Seán Kinane of Health Matters on Training Zones and Testing

Seán Kinane set up his company, Health Matters in 2011. Health Matters is based in West Park Fitness, Tallaght and specialises in fitness testing and providing performance-enhancing and health improvement programmes. The two tests primarily focused on are VO2 max testing and metabolic testing. 

(VO2 testing measures a person’s ability to transport oxygen from the air to the working muscles. It is a measure of cardiovascular fitness)

Seán holds a BTEC Advanced Diploma in Nutrition & Health Coaching, an HDip in Nutritional Therapy (a member of NTOI: Nutritional Therapists of Ireland) and is an Advanced Sports and Exercise Nutrition Adviser. He is also a qualified Gym Instructor and Personal Trainer and has achieved a KBTE Level 1 nutrition certification. 

Topics Covered:

  • The background of Health Matters
  • Metabolic and VO2 testing 
  • The importance of heart rate training zones.

Noel and Seán met while working together at Setanta College. While Noel was the Endurance Development lecturer, Seán carried out the practical cardiovascular testing. Both share a passion for sports performance and health development and have shown this through their entrepreneurial successes.

Seán began the interview by explaining how Health Matters was set up. As a personnel trainer, Seán lived and worked in Australia for a couple of years. The gym that he worked in completed metabolic training for clients via an external company. This caught Sean’s attention and he immediately started sending clients to complete the testing and each client began seeing success as a result. After some time and as a result of his increasing interest in the testing, Sean began to work directly carrying out the metabolic tests on clients. Before coming home to Ireland, Sean travelled through South America, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Throughout his time travelling Sean was concocting ideas for a metabolic testing company of his own in Ireland. Coming from a background of entrepreneurs Sean always knew he wanted to be self-employed and combined his passion for health and sports performance with that desire to create the company – Health Matters. Health Matters was born in January of 2011 with the first physiological test being completed in April of that year. 

Seán applied for and received grants from the government, built relationships with American manufacturing companies and imported the testing equipment. Health Matters has since completed just under 10,000 tests. Seán is the most active tester in Europe. The American manufacturers have been thoroughly impressed and inspired by Sean’s dedication to his business and the volume of tests that he gets through in a day. ’’I could do 20 metabolic tests and 15 VO2 tests in a day. That’s if one machine is going. In 2019, we brought in a second machine and I’ve grown the business. We have brought on a couple of part-time staff so getting up to 40 tests done a day – which is just phenomenal. I’m excited, I’m proud of where the company has been and where it’s going.’’ 

As well as working to improve athletes’ sporting performance, Seán is also passionate about improving the health of the general population. He has just completed a four-year diploma in Nutritional Therapy – a functional medicine and physiological approach to health and well-being. Sean is hoping to integrate this in with the testing that they already do. 

What is VO2 max testing and metabolic testing?

Seán gave a brief synopsis of the two different modes of testing and how he uses them to create impactful programmes and strategies for clients. When the company started the primary goal or aim was to do metabolic testing – similar to the work he was doing in Australia. 

‘’Metabolic testing is measuring somebody’s specific, unique metabolism. It is 98% accurate at measuring how many calories you expel in a day. If you know how many calories you expel in a day, you know what you need to input in order to achieve your goals. If your goal is weight loss, you eat fewer calories than you burn. If your goal is weight gain, there are a couple of things needed but obviously we need enough calories – we are looking at calories to be matching or just above your requirement along with muscle stimulation and adequate protein. If you are looking at it from an energy perspective, you must realise that calories are your petrol. If you don’t put enough petrol in the car, the car is not going to function. If you don’t put enough food into the human body, it is not going to function. People wonder why they are tired, why they can’t sleep, why they irregularly wake up in the middle of the night – it’s all about balance.’’

‘’We can measure exactly how many calories someone expends. There are formulas out there and I work on various college courses where we recommend formulas – the likes of Harris-Benedict formula, where you put in your age, height, activity level and x, y and Z. They can be very crude and very inaccurate. When I am in colleges, I get students to work out the calorie expenditure of an athlete and then I will measure the athlete. I remember a test we did recently there was 800 calories in the difference. 800 Calories on an RMR (resting metabolic rate) – that is win or lose right there. You are not going to get success if you are so off. Metabolic testing is giving the general public access to top-grade physiological testing at a fraction of the cost. 

