This post builds upon the prior post titled “A Brief History” and the post which started this thread “Training Through Time”. Its recommended that if you haven’t read these posts, that you give them a go before digging into this one so that you have the context needed to appreciate the concepts that are chased after here.

Let’s continue with the training concept that developed through the 1980s and 1990s…

Concept #2 – Training Zones

Strength training did not meet the needs of everyone. There were those who wanted simply to lose a little or a lot of weight, others wanted to ‘tone up’ or ‘firm up’ without gaining any bulk, others wanted the benefits that were being linked to exercise, specifically the heart health benefits, and then finally others wanted to train to compete in an event. The ’80s and ’90s saw the birth of the popularity, as in the beginning of mass participation in sports (sports such as running & triathlon).

Problem… the two predominant sources of ‘how to’ do any of the above was limited to health professionals or sport specific coaches, neither of whom were located in health clubs. Medical professionals were only seen if you were ill or injured, and sport specific coaches were only available (in general) as team coaches at universities.

Solution… taking research performed by university physical education and exercise physiology programs (see prior post titled “Sport Science” for information on this topic), the manufacturers of fitness equipment (i.e. treadmills, steppers and stationary bikes) eager to sell their equipment to health clubs came up with the solution : Training Zones. Making Training Zones a viable solution was made possible by the entry of consumer heart rate [HR] monitors into the market as well as fitness equipment with heart rate [HR] monitors built.

The solution proposed by equipment manufacturers: health club member goals could be achieved by reverse engineering exercise results.

If a health club member wanted to lose weight… then they would be encouraged to train in a heart rate [HR] zone where the research suggested that the body burnt more fat than carbohydrates. Reverse engineer alittle bit more, and health club members were ‘educated’ that since a pound of fat (in a lab) is equivalent to 3,500 calories, all you needed to do was do the math to calculate how many minutes or hours you would have to exercise in a fat burning heart rate zone in order to burn off as much as you wanted. And with that gross over simplification of how the entire physiology and psychology of the human body works, scores and scores of health club members took to treadmills, steppers and bikes to burn baby burn those unwanted pounds of fleshy flab off our bodies.

How did that turn out?  Somehow not as simple as promised…

If on the other hand a health club member wanted to tone up or firm up, gyms started offering classes. Following the trends started by Richard Simmons  and Jane Fonda, aerobic dance classes and jazzercise classes were classified as low impact exercise programs that would get you sweating and strengthening simultaneously. Between Buns of Steel, Body by Jake and Suzanne Summers, every body part was being toned and tightened with additional promises of the pounds falling off. With the opportunity to sell more to health gyms, manufacturers developed steppers for step classes, and started to take the tools used by rehab professionals (e.g. Swiss Balls, thoracic & lumbar rolls) and developed exercise classes to further expand the line up gyms could offer to members.

How did that turn out?  Again, somehow not as simple as promised…

Cardio equipment had a chart similar to the one below where age specific HR zones were shown for each type of training. We were told that success was simply a matter of training in the right zone.

Click chart to enlarge

File is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: Morgoth666

And finally, the ’80s and ’90s brought with them the beginning of mass participation in sporting events. Fitness equipment manufacturers figured this one out no different than how they reverse engineered the simplicity of weight loss. With the fitness trend exploding, research into fitness also started to explode, and with that the performance of athletes in various events was being recorded. Papers, articles, and books on heart rate training and early lactate threshold training started to be published, offering insight into what an athlete’s HR is in various running and cycling events.

The assumption made was that since the research was providing us insight into the HR of peak performing athletes in different competitive events (e.g. a top runner will hold an HR that is 99% of their lactate threshold HR in a 5k, whereas in a 10k their HR will be at 95%, half marathon and marathon a tad lower, etc…) then developing training programs for these competitive events should be no different than how programs were created to lose weight… a simple issue of mathematics where the goal was believed to be achieved simply by training at the appropriate effort level.

