Another question came up soon after the Kickboard question: What about training and Heart Rate?

Heart rate is a response in the body, not a causation. You don’t ‘train’ your heart rate, instead your heart rate gives you information about your training.

On land, our opponent is gravity, and gravity grabs mass. We cannot reduce gravity’s effect other than by dropping mass. As in running we need muscle power to overcome gravity. In water, our opponent is the density of water (creating water resistance) and water grabs shape. So we need to improve shape and movement patterns to give water less to grab, which in turn lowers our need for power.

One way to view Heart Rate (HR) is as a guage that monitors energy flow in the body. The higher the heart rate, the more demand for energy there is in the system. So one aspect of HR is measuring the rate of energy consumption.

On land, like in running, if you want to increase speed, you need to increase power, which means you need to increase effort. A higher HR tells us we are doing that. In water, however, we want to maintain speed but decrease effort as a sign that we have decreased water resistance working against us. A lower HR shows us when we are achieving this.

Let’s examine this a little further…

If you are performing a task one day at a certain heart rate, and then do the same task again the next day with a lower heart rate, the (overly) simple conclusion is that you were able to do the same task with less energy- but why?

HR can tell us that we are workıng harder but it is not necessarily telling us if we are working smarter. It is telling us how much energy we are using but it is not telling us (directly) how well we are using it (we need to add a few more metrics to give the whole picture). Sometimes higher or lower HR is a good sign, and sometimes it is not.

Virtually every human understands how hard we must work in the water for how slowly we move through it. This is the big concern in swimming. Humans moving in the water are extremely wasteful- only using at most 7% of our power to move forward, while dolphins stun scientists with their ability to turn 80% of their power into forward motion. (Now, I need to re-locate that citation for you…).

During exercise HR can be high because the activity is physically demanding- i.e. it simply takes a lot of energy to perform the task even with best technique. HR can also be high because the body’s resources are spread thin across several demands at once (for instance, the HR is unusually high during exercise when our immune system is fighting off an illness). And/or the HR can be high because the neurological controls are unfamiliar and weak- the athlete must put out a great deal of concentration and effort, using an excessive arrangement of muscles to perform the task that a more skilled person could perform with far less muscle (number and intensity) and far more precision.

You wonder why those pros (choose your favorite graceful sport) seem so effortless and graceful? This is one of the reasons why. They make it look easy because in fact it has become much easier for them to do it, compared to the amount of muscles and intensity you and I would need to even attempt it. They simply use less energy than you and I do.

We can’t train HR because we don’t control HR directly- what we do is control the systems that affect HR, systems that use energy. HR just gives us feedback about our energy consumption during the activity. What we must do is learn to control our movements in such a way that it raises or lowers the heart rate as we increase or lower the demand for energy in the body.

The most popular strategy for improving performance is to increase the body’s ability to work at higher HR, or, in other words, at higher rates of energy consumption. So we learn to work at higher, more uncomfortable exertion levels, sustain it longer or more frequently, and to supply the body with more fuel. The classic workout requires us to ‘increase intensity’ to get faster.

But do you really want to train your body to move in ways that require more power and produce more waste products rather than train your skill so that you require less power and produce less waste for the same performance?

This is not really an either/or question.

This is just another way of explaining to you the importance of pursuing precision before pursuing power. I urge athletes to pay utmost attention to technique. The outcome we want from technique is that we can perform the task with far less energy (which I can feel) and far more grace (which you can see). This leaves us with a surplus of energy with which we can then choose to redistribute in new ways- going faster, going farther, or venturing into new challenge or skill territory altogether.

And the pursuit of technique involves both the refinement of the movement patterns as well as the increase in ability of the mind to focus on what is most effective in producing the results we want. Effective training must bring the body and the mind together to new levels of effeciency and focus.

So the mind also needs to understand what HR means so it can make decisions during practice to help lower it. Heart Rate is information- it supplies us extremely important data about our body during an activity. It requires then that we learn some practical ways of interpreting that data.

Here is an often misinterpreted scenario: a swimmer gets to the last part of the race and starts to fatigue so they swim slower. Their HR is shooting through the roof, of course. The assumption is that the muscles are tired, the system becoming clogged with lactic acid so the muscles lose the ability to generate as much power as they could at the beginning. The conclusion so many make is that this athlete then needs to train harder to get those muscles and cardio-vascular system stronger so it can handle harder swimming.

But here is what I see when we do a slow-motion instant replay: Due to the pressures on the system and mind a swimmer loses concentration in the last part of the race, and because of this technique deteriates, and because of this water resistance (drag on the swimmer’s body) increases dramatically, which in turn sucks an greater amount of energy from his already depleted supply. The swimmer, in desperation, exerts more effort with worse techinque which starts a downward spiral of energy drain, then disintregrating technique which provokes more loss of energy, and so on and so on.

I suspect most less-successful swimmers are such, not because their muscles are weaker, but because their mind is weaker- and I don’t mean their attitude or work ethic- I mean they don’t know where to focus and/or they can’t hold that focus under increasing pressure.

The evidence for my interpretion comes from the fact that the best of the best swimmers are the ones who are able to preserve stroke length at the end of the race while everyone else’s is disintegrating. Everyone is increasing stroke rate at the end- but that means very little compared to how long the stroke is kept- anyone can spin their arms in the water faster and faster and go nowhere. Preserving stroke length is more a matter of intelligence (knowing exactly what details create the long stroke) and concentration (knowing exactly where to focus on control in order to protect it) than it is a matter of muscular strength.

What does Heart Rate have to do with this?

First, study and acquire the skill to perform a task with better technique- and better technique is defined as what allows you to perform the same task with less energy, less resistance, less risk of injury. And then practice holding that technique (that focus on technique) for incrementally longer durations and higher intensities. Over time, and shorter than you may think you’ll see the evidence that this kind of training is working- you’ll be able to perform the task at a much lower heart rate. And when your heart rate is lower it is easier to hold focus. The lower heart rate means you are conserving energy. And with the energy you save from great technique you may use to go faster or go farther, and have the advantage of relaxed body and calm mind to make good decisions where to use it.

The reason Sun Yang looked so relaxed while setting a world record a year ago (when no one was expecting him to) was because he likely was much more relaxed than his competitors. The TV commentators (of those segments I watched) did not flash the World Record line in front of him during the swim, nor talk about his apparent likelihood to break the WR until the last 50 meters. Why? Because they did not expect him to be able to speed up to catch it while everyone else was slowing down. My conclusion is that Sun Yang, and his coach, are masters of focus and therefore masters of energy management- and I bet his heart rate data would have shown us a great deal to validate this.

And there is an interesting link between heart rate and breathing. But we can explore that another time.


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