*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bikes Don't Build Big Butts. Cheesecake Builds Big Butts.

Before I became an instructor, I used to ride 3-4x a week for years with one of my favorite human beings in the world, John Tarmaggiore (NYSC 59th/Park - Thurs 6PM. I totally recommend you taking his class!). John has these go-to cheesy lines that have never, ever changed for YEARS -- and he's just so cool that he can get away with it. One of "John T" (as he goes by)'s classic -isms is the following: "You're not going to get big butts from riding a bike? Right? What builds big butts, everybody?" To which the entire room full of regulars would synchronously chant in a sing-songy voice: "CHEESECAKE!"

Hilarious. I wish I were that cool to have -isms that people chant. Oh, John T.

Anyway, it's so true. For *irrefutable* scientific evidence of such, I'd like to refer you to my previous posting from a February '08 Spintastic mailing (linked here): "You Won't Get a Big Butt on a Bike!!"

Truth be told, cyclists by and large are NOT bulky. Check out this guy with the chicken legs:

Yeah, that guy... maybe you know him.
I think his name is Lance.... ;-)

If you DO know a cyclist with bulky legs, he or she most certainly did NOT get them from cycling. As described in the above-linked post, we build bulky muscles on the weight room floor... not in (or out of) the saddle.

Many times, however, I meet students who tell me that they are noticing that their legs are bulking up... "are they using too much resistance?" NO. No matter what, resistance on that Spinning bike DOES NOT BUILD BULK. EVER. NEVER, EVER, EVER HAPPENS. What does happen, sometimes, is that we build lean muscle mass *BENEATH* the fatty tissue -- and you'll remember from [oh, I don't know... every time I open my mouth?!] that if we are training at too high heart rates, WE DO NOT BURN FAT. And when we overtrain (click my "topic" links for overtraining), we over-stimulate our appetites.. and we overeat, creating a caloric surplus. While bikes don't bulk us up, caloric surplus sometimes does.

Even as lean (non-bulky) muscles are developing... but we never get to see how awesome they look until we burn that fat. How do we we know that we're burning fat? That part's the easy part. Get a heart rate monitor! (Click my "topic" links for heart-rate training and endurance for more explanation as to why you should upgrade your life!).

Take-home points:


Lemme know if you have any questions.

Load it!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What's the one thing I can do today to improve my pedal stroke?

Click the "Perfect Pedal Stroke" link on the left-hand side of this website under "topics"-- also copy/pasted here for your convenience ;-)

What I will add to the PPS archives, however, is why we should CARE about perfecting our pedal stroke. We care about pedaling EFFICIENTLY (less work, more results) for tons of reasons -- and not just for outdoor racing situations (for those of you who race, I have less work to do to convince you that you want to pedal more efficiently, of course!). Namely:
* If we pedal improperly, we can actually get injured -- we can produce and prolong biomechanical/muscle imbalances. If we're injured, we can't train towards our fitness goals. (Says the woman with the torn hip flexor who is sidelined ALL the time...)
* If we pedal inefficiently, we are wasting energy -- if we waste energy, we can't DO as much. We're too tired.
* We lose a real opportunity to actually GET something out of a Spinning training session. If we're only using some of our muscles, and not all of our muscles... it's a lost/wasted opportunity to really do something awesome for our bodies.

You might say to yourself, "I know how to pedal." Ok, you might. But that doesn't mean that we can't strive for a little fine-tuning. Interesting note: every time Lance Armstrong races, his pedal stroke is tweaked a little bit -- he's ALWAYS perfecting his pedal stroke. If HE thinks he can keep learning how to pedal better, I think us mere mortals could stand to give it a shot.

Accordingly, my rides this week (both old and new) will relate to the theme of achieving your Perfect Pedal Stroke.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Breath is Fuel."

BREATH IS FUEL. Repeat after me: "BREATH IS FUEL."

Continuing our Summer '08 theme scheme, that's the theme for this week's rides -- two (maybe even three, if I have time) brand new rides plus one of my favorites from the archives ("Just Breathe."), all designed to 1) improve your awareness of your breathing in general, and 2) improve the efficiency of your breathing techniques.

As we kick this off, behold the epic breathing post I've been promising you for a month now. Here's how this is gonna roll:

When we breathe, we bring oxygen to our blood, muscles, nerves, and our brain. Sounds like something we should be doing, eh? Well, the WAY we breathe has a direct correlation to our physical and mental performance. Breathing takes energy to do: every time we breathe, we expend energy. So if we breathe deeper, more rhythmical and coordinatedly: we don't need to expend so much energy to do it. But this doesn't just happen on its own; we have to work at it -- first, by being aware of how we're doing it.

