Your heart is a muscle, its just not a movement muscle: the heart doesn’t move your arms or legs or any part of you. The heart is a pump: the one and only muscle that pumps blood circulating it to your lungs and to your entire body carrying oxygen and fuel and simultaneously removing metabolic waste, dumping it in the appropriate organ (i.e. lungs, kidneys, spleen, liver, colon).

Your heart is not the primary source of performance, therefore heart rate [HR] zone training, power (as in watts) zone training, lactate threshold training, pace/split time training, and HiiT are not the primary forms of training for peak performance.

The four sources of peak performance are (% are approximates):

  1. Muscles (45%) – i.e. max strength, speed-strength, strength-endurance & speed-endurance

  2. Brain (45%) – i.e. technique, tactics, skills and strategies

  3. Heart (8-9%) – i.e. efficient delivery of oxygen and fuel & removal of metabolic waste

  4. Glands (1-2%) – i.e. hormonal turbo charging of all body & brain systems

If the heart contributes the second smallest % towards peak performance, why is it the ‘go-to’ training format of single sport (i.e. swim, bike, run) and multisport coaches?

Because efficiency gains through Heart Rate training are possible with only 6-8 weeks of training, its why this is the go-to training format for the majority of trainers/coaches & DIY athletes and its why there are countless online articles citing sport science research which revolves around results obtained in 6-8 week blocks of training (click here to read how university student research has defined 6-8 weeks as the key block time of training).

But because these gains are merely efficiency gain, the heart can make efficient only what is already efficient.  If your muscles are inefficient (i.e. cannot produce much power without requiring ++energy, ++oxygen and creating ++waste), and if your brain is inefficient (i.e. you don’t know how to execute sport specific technique) then there is little that the heart can do to ‘improve’ you as an athlete. Gains are possible but infinitesimal compared to an athlete who trains properly.

And because these gains are merely efficiency gains, they will go as quickly as they came: once an athlete stops their ‘peaking’ efforts they will see these gains reverse and reverse almost completely in a matter of weeks (hence all the articles about “how fast will I lose my fitness if I stop training”).

Heart Rate [HR] zone training (and all its variations listed above) is training to ‘peak’ an athlete for competition, its not training per se, and its what trainers/coaches and sport specific websites refer to as “fitness”.

Instead, healthy training looks like this:

Block 1 – Dryland (12-24 weeks / 3-6 months)

To develop movement muscles – both core and sport specific – takes no less than 8 weeks, and for healthy training that ensures that the connective tissue which envelopes all muscles (i.e. fascia & tendons), as well as the ligaments and joint capsules which protect the joints moved by muscles also remain injury free requires training that is no less than 12 weeks.

This assumes that the athlete starts with no restrictions in flexibility, no restrictions due to pain or injury, and that the athlete is able to execute all dryland movements with ease and with technical proficiency.  If not, then additional time is required in order for the athlete to progress to training that actually develops strength and all of its variations (i.e. max strength, speed-strength, strength-endurance, speed-endurance).

Value of Block 1 – once you learn how to move properly across all 3 dimensions, you cannot unlearn it. Once you know how to bend, push, pull, hinge, kip, and somersault, even if you don’t do any of these movements for years, all it takes is a few weeks to rub off the rust and it all comes right back. Fitness comes & goes, knowledge is for life.

Required for Block 1 – an individual well versed (by education & experience) in all the muscles of the body, their function, their interdependence, and their roles in sport specific technique (click here to read more on the importance of knowledge of all muscles in the human body) as well as in the progressions of various dryland exercises that progress an athlete from Novice to Sport to Expert to Pro levels of strength.

Block 2 – Technique (12-24 weeks / 3-6 months)

To develop sport specific technique, to be able to apply technique and skills into competition effectively and efficiently (i.e. tactics) and to develop a repertoire of competitive strategies requires repetition so that the athlete in competition doesn’t have to ‘think’ about anything and instead can focus exclusively on competing at their potential.  To achieve this outcome requires training that is also no less than 12 weeks in duration.

