My bestfriend’s response: “Never.” This is coming from a guy who is rather fit and healthy and is building up towards his first triathlon. To be fair, he’ll probably never have to go all out. He just wants to cross the finish line.

Burning. Deep, heavy, rapid breathing. Sky high heart rate. Muscular weakness, fatigue, and eventual failure. Maybe a bit of puking involved.

When was the last time you pushed yourself that far? Even for just a second? Probably never. Especially for beginners, like my buddy, working his way from couch to sprint triathlon. Which is totally fine when we are starting out because we want to focus on our aerobic base and build endurance to get us across the finish line alive and intact.

Staying in our aerobic zone is easy. It’s sustainable for pretty much as long as your muscles can keep going, which can be a very long time in relative comfort. For instance, we can remain in our lower heart rate zones for hours as long as we have continuous input of some carbs, electrolytes, and water; the body will reach for fat as the energy source. But, you might be really slow.

Never doing anything that will place us in discomfort (I want to be clear that discomfort is not pain) is safe, but it won’t push us to the next level. Sure, adding distance might get us stronger, but we might have trouble getting faster, and we won’t know what our limits are. Which are all fine, by the way.

I admit, I have a great deal of fear to push myself to maximum output and beyond. See, I used to go there a lot when I was a bodybuilder and when I did a lot of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and I did way too much, way too soon that I tore a ligament in my right foot at the 5km mark of a 10km race. That was because of my stupid ass ignoring what my body was telling me (pretty severe localized pain, like 8/10 pain and I took an Advil and ran anyway), coupled with a lack of experience and knowledge of how to train properly.

Less is More:

Now I know from personal experience that doing HIIT 5 X a week was completely idiotic and that HIIT sessions should only be twice a week, tops! And sometimes twice a week can be too much.

However, the appeal of HIIT for me was the convenience of being able to do a hard workout that provided quick results from maximum effort for very little time. Sometimes my workout was 10-15 minutes total!

“Hello, my name is Jhansen and I was a HIIT addict!”

That effort resulted in my going from running a 25 minute 5k to running a 16 minute 5k in about 3-4 months. In other words, the return on investment was huge! The risk, however, was even greater. That ruptured ligament sidelined me for six months to heal the injury, another six months to regain strength, another six months to build up my running, and I’m still paying for it today by correcting imbalances for all the compensation my body had to do several years after the injury. Not to mention, I developed a fear of doing any HIIT training since I associate it with my injury and very long recovery.

Less is definitely more in this instance. Only do one workout a week at all out effort. Two HIIT workouts a week is pushing it towards risk of serious injury, but it is still possible if spaced appropriately. Still, it’s best to ere on the safe side and not do what I did, which was: be a complete junky dumbass who put in a lot of hard work only to see all of it thrown out the window.

Following Aerobic Base:

After we build our endurance, our aerobic base, it isn’t necessary to go all out, ever. For some people, lasting long enough to do a marathon is good enough. But for those who want to start going into personal best or age-group territory, threshold work is often required. Notice I said “threshold ” and not maximum as this is important.

To run fast, we need to run fast. To bike fast, we need to bike fast. To swim fast, we need to… Get good. Ok, swimming is different. Just pretend I didn’t mention swimming.

We need to get anaerobic and we need to develop the systems that will allow us to push our capacity to work harder and much better for our needs. The body prefers to operate aerobically, so if we hit threshold or enter our anaerobic system, our body will eventually adapt and push the aerobic ceiling higher.

What happens is the body develops capillaries throughout our vascular system to deliver as much oxygen and fuel as possible to our muscles while removing as much lactate and, more importantly, CO2 away. When we hit threshold, the body is stimulated to promote mitochondria production and work the two muscle types (fast and slow twitch) and stimulate neuromuscular growth to increase muscle involvement (this sort of growth takes a ridiculous amount of time, in the several months range).

Exercise is Only a Stimulus:

Physiological changes require adequate stimulus under an adequate length of time. Then, in order for these changes to occur, an adequate amount of rest is needed, of course, with proper nutrition. These changes can take a week or more to manifest itself. That’s why when we hit the gym we don’t get ripped abs in one session, or two, or 10. But we will feel and see results by the 10th session compared to the first. We need to think in terms of cycles: stimulus and rest.

Running 10 seconds quicker than your current race pace is sometimes all it takes. At that pace, you won’t be anywhere near max, but you will find it pretty tough and if you sustain this pace for an extended period of time it will feel like you’re operating at maximum. Then, when you attempt the same exercise, say, the following week, you’ll notice it might feel easier to sustain the effort and that you indeed are faster.

Likewise with biking, pedalling faster in the appropriate gear can get you real close to max. But it’s still not maximum. Subsequent sessions will begin to feel easier.

If we push to try and hit max and stay there for even 10 seconds for, say, 4-5 repeats, our body will be triggered to respond by adapting. More so if we decide to go there once every week or two. A couple of sessions of hitting that point will result in changes that would surprise us. After about 4 sessions (approximately one month) your performance should be noticeably improved. But we have to be brave in the first place because going there is so hard, so uncomfortable, and our minds and body will fight against it.

What’s important is making sure you’re never stagnant in your training plan and you deliver enough of a stimulus to get the types of changes you desire. Then, the crucial step is to rest to allow the changes to take form.

Discomfort Means Growth:

If you’re always comfortable, such as, always in your comfort zone, I hate to inform you, but you’re not growing. If you’re never challenged, you’re stagnant. In contrast, if you purposefully and mindfully put yourself in discomfort and take on challenges, then growth is inevitable.

No one likes to be in discomfort. I don’t. But I learned that it is only going to last a total of 30-60 seconds. That’s it. The results will be noticeable and my performance will be much improved. Not right away, but it does get easier over time. You’ll notice your breathing will be slower, you’ll be stronger, and it will take greater effort to reach your maximum heart rate. In other words, your ability to maintain a harder effort longer will be easier, but your ability to reach maximum effort will get harder. You can operate and push your engine harder for longer without risk of blowing a cylinder.

Get Close to 100%:

We don’t need to hit 100%. We only need to get close. For example, bike for 20 minutes in heart rate zone 3, then bike for 5-10 minutes in your upper zone 4, repeat the cycle 2-3 times. Conversely, run 3X2km @ 10 seconds faster than your fastest 10km pace with 60-90 seconds active rest in between. These aren’t 100% efforts but they sure will feel like it. The stimulus is in the length of time spent at the higher intensities. Results are after taking adequate rest (I feel like I’m repeating myself with this point, maybe it’s because it’s important!)

If you don’t have a heart rate monitor then use your perceived effort instead. Go from “kind of able to hold a conversation” to “only able to mettle a few words in between breaths.” Or, hit the point where you can feel burning and then dial it back just a little to where the burning is mild. This is your aerobic/anaerobic threshold – kinda, sorta.

Throwing Caution to the Wind:

Also, please note that hitting maximum heart rate (MHR) or maximum effort is very, very hard to reach. It can also be very, very dangerous. So don’t go there, you don’t need to. This is where sometimes close enough is good enough. If you do go there, have a spotter with you, just in case.

To determine your MHR please don’t use the “220-age = your MHR” formula. It’s not accurate. Yes, our maximum heart rate decreases as we age, but moderate exercise and endurance sports can slow or even stop the value from dropping.

Please know that our MHR is determined genetically and it is not a great indicator of athletic performance or athletic potential. What is a better indicator of overall health is your resting heart rate. A lower resting heart rate means your heart is able to pump the same volume of blood in a single beat as someone who is inactive and has a higher resting heart rate and requires five beats (for example) to pump the same volume.

If you decide to determine what your maximum heart rate is, please know that it may or may not be sports specific; for instance, my maximum heart rate on my bike is 164 BPM, whereas it is 180 BPM for running. That’s just me because I just suck at biking, but there are people out there who have the same maximum heart rate for both. Just something to keep in mind.

Follow these as a guideline and have people there with you. You must have taken at least 2 days rest. This may sound obvious, but you must have a heart rate monitor and you must know how to use it. Do not do this if you feel sore, feel discomfort, and any level of pain. There is a great chance for injury. The alternative would be to use any of the formulas that are out there in Googleland as your approximate maximum heart rate even if it is inaccurate if it means keeping you safe and injury free.

Perform these tests under guidance and supervision, preferably by a professional or a doctor. Not doing so, you (the reader) put yourself at your own risk. Meaning, you choose to ignore my warnings and you release me (Jhansen, Shut Up and Tri) from any and all liability.You have been warned.

Drink something like Gatorade and eat a banana to prevent cramps 10-30 minutes before testing.

Bike on the big ring (best on a trainer for safety) all done at hard to all out effort:

  1. 10-15 minutes warmup. Need to have just broken a sweat.
  2. 1:00 pedalling hard on highest gear. All steps below are done at hard effort.
  3. 1:00 on next gear down.
  4. 1:00 on next gear down.
  5. 1:00 on next gear down.
  6. 1:00 on next gear down.
  7. 30 seconds all out effort.
  8. 5 minutes rest by pedalling on an easy gear but keeping a high cadence.
  9. Repeat steps 2 – 8.

Check your heart rate monitor data to get your maximum heart rate. You may need to repeat the test 2 days later to ensure accurate and precise readings.

Running (best done on a track):

  1. 10-15 minute warmup. Need to break a sweat.
  2. 6 X 400m all out effort with 30 seconds standing rest.
  3. 10-15 minute cool down. If you can.

There is a very high probability that you will not be able to complete all 6 repeats. That’s ok! It’s only a test to determine your maximum heart rate, not your superhuman ability to sprint.

You may find yourself lying face down on the grassy field in the centre of the track afterwards. If you’re cramping, drink some Gatorade. Your heart will feel like it’s about to explode. You might even feel a bit dizzy. Your legs will be burning and throbbing. Elevating your legs will help blood flow back to the heart and relieve the load placed on the heart.

Check your heart rate monitor data for your maximum. You may need to repeat the test to ensure accuracy and precision.

Every 6 months to a year it may be necessary to repeat these tests to ensure accuracy and precision so that you are training at the appropriate intensities.