Commander's Fit Tip: Slow Ride, Fast Results

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
A few weeks ago, we explored some of the mythology surrounding weight loss routines and exercise intensity. In that edition, I introduced the "hard day, light day" strategy, and since then, I've received a number of questions about that approach. So let's look at that in more detail and maybe I can convince you to add this to your workout portfolio.

The "hard day / light day" strategy is a fantastic method developed for those of us who need to improve our fitness, but are not professional athletes. When you think about what it takes to get "to the pros" you can see how from their perspective, every tenth of a percent gain in performance is worth going after.

But chasing the upper limits of your performance capability greatly increases injury risk, and with dedicated coaching, you can reduce this risk. But if you don't earn your living by taking your mind and body to the limit in front of millions of spectators, you need a better plan.

The "hard day / light day" approach will get you close to 90 percent of your maximum capability without carrying the injury risk a pro routine represents. Here's how it works.

The routine is a cardio-based approach, and acknowledges the reality that even the pros run into a wall if they try to max out their efforts every day. By introducing low intensity (aka light) days, you allow your body to adapt to the challenge gradually, and more importantly, let your psyche adapt as well.

Let's face it: I enjoy a hard workout about as much as anybody, but the thought of facing the threshold of pain every day can get old. But if I know I have a break planned in between, I'm more apt to stick to the plan, and that's where the magic happens.

It turns out that sticking to a plan is the biggest obstacle, so a less challenging plan, more closely followed, will beat a tough plan that you just can't execute. Plus the "light days" offer a chance to merge your weight training efforts with your aerobic work. Trust me, if you try to "hit the weights" in conjunction with a "hard day" aerobic workout, chances are one or the other (or both!) will be compromised. So, what's a light day? It might not be what you think.

As a cardio-based strategy, the line between "hard" and "light" is largely understood in terms of heart rate. To qualify as a "light day," you're looking for something around 70 percent of your max. It's still a "workout," but it needs to be totally sustainable and light enough that you could repeat it a few days in a row without getting into cumulative fatigue or strain. So for most of us (myself included!) a light day does not include running.

Maybe I'm a mutant (some would argue there's no "maybe" in that statement!) but if I try to run at all, my heart rate climbs right past 130 beats per minute (that's 70 percent for me) even if I try to execute a slow jog. So rather than lumber along in a clumsy trot, I hit the machines on light days. The ellipticals, spin bikes, stationary bikes, and even the hand bike, all offer a very controllable load, making it easy to sustain a target heart rate.

Light days will cost a bit more time though. Shoot for 45 minutes, with 30 as a bare minimum. But there's a trap ... the cadence. You can't let "light day" drag you into a lethargic, glacial event. You're much better off keeping your cadence higher and adjusting the load on the machine to drive your heart rate.

Why? Efficiency.

You only benefit when your muscles contract, so a higher cadence will get more contractions per minute. I maintain at least 90 RPM on the bikes, and 150 "strides per minute" on the elliptical. These rates will seem unnaturally high at first, but in just a short while, your "natural pace" will rise and these will not seem so awkward to maintain.

And don't forget your tunes! Adding your favorite music to this routine will make the minutes fly by, and the higher cadence helps overcome the concern that you are not getting bang for your buck.

If you are just restarting your workout routine following an illness or injury, this is the perfect plan. For the first couple weeks, shoot for a hard Monday, light Tuesday, rest Wednesday (maybe weights only), hard Thursday, light Friday schedule. As you gain confidence, you can add Wednesday, but for that first week, start off with the light day on Monday, so you'll get three light days (M, W, F) in that week.

Then look at starting off with a hard day, and you'll have three hards, two softs that week. If you are a little achy on Thursday, just repeat the light day on Friday. In the early phases when you have three "light days," add in your weight routine. In short order, (about six weeks) you'll see some real performance gains and your injury risk is very low.

I know many aspiring fitness aficionados can't get over the feeling that they are "wasting time" on the light days. All I can say is the science behind this technique is bulletproof. Aggressive training schemes can produce higher levels of performance more quickly, but inevitably, you suffer a setback due to injury, overtraining, cumulative muscle fatigue, or mental fatigue.

The time lost to forced recovery shifts the progress meter back towards the hard day/light day routine, and over the long term, the success rates are much higher.

So enjoy the workouts, and feel good about "taking it easy" two or three times a week. After a few weeks, you'll be shocked at just how hard a "light day" has to be to get you up to the 70 percent target. And you'll have plenty of gas left in the tank for the hard day that follows.

Try it!