Thursday, March 3, 2011

Heart rate, recovery and aging

One of the most beneficial aspects of using a heart rate monitor regularly is to be able to track your body's response to exercise over time. Your heart rate is a glaring in-your-face notification of what is going on in your body - but its value is of little use if you don't pay close attention to it. Some people just see a number, and don't put two and two together if that number doesn't make sense in the big picture of what they normally see for a given perceived exertion.

I have a personal training client, Alex, who recently purchased a Spinner® bike for home. I also ride outside with her in the summer, coaching her on technique. She has a bicycle tour planned to Europe this summer, so I will be working with her on increasing her endurance and hill climbing ability. Her challenge is higher cadences, and outside her preferred cadence on the flats is mid 70's rpm. I know she will have less muscular fatigue if she could raise her preferred cadence by 5-10rpm, so this is what I've been working on with her indoors. You should know that Alex is 72 years young and is very active.

Just recently I have been having her focus on pedal stroke technique drills as well as cadence drills from 70 to 90rpm. This post is not about those drills or their effectiveness - although I can write another post about that because I have been successful at raising both her and her husband's comfort level with higher cadences by teaching them to pedal more effectively. Rather, I want to tell you about her experience this past week with her heart rate response to exercise.

I had planned to take her through the cadence drills. After she warmed up, I noticed she seemed to be working very hard and was breathing very heavy. Her cadence was about 70rpm. I looked at her monitor expecting it to be pushing 140 judging by her breathing (Alex's threshold is 142). But her heart rate was only 113!

I asked her what her perceived exertion was. She said 6 (just below "hard"). Hmmmm, that's up there. So I suggested she try a lower resistance and higher cadence. There was no change in her perceived exertion, breathing rate or her heart rate. Nothing she did raised her heart rate (even standing up, which normally spikes it) or lowered her perceived exertion relative to that HR of 113. She was flat out tired.

After only ten minutes I said "Stop! This is not the day for you to ride!" She had been cross-country skiing several days in a row, plus pilates twice a week, plus traveling the week before with not one day of rest. (That is kind of a typical week for her, often with a snowshoe thrown in). Also, she hadn't been sleeping well and felt a deep fatigue even going up stairs. This was a Tuesday and she had a cross-country ski lesson on Thursday that she was looking forward to.

So I put the nix on the cycling and told her to completely take Wednesday off - NO EXERCISE! And if she still was that fatigued I suggested she pass on the skiing on Thursday as well. (Knowing her, she wouldn't do that - she's pretty committed to her skiing and to constantly moving).

This can happen to anyone who is very active. The heart rate response to doing too much physical exercise or to excessive stress without sufficient recovery can be either a suppressed heart rate (as in Alex's case) or one that is much higher than it usually is for a given perceived exertion. Everyone needs rest and recovery. If you balance hard days with easy days you are much more likely to avoid a response like Alex's.

But I want to make another point here about age. After age 40, the human body simply cannot do what it used to do. It's a slow steady decline. I don't mean that in any kind of pessimistic attitude like "it's all downhill after 40"! But most people do not want to admit that they can't do what they did before. Heck, I like to pretend I'm still in my 30's! ;-) But I noticed a tremendous difference as I moved into and through my 40's in my ability to put in multiple days of exercise. This need for rest and recovery is even more pronounced every decade.

It's just reality, and we can't ignore it!

Chances are, you have a few people in your classes that are over 40, right? Over 50? How about into the 60's and 70's? Make sure to stress the importance of recovery to them even more than your younger population. You don't have to directly address them (unless you feel very comfortable with them); as you are well aware, some people are quite sensitive to the fact that they are aging. Alex can get very depressed when she focuses on her inability to do as much as she used to do. That's when I try to focus her on the fact that she is so much more fit and able than 99% of the population her age. When she is rested, she realizes she is able to enjoy her cycling and skiing and snowshoeing and golfing much more than when she is not rested.

I know my situation is unique with Alex, being able to train her one on one in cycling and Spinning and being able to see her HR response and to ask her immediate questions about what she's been doing. Of course, this is unlikely in a class situation, especially if it is a large class. But some of the things I learn from working with Alex and her husband Bob (who is 79 going on 25) have been instrumental in helping me coaching at one club where the age range is 50's to almost 80. After this happened with Alex, I gave a lecture to that class on the increased need for recovery for older populations. They too are more fit than the average person their age, but many are also exercise-aholics. After I explained it to them, one woman in class announced out loud, "So THAT'S why I'm always so tired!" She also thanked me after class for the information.

