Never Too Late – Start Somewhere

Fitness Test

Having set my goal to get considerably fitter, I thought maybe it was a good idea to have a clearer idea where I’m starting from. For anyone who is very unfit, very overweight or has a personal or family history of serious health problems, of course you could and should see your GP and if appropriate a qualified personal trainer for a full health assessment and recommendations before you undertake any potentially strenuous exercise regime. For the rest of us (basically fit and healthy but terminally lazy!) there are some basic steps you can take to assess your own fitness and ensure you train in a challenging but at the same time safe and sustainable way.

As I said last month; my primary goal at the moment is to improve my cardio-vascular fitness and lose a little weight at the same time in order to get into better shape for challenges to come. This I’ll do primarily by running and cycling initially. I’m 42 – not 21 –  and though I’m reasonably active, I haven’t done any cardio work with any real intensity for quite a few years now; so I am taking sensible precautions. I had an ECG just a few years ago as part of a health check, so I know that basically my heart’s sound, but I already had a heart rate monitor from a previous training regime which I decided to dust off in order to check exactly how the old ticker is performing these days, and ensure my initial enthusiasm didn’t push me too hard too soon.

There is endless science around exercise of course, but initially all I was concerned with was checking my current resting heart rate (a rough indicator of fitness), setting a safe but challenging range of heart rates in which to train initially, and measuring my recovery time (the time it takes to recover from a training rate to a resting rate – the faster you recover, the fitter you are). If you are in a vulnerable group due to your age, fitness level, weight or an existing medical condition, I can highly recommend one of these monitors when you are just starting to exercise. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to use: an elasticated band holds the monitor part in place over your chest under your training gear, and sends your pulse to a watch style receiver which shows your heart rate along with the time and a myriad of other data if you really want to get anal about it all. You don’t have to check it constantly – just every 20 seconds or so during your workout. The kit I have was made by York and had not been used for so long that I had to change the Lithium battery in both the transmitter and receiver!

A heart rate monitor is a good investment when you’re starting out, to track your progress training within safe but challenging limits. Also reassuring to know that your heart is still beating on the occasions when going is tough and you think you might be dying!

With the monitor strapped on, the first thing I wanted to do was check my current resting heart rate. This checked out at 64 bpm (beats per minute) – not at all bad and indeed lower than the average often quoted as 72 bpm. And when I say resting; this really was resting (after lying on the bed for 5-10 minutes). I kept the monitor on until I took my run, and this confirmed my rate is about 70-80 sitting at the PC, 80-90 moving around the house, and got up into the 90s when I started warming up and stretching to run. So far so good.

What I needed now was a guideline as to just how intensely I should train. I would say at this point that if all else fails there is probably no better indicator than the way your body feels when exercising as to whether you are doing too little or too much; but it is just as easy to do too much without realising as it is to do too little because it seems like hard work; so it helps to have something a little more scientific to monitor yourself. Taking a consensus of the plethora of bewildering and sometimes conflicting advice available online, I went with the Mayo Clinic’s website which recommended the old formula of 220-your age to work out your maximum heart rate. For me, this meant 220-42=178 bpm. Now that is a (albeit generalised) maximum. Not a target to aim for – more an absolute limit you should never exceed. For vigorous exercise, Mayo recommends training at 70-85% of your maximum rate – which meant for me 125-150 bpm. This means that I would be aiming to keep my rate between these limits for a good cardio workout. Of course everybody is different and these are only guidelines; in my case from previous experience I think they are quite conservative; but when starting out it’s best to pace yourself and be safe rather than sorry.

First Time Out

Before hitting the streets for the first time, I didn’t forget to warm up and stretch a little. As we’re running it is primarily the legs we’re working on and you can find thousands of examples of stretching exercises online if you need them. Main point is don’t go out and exercise before you’ve stretched a little; and don’t stretch anything excessively or without warming it up by moving it around a little first. I’ve never got along with exercising early in the morning partly for this reason. I always favoured after work (but before my evening meal). My current homeworking routine and flexible shift pattern dictated that lunchtime was best this week. Point is you have to make time; and if you live somewhere temperate likeBritain, ignore anything but the most extreme weather.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that since I last trained (ran) regularly, my Taiji training alone has given me a better range of movement and undoubtedly more suppleness than I had previously, so stretching was easier than it used to be. Along with my resting heart rate, this made me hopeful that despite my doubts Taiji and a little walking/cycling had actually kept me fitter than I had feared. The only way to know for sure though was to hit the pavement. My current Nike’s are a few years old now, but still adequate for starting out again.

My initial assessment was over a very modest 1.6 mile (2.6 k) circuit. For information, the terrain is mostly level for the first half, with a moderate climb then a moderate descent in the second half of the circuit, all on tarmac.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I could run this at a moderate pace without any problems. I had to stop and walk at least a dozen times of course: because my heart rate got consistently above my 150 bpm upper limit; but never for more than 15-20 seconds. Each time I let it drop to just 140, then ran on. In practice I trained in the 140-155 range for the 20 minutes or so it took to cover the course. I felt fine (but like I had worked). This was encouraging, but also shows that you can’t rely solely on how you feel; if I had pushed myself and ran until I felt I had to stop without the monitor to refer to, I’m sure I would have got my heart rate dangerously high once or twice just on this initial outing.

So for now, I’ll be content that I am not quite as unfit as I feared: the work rate I can achieve is respectable, but what is clearly lacking is stamina. I’ll continue to work at this level for the next couple of weeks to build that up; then as my fitness grows I can increase the duration and intensity.

I timed my recovery to a ‘practical’ resting rate at the end. It took around 5 minutes for my pulse to settle from a max rate of 155 or so at the end of the run to below 100 (I kept moving around afterwards, rather than collapsing on the bed!). In truth complete recovery probably took nearer 20 minutes.

It will be interesting to see how my fitness improves in the next couple of weeks. I’ll be continuing with my usual Taiji training too of course, and probably still do a little cycling from time to time; but now I’m really looking forward to setting some more meaningful challenges in terms of distances, times and other disciplines once I get my basic fitness up.

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