My Garmin app made me a late New Year present on January 12th this year. It is a screenshot from Garmin app at the top of this article. I admit, it made me very happy! Earlier I made a post on my website (see profile) which explains why VO2Max, a number which shows how effectively your body processes oxygen, is such an important health indicator. In short: higher VO2Max translates in higher probability of living longer. The abovementioned post explains how scientists arrived at this conclusion and you if you know your number you can compare it to average population tables in my article. Precise VO2Max measurements require special equipment and are usually performed in designated labs. However, over the last few years several sports smartwatch manufactures, Garmin among the few, developed a software which delivers VO2Max number on your smartwatch right after the training session. My experience of comparing the lab data with Garmin data several times shows that Garmin results correspond very closely with lab results.
This post shares my three key learnings from growing my VO2Max from 52 to 54 within half a year. This increase may seem like an insignificant one, but actually it is a big deal. Here is why:
1. At the time of writing this article I am 56 years old. VO2Max naturally drops with aging. If you do nothing to stop it of course
2. I have a certain heart valves condition. Doctors tell me it is not very serious (and I hope they are right). However, I need to watch closely my max heart rate while exercising and do regular medical checkups. Which I do.
3. I was never big on doing sports. I started exercising seriously only at the age of 48 as a way to address anxiety and high blood pressure which I was diagnosed with at that time.
In summary my key learnings from growing VO2Max are the following: exercise properly, recover well, breathe deeply. Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Everyone knows these days that to be healthier one needs to exercise. However, to grow VO2Max, you need to exercise in a specific way: spend certain amount of training time at heart rates close to your maximum. It is called VO2Max interval training. Detailed description of these training sessions is out of scope for this article. One of the best and easy to read books on this topic is “Fast After 50” by Joe Friel. I’ll also recommend everyone interested in this type of training to do a prior medical checkup and have a detailed, heart to heart so speaking , chat with your doctor. Finding a proper coach or trusted protocol is another good idea. I am using for more than a year training software for cyclists which is called TrainerRoad. This is the best training software on the market for serious cyclists which I found. It is simple, competitively priced and coach Chad Timmerman guides you through exercises as if he is right there with you in the room. The chart below summarized my cycling training workload over the last 7 months.
The darker the line on the chart — the more intensive the training was. You could see that I have done quite a lot of intense rides during the summer of 2020. Interestingly enough, it did not improve my VO2Max. It stayed approximately at the same level, 52, throughout the summer months. After completing a race on August 30th, I gave myself a break from cycling training for most of September and October. I started training seriously again in November — this time on a stationary bike at home. This time however, the training profile has changed. I was doing quite a lot of weekly training volume (a lot for me anyway ), just over 3 hours weekly. VO2Max training rides where approximately 1/3rd of a total time spent on a stationary bike. And yet, this lower average intensity with larger training volume over 2.5 months culminated in a ride on January 12th when my VO2max spiked to 54. The week, when this ride took place, is reflected in the last column on the right on the chart above. As Joe Friel explains in his book, we need more time to recover after hard training sessions as we age. Which brings me to the next lesson.
You probably have heard this message often. But how do you know actually if you are well recovered and ready for another hard training session? Give yourself too much slack and you will see your fitness level to deteriorate. Not enough recovery — and your performance will drop. Subjective feeling is one way of course. However, there is a more scientific approach which over the last few years has become affordable for recreational athletes, like me. It is based on so called Heart Rate Variation (HRV). HRV measures time variability between peaks of heart beats on an ECG chart. If the time between peaks varies a lot, it is usually a signal that our bodies are well rested and ready for a big training stress (higher HRV). If the time between peaks is quite stable, it is usually a signal that we need more time to recover (lower HRV). I use the word “usually” here, because HRV is dependent on many factors, i.e. prior physical stress, emotional stress, whether you are healthy or sick, how well you rested at night, how much alcohol you consumed the night before etc. It takes time, patient learning and self-observation to learn how to filter out recovery information from the HRV data. The good news is that there is plenty of affordable software available and you can study your HRV data on a regular smartphone using your phone camera as a sensor. For the last several years I am using a mobile app by HRV4training.com. I chose this app because Marco Altini, the founder of the company is an athlete himself, so the app is built in a way that allows athletes to extract a lot of useful and very practical training information.
The chart from the HRV3training app below shows how I timed my recovery prior to the intense session on January 12th.
As you could see from the chart, I was approaching the end of December 2020 with inadequate recovery. I was particularly out of shape on December 24th. I gave myself a break for a few days and my HRV baseline (black line) started to recover nicely. I did some good training over the next two weeks but was careful to keep the baseline trending upwards all that time. This means I was in a pretty good recovery state on January the 12th and this had become one of the major success factors for my record VO2Max ride on that day.
I was already a big advocate of breathing exercises for quite some time. Together with physical exercises, they helped me to recover from anxiety and high blood pressure. However, what I learned from coach Chad Timmerman made me focus even more on deep diaphragmic breathing, especially during hard workouts. When it comes to breathing exercises, I focused on three things during the 2.5 months prior to my ride on January 12th. 1. Nasal breathing. Scientific data show that inhaling through the nose translates into better oxygen absorption. 2. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, where you push air from your lungs actively using the diaphragm muscle. It helps the body to make larger inhales which ultimately translates in higher oxygen consumption. 3. Slow breathing to calm mind and body faster. Excellent skill to master if you want to do quick relaxation and recovery sessions during the day. Also, it is great preparation for a restful night sleep. You can practice breathing exercises with different goals with the help of my free app BreatheNow available in AppStore.
I am a deep believer in exercise as a primary way to stay healthy and energetic as we age. Especially, if we do it smart way, balancing hard training workload properly with recovery and supporting activities, like breathing exercises. I had a late start on this road and my starting health position was not great. Still, few years down the road I am doing quite alright. I hope this article will encourage others to use exercise to get their health under control. Would love to hear your comments and questions.