I *love* breathing. Let me tell you why. It's very simple - and there's power in the simplicity of it. When we are well-oxygenated, we are calm. Our perceived exertion is low. We are empowered. We feel that we can "do." Physically and mentally, we perform better when we waste less energy breathing inefficiently.

Breathing should be the easiest thing in the world -- so easy that we don't have to think about it, right? No. How we handle our breath is directly related to how we handle our lives, and how we handle changes in our lives. Controlled, rhythmic breathing enhances our own image of what we are capable of being. I don't just mean this on a bike -- I mean all the time: when your boss is a jerk, when you get bad news, when you bomb an exam... whatever. Every breath is an opportunity to re-focus and rise to the challenge at hand.

Pretty cool thought: Breathing is the only physiological life process that can be both involuntary and voluntary. When we stop thinking about our breathing, our body starts breathing on its own --pretty irregular and haphazardly, at that. Yes, you'll survive -- but will you excel? So, you've got a choice to make: You can either allow your breath to run haphazardly, or you can make it part of your awareness and coordinate movement and breath harmoniously.

Another pretty cool thought: We have total control over improving our breathing. So much of our physiology and physical abilities are inherited -- but our breathing efficiency and lung capacity (which is what distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us mere mortals) is directly under our control.

So let's do it.

Before we talk about efficient breathing, let's talk about inefficient breathing. Most of us breathe with our upper chest -- and we know this because we can see our upper chest/shoulders rising and falling as we breathe. And when we do this, we produce short and shallow breaths that are inadequate to oxygenate our muscles, nerves, and brains -- and we create tension and stress in our bodies.

To understand why this is so, let's consider a bit of anatomy. We have two groups of breathing (respiratory) muscles: PRIMARY and SECONDARY.
Primary respiratory muscles (all located in the torso):
1) Diaphragm (responsible for 75% of our breathing)
2) Intercostals (located between the ribs)
3) Abdominal muscles

All three of these are large and strong -- they need to be: they work up to 22,000 times per day! Just as the heart beats constantly to keep us alive, the primary muscles keep on' truckin' without fatigue to give us oxygen and keep us alive. I'm all about that.

Secondary respiratory muscles (located in upper chest):
1) Scalenus - front of neck, attached to uppermost ribs
2) Pectoralis minor - chest
3) Sternocleidomastoid - runs from behind the ear across the neck
4) Upper trapezius - from mid-skull to shoulder blades

In contrast, the secondary muscles are smaller and tire quickly. Now we see why we don't want to ask these muscles to do the majority of our breathing, yes?

That said, here's how EFFICIENT breathing with the primary muscles works: At rest: Diaphragm looks like a parachute, rounded upwards.
Inhalation: Diaphragm flattens (moves downwards into abdominal cavity). Abdominal muscles relax, allowing the volume of the abdominal cavity to expand as it takes in air... and as the diaphragm moves, all the abdominal organs are rolled/massaged, squeezing nutrients into and out of them. (Admit it: that's cool, and you know it.) Exhalation: Abdominal muscles contract, forcing air out of the lungs. Diaphragm forced back up into parachute-dome formation; carbon dioxide (as a waste product) is forced out. Relaxed, freely moving intercostals (between the ribs) help this process.


The key to efficient breathing is learning to use the abdominal muscles to assist the diaphragm. On the bike, this begins with your setup. We want the hip, shoulder, and ear to be aligned. Jaw relaxed (teeth not touching). Soft tongue resting on the roof of your mouth (opening the nasal passage). NOW we can breathe easily.

First, get used to feeling your abdomen move as you breathe. Try an exercise I've done in class several times, and certainly will do during some of my classes this week: Place your hands with thumbs resting on your belly button and fingers on the lower abs. As you inhale, relax your abdominal muscles, allowing your stomach to make space for the diaphragm to drop down (and allows the lower lobes of the lungs to expand). As you exhale, contract the abs to assist the diaphragm as it moves up and forces air from the lungs. Pay attention to how the abdomen feels as it expands and contracts. Later, with your hands on the handlebar, you can visualize this abdominal expansion and contraction to help orient yourself to breathing with those same muscles.