Remember… weight loss was dumbed down to merely ‘x’ number of minutes of cardio (i.e. a treadmill, stepper, bike or aerobic class), where the number of minutes was calculated as follows:

total # of minutes to exercise = total weight to be lost (lbs) × 3,500 calories/lbs of fat ÷ calories burnt/minute

(where calories burnt/minute is specific to the type of exercise & the individuals body weight)

Well, training for almost any event was equally dumbed down. If a world class 5k runner holds an HR which is 99% of their lactate threshold, then training was touted as merely working your way up to holding a HR at 99% of lactate threshold, and working to hold that HR for longer and longer periods until you could run 5 km… ta-da! And with that, the entire concept of ‘how to train’ for any event… 5k, 10k, half or full marathon was diminished to:

to compete in an event = hold the event specific heart rate × longer and longer periods of time (or distance)

(until you are able to hold for the entire time/distance… or close enough to wing the final meters)

This should shed some light on the narratives that predominate in sports…

  • “holding” onto a HR became ‘how long could you hurt’ hence training taking on the form of self inflicted torture in the belief that ‘if you just try a bit harder, and hold on for a bit longer’ then you will achieve your performance goals.
  • “to hold” onto a HR required training to build up your tolerance, your pain level or pain threshold, where success became synonymous with those who could hurt more or hurt the most
  • injury and illness subsequently became badges of honor, of courage, of hard core training

The concept of Training Zones is as flawed as Rip&Recover

And now, two to three decades after training zones were sold to us as ‘the’ solution, we have athlete after athlete – and not uncommonly Olympians – coming forth revealing that they have battled for years and years with mental health issues, including but not limited to: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety, depression, anger and to top it all off… suicidal ideations (with many athletes, including many Olympians committing suicide). The suicide of yet another athlete – Kelly Catlin – a 23year old cyclist who won Olympic silver should be a wake up call to the so-called health & fitness industry, unfortunately it will be like all others to date written off as a one-off event not a reflection of how we train, how athletes are encouraged to train, to race. Seriously… how long are we going to pretend that training to become numb, to disrespecting signals our body sends to our brain that something isn’t right, training and racing to “go hard or go home”, in a mantra of “no pain = no gain”, or either “PR or ER” (as in set a personal record, or push so hard trying to PR that you end up in the emergency room of the local hospital) has nothing to do with our state of physical, mental and emotional health?

Click on the quote banner to link to Bicycling.com article on Kelly Catlin

Thanks to health & fitness gyms and fitness equipment manufacturers eager to provide ‘a solution’ to the growing numbers in the fitness boom, training and specifically sport specific training became dumbed down to the point that skill, technique and aerobic capacity were never even identified nor included in the solution that became what we know today as the standard of training. So all that we know is how to harm ourselves by over-trying to the point where we train and race ourselves to a toe tag.

Beyond the body count, has anyone checked how the solution is working for those not yet dead?

Let’s check… how did heart rate training zones work out for weight loss? Well, let’s see… since the ’80s and ’90s we – the collective we – has become the most overweight, obese and morbidly obese society to exist, the most diseased society to exist, the most medicated, drugged, intoxicated and ‘high’ (as in Cheech and Chong high) society to exist.  I believe its rather safe to say… that heart rate training zones didn’t work out for weight loss, or general health especially since heart disease is still the #1 killer.  Well, what about the success of runners in road race events? Surely the average times must be well ahead of times ran in the ’80s and ’90s, right? Wrong! Finishing times today are on average slower that in prior decades. So, so much for heart rate training zones taking running and runners to new levels.

Yet unconvinced that training zones are a dead-end, now we are taking them to new levels. Heart rate zones have lost popularity because with the latest gadgets being power meters for both cyclists and runners and with ‘sport science’ now becoming a marketing division and no longer actual science, manufacturers eager to sell are again selling the solution of training zones – this time just power zones – once again as the key to success. But it doesn’t stop there. Our suicidal tendencies have not been fully realized with training zones, so to supercharge training with power, its being tied with an even deadlier concept in training: HiiT [Hi Intensity Interval Training].

But we can surely put our faith in power training zones and HiiT? Right? Wrong! Hi intensity training which incredibly is being touted by all today has been shown in the literature (as in medical research) to be directly correlated with greater risks of cardiac and respiratory illnesses! Seriously, Google for yourself ‘J curve’ and ‘reverse J curve’ and you can read for yourself what you can expect training HiiT or any of its subsets: (i.e.) power training, bootcamps, Tabata training, spin classes, etc..  They are all the anti-thesis to training to be healthy, but hey… who cares, right? Because HiiT sells!

FYI… a coroner in the UK who performed an autopsy on a 15year old boy who trained for cyclocross to confirm the cause of death could not identify anything congenitally wrong with the boy’s heart… leaving only one thing to blame: how the boy trained. FYI… HiiT was his coaches go-to form of training. If HiiT can kill a 15year old who had an healthy heart of a 15year old… imagine what HiiT can do to you.

Upcoming posts:

  • Training Through Time [3] – Where Are We Now?
  • The True Path to Health & High Performance: HRTT