What is the primary function of the heart? The heart is a muscle, but its not a movement muscle, it doesn’t move your arms or legs or any part of you. The heart is a pump: the pump which circulates blood which carries both oxygen and fuel to all parts of your body, and removes waste dumping it in the appropriate organ (i.e. lungs, kidneys, spleen, liver, colon). If the heart doesn’t move us, then why are we so concerned about heart rate when training?

Indeed, there is a positive correlation between heart rate and speed on an individual basis (i.e. the higher your heart rate the faster you go) but that correlation is not positive when you compare novice to pro level athletes… in fact the correlation is negative.

Pro level athletes can deliver far faster times, far greater power output at significantly lower heart rates [click here for HR, speed & mileage data from a pro cyclist] than novice and sport level athletes. Since this is the case, whats the point in training plans based on heart rate [HR] zones?  Reality is there isn’t any point to them.  The goal is not to train to work at higher and higher heart rates.  If pro level athletes can deliver more at lower heart rates, then isn’t that the goal… train to be able to deliver faster times, greater power output with minimal change in heart rate? Indeed it is.

So how do you do that?

Well… what are you thinking about when training? Are you thinking about the muscles you use to swim, to bike, to run, or do you only think about your heart rate hence your effort. Are you thinking about ‘how’ you are swimming, biking and running , or are you just ‘trying’ to do the sport as fast as possible for as long as possible?

If you are like most athletes, then I bet you don’t think much or at all about the muscles that are supposed to be doing the swimming/biking/running and you are exclusively focused on your heart rate, holding it in a specific range, and/or holding your power output in a specific range.

But there is a problem with this focus: your heart muscle does not ‘make’ you move, it does not ‘make’ you swim, bike or run, nor does it make you swim/bike/run faster. Your heart is not a movement muscle. To move faster you have to focus on those muscles that actually move you: the muscles in your arms, legs and core.

The heart only ‘services’ these muscles and the faster your heart has to beat to service these muscles means only one thing… your movement muscles are inefficient hence require a lot of ‘servicing’ (i.e. oxygen & fuel delivery and waste removal) which means that your movement muscles are weak, like really really weak. In fact if you have to spike your heart rate into Zone3-4-5 to train, it means that your movement muscles are so incredibly weak that is likely debateable whether you should even be attempting the sport; such an athlete should start at square one…in the gym developing basic muscle strength & strength-endurance. What’s the point in driving your heart to its limits to drive and achieve performance when your heart is not the key muscle of performance?

Think about it… if a cycling pro can hold 40kph for 200+km in a Tour de France stage with a HR that averages no higher than the 120s, it means that their cycling muscles are so strong and so efficient that the heart has to do very little in order to ‘service’ these muscles.

The weaker you are, the more work your heart has to do – hence a higher HR – to try and help your weak muscles put out the power level that you are demanding.

Thus, the higher your HR is in training and racing indicates greater weakness, hence a lack of fitness and a lack of health!

So what’s the point in training to sustain a higher and higher HR? There is none… unless your goal is heart disease.

Yes, performing HR zone training will make your heart more efficient so that it delivers more oxygen and fuel to your weak muscles faster and removes waste faster but heart rate zone training does NOTHING to make your movement muscles any stronger.  So you will get a bit faster by heart rate training, but you will never come close to your potential as an athlete if you don’t actually train to develop strength and strength-endurance in your movement muscles.

In fact, if you overdo HR training you will start to develop a medical condition called an enlarged heart!

An enlarged heart! Yeah…the heart is a muscle after all and like any muscle make it work, and then make it work harder and harder and it will start to bulk.  Problem is when your heart muscle starts to bulk you start to decrease the efficiency of the hearts function and that’s when you start to see problems start: arrythmias, silent heart attacks and full blown cardiac arrests are the tipping point.  Long term, continuing to elevate your blood pressure, continuing to put significant back pressure on your heart, and that enlarged heart can develop into congestive heart failure. Next post… I will put up a link to a tremendous TEDx video by a cardiologist who speaks in depth on this topic, for now… let’s leave it at that.

