Doing it all the hard way...

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cardiac Drift – A cruel truth

Speaking of Cruel Truths; As El Chefe’ said the other day, 
“Lycra should not be available to the general public.”
We all know that intervals are the secret sauce for speed. When you are young the recipe is a pretty simple.  If you train hard you get the results. Just like the bank; you put money in now and withdraw it later. Those willing to pay the price find success.

When I was a competitive runner we alternated hard days.  One day was hard intervals and the next was hard distance.  It seemed we just traded pain intensity for pain duration.  Easy days were the Thursdays before the races on Fridays. If only that youthful resilience came in a can…..

In those days we ran intervals and the stopwatch told us the truth.  Like many tools that measure training it often told us what we already knew in real time; I’m good or I’m cooked. 

When heart rate (HR) monitors first emerged they did the same thing but only in real time.  “I’m working hard let me check my heart rate.  Yep it’s high.”  When that technology evolved to a point where it allowed us to record our efforts and look at them later we got lazy.  We stopped measuring performance with a stopwatch and relied on HR alone.
Much of the time this is fine.  As your speed ramps up so does your heart rate.  Over time you can see a stunningly accurate correlation of heart rate and speed.

This is great until it isn’t.

When you are doing intervals and using HR as the exclusive metric you lose the ability to identify the point at which you fall into the abyss of cardiac drift. Cardiac drift is the point at which your performance drops but your HR remains high.   So as you look at your HR it looks like you are still kicking ass but in fact you are just getting your ass kicked.
All of the literature tells you that when you hit this point you should stop your hard work and just cool down because more work in this session will not benefit you.  The cruel reality is that if your only metric is your HR then you may not know your performance has dropped.

The first four intervals hurt and you went fast.  The fifth one hurt just like the previous four but you were significantly slower.  If you don’t have a way to quantify that you slowed down you are likely to just keep flogging away.  Not only is this flogging not helping; it is probably hurting you. 

The world of cardiac drift is a purgatory populated by middle aged men seeking the magic unicorn that is the sweet spot of their training.  Elusive to the point of being mythical, we chase the dream. 

Could there be a worse reality than the realization that a portion of your really hard, hard work was at best useless or at worst detrimental to your targeted outcome?  Such is the joy of cardiac drift.

On some recent training sessions I have found myself in the drift zone.  It reminded me of a quote I read recently which said, “In the west we only realize we are lost hours after we actually are lost.”  I’ve had some sustained hard climbs where I was thinking, “I’m going fast, HR is high, I’m going fast, I’m going fast, HR is high, I’m going fast….. I’m not going fast anymore but my HR is still high, I’m blown.”
 Can I just lay down now?
While this is a sinking feeling I am grateful I can occasionally recognize it enough to back off and recover rather than slug my way onward and grind myself into dust.

I figure that training is just like a lot of things in my life; by the time I figure it out it will be too late.

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