So, the key points here:
  • Pay close attention to your heart rate response to exercise
  • Remind your students that everyone needs recovery
  • Balance hard days with easy days
  • Recognize the increased need for rest and recovery after age 40, and especially 50 and above

Do any of you work with older populations?


RaffCycles said...


This is so true of so many participants I have had in my classes. Nice post!!! Glad to see your stuff back online!!!

Kala said...

Great post! So good to see you back here, I have warm fuzzy feelings ;)

As you know, since I teach to a uni crowd, not very applicable, but I still think it's important to mention that they do recover, young people also like to push, push, push and although it may not take as large of a toll on the body as someone older, it can still result in "unknown" fatigue.

This is great information, and a great reminder-- Definitely something to put in my back pocket for PT. :)

Jennifer Sage said...

Thanks guys. Yes Kala, you will need this in your back pocket for PT. And when you move to Pittsburgh and teach at other non-University clubs, you'll encounter some older students. I love, love, love having them in my class, but we must respect the fact that they cannot always do what we are asking, or as much as we are asking.

More and more baby boomers are moving into that >50-60 range - and they are filling our classes!

My biggest pet peeve? When someone says "Oh, I'm too old for that!"
No matter what "that" might be - no one is too old. They just might have to do it a little differently.

Sarah said...

Thanks. Great schtuff! I'm one of those older instructors ;) and an exer'holic. I know its time to rest when A)HR is sky high with little effort or B) the harder I push, I see no increase in speed. Usually I'm just tired or sometimes coming down with the cooties. I do have some other 'fossils' in my class and ironically, it was 2 younger folks that had overexertion episodes. But back to the point, I really should educate the class better on cueing into their hr and bodies.

Shirin said...

The "usual" greatness!So glad we are back to normal!Thanks for the awesome post Jennifer.
Yes, I do have quite a few riders over 40, and a few very very hardcore riders over 50. One young lady of 73 puts lots of my younger kids to shame! I teach at a smaller size facility with 16 bikes only, so I am very fortunate to get to know my athletes. Guiding them 7 times a week, I stay aware of their HR and RPE's as we ride. You are right on, as soon as I see something out of the ordinary,I ask them what they have been doing and we get to the bottom of it. The best advice: your body NEEDS rest days, at any age,but particularly over 40-ish ;)

Stephen Grady said...

I have been there, both indoors and outside, where the effort just didn't line up with the heart rate. And every time, I have backed off, told the group today is not a day for me and let them go. Yeah, I am one of those older athletes who really thinks of themselves as a younger one; and works to destroy the younger ones. Still lots of gas left in this old fart! :D

I encourage all my participants to get at least a chest strap so that they can use it on the equipment they use in the facility - everything has polar-compatible displays. Sadly most don't. I think they would be shocked sometimes Even one of the 'athletes' doesn't pay attention, not wearing his monitor when indoors because he feels like too much of a geek (?)

And every class starts with the "pay attention to your body; listen to what it is saying. If today is not your day to do [insert profile], then don't!" speech. If you aren't monitoring your heart rate, then you aren't listening to everything your body is saying.

Jennifer, you are so right - age is not an excuse not to do something. It is an reason to modify, but you can still do it.

Le said...

Great post, and a good question as a reminder. Thanks Jennifer.
In the past when I taught at a women's club, I had couple ladies who were over 70, one came for fitness, but the other was really "exer'holic": 5 days/wk/spin at 6am (3 times with me) Couldn't correct her forms or ask her to reduce # of her spinning classes. She walked after riding too, plus weight training...and she was trong as ever....

Now, I am teaching in couple co-ed clubs, I only have the "freedom 55" or the "norm 65", and they seem to know how to pace themselves in my classes and appreciate the benefits I provided through the rides. They opened up to me: "We don't go to so-&-so's class anymore because so much standing (only 5% seated) that our knees can't handle...." I overheard one comment that I am not sure if it was a complaint or complement: "Don't know what Le's did today but I am so hungry after her class??" what do you think, Jen? Did I work them too hard?

BTW, I never tell you how old I am. I will turn 54 this June and do notice the change in me (plus the op I'd been through) On Mon I taught 3 classes at 3 clubs with your Over/Under Int., I had to get off the bike many times
especially when the Over part started :( But I was honest with the riders and explained why I had to do so--not
cheating, but recovering.

I don't see any clubs offer the cycling basis or recovery zone class anymore for instructors to recommend people go to those classes.

Thank you for the key points, too. We all will be benefited from them.