by Mark Cucuzzella, M.D.
There is a scene from “The Matrix” where Morpheus shows Neo two pills.
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In the Shepherdstown Chronicle’s New Year edition, 25-year-old Shane Harris was featured and boldly announced his goal of running faster to achieve peak performance on his military Fitness Test. The majority of the test is your ability to run fast.
As a fellow soldier now developing programs for the United States Air Force on running performance improvement, I challenged Shane to take the red pill. Even more important than taking the red pill of ditching the big bulky running shoes and transitioning to one with less cushion is swallowing a really bitter red pill- you must run slower to get faster.
Shane and I met in early February and shared his goal. He trusted me and took a chance on the red pill. Shane became a student and piled on the homework and simple training tools, the most important of which was a heart rate monitor.
For running you need to develop the correct system – the aerobic system. This is the highly efficient system utilizing oxygen, glucose and fat metabolism. The modern analogy is this: each of us is blessed with a hybrid engine, actually millions of hybrid engines at the muscular level. The electric engine is your fat burning aerobic system – highly efficient and can run all day on minimal added fuel. It is resilient to breaking down.
In your body this is fat metabolism at the mitochondrial level of your muscles. The less efficient but more readily available engine is the gas or glucose engine. We are constantly mixing and we always need some gas in the tank. The proportions of electric and gas shift as the effort and heart rate go up. The harder and faster the more gas and less electric.
A bird can migrate 7,000 miles without a Powerbar because they are almost exclusively fat burning. If they go a little too fast, they’ll fail.
If you have ever driven a Prius, you see the subtle mixing of gas (glucose) and electric (fat burning) which you cannot detect as the driver. Your body is doing this all the time in exercise. You want more electric. Any activity lasting more than a couple hours is largely electric.
Many of us run too hard and constantly use and replenish the easily accessed glucose tank which can last no more than 90 minutes. When blood glucose levels drop, we crash. Mind and body sense an overwhelming fatigue. Topping off this tank at high levels of exertion is problematic as we do not feel hungry. Blood is being shunted from the gut to the active muscles. Even if you force down calories, it tends to sit in your stomach, or worse, toss back up. To constantly access the deep fat-burning tank you must train correctly.
So how do you build these mitochondrial factories in your muscles so your hybrid engine is at optimum performance?
Your goal is to build a bigger engine – build millions of mitochondrial factories and the roads (capillary blood supply) to deliver the oxygen to them. The heart and lungs are the fuel pump, the engine is the millions of fat and glucose burning mitochondria in the muscles.
The good news is that it is all about running easy. For most highly motivated exercisers, the definition of “easy” is not uniform. What level of effort is “easy” to build and utilize the aerobic system? How can you assess this yourself?
The 180 Formula developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone is still the simplest and best method. The transition from mostly fat burning to glucose burning is the Aerobic Threshold (AT) Heart Rate (HR). You do not run above this until you have fully progressed which often takes six to 12 months.
For most adults you subtract your age from 180. Shane is 25 years old, so 180 25 = 155 Heart Rate.
I advised Shane to trust the formula and run under 155 HR, even if it meant walking up a hill. When he applied the monitor in early February at what seemed to him a pedestrian pace of 10:45 a mile, the monitor beeped indicating 155 HR. Shane trusted and slowed down. Ten days later he was running 9:30 a mile below this comfortable 155 HR. Progression continued rapidly, and by March 17 he was running 8:07 a mile at below 155 HR.
Shane continues to progess, and soon he will be running under 8 minutes a mile at an effort he could run for hours since he is using the efficient electric (fat) fuel tank.
A couple more amazing stats: since Shane is using fat as fuel now he is reducing body fat. His weight has dropped from 209 to 195 pounds in six weeks, and all of it fat loss. He works at the Sweet Shop, so this is even more impressive.
His ultimate goal is a top score on the 1.5 mile run test. At the beginning of his experiment he ran the 1.5 mile in 11:26 and just this week he completed it in 9:36 (a time near the top score for the test). So Shane is getting faster, leaner and feeling great and relaxed by running slower and happier.