Conditioning in the mainstream has morphed into an idea of high intensity effort until your energy supply empties out and you are sprawled out on the ground with nothing left in the tank. If every conditioning session goes like this then you need to adjust. Conditioning is a skill and something you should measure to see if you are getting better. In my previous article I discussed which energy system is the most adaptable and will also supply the foundation for most of your improvement. So what exactly can we get better at when it comes to conditioning?
Conditioning is a Skill
1 – Resting Heart Rate
A Danish study linked a high resting heart rate to an increased risk of mortality. Without diving into all the details, lets just say that aiming for a RHR of under 60bpm is a benchmark that is research backed and proven to help increase the amount of time you are on this planet by as much as ten years. The right form of conditioning can help lower your RHR.
2 – Dynamic Energy Control
Secondly, are you capable of Dynamic Energy Control?
This means, can you work within a specific zone of exertion while you are training and stay there instead of immediately redlining into 90% or more? From personal observations, a high resting heart rate and people who predominately condition using high intensity intervals struggle in this area. If they were a car they would have the ability to go from zero to sixty miles per hour in five seconds but nothing in between. What happens when you drive your car at max capacity every time you get in it?
Nothing good, that’s for sure. The same can be applies to your body when it comes to conditioning.
Use more steady state work in the 120-140 bpm range in the form of a circuit or on a bike for 30-40 minutes at least once a week. Energy control allows you to master energy expenditure and allows you to push when you need to push and pull back when you need to instead of always operating at 100%.
3 – Recovery & Respiration
Breathing and recovery go hand in hand. When we exhale our valgus nerve is activated and it signals the body to go into a more rest and digest state instead of a more stressed out state (fight or flight). A full exhale is a lost skill these days in a world of consistent mini-stressors like your job, traffic, family issues, your favorite sports team losing in the Super Bowl (My wife is an Eagles fan so I am obligated to acknowledge this). Someone who works a 9-5 job may feel exhausted at the end of their day, even though they were not physically active. This is because the body mobilizes energy every time we incur a mini stressor and this mobilization costs us energy. The body’s energy bank is not bottomless, and before long those mini-stressors have combined to drain us completely.
Here’s a great video from Greg Robins on breathing and exhaling.
4 – Movement & Fatigue
Maintaining quality movement while fatigued is important. If you are a high stress person or predominantly use high intensity intervals, then I’m thinking your aerobic system isn’t all it could be. Often times technique and movement are lost when we fatigue and the chance of injury skyrockets. There is a trend back to the aerobic work days of the eighties right now, except this time lets not throw the baby out with the bath water and just commit to training one energy system. It is possible to do aerobic and anaerobic work and still get strong. No need to go all marathon runner-esque on me. Keep in mind, conditioning depends on what your goals are. A powerlifter will not want the same level of aerobic conditioning as a soccer player or a mother of three. Each of which have very different energy demands that need to be catered to accordingly.
Testing Your Conditioning Levels
Disclaimer: Before setting about testing your conditioning levels or anyone else’s for that matter you should have a good level of training experience and a foundation of movement variability already in place. You can download and print out a conditioning test and track sheet at the bottom of this article.
Know your resting heart rate before starting the testing process. This gives you a baseline to measure progress from. Ideally speaking, with people in general we are looking to create a RHR of under 60 bpm. Well conditioned athletes are usually in the 50’s and endurance athletes in the 40’s. Most people I coach start off in the 70’s or 80’s.
The Cooper Test is what I use to test and track conditioning levels. You can use a treadmill, rower, an airdyne or air assault bike to test. With the population I train I like to use the bike the most for a modified cooper test (6 minutes instead of 12). Here is the data I’m looking to get from a cooper test. Remember, this will be quite a challenging experience for the vast majority of people. The only cue I use is “Find a pace that you can sustain for 6 minutes”. This usually ensures they don’t sprint for the first 2 minutes and gas out. Having a heart rate strap like My Zone or Polar on during the test helps us gauge average heart rate and their sixty second heart rate recovery.
Cooper Test Indicator
Results & Standards
60s Heart Rate Recovery (HRR)
|<20 poor/20-30 ok/30-39 good/>40 excellent|
Note this for a check in power output test
Average Heart Rate
Indicates Anaerobic Threshold or close to ANT
Note for power output test check in
Resting Heart Rate (RHR)
Optimal goal is under 60
As the last thirty seconds of the cooper test approach, understand what you need to look for. Heart rate recovery is subtracting your HR reading from when you finish the test minus your HR sixty seconds later. In order to help your HR drop, use the recovery position as my friend Chris Mullins details here.
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#CCPost37: Recovery position matters. Quick illustration of how resting position affects recovery. 12 swings (6R 6L), 1:00 rest With hands on knees, ribs and pelvis are more easily aligned, which means the diaphragm functions better than with arms overhead. Essentially, it's easier to breathe. And if it's easier to breathe, recovery time ⬇️, endurance ⬆️, form doesn't break down as quickly, and you can get back to work sooner. #recoverymatters #motiFIT #heartrate #heartratemonitor #heartratevariability #controlyourbreathing #controlyourenergy #controlyourlife #prination #conditioning #smartconditioning #strengthtraining @thetrainingroomboston
Instructions & Interpretations
- Heart Rate Recovery is your heart rate exactly when you finish minus your heart rate 60 seconds later. For example, I finished at 178bpm and a minute later I was at 123bpm. HRR = 55bpm. If you compare that to the standards below, that’s about optimal.
Heart Rate Recovery Standards
<20bpm is poor
20-30bpm is okay
30-40bpm is good
40+ bpm is excellent
- An Air Assault bike, an Airdyne bike and an ergometer will give you your average watts for a cooper test. A treadmill will not. This indicates your average power output for the test. This is a good stat to use in order to check average heart rate at a certain wattage in whats called a “Power Output Test”. You can do a POT for 3-5 minutes once a month to gauge the average heart rate and check conditioning levels. Is the average heart rate lower than the cooper test? If so, conditioning levels are improving. The heart is becoming more efficient at generating and using energy to meet demands.
- The average heart rate on a cooper test shows us the general area of someones anaerobic threshold. That zone right before they go from highly aerobic to anaerobic. Once you crossover, you don’t have too long before energy stores are depleted. If you re-test the cooper and the average heart rate is lower with the same distance and watts then conditioning levels are improving.
- Use distance covered to gauge retests moving forward. Less distance covered with the same average heart rate would show something is not working when it comes to your current conditioning program.
- The goal is to lower someones RHR if they are over 60bpm at rest laying down in the morning. Incorporating some cardiac output or high performance training, which I’ll detail in the next article will help lower your resting heart rate.
A False Positive
The 60 second Heart Rate Recovery is the standard we refer to so we can measure how quickly we can recover. If you have a high resting heart rate, there is a good chance your HRR is sub optimal. Through personal observation over the years I have noticed that the heart rate recovery for a cooper test is generally higher than say a HRR from a high performance circuit or cardiac output session. Like I said in the beginning of this article, a lot of people can go 0-60 real fast (Thanks Drake!) but they cannot optimally recover from a mid range heart rate like in the 140’s or 150’s or hold that range for a prolonged period of time.
Always look at both the cooper test HRR and the HRR from a lower intensity activity and see if they’re in and around the same. If there is a large disparity, it is probably a false positive and I would use some steady state work in the 120-140bpm for 30-40 minutes once or twice a week until they can significantly improve their HRR from a mid level activity such as a steady state or a circuit in the above stated heart rate range.
My next article in this series will detail what exactly is High Performance Training, why you need it and how to program it into your training.