Here are some more exercises/games that I'm going to play in this week's rides:
1) "Tense then Relax"
Squint your eyes. Notice what happens to the diaphragm. You may feel the diaphragm jump slightly, restricting its movement. Relax the muscles around the eyes; feel the diaphragm open up and air flows in/out freely. Try this with any other muscle -- upper back, lower back, jaw. Bonus: Tensing and relaxing a muscle will automatically result in a lowered heart rate. Try this on heavy hills! It's very cool.

2) "Puff and Relax"
Try to think about truly relaxing your abdomen on the inhale - not letting it HANG, but actively puffing it out. Many people think that muscles get stronger by "tightening" or "keeping it in" -- it's totally not true. When we ride, we do NOT suck in our abdominals -- that keeps them from freely moving, and keeps us from breathing! We maintain core stability by bearing down and engaging the pelvic floor... but we do not hold our abs tight. Muscles get stronger when they move. By relaxing the abdomen on the inhale, we can then CONTRACT the abdominal muscles on the exhale. That movement is what will work those core muscles.

3) "Relaaaaaaax your Lower Back."
I'm not going to say it like that - just, as an aside, I used to take this ridiculously intense body sculpting class at a dance studio in DC where I went to college - with this former Mr. Universe with a thick somewhere-European accent. During the warm-up, he'd say: "Relooooox your lower boooooooock" and "Move those hips front and booock, front and boooock..." and it was hilarious. Ok, moving on. While we want a STRAIGHT back (we ride hinged forward at the hip, not the mid-back), we do NOT want a tight back. When we tighten the back muscles, we thrust the chest forward and constrict all but a small portion of the lungs. If, instead, we "reloooooooox your lower booooooock" (heh), and breathe into our backs (observing the gentle contraction and relaxation), we trigger a nervous system response that says, "Hey, Body, chill out. Everything is okay." Heart rate drops.

I do this periodically throughout the day -- for example, when the 6 train is about to ruin my life (by making me late to teach you guys) --and it really does work.

4) Breath in Motion
Coordinate your breathing with your pedal strokes. Just decide which part of the pedal stroke to breathe on -- on a flat road, maybe you want to take 5 pedal strokes to breathe in and 5 pedal strokes to breathe out. On a hill, inhale on every other pedal stroke while you exhale on every other pedal stroke, keeping the heart rate steady. During jumps, inhale as the body goes up and exhale as the body goes down, matching the rhythm of body movement with the breath. If you inhabit the rhythm, your 45 minutes will not only FLY by... but think how much more efficiently you will be oxygenating yourself!

5) Exteeeeeeeeend the Exhalation.
Many people "accept" that they should breathe deeply - whoooosh, air in, abdomen expand.... and then they drop the concept after that. The exhalation is JUST as important. By concentrating on the breath on the way out, we trick our breathing into becoming THAT much deeper and more efficient. With a long, smooth breath on the way out, our HR drops and we maintain control that way, too.

By controlling our HR, calming and soothing ourselves, we can then reach down a little bit deeper - expanding the limits we've set for ourselves. Make every breath count.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New 60 minute classes - Fridays 12:15pm NYSC Water St

Heads up on the coolest thing ever in life... or, today at least:
From June 27 - July 25th, I will be teaching 60 minute Spinning classes from 12:15-1:15PM at Water St.

This is part of the "Super Spin" program that will be running at Water St for the whole summer (during my class only). It will run through Labor Day... but, of course, I'll only be here until August 1 ;-)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How to Become a Fat-Burning Machine

As many of you know, I continued my irresponsible jet-setting ways (for the woman supporting herself entirely by Spinning, that is) this weekend -- this time, down in Miami for the annual World Spinning & Sports Conference: a 4-day continuing ed conference attended by over 1,000 instructors from around the world. It was awesome!

I will be writing tons of posts over the next few weeks to share various training principles (nothing I haven't shared -- or attempted to share -- with you before... but perhaps more effective ways of communicating these principles in a way that better 'drives them home' for you?). For now, though, I want to share with you an experience I had for my own training that underscores the concept of aerobic base-building -- towards the end of becoming fat-burning machines!

As many of you know, we try to individualize our training according to heart-rate for purposes of making our metabolism work for us (instead of just fighting it... or even just complaining about it!). Exercise intensity relative to metabolism is truly what determines the effectiveness of all that time you spend in the gym. Scores of students tell me on a daily basis about how they've been training hard for years and years and "yet" are still not losing any weight, and they are tremendously frustrated. Very common, but very unsurprising.