The VO2 max. test is a performance test. Every professional sports athlete in the world will get performance VO2 testing done – it is gold standard fitness testing. ’’I think the big mistake that people make is that they assume that this test is just a fitness test, but you are going to get so much more from it. You are going to get your fitness level, we will look at your heart rate elevation. What is your recovery like? Is it safe in elevation? What your training zones are like.’’

Similar to the MyZone that a lot of members wear during workouts, the VO2 will give specific training zones. Workouts vary between blue, green, yellow and red zones– they all have the theory behind them. Blue and green are going to be aerobic training and yellow and red will be anaerobic training. ‘’Every different session that you do, has to be driven by an intensity in order to stimulate a response and to get the best result out of your training.’’

Through the VO2 test, we can identify specific zones for people based on gaseous exchange – this is specific to the individual.  Identifying where you burn fat, where you burn glycogen, where the anaerobic threshold is, where the aerobic threshold is. Where the VO2 test fits in well with the metabolic test is analysing calorie expenditure while exercising.

In order to burn a calorie, you must consume 0.8ml of oxygen per kg weight of body mass averaged over a minute. We are all different weights and different heights. Just because you are a female and you are 35 doesn’t mean you burn the same number of calories as your colleague or someone else who is training in the group. The test gives specificity in terms of how many calories you are burning, the two tests link in well. 

Recently Seán has had an increase in clients requesting testing from a health perspective. They want to test if they are safe to train. ‘’You have a 40-year-old male who wants to start to run because there has been a health scare in his family, but he doesn’t want to go out and run straight away. He wants to come into me first and check that his heart rate elevates okay and he recovers okay. The benefits are endless really, in terms of testing. There is never a bad time to test. The two tests are used with a coach or with a gym to get specific with an individual, there is no guesswork. That is what it comes down to, using specific science to achieve success. 

Seán does a lot of work with professional athletes. One of the key focuses of this work is programming in order to stimulate their energy systems correctly so that they can perform at a higher rate. ‘’Their aerobic or anaerobic base needs to grow or their recovery needs to grow – we can analyse that, and we can programme based off their data. I do a lot of work with professional fighters – boxers and MMA athletes. We test them at the start of their camp. We test them when they are at their lowest point and then I prescribe their cardio training. Depending on the fighter and the level, it is generally between an 8 to 12-week camp. I will get them into retest 6 weeks into the camp and show them how their threshold has gone up, their VO2 has gone up, they are more efficient. They gain confidence from these results. They also get prescribed new training zones to continue the stimulation. You must physiologically stimulate the body to get better. We also test the fighters at the end of camp. That test at the end of camp is for confidence, self-belief, to show them that what they have done has worked. Their recovery is up 15%, their threshold has improved 15 beats, their VO2 has gone up 10ml. If they go championship rounds which is 4th or 5th round and I have told them that within a minute they recover back aerobically. They walk out of the octagon or out of the corner of the ring confident – looking across at their opponent knowing that they are ready to fight aerobically, which means performing with oxygen. It’s about measurement. ‘’

When is the best time to get your VO2 max or metabolic testing done?

Often people wait until they are at a certain fitness level before completing fitness tests or joining gyms or clubs – which is ironic. Noel explained how he has been putting off getting his VO2 tested. ‘’ I did do the test with you (Seán) several years ago when I was really fit, and I was delighted with my results. We were testing everyone at Setanta – no one could beat me. I held that record with you for 6 or 7 years. Someone bet me last year. I haven’t done the test since I don’t want to do the test until I’m really fit again. ‘’

Sean referred to exactly why testing before you are at your optimum fitness level can be a much more efficient and effective strategy. ‘’If you do the test now, you are going to get fitter quicker using the numbers than you would if you waited to train yourself.  Let’s look at it as an endurance module, someone that’s training for a marathon as an example. They do their long runs too fast, their short runs too easy – there is no actual distinguishing between tempo, anaerobic, interval sessions.

 The human body is very smart. If you run your fast runs too easy and long runs too fast – you’re basically putting in the same effort. You don’t get better, you just become a bit more tolerable. You are becoming a bit more resistant to fatigue. We don’t really want to see that. 

