Modern Science vs. Old School Intuition

Modern Science vs. Old School Intuition

The world of sports science changes every day.  Remember when wearing a heart rate monitor was cutting edge?  Now, in my world of professional soccer with Minnesota United, we simply do a finger-prick right there in the middle of a training session, draw a drop of blood, put that drop onto a test strip, put the test strip into a machine that fits in our pocket, and we can get a reading that tells us how hard that player is working.  Of course all the players started off hating the technology because they think we’re trying to catch them being lazy or cheating.  Once they learn that it just shows us a snap shot of where they are in a particular moment, and that it can help us tweak their training with more work or more recovery, then they’re begging to be tested so they know how hard or how easy they should be working to maximize their performance. 
I call some of this new technology “Pandora’s Box”.  It can twist a player inside out mentally and emotionally if they or the coaches don’t understand how to use it.  I love learning about how to hack into individual players’ blood readings.  I don’t share all of it with the players because sometimes it’s just good to have someone do what they’re doing if it’s working.  For example, we had a guy whose test results were far outside the norms for specific aspects of blood biomarkers.  The readings showed that he was tired, fatigued, and unable to perform to his potential.  However, when physically tested in things like agility, strength, and speed, he was one of the top five finishers every time.  Not only that, but he was playing well and scoring goals.  Why make changes for someone like this based solely on the biomarkers?
One of my favorite things about the Minnesota United coach was his ability to take an old-school point of view at different times in the season.  It was as if he said, “Screw the science, and let’s just have guys do a killer workout!”  My job as the sports scientist is just that:  provide the science to the coaches.  I analyze all the data and implement the algorithms that, for the most part, determine how we approach our weekly training.  Are the players ready?  Can they be pushed?  Do they need rest? 
I use all the biomarkers, technology, and available cutting edge science to help determine how to train the players.  Once in awhile, the coach would interrupt the staff meeting during my pre-week presentation, as I spouted blood lactate numbers, heart rate variability, vo2 max, player load, and so on.  He would say, “Levy…. (that’s my nickname in the soccer world) I just want you to crush guys today.  They need something tough and painful.”  He didn’t care about what the biomarkers said; he had intuition that the team needed a tough workout.  He would have me strap the old school heart rate monitors on the players and run them based on the old school calculation of Max Heart Rate.  Again, 10 years ago, a workout based on heart rate was cutting edge for sports science.  Now, the science is so advanced that we see just the heart rate as one data point – a small indicator of intensity.
I think it’s good to go old-school once in a while:  I loved driving my 1987 Volvo stick- shift with the license plate attached with a coat hanger.  Who doesn’t like listening to a little Neil Diamond once in awhile?  And there’s something about the home we live in, built in 1915, that bridges the gap between “old neglected” and “classic cool”.  The same applies to using heart rate monitors.  They are simple, easy to use, and can be really effective.  There are, however, a few old-school techniques that have thankfully been modernized:

  • The old 220-age = Max Heart Rate is no longer a very good predictor of what the maximum heart rate should be.  We now use what’s called the Karvonen Method, which uses a mathematical formula to determine the target hear rate training zone.  The formula uses maximum and resting heart rate with the desired training intensity to achieve a target heart rate: 

                         * 220-Age=Max Heart Rate
                        * MHR-RHR=Heart Rate Reserve
                        * Heart Rate Reserve x % of MHR = Target Heart Rate

  • The fat burning heart rate zone.  I don’t have the time or the patience to address this fitness industry propaganda.  The fat-burning zone comes from what we know of the physiological energy systems in correlation with work-time and intensity.  When we work out for long durations at lower intensities, we first burn fat, then carbohydrates, then back to fat, and eventually protein.  Since we burn fat first, the fitness industry thought it fair to say working out at lower intensity meant we lose more weight while training in that lower zone of intensity or heart rate.  Not true.  Read my blog on EPOC.  We know for a fact that at higher levels of intensity with shorter work duration, we burn more calories for longer periods of time, and if my work is aggressive enough, I even burn more calories when I’m not working out.  (Not to mention all the other benefits I get from high-intensity work.)


  • It’s dangerous to get your heart rate too high.  What?  Your heart is a muscle and you should push it to its max when you train.  That’s how you get stronger.  The more you make your heart work, the more efficient it becomes. 

So…if you have a heart rate monitor at home, dig it out, brush off the dust and bring it in.  If you want to buy a heart rate monitor, you can still find a basic heart rate monitor at Target.  Either way, next week, you will have the opportunity to see what real heart rate monitor training is like.