Why do I say this? Because of how the body fuels itself. We tend to think "more" is always "better" - but it's actually not true. Below a certain heart rate, the body utilizes mostly fat as its main source of fuel. Above that certain heart rate, the body uses mostly sugar. By training above that point without having first established an "aerobic base," you are actually training the heart to prefer to burn sugar, not fat, at rest. So all those PsychoSpin instructors who have you doing crazy "sprints" (which are commonly not real Spinning sprints, usually -- but the word "sprint" tends to get people excited, so instructors toss the word around for mere accelerations) every day, this is not necessarily going to help you burn fat. At extreme high heart rates, you are mostly burning sugar (and if you run out of sugar, you'll start breaking down muscle), leaving you sore and feeling hungry (which then sets off a whole 'nother cycle...).

If, however, you can "re-boot" the heart by training it in that lower aerobic heart rate zone (below 80% MHR), you can actually re-set your metabolism. While you will burn fewer calories in a 45 min period, those calories will be coming from FAT instead of sugar.... and by re-setting that metabolic rate, your body will continue to work for you all day long. While you're laying on the couch watching TV or out sipping a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe... yup, you'll be burning fat the whole time. Love it.

How do we pull this off? First, get a heart rate monitor. Second, chat with me about how to use it (hint: your age-predicted target values are probably not entirely accurate, as they do not account for conditioning level). Third, commit to the following short-term sacrifice... towards the end of long-term fulfillment.

Behold, your invitation to burn some fat:

Discipline yourself to remain below 80% MHR (or, below your lactate threshold - if you know it) throughout all cardio exercise (not just Spinning). You will be improving your cardiovascular fitness, and you will see and feel this measurable improvement in a matter of weeks.

This may mean that you have to modify your usual efforts. In a Spinning class, if an instructor (including me) tells you to rise out of the saddle -- if you can't do that without crossing 80% MHR, don't do it. Whatever modifications you have to make to maintain that base-building plan, just make them. This is your body. Your training. You're calling the shots. Over time, however, you will start to notice that you're able to do more and more (closer to your former efforts) while still remaining below 80%. This is called adaptation, and it's very cool.

I've been talking about this for a looooooooong time (on the left-hand side of this blog, click the links for "endurance," "HR training," and "periodization" to start!), and many of my students have found great success with their base-building efforts in that they have started to lose weight, find themselves physically and mentally energized, sleeping better, and performing better in all of their recreational and competitive athletic activities.

But now I'm going to tell you how base-building worked for me:
In 2005, I started training with a HR monitor. I had been cycling religiously 3-4x per week for several years, and had not lost a pound. I was 40 lbs heavier than I am now. When I started training with a HR monitor and staying entirely below 80% MHR, I lost 20 lbs in two months (with no major dietary changes), and ultimately came to lose another 20 over another four months.

<<--- (Top & Bottom): 2003, even while Spinning 4x per week! Before training with a HR monitor and staying exclusively below 80%.

It was crazy -- and yet, not at all. It was just science. Above lactate threshold (for many people, this value occurs between 75-85% MHR), fat is not the predominant source of fuel. If we train above that point, we are mostly NOT touching our fat stores (Occasional anaerobic effort important to incorporate into any training plan, for other reasons --but it still does not burn fat!)

What I've been leading up to: this weekend, I had my aerobic base and metabolism actually measured to determine at what HR my body is still using fat as its dominant fuel. I rode a Spin bike while wearing a special piece of equipment that monitored my respiration and heart rate as I exerted myself at various degrees of intensity. For most people, they are burning the greatest PERCENTAGE of fat calories (below 80%, we burn fat and sugar) at very low heart rates (55-65%-ish). We very rarely train at those low rates when we're at the gym. But yet, it's training at these moderate intensities (for example, 70-80%) that ultimately helps us raise that aerobic base so that our greatest percentage of fat burning occurs at HIGHER heart rates... so we can burn more calories, get that endorphin "rush," and all that good stuff... but still be burning fat. Lance Armstrong, by the way, burns the greatest percentage of fat calories at his anaerobic threshold... he's essentially burning fat all the time. But Lance spends 12 weeks a year training at 60% of his MHR. All I'm asking YOU for 8 weeks of just below 80%!

Over time, the goal is to build up to being able to sustain the upper limit of that <80% range for entire training sessions.

Getting more work done, without working harder.