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Major IA: Cardio
Training for a strong heart
Ever feel winded walking up a flight of stairs?
That will make you feel old fast, and the Highlander cannot accept that. It doesn’t matter how strong your muscles are if your heart is weak.
At age 40, the Highlander Standards for your heart are:
Able to do zone 2 cardio for at least 45 minutes with a wattage (power) output of 100% of bodyweight (men) or 90% of bodyweight (women).
A VO2 max over 48 (men) or over 44 (women).
A resting heart rate below 65 beats per minute (men) or 70 (women).
Blood pressure below 120/80 for both men and women.
The Highlander Program helps you achieve the cardio goals via two methods of training:
What are Cardio “Zones”?
Cardio zones describe the effort one puts into some type of cardio exercise. There are five zones, zone 1 being the easiest and zone 5 the hardest. If we use running as an example, zone 2 would be a light jog that you could continue for a long time. Zone 5 would be a very fast run you could maintain for a few minutes or less.
The zones are typically determined as a percentage of max heart rate. Max heart rate is determined by subtracting your age from 220. So if you’re 40, your max heart rate is 180. Zone 2 is meant to be light effort at a relatively low percentage of max. So the 40 year old might push to zone 2 with a heart rate in 120s. Zone 5 would require pushing toward the max heart rate of 190.
The most important difference between zone 2 and zones 4/5 is that each utilize different energy systems. Zone 2 cardio is aerobic, meaning the body has sufficient oxygen to provide energy to the body. Zones 4 and 5 are anaerobic, meaning the body is at an oxygen deficit.
Only aerobic exercise burns fat as energy, not anaerobic exercise. If you want to burn fat, you need to exercise slower for longer. Anaerobic exercise only burns carbohydrates.
Many people think that harder cardio exercise is better for health than easy cardio. This is a mistake that leads to too much time doing somewhat hard zone 3/4 cardio and not enough time doing zone 2, nor enough time doing really hard zone 5.
Highlanders use both zone 2 and zone 5, but we spend the majority of our time (>70%) in zone 2. Zones 3 and 4 are useless for a Highlander. We either want to be doing easy cardio to improve metabolic function and burn fat, or we want to be doing extremely hard exercise in zone 5 to improve short duration performance.
If you want a daily program with zone 2 and zone 5 cardio for longevity, subscribe!
Zone 2 Benefits and Application
Beyond the important benefit of burning fat, the consistent training of the aerobic energy system via zone 2 cardio leads to several other benefits:
Increasing mitochondrial number and function — healthier mitochondria help you avoid diabetes as well as more effectively burn fat
Lower resting heart rate
Lower blood pressure
Improved insulin resistance
Basically, zone 2 cardio trains your cells to use energy more efficiently. Since our mitochondria lose function as we age, training them is our best tool to sustain aerobic performance for longer.
Calculating Your Target Heart Rate
While you can use the simple heart rate chart above to determine zone 2 target heart rate, a more effective way to estimate your zone 2 heart rate is via the MAF 180 Formula. The MAF 180 Formula allows you to adjust your zone 2 heart rate for fitness and health factors, making it more precise.
To use the MAF 180 Formula, subtract your age from 180, then adjust it for health considerations per the linked post. When starting, it’s best to err on the side of staying slightly below your MAF.
My MAF is 142, and I try to keep my heart rate between 130-140 in my zone 2 sessions. If I’m highly fatigued from strength training, I might be in the 120 range which is still fine.
A combination of your MAF heart rate and the breathing/conversation tests should keep you in zone 2.
How to Do Zone 2 Cardio
The first focus of zone 2 training should be to make sure it stays zone 2. Some Highlanders feel the need to push because zone 2 feels too easy. Zone 2 is supposed to feel easy. You should be able to breathe through your nose for most of your zone 2 work and carry a basic conversation. If you have a heart rate monitor or fitness watch, use it to stay toward the high end of your target zone.
Perform zone 2 cardio using a stationary bike, treadmill, or elliptical. The easiest method for a beginner to start doing zone 2 cardio is to set a treadmill on an incline at a moderate pace that gets you in your target heart rate. In other words, don’t set the treadmill on a slight inline and run. Set it on a steep incline and be closer to a fast walk. You should be able to maintain whatever pace you use in zone 2 for the entire session.
Treadmills have the advantage of setting a pace you need to continue without thinking. Stationary bikes, ellipticals, and other machines tend to require a conscious effort to stay in the target zone but can also be effective.
Avoid trying to do zone 2 cardio outdoors because it adds too many variables like hills and wind that will naturally allow you to drift in and out of zone 2. The goal is to maintain a zone 2 pace as consistently as possible without drifting into zone 3. It’s easier to do that on a controlled machine vs outdoors. Get your fill of the outdoors with walks.
How Much Zone 2
Highlanders should aim for zone 2 sessions of at least 45 minutes 3-4x per week. I generally do at least two 60-minute zone 2 sessions per week and one 45 minute session.
Zone 5 Benefits and Application
The primary goal of zone 5 cardio is to improve our VO2 max. VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during hard exercise. A higher VO2 max means your body can utilize more oxygen, which means you can output greater effort during exercise.
How to Do Zone 5 Cardio
Zone 5 training should feel awful. There’s no way around it.
To do zone 5 cardio, you need to be at 90-100% of your max heart rate. If you’re 40 years old, that means pushing to 180 beats per minute. You must embrace pain on zone 5 training days.
The most recommended way to do zone 5 for longevity is via intervals of 3-4 minutes. Warm up, then perform an interval of 3-4 minutes of extremely hard work where you’re breathing heavily, then 3-4 minutes of moving rest (i.e. a slow jog). You can do this running on a track or treadmill, on a bike, an elliptical, or any other way that forces you into a high heart rate.
The trouble with the method for strength athletes is that it adds a significant amount of fatigue in my experience
Instead of one longer session of zone 5, I find “mini” zone 5 sessions after a zone 2 workout are less fatiguing and interfere with strength efforts less. A mini zone 5 workout might be 2-3 sprints for 20-50 seconds with rest intervals 1-2x the duration of the sprint. Using this method allows for reaching a max heart rate without excessive systemic fatigue that might hurt strength results.
Highlanders should aim for three “mini” zone 5 training session per week after zone 2 work.
The Air Bike
I do most of my zone 5 on a Rogue Echo air bike. It sucks, but I also believe the air bike is the best way to do zone 5.
Here’s why: The athletes with the greatest VO2 maxes are cross country skiers. Conventional wisdom says it’s because they are using both arms and legs in their exercise. Logic would say when you perform more work with your whole body rather than just part of your body like biking or running, you should increase demands from your heart and lungs.
If you don’t want to do an air bike, use a rower. Either way, if you want to do zone 5 with maximum efficiency make sure your cardio uses both lower and upper body.