort whereby there is sufficient oxygen to burn predominantly fat (fat requires oxygen to burn during exercise). An aerobic workout is conducted at a comfortable pace, is minimally stressful to the body and burns primarily fat. In the absence of laboratory testing (whereby calculating ventalitory threshold VT is possible) one cannot discern the point where one shifts from burning mostly fat to an increasing percentage of glucose, and thereby entering the realm if anaerobic training. Utilising a heart rate monitor (ideally a chest strap which is more accurate than a wrist based monitor) when exercising provides a very useful biometric feedback device to monitor this threshold point for us.
Although there is a range of opinion on the matter of quantifying maximum aerobic heart rate, the simplest method is Dr Phil Maffetone’s “180-age = maximum aerobic heart rate” formula. For example: if you are 40 years old then your training needs to be conducted at or below a heart rate of 140 (180-40) in order to stay aerobic.
The tried and trusted Maffetone formula offers some adjustments factors based on your current state of health and fitness. Take 180 minus your age as your baseline number, then adjust it if:
• Subtract 10: Recovering from illness, surgery, disease or taking regular medication.
• Subtract 5: Recent injury or regression in training, get more than two colds/flu annually, have allergies, asthma, inconsistent training, or recently returning to training.
• No Adjustment: Training consistently (4x/week) for two years, free from aforementioned problems.
• Add 5: Successful training for two year or more with improvement and free from aforementioned problems.
Keep in mind that this is a sub-max heart rate, this is not your maximum heart rate. As you improve your fitness and aerobic efficiency, your speed at your maximum aerobic heart rate will also improve. This will make you a faster endurance athlete, the ability to move at a faster speed whilst expending the same physiological effort.
What are the Benefits of Aerobic Exercise?
1. Fat metabolism: Aerobic exercise trains your body to efficiently utilise free fatty acids (ie: fat) for fuel. This benefit is further maximised when adhering to a low-insulin producing eating pattern.
2. Cardiovascular function: Aerobic exercise increases the ability of blood vessels to supply muscle cells with needed fuel and oxygen. Further it raises the stroke volume of your heart (more blood pumped with each beat) and improves the oxygen utilisation by your lungs.
3. Mitochondria building: Aerobic exercise builds more mitochondria in your muscles. One prominent role that mitochondria provides is to produce the energy currency (ATP) in your cells. When you exercise aerobically, with plenty oxygen available to make fat the preferred fuel source, mitochondria produces energy more efficiently than when glucose is the primary fuel source. Further, building more mitochondria through aerobic exercise, allows your body to handle a greater workload without getting overwhelmed.
4. Musculoskeletal strength and resilience: Aerobic exercise strengthens your bones, joints and connective tissue so you can absorb increasing stress loads without breaking down (ie: injury). This is critical to your ability to not only perform and handle the high intensity strength and speed workouts (anaerobic training, HIIT, etc) but as importantly your ability to recover from these sessions.
5. Immune function: Chronic exercise (a pattern of frequent medium-to-difficult sustained workouts with insufficient rest/recovery) leads to an excess production of the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol production promotes systemic inflammation, oxidative damage, accelerates ageing, compromises bone density and supresses the immune function. As aerobic exercise is minimally stressful to the body, the production of cortisol is not abused and hence the body does not become systemically inflamed. This not only aids a reduction in injuries, but also protects the immune system.
It’s time to “go slow to go fast”
Sources: The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Dr Phil Maffetone; Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns; Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson