Apr 032010

Many people tell me they can’t stand to workout an hour a day because its “too boring.” Mindless exercise is boring. Bringing your brain into the picture is a quick way to make training engaging instead of dull.

If I’ve planned a 3000-yard swim, I can either get in the pool and plod out 120 mind-numbing lengths of the pool or I can pre-establish a workout with specific intervals and objectives to keep my mind engaged throughout.

Occasionally, I’ll do a long swim so I can contemplate something going on with my life and try to come up with a solution, but I woud be bored to death if I just got in and used my brain for nothing more than counting lengths of the pool (kind of like singing 101 bottles of beer on the wall).

Every time I get in the water, it is with some specific purpose. Maybe I want to achieve a certain time on a set of 100s. Or to negative split a set of 200s (swimming the second half faster than the first half). Or to step down a set of 3 500s (first one slow, second one a little faster, last one really hard). When I attend a Masters swimming workout, our coach sets up the workout for us and then I just mentally plan goal times for different parts of the workout.

I also often think about one specific element of my swimming while swimming a set. Perhaps it might be getting a good pushoff on every turn, keeping my head lower when I do breaststroke or avoiding that crossover I sometimes get with my right arm on freestyle. The entire workout, my mind is engaged and there is a mind-body connection going on. When you just try to force the body do an activity in which the brain is in no way involved, you get boredom.

I bet you’re wondering what I think about watching T.V., listening to iPods, and reading or listening to books on tape while exercising. My answer? That depends. If you want to do some long steady state exercise and aren’t concerned with “correct form,” it won’t hurt anything to do it some of the time. But I think its worthwhile to spend at least some time each week tuning into what is happening with your body.

I advocate not “tuning out” while doing a sport such as swimming that requires a lot of skill. I also think its JUST PLAIN CRAZY to go out road biking with a headset on. While road biking, you should watch for objects and obstructions on the road in front of you and be alert to other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. You can also track your speed, heart rate, and distance to make your ride more stimulating.

Below are a few before/after workout makeovers
1 – instead of that same old 3 mile run (treadmill or outside)…. Put on a heart rate monitor and run 5 minutes to warm up and then finish the run with 2 minute easy intervals and 2 minute hard intervals. Make sure your heart rate doesn’t go higher than is safe for your age and cardiovascular health.
2 – instead of that same old X distance run outside….Put on a heart rate monitor and do random intervals. Warm up five minutes and then sprint until you get to the fire hydrant, the next corner or some other land-mark determined distance and then do a recovery jog in between each hard interval. This way you will get more engaged with your surroundings.
3 – instead of that same old boring 45 minute walk (treadmill or outside)…Go ahead and put the iPod on, but put songs of different tempos in sequence so you can walk to the beat of the music. Some songs will have you walking faster, others at a slower interval.
4 – instead of that same old boring 45 minute walk…Recruit a friend (or family members) to join you, walk your dog (or someone else’s), or go to a state or national park for a change of scenery.
5 – instead of a mile swim….400 yards (8 lengths) warm-up, including different strokes and drills you like and some kicking with a kick board. 12 x 25s (1 distance per stroke, 1 fast turnover, 1 combine distance with speed x 4) 3 x 200s (negative split – second half faster than first) 6 x 50s (any stroke – step down 1-3, 4-6). 50-100 easy.
6 – instead of 45 minutes on a stationary bicycle….Buy or use a spin bike instead. Put songs on iPod that are good for hill climbs, sprints, and out-of-the seat jumps and jogs. Miix up the workout with a combination of these. Monitor heart rate and make sure to insert active recovery intervals.

I’ve spoken to open water swimmers who say they rarely get bored while swimming for hours in the ocean. Why? Because there is too much to think about, they say. Keeping your mind engaged in every aspect of your activity can make workouts much more interesting. Have a fun and productive workout week. Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I look forward to hearing about YOUR favorite ways to beat boredom in workouts!

Jan 222010
Susan Dawson-Cook swimming butterfly

Photo by Chris Mooney

Did you know you can turn back the biological clock by 10 years or more doing interval training? It’s true. Recent research says so. I know you want to try it right away, but hold on for a moment! First, let me explain what interval training is and how it keeps the body young.

Interval training consists of short bursts of hard work followed by short periods of active recovery. Active recovery is what it sounds like—you slow down, but keep moving. You can do interval training on the treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical, outside walking or bicycling, or swimming. Some group exercise formats are also interval workouts.

Here’s an example of a treadmill interval workout. You warm up for 5 minutes and then alternate between a minute of fast walking with a steep incline and a minute of slow walking without an incline, repeat that 10 times and follow that with a 5 minute cool down for a total of 30 minutes. On other days, you could change it up by adding some intervals of jogging to the high-intensity segments or changing the length of the intervals. Fit people should aim for a 1 to 1 ratio of work to recovery, with intervals ranging from 30 seconds to 4 minutes.

I recommend using a heart rate monitor to ensure heart rate stays within recommended ranges (60 to 80 percent of maximum heart rate for a healthy individual). People taking medications reducing blood pressure and heart rate should refer to the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to estimate how hard they are working.

People new to interval training often need attenuated recovery periods. A healthy, fit individual can safely work at a higher intensity than a sedentary individual with health issues. Many athletes train or compete at levels higher than 90 percent of their maximum heart rate, whereas individuals with cardiac risk may be told not to exceed 50 percent of their maximum heart rate or an estimated RPE of 11 (light) on the 6 to 20 scale.*

Now on to the why…The lungs and heart work together as an oxygen delivery system, taking in oxygen and pumping and delivering it to the muscles. As we age, heart beats slower and lung capacity decreases, which means that oxygen gets delivered more slowly to muscles.  This is why we fatigue quicker and are unable to move as fast.

Training at a high intensity forces the body to make adaptations to cope with this stress by building more muscle, stronger bones, and a better oxygen delivery system in preparation for the next episode. We can delay age-related degradations in stamina and strength by doing regular interval training. In addition to keeping you younger, interval training burns beaucoup calories, not only during the workout, but for hours afterward.

*Interval training is not safe for everyone. Consult with a doctor before beginning a new exercise program.