on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on exercising with data from the heart

I went for a run this morning, my first run in months. I have been cycling everyday instead, because cycling felt a lot easier to sustain for a longer period of time. Because of the lockdown apart from my morning exercise I’m sitting or lying down at home, so I have become concerned with the muscles in my body would start to dystrophy.

Why should I care about the muscles in my body at this time? Is it for vanity or fitness? The problem is once my muscles start to dystrophy, it causes a cascading effect where I’ll get body aches, tense muscles, poor blood circulation, and then complex hormonal effects which thereafter I’ll end up with terrible PMS and a PMS-related migraine. The effects seem worse as I age, and I’ve been trying to experiment with both exercise and diet to try to mitigate them as much as possible. I haven’t had a migraine free menstrual cycle in months, if not years.

I noticed that while cycling with my road bike – which I do favour – my max heart rate per minute is around 130bpm and that’s if I cycle like a maniac, which is dangerous for the park connectors (max 25 km/h legally) I cycle on. That range is enough to build endurance, but not enough to build fitness and strength. I’ll have to do more research to cite more evidence, but my intention for higher intensity exercise is to increase my tolerance for stress. The slightly counter-intuitive thing is, the higher amounts of targeted physical stress we put our body through, the easier it becomes for it to relax, because it builds a tolerance and capacity for the stress. That’s why elite athletes have very low resting heart rates, their hearts hardly need to work to pump enough blood for their bodies.

Since the lockdown my resting heart rate has been increasing. I have no idea whether it is the sedentary lifestyle or the chronic omg-the-virus-is-destroying-the-world-as-I-know-it stress – probably a bit of both. So I decided to restart running again to rebuild my fitness since my suspicion is my cycling will only maintain it.

The difference between this new bout of running versus my old running routine is that I’m going to use bio data to help me manage it. I used to be really into daily streaks and was very unwilling to break them, so I ran everyday rain or shine. That was actually not healthy for me, as I burnt out without knowing it.

I am probably going to write another post about the devices I use to measure such data, but in summary I check my heart rate variability every morning to see how intense my exercise should be:

I use a polar chest strap for the first app and my apple watch for the second. Why two data points? I actually use four including the oura ring and a whoop strap I use during sleep (these are all devices I acquired in different points of my life in case you think I went crazy and got all of them at the same time). The reason why I use four different devices is because each one of them have their own flaws and there’s many conditions that may cause readings to be off since HRV is a sensitive measurement. So I use all of them to gauge an average sense of my daily capacity to exercise.

When it is in the green like the above, I’m good to exercise at high intensity. At yellow, it will be better if I limit it to a slow, recovery-type of exercise. If I’m reading a red score, I should have a rest day no matter what I actually want to do. Over-exercising can cause injuries and worse, burnout which make take months for recovery.

The real reason why I’m relying on data instead of my own good sensibilities is because many years of experience have taught me I have no good sensibilities and I only know how to burn out. I am also hopeless at being attuned to my body.

Today, I ran about 6km around the route I use to cycle. I have never ran that part of the park before, and it was surreal to experience how different it felt. It felt like time stood still as the park was eerily quiet with birds singing and sounds of trees rustling in the air. Experiencing that on a bicycle and on my two feet feels radically different, like time has slowed dramatically down.

I thought it would be hard. I used to struggle with 2km, much less 6km. The fitness that comes from cycling does not translate to running. My heart rate spiked to 150+bpm compared to my fitter days of 130+bpm for a slow jog. I had to be careful not to overdo it in case I burn out and fall sick yet again.

But I was surprised to learn that I didn’t feel like I was forcing myself to do something I disliked. I used to look at my watch a lot and wish the metres would rack up quicker so I could finish it as soon as possible. Today I looked at my watch often enough, but it didn’t feel terrible.

My cycling didn’t contribute to my running fitness as my heart was still struggling, but it contributed to the endurance. My chest didn’t feel like it was going to burst, my body didn’t feel like it was going to fall apart from all the weight I was making it carry at speed. So it was quite intriguing for me to observe that experience because at that 150bpm+ heart rate I was expecting to feel terrible but I didn’t. I definitely didn’t feel it was effortless – I could cycle intensely and it would never feel like a real effort to me – but it actually felt moderate. I never thought I would use the word moderate on running.

I’m looking forward to running whenever I am in a good physiological state as determined by my HRV, acquiring more long-term data and see if my hypothesis that this will lower my resting heart rate would be correct.

To really build strength I would probably have to start on weights and HIIT, but I am not there yet. I’m not sure if I would ever want to go there, but I never thought I’ll be ever cycling a road bike, so who knows?

I don’t know what are other people doing with the blogs or newsletters. I have one acquaintance on twitter who tweeted that someone wrote to him to say that his newsletter was tone deaf because he didn’t write about the virus situation at all. His reason was that there’s already a lot going on about the virus, he wanted to add a different quality to the world.

I hesitated to write a post like this, because who cares about my personal fitness when people are suffering so much? But I’ve written quite abit about my feelings towards the situation, and it is my personal belief that precisely because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, it brings a bit more urgency to me to document the mundane qualities of life. In our history even at the darkest times, we have always been making art and documenting (I sometimes think about Anne Frank writing about her desire to kiss another girl).

I don’t know about you, but personally I think everyone should do whatever it takes to cope, as long as there’s no intention to harm other people (not practicing distancing is harming people). I may not like what other people are doing for whatever reason, but I don’t have to do the same or participate in it. Similarly, nobody has to read this very mundane, specific post if it is not their thing.

At a time like this, perhaps there are other people struggling with their chronic health like me and would like to experiment with their HRV. The most cost effective and accurate way would be the Polar H10 chest strap which costs about $120 SGD / $80 USD. You can also use your existing Apple Watch if you already have one. I acknowledge these things are not cheap, but regular visits to the doctor is definitely more expensive (unless you have socialised good healthcare). The whoop band costs $30 USD/mth which is the most affordable start cost but will add up in the long-term.

More on these devices later.

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