Back to what training really should be all about….

Training starts in the gym developing strength & strength-endurance in your movement muscles so you truly do get faster in sport!

Oh…right… online sport sites tell you that by doing loads and loads of mileage and by doing loads of hill repeats that will build strength.  Really?  Well, if thats the case, how’s that working out for you? How many athletes do you know swim and swim and swim, or bike and bike and bike, or run and run and run… and are stuck at a performance level and have been for years, are injured, are unable to swim or bike or run because of chronic pain? If massive mileage and loads of hill repeats made athletes stronger, then there would be results that provide evidence that that theory works…there is none which means they don’t.

Doing massive mileage will not build significant strength and can actually do the opposite. Mileage builds endurance. Mileage is definitely important but mileage doesn’t build strength, its builds capacity.

Doing loads of hill repeats will not build significant strength. Hill repeats can assist an athlete in translating the strength they built in the gym to climbing hills more efficiently, but it will not build strength in movement muscles. If an athlete has little strength in their movement muscles, all that doing hill repeats will do is drive heart rate sky-high and thats about it(please refer to the Appendix for additional details).

So how do you build strength?

You build it in the gym with technique based resistance training which starts with an athlete simply learning how to move their own body-weight properly, and progresses to the athlete using the entire array of resistance tools from bands, to free weights & kettlebells.

How many push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, etc… can you do with proper form? Don’t know… then there’s your problem. Not going faster? Its not because your heart can’t pump more, its because your movement muscles are so weak, you literally cannot move any faster regardless of how hard your heart pumps.

Your heart is the equivalent of the water pump and fuel pump in your car engine…it circulates coolant, and it provides fuel….thats it.  Your heart is not the “engine” of your body, its not the pistons, nor the cylinders, nor the spark plugs….your heart is the muscle of the circulation system…not a movement muscle found within your musculoskeletal system.

You want to be faster in a sport, then you have to train the muscles used in that sport to be stronger.

That’s it. There is no secret to training that yields results.

Pros are pros because they are strong…like seriously strong.

Pros can swim sub 1:00min/100m, bike 35+ kph and run sub 4min/km without taking their heart rate out of Heart Rate Zone1 or even Zone0. How is that possible? Because they spend hours and hours and hours in the gym developing their movement muscles to be stronger, then translate that strength into sport specific technique using drills, and then finally in order to prep for competition, they train technique and higher levels of cadence, and yes as a finishing touch – hear that… as a finishing & final touch ahead of competition – they do HR training (i.e. lactate threshold training) in order to peak.

Heart Rate [HR] training is not ‘training’, its peaking. Heart Rate [HR] training is thus not the foundation of healthy training, nor the foundation for peak performance.

Why are athletes developing heart issues, because instead of training properly, they keep trying to get faster by peaking themselves day after day, week after week in training hoping that by short cutting the system they will be able to achieve their goals sooner/easier.

There are no short cuts.

Most trainers/coaches and DIY athletes jump straight into ‘preparation for competition’ training by going to HR zone training… meanwhile its the last step in the process and should comprise no more than 10-15% of total training (and thats at the pro athlete level).

Proof?  Easy.

One TOETT athlete had to have a fairly serious and significant surgery, a procedure that the surgeon said would leave her unable to return to work for 2months. Just standing and walking was going to take awhile, so forget about ‘running’ any time soon she was told by the surgeon.

She [Patricia] was up walking the day after her surgery, then walking daily within a week, added stationary cycling 4weeks after the procedure, returned to the gym for dryland training in 5weeks and was back in the pool in 6weeks doing easy kick sets and was running by the 7th week post-op.

Exactly 2months (less 2 days) after the surgery, she was at a swim meet and swam Personal Bests (PBs) in several events, and wasn’t “even trying” because she went to the meet only because she was encouraged to go, just to ‘swim’…not trying for any times, just swim…and still she set PBs [click here to link to the Results page of our TOEST swim team website to see Patricia’s training & race results in this past season]!

