Open-Sourcing Fitness Training

There is a massive fitness industry out there, selling advice and aspirations. This is a good thing — the more people into fitness, the better. However, the bar to entry is high; gyms are intimidating places for so many outsiders as there’s an omertà around what happens inside them, and there’s a perception that they are only for the elite. Endurance sports also have a high bar for entry — if you’re significantly overweight, the thought of pouring yourself into lycra and running/cycling in public is utterly terrifying. As for personal training — it’s a huge expense for many people, and although most trainers are good, you can come across some charlatans who do not take your needs into consideration.

I’ve been that outsider; up until my mid-20s, I led a really unhealthy lifestyle, until deciding that I needed to do something extreme to change both my body and my situation, and joined the British Army Reserves. I’ve talked about that in a previous post, I’ll not go into further detail. However, it set me on a path; I was a PTI (Physical Training Instructor) in my reserve days, and after that, I went on to qualify as a personal trainer, specialising in core and circuit training. Rather than make that a profession in it’s own right, I brought that experience into my employment, and sought to train work colleagues. I work for a software services company, were many of my colleagues sit for hours on end involved in complex work that requires deep thought. Delivery commitments can mean long periods working away from home; this can equate to a very unhealthy lifestyle, where fitness & diet are marginal considerations. I’ve tried to counter this by running both circuit classes and ad-hoc bootcamps on several occasions at work which have been great fun. From sodden circuits in a Bristol car park, to sweaty bootcamps in a Reading park, I’ve taken people away from their laptops and guided them (not so) gently into fitness.

This all may sound like a sale-pitch, but it’s not, it’s just setting the tone. This post is about setting some fundamentals, and hopefully some people will read this and get something useful out of it.

Basics

Goals

First thing is to establish goals. Goals are good. Goals help you keep focussed. When you have a goal in mind, it should be about long-term improvement and not short-term gain e.g. “I’m going on holiday in 3 weeks, and want to lose 10lbs”. Goals should be about changes to your behaviour, with incremental targets to help achieve this along the way. A good goal would be targeting an event or personal achievement in the not-so-distant future, then work your way towards it via smaller targets. A good example of this is a number of friends and colleagues of mine with limited fitness experience targeted the Tough Mudder event this year. They gave themselves 6–9 months of incremental targets, for example, running 5k, hitting certain weight lifting goals, even a half marathon (takes a bow davey.mcglade, Rory Hanratty and Jay Fitz). They all now incorporate fitness into their lifestyles, and are all the better for it.

Balance

It’s all well and good wanting to get fit, but you need to find a way to work it into your lifestyle, until it becomes part of your lifestyle. Some people enjoy training in the morning, others in the afternoon, others in the evening, others, not at all — initially. It’s up to you to figure out when and how you can fit it in. Some people are dismissive, but 20 minutes of running during the day can be fit in around some of the most exhaustive schedules.

Mechanism

By mechanism, I mean the “how” of getting into fitness. Choose your poison wisely — you’re not going to run a marathon overnight. However, tie back to your goals, and find the activity that suits you best. My personal preference is cycling, however, I travel with work weekly, so enjoy running too. Find that activity that you enjoy that fits into your lifestyle.

Open Source Training

There are tonnes of good resources out on the internet that can help you here. However, it’s not just a simple case of googling “get me fit pls”; you need to know what you want to achieve. Here’s a few starters for 10:

Core

Core training is vital to EVERYTHING. I can’t emphasise this enough. Having a strong core means you are less likely to pick up injuries as you progress in training. However, do not confuse this with getting great abs. Sit-ups are one of the worst exercises you can do; they might give you the abs you desire, but at the expense of compromising your spine and neck.

To keep it really simple, the plank is one of the best exercises out there. It’s really easy to do, too; as the image to the left shows, it’s basically a pressup that you hold. You can either do it resting on your forearms, or on your hands, whatever is most comfortable. Then clench your butt, and hold. I suggest holding for a count of 20 to begin with, then relax, and repeat. This will work your abdominal and gluteus muscles — your stomach and butt.

As your fitness increases, you should be able to hold this for longer and longer. I would then suggest bringing side planks into the mix, isolating the oblique muscles to increase stability. A good workout I use is holding the plank for a count of 20, then rolling onto one side, holding for a count of 10, then rolling onto the other side for a count of 10. Rest and repeat. As you get fitter and stronger, hold the counts for longer.

Weights

As stated, I’ve made some mistakes in the past, and one of those was discounting weight training as not for me. Nonsense, this is one of the most immensely satisfying activities you can do, and is a great accelerator for burning fat and building muscle. There’s a perception that weights can bulk you out; that’s true, however doing weights using a structured programme can make you leaner and stronger. Stronglifts is one of the best training resources in this arena. It focuses on 5 exercises, with an aim of incremental improvements along the way. This may seem basic, but these exercises target all major muscle groups, and you will see big improvements over a short period of time.

When you feel you need to switch it up, then start looking at group exercises like kettlebell classes or circuits. Or if you are starting to feel more confident, look into using outdoor gyms. These are dotted all over the place, and are excellent — bodyweight exercises have major health benefits. Most of these include the dreaded pull-up bars. A true test of strength; even getting 1 pull-up is a major achievement for beginners. I hate pull-ups, so every time I see a bar, I work on it immediately — do the thing you hate first; get it out of the way.

If you go beyond this training level, and really want to push yourself with weights, see a personal trainer. They will advise you best on form, technique and different ways to work with weights.

