Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull
There's a lot of noise out there on the interwebs—especially about fitness. But there's also a lot to learn. That's why CrossFit athlete and coach Colleen Fotsch decided to team up with Red Bull to drop some exercise science knowledge in a new video series called "The Breakdown." Fotsch is about to go back to school to get her master's degree in kinesiology and wanted to use her social media platforms and epic CrossFit skills to teach (not just impress) her followers.
"Social media is everyone's highlight reel—it's all about what cool tricks you can do," she says. "I mean, I'm guilty: If I get a big lift or do something really cool in gymnastics, it's fun to put that on the internet. But I also want to create really knowledgeable content that can help people in their training and recovery. That's been a mission of mine: to help people whether they're a competitive athlete or not." (Also check out these legit trainers on Instagram who are spreading all the fitness knowledge.)
In the first episode of the series, Fotsch straps on a heart-rate monitor and embarks on an intense six-round circuit workout with five-minute work intervals and three-minute rest intervals. The mission: To quantify the intensity of a CrossFit workout and see how Fotsch battles the inevitable burnout. (Or, as she says the CrossFit community calls it: "Redlining. When you've gone so far deep into a workout that you're borderline in failure mode—you're just trying to survive the workout at that point.") To do so, before, during, and after the workout, the production team pricked Fotsch's finger to measure her blood lactate levels—an important fitness marker that determines how long you can work out at a high intensity.
"During this type of anaerobic exercise, I'm basically putting myself in a state where the cells in my body are no longer receiving enough oxygen," explains Fotsch. "As a result, for my body to produce energy, it's going into a state called glycolysis. A byproduct of glycolysis is lactate or lactic acid. So that's what we're testing: How efficiently my body is clearing the lactic acid. In these types of anaerobic workouts—where you feel that burn in your muscle—essentially what that's telling you is that your body is producing more lactic acid or lactate than your body can remove at that point."
Watch the video to see how Fotsch blasts through the hour-long workout, taking her heart rate to a sky-high 174 bpm. (Here's what you should know about training according to your heart rate.) And by the end of the first circuit of kettlebell swings and burpees, she reaches a peak lactic acid level of 10.9 mmol/L—more than double her lactate threshold of 4 mmol/L. That means, despite the lactate accumulating in her blood, she's able to keep pushing through the workout and that burns-so-good feeling in her muscles. The better trained you are, the better your body gets at dealing with that buildup and pushing through. (See: Why You Can and Should Push Through the Pain During a Workout)
Her other secrets to pushing through the burnout? 1. Focus on breathing and 2. Focus on the movements at hand. "When I'm pushing hard, I tend to hold my breath a little bit, especially when I'm lifting—which is just about the worst thing you could do," she says. "So I focus on my breathing and being okay with my heart rate being up since I'm not being able to take these big deep breaths. My inhaling and exhaling are going to be quicker, and I'm learning to be okay with that."
"Another thing that really helped me was being present and focusing on the exercises at hand," she said. "It can be really daunting if you start to think about all the rounds that you have left."
Another key element to maintaining this intensity throughout all six rounds was Fotsch's ability to rapidly lower her heart rate during each rest period—something that comes with training and maintaining a high aerobic capacity. "During each rest interval, I really focused on getting my breaths in and getting my heart rate down," she said. "It was really cool to see how much I was recovering in a very short period of time. It's another great point of feedback, to show that my aerobic capacity is getting so much better, and it's one thing that I've really been trying to work on, especially in CrossFit. If you don't have a good aerobic capacity and the ability to recover quickly, CrossFit (and especially competitive CrossFit) is going to be really hard. I'd like to do this every so often in my training so I can see immediately how I'm recovering during my workouts." (Studies show that it helps if you keep moving and do an active recovery interval instead of passive recovery.)
Fotsch's final tip for pushing through her insanely tough routines? "I did the workout with my training partner, and it's so helpful to have that level of competition to keep going no matter what," she says. (That's just one reason workouts are better with a buddy.)
Nerding out over all this fitness talk? Stay tuned for more episodes of Red Bull's The Breakdown with Colleen Fotsch available on YouTube. She said she hopes to take the series outside the CrossFit box to see how other athletes' bodies respond to workouts in different ways.