ST Run: Answers to being a better runner by coach Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham, who is helming the ST Run’s coaching series in 2019, has been a professional coach for the past 11 years.
Ben Pulham, who is helming the ST Run’s coaching series in 2019, has been a professional coach for the past 11 years.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Q: In a run, I tend to move between zones 2-4 depending on the terrain and how tired I am that day. Is there a percentage for each zone that I should remain in?

What is the difference between your training zones and the maximum/average heart rate that is commonly recommended? Based on my age (45 years), my HRmax should be 220-45=175 and 85% is 149. But my average HR in a normal run (pace: 7:30-8:30min/km) is usually 155 (with an occasional maximum of 170s). If I were to follow the chart for target HR zones, does it mean that my heart is overexerting itself?

A: Heart rate will go up and down depending on the terrain, that's fine. The key is to have as little deviation as possible and not to spend extended periods in higher zones. Aim for around 80-plus per cent of training to be in zones 1 and 2.

The quality of training zones is essential. So when creating the online training programme, I used clients' lactate results, the gold standard for zone calculations, to find out which of the popular HR formulas they were most consistent with. The end result is the one I shared.

Depending on your genetic make-up, it may or may not be accurate for you. It's a great place to start, though.

If you're consistently in zone 3 and above, I believe you are putting more stress on your body and heart than you should be. Have the confidence to ease off a little and watch as your pace begin to increase at the same HR, thanks to improvements in aerobic fitness.

Q: I am 48 years old, theoretical maximum HR is 172 bpm. I run 3-5 times a week. During my HR training and 21km/42km races, my HR can average 160-175. Just wondering if I am pushing myself too hard?

A: Everyone is different. If you have an unusually high heart rate (like me), it is not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a chance HR formulas will not be accurate for you.

Consider visiting a lab, like the one we run at Coached, and do a lactate test. This investment will ensure the zones, based on your physiology, will be as accurate as it gets.

If you are using a formula to calculate your zones, use the one in my previous column.

Q: I am in the healthy BMI range. But my body fat results showed that I am obese and my skeletal muscle is very poor. I have a visceral fat of 2.5. What could have caused this? And how do I improve the results?

A: The accuracy of body composition measurements vary greatly between methods.

Assuming the results are accurate, the cause of excess fat is all the small choices you make every day. The foods you eat, the sleep you get, exercise habits among other things affect metabolic health and how effective you are at burning fat.

If you wish to lose fat, there are a few simple things I would recommend to get you started.

• Lower carbohydrates intake and increase healthy fats to regulate insulin levels and improve fat burning.

• Do regular low-intensity exercise (zones 1 and 2).

• Do regular strength exercises to build muscle. I like body-weight exercises; they are so simple and can be done anywhere. Plank, squats, lunges, pull-ups and press-ups are great ways to start.

• Get 7-plus hours of sleep a night.

• Reduce stress and anxiety. In my experience, the Internet and particularly smartphones produce a lot of anxiety. I no longer use social media, keep my phone in greyscale and significantly limit Internet usage. It's proven very effective for me.

Q: I have been running regularly but every time during a long run/race, after 2 hours I get leg cramps. What causes it and how can I prevent it?

A: Cramp is caused by two primary things.

First, muscle fatigue: The quality of your training and race execution determines how resistant your muscles are to fatigue. So it's important to train regularly and progressively. In a race, you need to run at an even pace to avoid excessive stress on muscles. In my experience, most runners start too hard, which can lead to cramp.

Second, lack of sodium: You lose sodium when you sweat. Sodium helps to regulate fluid balance and blood volume while helping to maintain muscle and nerve function.

The amount of sodium you lose in sweat is genetic, so some people lose as little as 200 mg/l and others more than 2,000 mg/l. On average, people lose around 900 mg/l.

To avoid cramp, you need to supplement with sodium as you race.

I recommend aiming for the average of 900 mg/l, which is roughly four salt pills per litre of water you drink during the race.

• If you have a question for the 2019 ST Run's official coach Ben Pulham, visit the run's website and post it in the #AskCoachBen section.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 11, 2019, with the headline 'Answers to being a better runner'. Subscribe