Running

Running is the easiest thing in the world to get you into fitness. However, this can be an extra-ordinary challenge for people to start. Again there are some great resources out there. Couch to 5k is an amazingly simple programme to get people started, with achievable steps to get even the most unfit up and running. I commonly find there’s a mental barrier set at around the 20 minute mark; once you go beyond this point, you can run for 25, 30, 50 mins without problem. In fact, once you hit the 5k mark, congratulations, runner achievement unlocked!

The problem with running is that it can become addictive, and that in it’s own way can present challenges. Running puts a hell of a lot of strain on your body, and you’ll pick up injuries much quicker running than in any other sport. I would really advise that you stick to a structured plan, and when starting out, keep runs to no more than 3 per week.

A structured plan would look something like:

Day 1: Tempo-paced run

Day 2: rest (or other type of training)

Day 3: Interval training

Day 4: rest (or other type of training)

Day 5: Longer steady state run

Couple of points to note about the above plan:

  1. Running has it’s own vocabulary to learn. Tempo & Steady-state refer to heart rate zones — read down for more information.
  2. Interval training; I’ll go into depth with this. Interval training makes you stronger, faster, and encourages your body to recover quicker. It shocks your heart and muscles by forcing you to both work at speed you’re not accustomed to, and in a fatigued state due to short recovery periods. This is vital for improving your abilities as a runner (same applies to all aerobic activities). When starting out with interval training, make your goals short, for example, running along a road with lamp-posts, run hard between 2 posts, walk to the next one, run hard to the next, walk to the next, repeat 1 or 2 more times. This can become more structured with timings and/or distance as goals, for example, 30 seconds fast pace, 30 seconds rest, repeat * 6. As you become stronger, the intervals should become greater with shorter rest built in. You can also mix up your interval training with things like Fartlek training (“speed play” — ideally run with a partner and varying the tempo of your run throughout a course to challenge each other), Tabata training, or throwing in variables such as hill intervals. Interval training should feel tough, but should also be relatively short. The best thing about interval training is that the body feels the effects long after training — good news for those interested in burning calories!
  3. Rest days are built in, and I would advise you undertake some active recovery activities like walking, or do some non-aerobic activities like weight training.

I would also highly recommend getting your gait analysed, and get the correct trainers for your running style. Again, this sounds expensive, but you can mitigate against this by simply doing the wet foot test: simply get out of the bath or shower, and check your footprint:

High arch feet require a lot of cushioning, but no stability features. Medium arch feet usually mean you can get away with “neutral” running shoes — i.e. shoes that are cushioned but aren’t necessarily supportive. Low arch feet will require support shoes; shoes that will give stability to your foot when you land your foot when running. This isn’t an official rule, but will give you an idea of what type of shoe to buy.

The heart of the matter

Ignore your heart at your peril. It’s an amazing thing, pumping blood round your body. It’s also an amazing strain gauge that will let you know how hard you’re working. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve truly appreciated how useful training by heart rate is. As a runner, I trained by pace for years. I even set my sights on running Dublin Marathon at an 8minute per mile pace, aiming to achieve a time of 3 hours 30 mins. Sadly, that went south around the 14mile mark after going too hard too early, I blew spectacularly, staggering for a mile until hitting a designated gel station. I still completed in a good time, but in a lot of pain. A wise man would’ve known when to pair back his effort, but sadly, a foolish man ran at a set pace that day, and caused himself a lot of hurt. Now, I’m older and wiser, and use a heart rate monitor to ensure that I stay in set zones for targeted training and racing. Heart rate monitors are relatively inexpensive, effective training tools.

Heart rate zones fall into 6 categories, and are based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate. A quick rule of thumb to set your maximum heart rate is the calculation (220 minus <yourage>). Or you can do it the hard way; find a long hill and run up it, increasing the pace incrementally. When you feel that your are maxing out, sprint for 10–15 seconds. Once you’ve recovered, and finish the run, check the stats from your device, and you should be able to verify your max. I’ve created a handy calculator for heart rate zones.

Zones:

Active Recovery: 60–65% of your maximal heart rate (max HR); limited activity, like light walking, used post-exercise.

Base training: 65–75% max HR; long, slow runs/cycles etc. Trains your body to use fat as fuel. This can be pretty monotonous, to be perfectly honest, and I only train in this zone when out on a group bike ride in winter — emphasis on training in this zone is that it has to be long!

Endurance: 75–82% max HR: slightly more intense effort, this is the zone you want to train at for distance events (steady-state).

Tempo: 82 — 89% max HR: this is a high-intensity zone were you train your body to move at speed over distance. This is an ideal zone for racing events.

Threshold: 89 — 94% max HR: this is a very high intensity zone, and will feel very difficult. It is the targeted training zone that will increase your capacity for racing longer and harder. Ideal zone for short fast races (or time trials, if you’re a cyclist).

Anaerobic: 94–100% max HR: maximal effort here. The body can only sustain being in this zone for a very short period of time before hitting exhaustion. This is for very focused training like sprint intervals or hill repetitions.

Now, the majority of training devices and apps (Garmin, Polar, Strava etc), measure heart rate in 5 zones. This is frustrating, but you can work around it by bundling the first 2 zones together as Zone 1, and the rest falls into place.

Summary

In summary, this is a collection of accumulated training and advice I’ve gained over the years. Hopefully there’s something in there for anyone starting out, or even looking to improve beyond their current level. Thanks for reading

Follow me on Strava: https://www.strava.com/athletes/13794547

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