How?

Prior to the surgery, Patricia trained diligently and daily in a dryland routine (i.e. a strengthening routine) and increasingly so right up til the day of the surgery.  Encouraging her to go in as strong as possible, I promised her that her surgeon would thank her for the ease of performing a procedure on someone who is in good shape, hence reducing the risks of errors in the operating room, and that her recovery would be significantly easier as the core strengthening would allow her to return to activities of daily living much much sooner and equally so, would allow her to return to training for sport sooner.

And… she trained so diligently that she ended up stronger than before the surgery, and that is why she set PBs at the swim meet only 2 months after being on an operating table.

All she had was 13 sessions in the pool between surgery and swim meet, and those sessions started with simple kick sets, and only slowly progressed to full stroke swimming so that we didnt risk any setbacks in her post surgical recovery.

Pace sets or intervals?  Not one!  Let me repeat… not one HiiT session going into the meet!

How?  She developed strength in her core muscles, strength in her movement muscles, and then performed just enough technique training to coordinate all the muscles for an efficient stroke… and voila… the healthy process to achieving peak performances.

There is no magic behind peak performance: train properly, train healthy, train smart and consistent results will come.  Train improperly, train beating the crap out of your heart for ‘quick gains’, train stupid and you will get exactly what you trained for…heart disease of some sort…be it an arrythmia, be it a silent heart attack or multiple silent attacks, be it a full blown cardiac arrest  or stroke…whichever it is, know that whatever happens you can thank your oh-so-smart trainer/coach who pushed you harder and harder and harder until they destroyed your heart and your health gambling it all in hopes that they can drive you to a personal best….only to claim the success for themselves because clearly…you are good only because they are such a good trainer/coach.

Appendices

But, but. but… you can build some strength can’t you doing hill repeats? When you do hill repeats on a bike or running, how much of a squat do you perform? Its nowhere close to the full range of motion that you perform when doing proper strength training squats in dryland (i.e. at the gym). So… yes, because you are doing a partial squat repeatedly when doing hills you can build some amount of strength but only across the range of motion repeated. That’s the equivalent of going to the gym and doing 1/8th  or 1/4 squats… whats the point in that? Powerful muscles are powerful because they are strong across their entire range of motion. Being strong across their entire range of motion powerful muscles can generate massive bursts of power because they have the range to generate momentum. So technically speaking, hill repeats can build some strength… but the issue is whether the strength is the same strength the athlete needs to perform at their potential? In regards to hill repeats as strength training, the answer is ‘No’.  Furthermore, there is considerable amount of technique to hill climbing with respect to core strength to sustain proper body posture and balance, and technique in the use of the upper body to move the bike laterally (back&forth) to generate additional momentum. Hill climbing is not just in the legs: if your core is weak, if you cannot remain standing on your pedals for any significant period of time, if your upper body is weak or if your grip is weak and you cannot control the bike and utilize the bike to assist climbing… then you will not be efficient at hill climbing and again, all that strength needs to be built in the gym and later applied to proper hill climbing technique to truly be a KOM or QOM (i.e. King or Queen of the Mountains).

And a final note on patient body weight going into surgery: its much easier to operate on an healthy vs an obese patient… surgeon’s literally have to cut through pounds and pounds of fat in obese people just get to the organ or the tissue that needs surgical intervention. Imagine having to cut through 15, 30 or 50 or more lbs of fat with a tiny blade of a surgical scalpel, then imagine the effort it takes on the part of the surgeon to do that… and that’s just to get to what needs to be operated on, that’s when the actual surgery starts! Want to do your surgeon and yourself a massive favor… get healthy, get to an healthy body weight, you may save yourself the need for surgery to start, but if it ever happens that you need surgery at least you are making your surgeon’s job way way easier and thus reducing the risk not only of errors during the procedure but as importantly complications post surgery].