How To Self Regulate Your Exercise

Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly how hard to push yourself while exercising to reach your goals?

Imagine each day you could wake up and open an app on your phone and based on your sleep, your past training, your resting heart rate, body temperature, overall stress load, and your nutrition the app would tell you exactly how many sets and reps to do, or how long your easy aerobic work should be, or how many intervals to do and at what intensity based on your goals.

That would be amazing right?

Unfortunately this app doesn’t exist, and I am sorry to tell you that even the best coaches in the world can’t tell you exactly what to do either.

This is why I believe it is important to understand how you can self regulate your exercise so that you can decide how hard to work, for how long, or even if you should exercise at all.

Self regulating your exercise all begins with checking in with yourself.

  • How do you feel today?
  • Are you tired?
  • Do you have signs of being sick?
  • Do you have any pain, soreness, or discomfort?
  • How is your motivation to exercise?

Spending time checking in with your body is always the first step. This is sometimes a skill we need to develop, we spend so much time ignoring the signals from our body that we have lost this skill. If you have a hard time listening to what your body is saying, I suggest you spend 5-10 minutes each morning with a pen and paper answering the questions above…honestly! Imagine you are the fictional app I mentioned above when answering these questions and you had all that insight but without the mental attachment to yourself, you are completely objective.

If you have signs upon waking that you should not be training or should be scaling back your training give yourself some time to ease into your day before you train if you can. Then reevaluate how you feel. Oftentimes after we get going in our day we can feel drastically different. If something in your body is still off it is either not a day to exercise or you need to keep it very easy.

If you feel okay and decide you are going to exercise that day, how do you know the right intensity and/or duration to exercise at? My answer to this question depends on the modality of exercise you are doing.

When it comes to cardio based exercise, whether it be easy low intensity cardio or high intensity intervals, using your heart rate as a guide is your best approach. The reason heart rate is a good self regulator is because it reflects your current state objectively.

You might be wondering why not use pace or power (aka wattage)?

The reason is because we can experience different levels of effort for the exact same pace or wattage. For example, some days when I go out for a run, running at an 8 min/mile pace feels relatively easy. However the same pace after a night of zero sleep can feel like a monumental effort! If I was to just use pace (or power) as my sole guide for my workout it could be either way too easy or way too hard.

Heart rate however will accurately reflect the current state of your body. If my intention is to go out for an easy run, and I know for me that means my heart rate needs to be between 120-130 beats per minute, I know that as long as I stay within that heart rate range I will get the desired training effect. The run might be at an 8 min/mile pace if I am well rested and feeling good or it might be at a 10 min/mile pace if I am fatigued and tired. Either way I achieved the intention of the workout and avoided pushing myself to achieve what I perceive to be an “easy pace” and further fatiguing my body.

When it comes to interval work or high intensity cardio training, heart rate can be somewhat useful especially when you start aligning heart rate with a specific distance, time, or power metric. For example, if I know I can hold 300 watts on the rower for 30 seconds with my heart rate around 145 beats per minute, I can use that to determine when it might be able to call it quits on the intervals I am doing. If during the first 3 intervals I can hold 300 watts for 30 seconds and my heart rate is 145 beats per minute but on intervals 4, 5, and 6 I notice my heart rate drifting higher and higher and my wattage drops lower and lower I know I am done. I should probably call it quits because I am no longer able to maintain that effort and get the desired effect from the workout.

There is another very important situation where heart rate may play an important role when doing interval training. You may struggle to even achieve your target heart rate range to start or in order to get to the wattage or speed you want to target for the interval you need to exceed your normal heart rate range. This is a sign you are fatigued and you might want to opt for a less intense exercise session that day. It is completely fine to get one or two rounds into your interval workout and scrap the whole thing and go for a walk if it seems like you don’t have what it takes on that day.

All of this self regulation via heart rate will take some time to establish. The first time you do a set of intervals you won’t have a great idea about what your heart rate should be for a given wattage. It will take a few workouts to get a better sense of your norms. That is fine, but what should you do in the meantime? For the first few sessions as you establish your norms you can use an RPE scale of 1-10, 1 being very easy 10 being max effort.

Your easy cardio sessions should be in the 1-5 range. Your intervals should be in the 8-10 range. I reserve that 6-7 range on the RPE scale for workouts where I want someone to push on the edge of discomfort, something like a “tempo” workout, it’s hard but sustainable for a good chunk of time.

What about self regulating strength training? From time to time I will have a client ask me why I don’t prescribe exact weights, reps, and sets to them for their strength training. I explain to them that it’s the same reason why I don’t prescribe exact pace or power numbers in their cardio training. I can’t predict how their body may respond on any given day. In order to self regulate strength training sessions I always prescribe a specific number of sets but with a range of reps. For example, if I want a client to do some squats I might say do 3 sets of squats for 5-8 reps. As long as they can stay within the prescribed rep range for the given number of sets, that is what I care about. One week they may use 100 lbs, the next week they may use 90lbs, the week after maybe 125 lbs. By using a rep range, rather than setting a specific weight it allows the client the freedom to adjust the weight based on what their body is able to handle.

Just like nutrition is not an exact science, the same is true for exercise programming. No person, or device, can accurately quantify your ability to exercise on any given day. Instead we need all our bodies to tell us what they can handle AND BE OK WITH THAT! Some days we can do more, perform better, feel amazing, other days for no apparent reason, we just don’t have it and need to scale back. Accepting the fact that you can’t replicate your performance exactly from day to day, week to week, and month to month and realizing that if you do what your body can handle on that given day is good enough for you to move forward, will make your exercise journey not only much more enjoyable, but much more successful.

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