The head is the home of analysis, logic and thought. It’s where things are reasoned, lists of “pros” and “cons” are made and it establishes the rationale to stay in a safe comfort zone. The heart is the where our intuition lives, our “true identity”. The signals of the heart can guide life choices provided we don’t let the doubts, fears, anxieties, and apprehensions from our head paralyze our decision-making. But surely the heart is merely a muscle that pumps blood 100,000 times a day to all the organs of the body? No in fact, the heart sends more information to the brain than vice versa (McCraty et al., 2004a); the heart controls the brain much more than previously thought. The reality is that the heart plays an extraordinary role in our lives far beyond what is commonly known. There are 40,000 sensory neurons relaying information to the brain from the cardiac muscle, these neurons have both short and long term memory and their signals sent to the brain can affect our emotional experiences. The heart communicates with the brain in four ways: neurologically (through nerve impulses), biochemically (via hormones and neurotransmitters), biophysically (through pressure waves) and energetically (through electromagnetic fields). So the heart and brain together play a critical role in our sense of intuition and decision making (McCraty et al., 2004b). More importantly, research shows that messages the heart sends the brain can also affect performance. Decision making when running, like in life is a negotiation between the head and the heart. The advent of wearable heart rate monitors due to the reduction in both size and cost has bridged the communication gap between them, but do these heart rate monitors help or hinder performance?
Heart rate monitors allow runners to keep an eye on exactly what the heart is doing as the miles tick by. Knowing and monitoring the heart rate is possibly the most accurate way of monitoring and understanding the bodies’ adaptation to exercise. Endurance training like running markedly improves the hearts ability to pump blood around the body during exercise (Levine et al., 1991). The heart is the engine of the body and it responds to training by growing stronger, as the body becomes fitter the heart rate at any running speed falls (Houston et al., 1979; Thompson, 2007). Using heart rate monitor can help runners to hit the right intensity for each run by keeping workouts within a target heart rate zone. Hitting a “zone” means falling within a particular percentage of your maximum heart rate during every workout–for example, 65 to 70 percent for recovery runs and 80 to 90 percent for tempo workouts. But unfortunately an accurate measure of your maximum heart rate requires a graded exercise test – a VO2max test which forces most runners to use simple heart rate formulas which have a high degree of error. Therefore, many runners who control their effort by heart rate may be doomed from the start by using inaccurate maximal heart rates.
Training using a heart rate monitor may be holding runners back from reaching their potential. If the main concern in workouts is to stay within a target heart rate zone this places an artificial ceiling on performance. But when the focus is instead on performance variables such as speed, distance and standards set in previous workouts – runners work harder and get a greater fitness stimulus from the session. So for some runs forget the heart rate monitor or GPS and just run by feel. Don’t let the mind control the heart because of feedback from a monitor, allow the intuition of your heart prevail over the doubts and fears of the head.
Houston ME, Bentzen H & Larsen H. (1979). Interrelationships between skeletal muscle adaptations and performance as studied by detraining and retraining. Acta Physiol Scand 105, 163-170.
Levine BD, Lane LD, Buckey JC, Friedman DB & Blomqvist CG. (1991). Left ventricular pressure-volume and Frank-Starling relations in endurance athletes. Implications for orthostatic tolerance and exercise performance. Circulation 84, 1016-1023.
McCraty R, Atkinson M & Bradley RT. (2004a). Electrophysiological evidence of intuition: part 1. The surprising role of the heart. J Altern Complement Med 10, 133-143.
McCraty R, Atkinson M & Bradley RT. (2004b). Electrophysiological evidence of intuition: Part 2. A system-wide process? J Altern Complement Med 10, 325-336.
Thompson PD. (2007). Cardiovascular adaptations to marathon running : the marathoner’s heart. Sports Med 37, 444-447.