This assumes that the athlete has a level of self awareness and has achieved a level of self control that they know where their extremities and their core is in 3dimensional space and is able to adjust its position with appropriate instruction and/or cuing. If not, then additional time is required in order for the athlete to acquire basic coordination, balance and agility so that sport specific technique can be learnt, practiced and perfected.

Value of Block 2 – once you learn it, you cannot unlearn it. Once you know how to swim, how to ride a bike, how to run even if you don’t do any of these sports for years, a few weeks to rub off the rust and a former athlete can return to the level of technique they had as an amateur junior athlete.  Learn how to swim, bike and run properly as an adult and you cannot unlearn it even if you tried. Fitness comes & goes, knowledge is for life.

Required for Block 2 – an individual well versed (by education & experience) in the proper progressions of all sport specific techniques, one who has an extensive repertoire of drills to teach sport specific technique at all its levels and one who has the competence to appropriately assess the skill level of an athlete in order that their technique training starts at their level.

Block 3 – Lactate Threshold aka HR training aka Power Zone training aka HiiT aka split/pace time training aka …

  • 1-2 weeks if any at all for Novice level athletes (most Novices need none, instead need to learn how to properly pace an event before trying to race an event as Novices typically start events too fast – fueled by anxiety and apprehension – due to their lack of self awareness & self control… speed work is rarely beneficial to Novice athletes as it encourages them to start events even faster resulting in bigger blow ups and rarely anything positive)
  • 3-4 weeks for Sport level athletes (Provincial level)
  • 5-6 weeks for Expert level athletes (National level)
  • 6-8+ weeks for Pro level athletes (International level)

Required for Block 3 – an individual well versed (by education & experience) in lactate threshold training theories with the competency to properly apply these theories to the individual to maximize their athletic potential at the proper time (i.e. peaking performance for race day).

NOTE: Block 1 & Block 2 can overlap; however, Block 2 which takes an athlete to a new level of technique/skill is only possible once a new level of strength has been developed. Therefore, Block 1 & 2 can overlap but the sport specific training during the overlap must recognize the athlete’s current ability & capacity and not anticipate the strength to come. An athlete cannot hold technique/execute a skill for which they do not have the strength to perform (hence why all the Youtube videos do little to help DIY athletes… they don’t realize that if you don’t have the strength to execute the drill then you won’t improve the execution of your sport specific technique despite all the ‘promises’ made in the video).

BUT…

One 12 week block of dryland training to build muscle followed by a second 12 week block of technique/skills/tactics/strategy training doesn’t yield an athlete of international level calibre. To truly develop an athlete to their potential requires year after year of repeating blocks of dryland training followed by blocks of technique et al.  Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman had Phelps train for 5 years straight – no days off – to build the base that would set Michael up for not just one Olympics, but in total five (5) Olympic Games and to become the most decorated athlete – not just swimmer, but athlete – of all time! Bowman developed Phelps to such a degree that Phelps ‘retired’ after his 4th Olympics, didn’t train for 2 years and was able to return for his 5th Olympics getting into Olympic form with just 2 years of training. Not only did Phelps qualify for the US Olympic team, he won 5 gold medals and 1 silver medal in Rio 2016! Now that’s athlete development at its finest.

Yet what do most trainers/coaches offer… 10-12 week programs to any event you want. The outcome… pain, suffering, injury, illness, and maybe a finishers medal if you actually show up and don’t DNF (‘did not finish’), leaving athletes thinking that (a) this is proper healthy training, and (b) this is their utmost potential as an athlete. Rubbish!

Heart Rate [HR] zone training is the cop-out training format for those who lack the education & experience to properly develop athletes to their potential.

There is proper healthy training and then there is everything else.

There are those who train athletes properly, and then there is everyone else.

There are no short cuts, there is no ‘low hanging fruit’, there is no training session that magically makes an athlete.

Choose your trainer/coach carefully… your results will display your decision.