Workout intensity: A How-To Guide

Workout intensity: A How-To Guide

Twenty five laps around a 400 meter track.

At an outdoor track meet that’s the 10,000 meter race, a distance more commonly known as the 10K.  But on the outdoor track we call it the 10,000, for reasons nobody knows, but that I suspect have something to do with how impressive it is to say “ten thousand” versus “ten K.”  Or that 25 times around a track just feels like it would make you crazy, but 10K on the road would be a quick race – maybe a baby sister to the half-marathon.

The 10,000 was my race in college and I loved it.  I loved the precision of the track for 10,000 meters and that it required pinpoint consistency lap by lap and some measure of mental stamina to perform well.

I don’t ever compete on a track anymore, but I still love precision and consistency when I run.  Nowadays I get that precision from my GPS, but it’s a double-edged sword.  I’m always trying to run faster than I did last time, so I’m always pushing myself, and that applies whether I’m running, biking, or strength training.

But how hard is too hard?

How hard should you be pushing yourself every day?  Are you pushing yourself enough?

To gauge your intensity, your two basic options are to either judge by feel or measure by heart rate.

Judge by feel

If you’re going by feel, which is actually pretty accurate, you can either apply the two terms “moderate” or “vigorous” to your workout or you can use the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion.

Moderate vs. Vigorous

Moderate exercise is comparable to walking or light bicycling (no faster than 10mph).  Vigorous exercise includes jogging, hiking with a pack or uphill, swimming laps, or race walking and, of course, anything more than that.  Using the terms moderate vs. vigorous is most useful if you’re trying to determine if you’ve gotten your weekly dose of exercise in.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), for example, both recommend you get 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

If you’re looking for a handy planning workbook and printable schedule that will help you plan out your weekly exercise program according to the CDC and ACSM guidelines, check out my Planning Workbook in the store.

Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion

For a more precise subjective scale during your actual workout, you can use the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion.  The scale ranges from 6 (watching TV) to 20 (the finishing kick of a race).  Each number on the scale is matched with a descriptive term and an example activity.

Does it seem strange that the scale goes from 6-20?  It’s actually a handy, built-in mechanism for translating your perceived exertion to a more objective heart rate.  Just multiply the number for your perceived exertion by 10 and you get an estimated heart rate.  It’s actually pretty accurate.  Neat, huh?  And if you know that your workout should be between 50-70% of your max heart rate (max heart rate = 220 minus your age) for a moderate workout or 70-85% of your max heart rate for a vigorous workout, you can really put those numbers to use.

Measure by heart rate

Fitness trackers

If you’re more of a straightforward numbers person and you’d like to just cut to the chase and measure your heart rate, there are lots of tools to use, especially now that we’ve got Fitbit.  So many tools, however, that it can be really tough to navigate the fitness tracker market.  Here’s a link to a super useful, up to date article and review of the best fitness tracking devices on the market.  It will also clear up some of the details about what each of the most popular models is capable of so you can determine what you need for your own purposes.

Calculating your max heart rate

When calculating your maximum heart rate, if you’d like to be more precise, you include your heart rate reserve into the equation, which takes into account your resting heart rate.  This is most helpful for athletes, because your resting heart rate will be lower than your sedentary age-matched peers, giving you a greater heart rate reserve.  Every 30-year-old certainly doesn’t have the same max heart rate, right?  This Mayo Clinic article explains the details of how to calculate your target heart rate if you’re using your heart rate reserve in the equation.  And if you’re serious enough about monitoring your heart rate to gauge your intensity, I’d recommend doing the extra 2 minute calculation (and you actually do need a calculator) to get your numbers right from the beginning.

To sum up…

Here’s a quick summary of how hard you should be working out each week.  You should be exercising at least at a moderate intensity (50-70% of your max heart rate) for 150 minutes per week or a vigorous intensity (70-85% of your max heart rate) for 75 minutes per week.  If you want to do some vigorous and some moderate, you just count vigorous exercise as double the minutes of moderate exercise.  For example, if you walk for 30 minutes 3 days per week (walking = moderate intensity) and then swim laps for 30 minutes one day per week (swimming = vigorous intensity), your calculations are 30+30+30+(2 x 30) = 150 minutes of moderate activity.  Of course, you can do more than that if your doctor approves, but that’s the minimum amount recommended by the CDC and ACSM to reap substantial health benefits from exercise, just so you have a reference point.

With all the number crunching I’m sending you off to do, here’s the first time you’ll hear: go grab your calculator and hit the gym!  🙂

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