Posted by: Jennifer Sage | January 25, 2008

Why is customized nutrition so important? Let’s compare it to a customized exercise program

Let’s examine the importance of tailoring an exercise program to your specific needs and physiological responses to exercise, and you’ll see why it makes sense to also customize your nutrition to your specific needs (as explained in my previous post). We’ll look at what VO2 Max and lactate threshold testing is, and how you can use the information from these tests to pinpoint your precise training zones.

As a personal trainer, coach and Master Instructor for Spinning, I have long preached the importance of customizing exercise. There is no “average” person; every person’s response to exercise is different. Everyone is starting from a different place, based on their genetics, their experience, the length of time they’ve been training, their diet, their stress levels, and the way their body metabolizes fuels.

You know those charts that tell you to find your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220, and then to work out at a certain percentage of that number (such as 80%MHR)? Well these charts are based on flawed research – in reality, your maximum heart rate has nothing to do with your age, and doesn’t drop by one beat on your birthday each year. So if you utilize these training zones based on this formula, you could be training in zones that are way off from where you should be.

Did you know that every piece of cardio equipment that asks you for you age is using this formula?? It’s unfortunate that this is the industry standard.

As a trainer, the first thing I find out is someone’s goals, then test them, and then devise a program around those objectives and the results of their test. If your goal is to lose weight, you need to boost your body’s ability to burn fat as its fuel source. You also want to boost your caloric burn. Believe it or not, you are not likely to do them both at once (at least, not initially for someone new to exercise). You have to build your aerobic base, first, which is your fat burning ability.

If your goal is to improve performance (running, cycling, triathlon, general fitness, etc), then you would spend different durations in totally different training zones than the person above. You are more likely to train at higher intensities, once you’ve built your aerobic base. You would also periodize your training program, changing it up every few months, based on your goals or races that you’re preparing for.

So how do you know what heart rates to train in? Use that bogus 220-Age formula? Or whatever heart rate the treadmill tells you at the gym? Do that and you could be missing out the benefits you are personally seeking. The only way to truly know your training zones is to take a VO2 test.

A VO2 Max/LT test consists of a graded exercise test on a treadmill or exercise bike that lasts about 10-14 minutes. 

VO2 max exercise submax testing

From the results of the test, I can tell you precisely where your lactate threshold (LT) heart rate is, which is the point where your body’s lactate production exceeds the ability to remove it. Without getting too physiological (I’ll do that in another post) suffice it to say this is a very important point. Training below it improves your aerobic metabolism, training at or around this heart rate improves your endurance performance, and training above it is anaerobic and can improve your short duration performance.

The other thing I can tell from the test is how many fat calories your body burns at each level. The goal for aerobic training zones is for at least 50% of your fuel consumption to be from fat. If this isn’t the case (and it rarely is!), I would tailor a program for you to train at specific heart rates to improve your fat burning ability. I can tell you from experience, very few people, maximize their ability to tap into this more efficient fuel source. Most people rely instead on carbohydrates as fuel.

If you trained at intensities that were too high, you would be improving your anaerobic metabolism and not your aerobic system. Nor would you train your body to prefer fat as a fuel source. Without a good aerobic base, this can lead to a whole host of problems, not the least of which is heightened cortisol production, the inability to lose weight, and in general, poor results. On the other hand, if you were training at intensities that are too low, you will never improve your caloric burn rate or raise your LT, and will also most likely not achieve your goals.

Can you see how training at the wrong zones can cause frustration, especially when you don’t see the results you would like to see? The only way to truly know what intensities to train at is to have a metabolic graded exercise test to determine your lactate threshold and VO2 max.

If the average shoe size is a size 8, does that mean you should wear a size 8 if you’re a size 6? Of course not. Again, average does not apply to the human body. Not knowing your training zones is like throwing darts blindfolded. If you want to hit the bullseye, you must get a test done!

Can you see now how this same principle can apply to your nutrition? How do you truly know what you need unless you take a metabolic test that analyzes key biomarkers of functional metabolism? You can’t. There’s no one-size-fits-all vitamin, just like there’s no one-size-fits-all training zone or exercise program.

You are unique. Get tested!


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