Sunday, April 20, 2008

“The 90’s called: They want their training plans back”*

Sometimes when I hear some athletes or coaches, when I read some training articles or blogs, it seems like I am thrown back to the 90’s. The same misconceptions, the same misunderstandings, the same urban myths are thrown around now, like they were 10-15-20 years ago.

The myths that are more prevalent are the ones connected with heart rate. It all comes from the myth that listening to your body means listening to your heart (the anthropological ramifications of this myth are also interesting). From this central myth, comes the common misconception that heart rate is an accurate measure of exercise intensity.

In the beginning of the 90’s, as heart rate monitors became readily available for everyone, it seemed that heart rate was a great training tool. From a scientific standpoint, the emergence of heart rate training and testing started with Conconi’s paper and the Conconi test. From then on, considerable research used heart rate, proving it to be a good indicator of exercise intensity, but only under controlled laboratory conditions.

The triathlon world was perhaps the endurance community that embraced more the use of heart rate monitors in training and racing. Mark Allen changed the way he raced Ironman Hawaii by using a heart rate monitor, going on to win 6 times the race, and that served as evidence to everyone of the superiority of the heart rate based approach to training and racing.

Now it’s time to put things into perspective. Polar launched its first HRM with recording capabilities around 1990, that was 18 years ago. The last time Mark Allen won Ironman Hawaii was in 1995, that was 12 years ago. However, the misconceptions that were born so long ago still persist today, which is something that is quite puzzling. Since the early nineties until now, here’s some things that we have learned:

- Heart rate is not a direct measure of exercise intensity. It is a measure of… wait for it… the amount of work the heart, not skeletal muscle mind you, is performing at a given time. This seems simple enough to understand, but it’s a starting point that many simply don’t understand.
- Heart rate is severely affected by factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, fatigue, hydration status and many more. The day to day variation can be quite significative.
- The Conconi test is now seen as either a nicely crafted scientific fraud, or the result of a highly unprobable sample of athletes (Shame on the coaches that still use it, charging more than $200 for wasting the athlete’s time and money).
- Maximum heart rate is a completely useless metric.
- Rest heart rate is not a measure of fitness or an indicator of overtraining.
- Heart rate is highly individual. Even though it generally decreases with age, any formula that relates any definition of a lactate-based or respiratory-based threshold with age makes no sense whatsoever.
- Any test protocol that uses heart rate to determine intensity is essentially flawed and should not be used to track progress (Homework assignment: write a two-page essay on why the MAF test should not be used as a testing tool).

All the facts stated above, and many more, are supported by scientific evidence. So the question is why do we keep hearing the same things over and over again? Why are we so often thrown back into an ignorant time warp? More than the difficulty that some coaches have to understand basic concepts of exercise physiology and keep up with the scientific literature, I think that business interests are what’s at stake here. Many coaches have built solid businesses out of spewing out the same misconceptions over and over and OVER again. And because that works, meaning that puts food on their table, they are not willing to change a “winning” formula. At the expense of the best interests of their athletes, obviously.

By now, all of you that use your heart rate monitor as your friend and companion, your little window into your heart, must be panicking. What are you going to do now that heart rate is not what you thought it was? Well, even if it is not the trustworthy measure of intensity that you thought it was, it is still a decent tool that can help your training. In my next post, I will talk a bit about how you can make the most out of the information that your heart rate monitor is giving you.

* © Danois Montoya, 2008


Mike said...

I check my heart rate every morning.
If I do not have a pulse, I do not train.

Alex said...

If it is not too much trouble, can you please post a few links to references on the above?
Thanks very much.

Paulo Sousa said...


Some of it is basic exercise physiology, you can find it in a textbook on the subject. The rest you can find it on PubMed.

Let me know if you find any piece of evidence that disproves anything I wrote.


Alex said...

Thanks for the reply, I am fairly new to triathlon, so I decided to work with a coach a year ago. He basically told me that the best way to get valid results from testing is by doing a lactate/metabolic test for the bike and run and relate the results with RPE and heart rate ranges.

So I am just curious what do you think of that?

Thanks again :-)

Paulo Sousa said...

I think that is a valid approach, even if I am not a big fan of lab-like testing to measure performance improvement.

LiamWilson123 said...

you seem to give facts that have no reference provided by you and leads me and others of higher intellect, like yourself, to be skeptic of what you say is true. Please provide links to relavent journal articles so others and myself can validate your argument (it will only strengthen it!). Also, would you perhaps explain relavance between cardiovascular and Anaerobid threshold, believing that HR has no factor post exertion. Could you also explain methods of practice that measure exertion by either muscle fatigue or lactic acid build up, that otherwise can be measured by heart rate through testing, lab or not. Thanks for the academic persepective.

Paulo Sousa said...


Skepticism is a good thing, I use it often when trying to learn a new thing. I encourage you to use your skepticism to actually research the subject, and like I said above, if you find some piece of evidence that actually contradicts what I said, I would be interested to see it.

As for the end of your comment, it gets a little confusing, but I want to remind you that there isn't such a thing as a "cardiovascular threshold" (there isn't an anaerobic threshold either, but that's another story). And lactic acid also apparently doesn't exist, but I really don't want to get into that discussion :-)

jason said...

all of you that use your heart rate monitor as your friend and companion, your little window into your heart, must be panicking

Hardly. You make many spurious statements, some of which are far enough from conventional wisdom that they need corroboration, then not only don't provide any evidence, but dismiss any requests for more information with "no, you prove me wrong". Are you sure it's not YOUR business interests that are at stake here?

Paulo Sousa said...


There seems to be a misunderstanding here. You're probably looking for this site:

Kind regards,


Kona Squirrel said...

Your comments are certainly of interest, but I too as a scientist, would appreciate the direct references. The encouragement you provided to commenters to do their own research is much appreciated, but the onus is on you to provide the readers with your research to support your claims. You may be right - but your comments are simply opinion until you provide more information. I would like to know exactly what references you pulled your information from. Then one can determine if there is validity and reliability in the performed research from which you draw your conclusions. Sadly, if you are simply furthering someone's elses opinion then you are also furthering the body of witchcraft training that pervades our sport. Your clear explanation in follow up would be appreciated.

Paulo Sousa said...


I apologize for not living up to your expectations of what this blog should be.

However, I don't see this blog as a place of debate, but of opinion. I enjoy having comments to my opinions, both positive and negative, and allow all comments to show because if there is one thing that I abominate is censorship of any kind. I also enjoy to answer specific questions and have done so in the past.

What I won't do is to engage in the kind of discussion that you and others are looking for, simply because this is not the place for it. If you want that kind of debate, I will give you the same advice I gave to "jason".



Kona Squirrel said...

Thank you for clarifying that your blog is a matter of opinion. My simple point was that you pose your comments as undeniable fact and I think that I and some others before me were hoping that you could provide us with the research from which you derived your information. I've no interest in debate - just don't want misinformation to be propogated. Your blog was picked up by the new daily tri news site out of boulder and likely emailed to 100's if not 1000's across the country. Just important to have clarification - that's all.


Paulo Sousa said...

"I've no interest in debate - just don't want misinformation to be propogated"

I'm glad we reached common ground here.


John Phillips said...

Finally a post that's really interesting!

Gustave Courbet would have had no success if he had simply followed the 'rules' of his time.

Paulo Sousa said...


Thanks for sticking to reading the blog until I wrote something interesting ;-)

Al said...

Amen and hallelujah!! Are you open to accepting clients still or are you full up? I totally agree and have just looked at my heart rate during workouts just for my amusement.