"...the stars might lie but the numbers never do." -- Mary-Chapin Carpenter
The orthopedic consultant gave me the green light of sorts about two weeks ago. I have his permission to engage in easy running or bicycling. My first guess was that he thought I was one of those people who do the bare minimum of exercise; once the sweat starts rolling it's time to quit. Ho, ho, now that's a funny one. Obviously, he's never seen me with that look like I got sprayed with a fire hose.
Then, he mentions three things: First, I have to come back and see him in six weeks.
Second, no lifting anything heavier than a can of soup. The bad news is that my left shoulder and arm strength is growing by leaps and bounds; my right shoulder muscle structure is almost nonexistent. The good news is that 12-to-16 ounces fall right within that weight range.
Third, he suspects I will be one of those patients he'll have to hold back rather than force to progress forward with rehabilitation.
So, how do you make certain not to push the envelope so much you delay achieving cardiovascular fitness, or you risk overtraining and injury, in the foundation period?
You can use the Borg scale to gauge how hard you're working. This scale ranges from 1 to 20, with 20 being the absolute maximal "oh, my goodness, my heart is going to explode any second" effort. Slowly walking is about a nine; a hard effort you can continue to hold for a while is about a 13 or 14, 17 is a very hard effort.
What's so good about the Borg scale? First, you're checking all of your body; heart, lungs, muscles, breathing, and so on, in order to determine your rate of perceived exertion. Second, it correlates quite strongly to your heart rate; multiply your Borg number times ten and you're probably going to be close to what your heart rate is at that moment. This is especially important for those persons who take drugs that affect their heart rate. Third, you don't have to depend on a heart rate monitor to help you tell when you're working too hard.
I like the heart rate monitor. It provides a relatively accurate picture of how hard I'm working. However, most folks who have heart rate monitors don't know their maximum heart rate, and therefore don't know how hard they are working.
Two, and maybe three, schools of thought persist on how to determine maximum heart rate, and the percentage of maximum heart rate a person is exercising:
First is the "220-minus-age" school. So, a 45 year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 175; his or her exercise at 50 percent of maximum would be half of that, or 87 to 88 beats per minute, which is the minimum someone coming back from injury, or just starting an exercise program would use.
The second school takes the "220-minus-age," then subtracts the heart rate you immediately after waking up, to give you the range. So the hypothetical 45 year-old who has a resting heart rate of 45 (not bad for a physically-fit individual; the average sedentary person ranges from 60 to 80) has a range of 130 beats between minimum and maximum. So, 50 percent of that "normal" range (65 beats) added to the resting rate, would give the hypothetical a target heart rate of 110 beats per minute...add another six or seven to give a window...is this getting crazy, or what?
The third school requires having a trained medical professional around to administer a maximal heart rate test. Slap a heart rate monitor or an electrocardiogram on the athlete and run them to exhaustion on a treadmill. The 1985 movie American Flyers has a guy doing this test; it's a scene I love, but my wife cannot stand to watch. The benefit of all the discomfort is obvious; you know what the maximal heart rate is, without question. All the other calculations are simple once you figure that first one out.
Whether you decide to use a perceived exertion scale, or a heart rate monitor, remember that these are tools to help you communicate to yourself and (if you have one) your coach how you are feeling and how your body is reacting to the training. I've met athletes who have set their heart rate monitor at a rate that's too low. It's not completely foolproof; some athletes can operate at higher maximum heart rates than the "220-minus-age" number, which is more of a guideline for that "three times a week, 20 minutes a day, and no more" crowd.