Work your way into a good workout? Get in the zone for fitness

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends aerobic exercises like walking, jogging or swimming for 20 to 60 minutes, three to five times per week.  Sounds straight-forward.  Yes, but it does not take into account the one aspect to which everybody, trying to get back into shape should pay attention: the principles of progression, or how to safely and yet effectively increase your exercise load to see gains in strength and endurance.

How do we know where to start and when to progress?

First and foremost, pick sports and activities you enjoy.  Finding a way to incorporate these good habits in your daily life is key.  You need to stay with it for life, and you will only be consistent with physical activities you enjoy.

How do we start?

If you are a neophyte or have been out of your routine for more than six months, small and frequent doses of exercise are the way to go.  A good starting base would be 20 minutes of light cardio three time a week, 20 minutes of weight-bearing exercise two times a week, as well as 10 minutes of daily stretching.  If you are more advanced or it has been less than six months, start back with the same activities you were doing before but decrease the intensity.  At this low level of intensity, it is also the prime time to work on the mechanics of the stroke or the exercise.  Find a good swim instructor, fitness instructor or personal trainer.

How do we progress?

As a rule of thumb, a 10 to 20 percent increase in distance or duration per week is usually recommended.  However, the best indicators are form, ease and soreness.  In other words, listen to your body.  Can you use and maintain good form throughout a particular movement or duration?  Has your routine stopped posing a challenge?  Are you no longer sore after your workouts?  Then it could be time to increase intensity.

Technology has entered the fitness industry, and may help you stick to your goal.  But when it comes to fitness, I want you to focus on being well-rounded, and not get too focused on numbers, such as those on your scale, your Garmin watch or your dumbbells.  Mix all facets of fitness such as range of motion, coordination, balance and strength, as well as cardio.  Being well rounded is a great way to stay injury-free.

As swimming falls in the category of cardio, let’s understand the physiology of cardiovascular conditioning and heart rate training, which is exercising in intensity zones based on your maximum heart rate.  Traditionally an intensity of 70 percent of your maximum heart rate was thought to be ideal, but this one-size-fits-all approach might not provide the best results for everyone.  A more custom designed approach based on your own goals might be more effective, although most of us would benefit from training in all zones.

Zone 1: General health.  Low intensity activities (up to 60% of your maximum heart rate), like walking, gardening, household chores done consistently and for 30 minutes on most days will already reduce the risk of developing many chronic diseases.

Zone 2: Weight management.  If your goal is to reduce body fat and you have been relatively inactive, you will need to train at a level of 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.  This is still within your comfort zone and allows you to exercise at a steady pace for a long enough time to burn enough calories.

Zone 3: Aerobic conditioning/weight management.  If your goal is to improve your cardiovascular conditioning for better stamina and endurance, you should train within 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate.  This is a better fat-burning zone, and it is the zone where workouts with a Masters swim team will start and help you achieve.

Zone 4: Advanced conditioning:  Once you have achieved a better level of fitness and you are training for a sport event such as the Association meet, some open water swims, and or triathlons, you will need to include some workouts that are 80 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate.  This level of training is challenging; it would be the intensity you would hit if you were racing.

Zone 5: High intensity/anaerobic conditioning.  This is a very challenging zone and cannot be sustained for long.  This is high intensity interval training – fast and hard.  This is physically and mentally demanding and is not for everybody.

Eventually if your goal is to become really fit, your program will include workouts in each of these ranges – short and hard to long and easy.  At the beginning, you will need to determine whether you are in the right zone during any given activity to ensure you are reaching the results you aim to achieve.  There is a quick and approximate way to calculate your maximum heart rate which is: “subtract your age from 220”.  For most of us it is enough, as you should easily get the feeling of how hard you are exercising.  If you have been dealing with heart problems, it might be good to invest in a rate monitor to ensure that you are in the correct zone and adjust if necessary.

Training with a Masters swim team will definitively help you reach all those zones and become fit.  It will also bring the social aspect of swimming with a supporting group, and maybe help you be more consistent, and incorporate those good habits for life.  This process never ends.  There is no age at which it stops, but it will definitively improve the quality of your life as you age.

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