Using Heart Rate to Improve Aerobic Capacity and Overall Health

Sergey and Cyn Day 1 - Sitting

I’m a nerd. I’m not afraid to admit it. There are certain topics I can read on and on,  research and analyze, and over analyze to death and never be bored. Probably why I chose the sciences as my majors in university. I received a BSc in Biology from the University of Victoria and became fascinated by DNA and RNA extraction and advances in micro-biotechnology. I worked for over a year at the Centre for Plant Health in Victoria cloning plant viruses and using them as screening detection for fruit trees heading to all parts of Canada. The stress of relying on government grants to maintain a job got to me and sent me back to school. I had spent my undergrad working for several agencies supporting children and adults with disabilities. Many of the clients I supported also had epilepsy. I became fascinated by the “ketogenic diet” which I had administered to several clients and studied as an undergraduate project. This fascination resulted in my own project that I generated and submitted to Dr. Stephen Cunnane at the  University of  Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, Department of Nutritional Sciences. I convinced him to take me on as an MSc student so that I could learn more about the mechanism of action of this unique high-fat, low protein, low carb diet.

Upon completion of my MSc I was once again in the work force. This time as a Clinical Research Associate at Princess Margaret hospital with Dr. Paul Goss conducting clinical trials in breast cancer prevention, particularly looking at the role of n-3 fatty acids and it’s effect on breast cancer cells. This was an amazing experience and felt like being at school everyday as I learned from some of the top oncologists, nurses and researchers in Canada. Once again however, the stress of working from government grant, to government grant became more than I could handle and back to school I went to get my BEd to become an elementary school teacher. This is definitely my perfect career choice and I love what I do. In order to satisfy my need for research and measuring/evaluating things I frequently conduct action research within my own classrooms as I test out different teaching methodologies and evaluate their efficacy. However, this can sometimes become more qualitative than quantitative and my brain misses that side. My recent purchase of the Bio-force HRV system has become my new training toy and researching toy that has allowed me to satisfy the science obsessed side of my brain.

How it all started:

Well, if you have read any of my previous posts you will know about my love and adoration for kettlebell sport and my amazing coach Jason Dolby. Now that I have been training with a coach for a year I can confidently notice changes that I would attribute specifically to the sport of kettlebell – my body composition and overall fitness and conditioning/health are the 2 most noticeable differences. I have been competing in sports most of my life. My past experiences allbeit extremely ignorant (but based on outdated “facts”), dictated my training for decades; pain = gain, and in order to improve one’s health and aerobic capacity requires one to be beat down before you can be built up. I thought if I could barely climb stairs after EVERY workout meant that I must be doing something successful. I was constantly overtrained and injured but honestly believed I was doing it in the name of better health and “fitness”.

Then I met Jason. I questioned his coaching in the beginning because his workouts never left me sore, majorly fatigued or “beat down”. I finished every workout feeling like I could do more, and I looked forward to the next training session feeling fresh. The results (now after a year) obviously speak for themselves. My body fat is down between 12-14% which I am convinced would have been doubled (or more) a year+ ago, I have suffered no injuries in the last year and have actually noticed improvements in previous injuries sustained from other sports years ago, including chronic conditions like the osteoarthritis in my right knee. I knew that the combination of kettlebell sport specific training (SSP), as well as Jason’s choices for my  general physical prep (GPP) were being prescribed in such a way that was maximizing my ability to utilize fat oxidation, and improving my athletic potential without sacrificing my health. I just had no data to support this except for my weight loss, competition results and overall feeling of badassness.

Like Meets Like

The great thing about any hobby or career choice (in my opinion) is when you meet like minded people who share the same passion for the same things you do. Within the OKC family we have an amazing network of athletes who span the globe, and the beauty of social media has allowed us the opportunity to connect with each other and share ideas, information and support. My friend BJ Bliffert introduced me to “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”  by Dr. Philip Maffetone. I will admit that I purchased the book and decided to read it based solely on BJ’s recommendation without really knowing what I was about to learn and discover as it applied to mykettlebell training. Reading it was seriously like an epiphany – similar to the one I had about food when I read Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s book “It Starts With Food.” I realized how archaic my training ideas had become and how they weren’t really based on sound physiology in the first place. Luckily the human body is very resilient and it is fairly easy to undo bad patterns by consistently replacing them with good ones.

