Let's Do Launch

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Let's Do Launch

For the time-crunched athlete, the midday break is long enough to order up a good workout
By Mark Jannot

The problem with summer: It's out there, and we're in here. Five days a week, we struggle to get to the office by nine, and when we're finally expelled into the world of fresh air, the day is usually on the wane. In between, we're forced by the proximity of glass to endure the taunts of the sun.

But there's always lunch. Getting out at lunchtime is more than just another opportunity to enjoy the season's charms; researchers say that the light of day and an extended break can be a better stimulant than a double espresso. Unfortunately, "extended" is a relative term, and the hour most of us get quickly dwindles as we change, perhaps drive to a park or trailhead, and shower and dress. If you're fast, you have 40 minutes for quality huffing. "Don't slight that chunk of time," says Richard Hawes, a professor of physical education at Ohio Wesleyan University. "It can be more than enough to help you prepare for an early-fall marathon or a century ride, or just to be in solid late-summer shape."

Study after study has shown that a consistent 40 minutes of exercise per day is enough not only to maintain your fitness, but, for most of us, to better it. So comes the obvious question: How can we make big breakthroughs in such short stretches? By doing workouts that have purpose. "If you're already fit enough to exercise for an hour or an hour and a half, then a careless execution of those 40 minutes won't really improve your fitness," warns Hawes. "Approach the time wrong, and you'll just get more stale."

Do What You Don't Know
One way to make those minutes count is to rank the sports that are within a lunch hour's reach, from the ones you're best at to those in which you just plod. Then pick your pursuit from the bottom of the list.

"If you do an activity that you're already good at, you're going to be efficient--you'll burn less energy doing it," says Hawes, who also coaches the Wesleyan men's and women's swim teams. "But if you do something your body isn't familiar with, it won't know how to relax, and you use more muscles. Look at an efficient cyclist--she won't move her upper body much. But someone who's new to the sport pulls a lot with his arms and back. He burns considerably more energy."

At the start of every swim season, Hawes has his team members performing different strokes than they're accustomed to. It's the same approach that has boxers taking on roadwork and baseball players running laps. "Athletes should never say, 'I'm not going to do something because it's too awkward or hard,'" says Hawes. "It's because it's so hard that you're getting so much out of it."

Go by the Mets
Neither Hawes nor any other coach, however, endorses the practice of flailing dismally or dangerously for an hour every day. When there's a strong distinction between doing something that's good for your body and doing something that you enjoy, you should lean toward the latter. But if you have to choose among sports that bring you satisfaction, take "met" values into account.

Mets, short for "metabolic energy equivalents," have been embraced by the American College of Sports Medicine, which puts out a book that rounds up 46 favorite American leisure activities--from archery to volleyball, horseshoes to hunting--and assigns them values based on relative oxygen intake and thus relative caloric use. The linear scale starts at one. "That's where you are right now, because you're on your rear," says Lloyd Laubach, a professor of health and sports science at Ohio's University of Dayton. "You don't tax much muscle mass when you sit."

Yet the met values of some more ambitious pursuits are surprising. While swimming's met values range from four to over eight, and riding a bike at 13 miles per hour nets a met of nine, running at a slowish ten-minute-mile pace scores 10.2, and six-minute miles rate 16.3. Other activities that approach running include snowshoeing (with met values as high as 14), climbing mountains (five to ten), and, undeniably, big-game hunting (14, if you include dragging out the poor carcass).

But running is the quick-workout king because it involves so much of your body. "When you cycle, you primarily use the quads," says Laubach. "You get very little lower-leg involvement and hardly any upper-body use at all. In swimming, it's just the opposite--it doesn't recruit the big muscles in the legs. Running, with its arm-swinging motion and heavy demand on your quads and hamstrings, uses nearly everything." Basically, says Laubach, the more muscles you can involve, the more you're asking of your heart and the more efficient your aerobic system will become.

Finally, gravity has something to do with the equation. Relatively speaking, you don't suffer from its pull as much when you ride or swim as you do when you run, which is one reason why elite runners have been known to have as little as half the body fat of their pool-bound peers. And if you don't like pounding the pavement? Try in-line skating--your back and hamstrings will feel gravity at work.

Take Things at the Right Speed
Once you've chosen (or resigned yourself to) a couple of midday activities, you have to answer the question of how to approach the workouts. Here again, unique lunch-hour considerations come into play--such as the fact that you've still got an afternoon's worth of work to do. "I'm a proponent of moderate intensity, regardless of the type of exercise," says ultramarathoner Stu Mittleman, who runs New York Ultrafit Inc., a fitness consulting firm, and is the American record holder in the 1,000-mile run. "If you're squeezing this workout into the middle of the day, you want to make sure that you don't go anaerobic. You don't want to go back to your desk depleted--with your blood sugar low."

Mittleman explains that burning the maximum amount of calories requires that you get your heart rate up within 80-90 percent of its top end--which will put you out of breath--and that you tap into your extremely limited carbohydrate stores for fuel. "Back at the office, you're apt to zone out," he says. "Your brain can only use carbohydrates, which have now been largely expended. You can't process fats or protein for mental energy."

To avoid the intellectual bonk and access your more plentiful fat stores, according to Mittleman, you have to stay well within your aerobic range during the entire workout. Which means you have to go slow. Mittleman's short workout recommendation is that you warm up very easily for seven to ten minutes, work out for 20 to 30 minutes at a pace at which you can hold a conversation, and then cool down for another seven to ten minutes. "Your body will actually get more efficient at burning fat, which is what it must do for long-distance events like marathons or centuries anyway," he says.

On the other hand, lunch can go a long way toward meeting your carbohydrate needs (see "Because Man Cannot Run on Fumes Alone,"), which is why Hawes recommends that athletes who are decently fit consider some speed work a couple of times a week. He notes that it's high-intensity work that leads to dramatic gains in cardiovascular fitness, which is especially important to athletes who have hit plateaus by training at only one clip. "You want to overload the body in short spurts," says Hawes. "By taking your heart rate way up and then down again, you'll train your body to go at faster paces for longer periods of time." Speed sessions, fortunately, can usually be fit into short time frames.

A typical week, says Hawes, might include a slow-paced session on Monday, followed by fartleks, or high-intensity repeats, on Tuesday: Hawes recommends that after warming up you devote a 24-minute block to three-minute intervals--three minutes at an intensity high enough to make speaking difficult, followed by three minutes for recovery. "But don't go anaerobic," says Hawes. "If you feel like walking or stopping, you're going a touch too hard." Wednesday calls for a steady 40-minute effort at a brisk pace; Thursday, for the hardest workout of the week (see "Workouts in No Time Flat,"). Friday's workout should be just like Monday's.

Or, say Hawes and Mittleman, Friday can be a day to do nothing. Whether you've decided to go slow or fast or to mix the two, after getting nearly a week's worth of sun--at least in 40-minute stretches--your body could use a break. And that's when it doesn't seem so wrong that you're on the inside looking out at summe

Mark Jannot wrote about winter training techniques in the February issue. He is a frequent contributor to Bodywork.

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