’If you do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, it’s the first sign of madness. Ask yourself, when is the last time you changed up your plan, stepped out of your comfort zone or reassessed your training. I know that the team at ABC are programming for you in order to do that. That is the theory behind what they are doing. They are making sure that the body is continuously guessing, that it is in active stimulation the whole time

The highest ever recorded VO2 in the world is a 96. If you are looking to test at your optimal fitness just for a number that’s fine but there is so much more to test from a VO2.  From a metabolic perspective, there is never a bad time to test. One of the big things is metabolic adaptation It is something that needs to be covered when people drop weight and still input the same calories that they were to achieve that weight loss but don’t achieve the weight loss

Heart Rate Training Zones and Energy Systems

The first thing you need to be clear on before you start your session is you need to acknowledge if the session is going to be aerobic or anaerobic. Aerobic and Anaerobic are two energy systems. Everybody has them. 

‘’Aerobic means you are working at an intensity low enough that the body is fuelling with the presence of oxygen, – you can breathe, you can talk you can hold a conversation. When you are aerobic, your calories come directly from stored fat, there is not a lot of by-product, you don’t develop oxygen debt and you can sustain it long term. You need to review and think about your session. Is this session designed to be aerobic? For example, going for a run, you want to do a 10km run and you want it to be aerobic. You must acknowledge the fact that the intensity is going to be low. You go out, you know that you are going to be going at a slower pace than you have.  For adaption to occur you must include lower intensity training. ‘’

‘’Anaerobic training is when we work in our yellow and red zone. That means we are working without the presence of oxygen. That doesn’t mean we are not breathing. It means we are not utilizing oxygen to create energy. We use glucose which is a carbohydrate and that produces by-product. We exhale more, we develop oxygen debt, we are forced to slow down. Imagine Noel asked you to do a burpee for an hour, it is not going to happen because you physically can’t maintain the intensity because you are in oxygen debt. If you are doing a training session with ABC and you acknowledge it’s going to be a tough session – yellow/red, you know that you are going to be out of breath, you know you are going to find it difficult, it is going to be uncomfortable and you are going to be sore the next day. You don’t go out and do a tough session again the next day. If you do a tough session on a Tuesday, my advice would be to integrate some low-intensity work on a Wednesday. Keep the heart rate in the green zone, go for a light jog or work on your gait/breathing pattern. Walk with your partner or children and embrace the session that you are doing because adaption occurs when we are aerobic. If there is a constant overload, if you are always anaerobic and in the yellow and red zones, you are not necessarily going to improve fitness. It is important that we bring in some lower intensity work. 

‘’I went on a 10km run the other day and when I came home my wife commented that I wasn’t sweating. I explained the intensity of my run was prescript to be low, it was a nice slow pace, I took rest when I wanted to take rest it wasn’t all about breaking my back. The next day I did 5km tempo training where I did kilometres. Four-minute thirty kilometres, where I was absolutely smashing myself in the yellow zone. Red zone work is going to be your intervals.’’ With your Myzone, be clear what the objective of your session is – is it blue, green, yellow or red. Walk out with intent and knowing the intensity of the session. Remember if we are in the green zone, we are burning calories directly from stored fat, when you are yellow or red the majority of calories are coming from stored glycogen (which is a carbohydrate).’ 

You will burn more calories at a higher intensity. The reason you are burning more calories (in a simplistic perspective) is you are consuming more oxygen. As mentioned before, in order to burn a calorie, you must consume 0.8ml of oxygen. If you are consuming 60ml when you are in your red zone compared with 40ml in your green zone you are going to burn more calories. ‘’The higher the intensity of the workout, the more calories that are going to come from carbohydrate. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t interval train or don’t tempo train because it does have an afterburn and you will burn more calories afterwards. It is massively beneficial for numerous different areas of performance. My biggest battle with people is getting them to slow down. When you get people to slow down, they recover better, and they sleep better. They grow better. You have to go fast but you have to go slow in order to grow. 

 It is all about adaption, if you’re always pushing you don’t get better. You just become a bit more resistant to fatigue, but your weights aren’t going up, you’re not increasing your lifts, you’re not increasing how many burpees you’re doing, you are not decreasing your 5km time. You are just staying stagnant. You are physically feeling that it is easier. Realistically, that is not improvement. If that is all someone wants to achieve that’s fine, but we are looking at growth and performance.