I was also super excited when I hit p.136 of the book and read the testimonial by Dr. Stephen Gangemi who I had the honor and privilege of training with for 1 week on a MovNat retreat. He’s completed fifteen Ironman races and countless triathlons and is someone I grew to admire and respect in the time I spent with him. To know he was connected to Maffetone did not surprise me as he is one of the healthiest people I know despite having a career, family and is always in training for some intense and demanding multi-sport competition. The impact of reading the book and discussions with BJ, Stephen and some other Chu-Hu nerds as that I decided to purchase a heart rate monitor.  I calculated my maximum aerobic training heart rate zone to be between 129 – 139bpm. I then decided to ensure that the GPP portion of my workouts were all done within this zone. I have no reason to work harder and tax my anaerobic system during this part of my workout which is only going to wear me down over time, as opposed to improving and building on my aerobic base. I also started recording my heart rate during my kettlebell sport specific sets. Here I was not trying to keep my heart rate within a certain range, but simply recorded the data to see where I am at and what my current “natural” trend is.

Preliminary Results

With the heart rate monitor I have noticed that during my GPP I naturally seem to fall comfortably within my aerobic zone. Although I don’t have the data to prove it, I feel like the improved responses to my overall feeling of health and well being is from this improved base that I have created over the last year. Staying within my aerobic zone also means I am using fat more efficiently as a fuel source, and that (in addition to an improved diet) explains my fat loss. What I have found most surprising is that in my kettlebell sport specific training sets I am also within a Maffetone aerobic threshold range.  So far even at higher rpms my heart rate has not gone over 160bpm as a maximum, and is often under the high end of 139bpm as an average for the set. There are several things I attribute to this- these results are currently for the 16kg kettlebell which I have been competing and training with for a year so I think my body has more than adapted to this load. At the time I started measuring and recording my heart rates was only a couple of weeks from a competition where I would be in my peak performance state, and thus makes sense I could handle higher rpm at a lower heart rate. I look forward to continuing to record and measure my heart rate as I progress to heavier weighted kettlebells to see how that transition may change overtime and over the various stages of my training cycles.

Heart Rate Variability and Bio-Force

Little did I know that this heart rate monitoring would be the beginning of my nerdliness. BJ also introduced me to Joel Jamieson and his website . Joel is a walking index of useful information and research that many athletes from different sports can benefit from. What I love most about him is the way that he is using technology and creating an on-line data base that athletes can use and find real peer-reviewed literature and discussion from experts in a wide range of fields.  Joel is very generous with his amazing expertise and many of his resources are free if you’re not so lazy you won’t read or watch a video! I’ve also never met such a highly regarded professional who responds so quickly to individual emails. He truly cares about helping others and learning from others and I LOVE that…and ofcourse naturally would choose to support a product created by such an individual.

My journey with Bio-Force HRV is only beginning. I can’t even begin to understand yet what it has to offer or what I am going to take away from using it. That being said, I have no doubt that it is going to be an incredibly useful tool, but is not for everyone. I think I will find success with this tool because of my nerdliness towards proper scientific data collection. For best results calculating HRV you have to measure your resting heart rate ideally at the same time each day, in a calm state. Obviously consistency is crucial in order to generate patterns that will be meaningful.  For now I am content collecting data until I have obtained at least a month’s worth to start making interpretations of what it all means. It also buys me some time as I read through Jamieson’s HRV guide to try to understand more about HRV scores and patterns.

For now all I can say in the 10 days I have been measuring my HRV score is that on average it seems to be between 78 – 80 which corresponds to moderate-high aerobic fitness which is about where I would expect to find it. Again, I can’t wait to see what happens over time – will my training keep me in this score range, or will it increase further as I move up to the 20kg and eventually 24kg kettlebell? Only time will tell.  Right now I am enjoying the process of data collection, and as a scientist I am smart enough to know the difference between using the tool to monitor my training, as opposed to letting scores dictate or justify how I think I “should” be feeling. I would definitely recommend this tool to any athlete who likes being physiologically connected to their training and understanding their body mechanics and how your training is influencing your overall health. I would also recommend it to the patient athlete who doesn’t mind slightly tedious data collection, and is interested in being a part of a larger data base of information that could also serve useful to others.

My current goals are to continue monitoring my heart rate during SSP and GPP training as well as daily calculation of my HRV score. By the end of the summer I will have finished reading Maffetone’s book as well as Jamieson’s HRV guide and I am sure I will have made some new revelations I look forward to sharing.



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