Fitness, Health and Performance: One but not the same.
(Lessons from our horsey friends)

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

March 14th, 2015

Above: Horse breeders are 'protecting their investments' with the help of technology

This short post springs from a recent twitter chat that I had with my new friend, Christine (@animalHRV). Really, consider it a Twitlonger post without all the annoying advertisements :-)

The discussion started with a comment that I made…

@AnimalHRV @athletesheart At the risk of oversimplifying, would almost say that Resting Heart Rate vs HRV is akin to Fitness v Health.

— Alan Couzens (@Alan_Couzens) March 13, 2015

Meaning that, an athlete can have an impressive cardiac stroke volume (and, consequently a low resting heart rate) even when their autonomic nervous system is not functioning optimally (& their HRV numbers show it).

@animalHRV replied

@Alan_Couzens @AnimalHRV @athletesheart RHR is influenced by parasympathetic tone; HRV = more sensitive indicator of both fitness & health.

— Christine Ross DVM (@AnimalHRV) March 13, 2015

Which sparked the most wonderful of tangents that really got my head in a spin…

I referenced a study that showed decreasing HRV numbers as elite rowers completed their final build up for the World Rowing Championships. The study showed that when athletes were at their peak ‘fitness’ (5.8L/min VO2max) that HRV numbers actually decreased, i.e. HRV/autonomic balance got worse under conditions of race specific training stress.

The message being “See, athletes can be at the peak of their fitness when HRV numbers are poor.”

@animal HRV replied

@Alan_Couzens @AnimalHRV @athletesheart Overtrained elite athletes can indeed win! Even their HR ⬆️. Have a look at the last statement :)

— Christine Ross DVM (@AnimalHRV) March 13, 2015

Essentially saying - athletes can win (& indeed have a high VO2max) when they are not at the peak of health OR fitness. The coach in me says “whhhhhaaaat? Win without being fit?” But if we consider our old friend, Darwin’s biological definition of fitness as the ability of the organism to adapt & we think about the number of athletes who have been forced into retirement by their inability to adapt to training after their very highest performance, her response rings 100% true as an all too common characteristic of elite (human) endurance sport. Athletes at their personal zenith are often unable to adapt for a long time thereafter, if ever again.

The fact that horse trainers would employ a veterinarian who understands and cares about HRV is revealing in itself of the difference in the approach to this problem in the respective worlds of horsey and human athletes. How many endurance athletes see doctors who understand and care about this metric? Even elite athletes? … and why?

Because elite endurance athletes are significantly less expensive than elite thoroughbreds!

Bear with me on this. What are the consequences when an elite tri coach ‘breaks’ an athlete? Aren’t there always more in the pipeline? Isn’t the coach financially most rewarded for the one success, even if it comes amidst 10 broken athletes along the way? Look around and you can quickly see the answer to that question.

Does this perspective encourage endurance coaches to use the type of training that I referenced in the study that favors short term performance over long term health? Again, look around at the nature and end result of 'high performance' programs. The answer is self evident.

It is one thing for an athlete to make a conscious choice to go to this point of unhealthy sympathetic ‘overdrive’ once every few years for an event as important as the World Championships or Olympic Games but how many short sighted coaches are training athletes like this each and every ‘race season’ (a period which really spans the entirety of their whole training year).

Apart from high performance squads, another problematic area is remote or ‘on line’ coaching. In this situation, it’s not (necessarily) that the coach doesn’t care about the athlete’s day to day health but rather that they are simply not in a great position to assess it! Sure, comments in your log help (hint, hint! :-) but nothing compares with being ‘on deck’ able to see a ‘tired’ stroke or stride, real-time, and able to make the judgement call to amend the session or send the athlete home! If your coach is remote, this very important responsibility falls largely on the athlete. Seeing an athlete ‘fall apart’ in their post workout file is too late!

And what are (human) athletes doing away from training? Are they hanging out in the pasture getting some rays and chomping on some grass? Giving their parasympathetic system a little bit of balance? Nope, especially if they are of the “working age group” breed, they run from their unsupervised, excessively intense training to their excessively intense job and then wonder why their system forces them to shut down in the form of sickness or injury! Is it any wonder that so many ex endurance athletes turn their back on the (sympathetic dominant, drowning-in-cortisol) "chronic cardio” that make up “serious” endurance sports.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Health can be (and should be) an integral part of the training process even if it means training for a decade at 90% of your capacity rather than one spectacular season at 100%. The role that an integrated (health-fitness-performance) approach can play in the success of a high level athlete is exemplified by the role that Dr. Phil Maffetone played in the long term success of Mark Allen & several of the other best triathletes in world during the 80's and 90's. It is unfortunate that we have moved away from that, & it is perhaps not coincidental that this move coincided with the period that athletes began throwing their heart rate monitors away to focus (exclusively) on the performance metrics provided by power and pace meters

Your longevity in sport (&, heck, potentially on this planet!) is largely dependent on the extent to which you monitor and balance performance, fitness AND health in all that you do.

Take home points:

Finally, (especially if you are a remote or high performance athlete), follow our equine friends' lead: Use the available technology to track not only performance, but also health!, i.e. in addition to your power and pace meters, start tracking your HRV! Whether something as simple as a little spreadsheet or as in depth as the comprehensive Omegawave system, there is simply no better ‘window’ into the overall health of your system and your 'fitness' to adapt to a training load.

Train smart,




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