If you come to me for a test – I talk to everyone like an athlete. You are working with high-level trainers at ABC, you are working with heart rate zones. You need to say, okay I am going to utilise what I have here in order to get an improvement. Don’t feel bad when you do a session in the green, The mobility and stretch sessions that you have brought in are a great low-intensity session. I work with a lot of marathon runners and they want to go hard all of the time. I insist that they slow down and when they do the results are usually that their heart rate goes down and their pace goes up. They are running faster for less effort. If you can put in less effort but improve speed/strength – that’s an improvement. If you recover quicker – that’s an improvement. 

Utilising your Myzone for training at home

‘’MyZone is quite an advanced system where you know you will be able to monitor your training and recovery. For example, you are doing intervals. An interval is an effort that is less than 60 seconds. I did intervals yesterday on a football field, running from one end of the pitch to the other covering what I could in ten seconds. I am not starting my next interval until my heart rate is back into the green zone on my Myzone. If you are doing interval training and you go red zone, yellow zone, red zone – that is not interval training. That is tempo training because you are staying anaerobic. You must go from a yellow or red zone into a green before you repeat your effort in order to stimulate to the body that that is what you are doing. You are going from an oxygen state to a glycogen state back to an oxygen state. There is a lot of theory backing the importance of recovery for adaptation. Without going too much into the science – I am sure a lot of people have heard of lactic acid. Lactic acid is a by-product of functioning anaerobically. Your body’s response to that is to flood the bloodstream with hydrogen ions. One of the functions of Hydrogen Ions is they slow down contraction and expansion of the muscle. This makes you more susceptible to injury, cramp and fatigue. 

Life right now – the most important thing is being healthy and being healthy comes in so many ways. What can we do to get the best out of our week right now?

‘’I think this is a great time to learn to cook, making sure you get your fruit and vegetables in. Overview your training, take a step back and see how many days you have available and what you want to get out of the sessions. ‘Monday I am going to do this…, Tuesday I am going to do this … so Tuesday’s session needs to be…’ Rank the sessions out of ten, use your RPE system (Rating of Perceived Exertion). If you have a home workout session scheduled in and you know it is going to be difficult, you know that session is going to be rated 7 or 8. The next day bring in a lower intensity session so staying in the blue or even green zone and then the following day you are then ready for a tough session again. Remember, green or blue is going to be an adaption on the yellow or red the day before, but it will also lead you fresh into a tougher session on the following day. If you are doing tough sessions all the time, your performance is going to drop. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Rather than weight loss goals perhaps look at maintaining your weight. You are in control of your food. Try new recipes, have healthy snacks – chopped up carrots sitting in a glass of water in the house rather than having a bag of sweets, make your own hummus, get some peanut butter, chop up an apple, bake healthy dishes with the kids, there is a lot of variety in what we can do. 

We are in a pandemic at the moment which is health-related. We are looking at optimising our health. We have never experienced anything like this, I don’t think we ever will again. Learning to control what we have in front of us, learning to cook, spend quality time with our family, enjoying our sleep. Sleep is where adaption occurs, rest is where adaption occurs. 

I think people are too hard on themselves from a fitness or training perspective. The fact that ABC are giving members a platform with the online classes and stretching and mobility – that is music to my ears. It is brilliant that the training is being controlled in that sense. That it is not just going to be hard sessions all the time. It is great that some members have Myzone. Getting used to tracking your heart rate in the morning could be something simple that you can do. What is your RHR (resting heart rate) every morning before you get out of bed? If you have had a couple of tough sessions back to back and you are due for another tough session, but your HR is ten beats higher than normal – don’t do the tough session. Go for a light walk, go for a light jog, eat a bit better, drink a bit more water, get an extra half hour in bed if you can. Little things like that. Use the devices that you have to monitor stress or fatigue. That’s what you can get into the habit of, something as simple as checking your heart rate in the morning, analysing how much water you drank, did you hit enough fruit and veg. Try to figure out how your body works a bit better. 

Health Matters Online Handles:


Insta: Healthmatters6411

FB: Healthmatters Ireland

Twitter: @healthmaters (matters with one T)

The Health Matters offices are based in West Park Fitness in Tallaght, Exit 11 off the M50