The Tortoise & The Hare (A Modern Fable)

Posted by in November's Magazine

Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, ‘slow and steady wins the race’ is an oldie but a goody. As a Personal Trainer (and in this issue I’m returning to one of my favourite topics, movement) I teach people how to exercise safely and effectively. I never beast a client, that would be too harsh – ‘beasting’ is making someone work so hard they can barely walk the next day. Not a polite or useful thing to do to an individual who may be looking on exercise with trepidation to begin with.

It takes a while to become unfit, so in turn it follows it will take a while for the body to adapt to exercise and become fit. Starting small and being consistent over time is the key to success where getting in shape is concerned. Many people start with unrealistic goals and expectations (I’ll exercise everyday for an hour!) and then use them as an excuse to give up trying. This is where an experienced PT comes in handy, having seen many bodies over the years they’ve got a good idea of what intensity and frequency of exercise an individual will benefit from.



Speed fascinates me. We are designed to operate at varying ‘gears’. As an intelligent species we have worked out how to live our lives with minimal effort. We get groceries delivered and have labour-saving devices. We tend to operate at ‘cruising’ speed, getting around with minimal effort and few calories burned.

The next level up is aerobic intensity, which is to say moving faster with some effort. For example, a fast walk using more energy but not moving so fast that you’re completely knackered. At this level the oxygen you breathe in is used to resynthesize stored muscle energy. You can keep going at this pace for quite awhile i.e. it is not too taxing.

A particular favourite of mine is LSD (Long Slow Distance), training that is. The steady plod is an excellent way to get into aerobic training. For new exercisers this pace is often simply a fast walk – no need to overdo it. Your heart is a muscle and regular exercise will help make it bigger and stronger. With practise it gets stronger still and can pump more blood with each contraction and therefore you can develop a lower resting heart rate (less strain on the heart).

The parameters for aerobic heart rate training are half an hour (or more) with your heart rate in the target training zone (65 – 75% max HR) at least three times a week. All Heart Rate Monitors come with instructions on how to work out your ‘zone’. The fitter you get, the faster you need to go to get to the same heart rate. Meaning life becomes less of an effort. LSD can also improve running performance, by going slower (in the aerobic training zone) it allows your body to move with good form and build your aerobic base. This in turn can lead to improved PB’s (personal bests). In effect you’re going slower to be able to go faster. And it works.

The uppermost level in the whole cycle is high intensity where your heart goes like the clappers and you may feel you want to collapse. Your muscles use up more oxygen than you can breathe in and you switch to your ‘in extremis’ power supply. This is the speed required for HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). Which is taking your heart rate above what is called the ‘lactic acid threshold’ to a higher exertion, really, really, pushing yourself.

If the tortoise is LSD, the hare is HIT. HIIT is currently very trendy, or ‘on trend’ as the trend for referring to the current trend is. HIIT involves short bursts of maximum effort, with recovery breaks in between. The parameters of HIIT (and the bit they conveniently leave out of many magazine articles) assume that the person doing the high intensity intervals already has a good level of fitness i.e. they are already doing some aerobic training and are not sedentary. So it is not a magic bullet. You need to have a conditioned cardiac muscle (heart) to withstand very high heart rate levels. It’s not for everybody. In fact, you need to be like the tortoise sometimes if you want to be like the hare. I actually prefer the tortoise – especially with a Scottish accent ‘tor-toys’ – as it is a wiser beast with more versatility.

So exercising like a tortoise is a good thing. You are more likely to arrive at your fitness destination unbroken. There is a place for high intensity interval training, however it is not essential for everybody. Try it if you think it suits, a good PT can tailor a personalised HIIT workout just for you, or you can try a ‘Crossfit’ or ‘Insanity’ class. I know many people wouldn’t voluntarily sign up for something called an insanity class, however I do know folk who enjoy ‘beasting’ themselves. Viva la difference!

The choice is yours. Whatever speed you choose to exercise at the most important thing is to just do it.

Twitter: @tracygriffen
Facebook: /griffenfitnesss

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