| High Performance Heart

Author / Zack Nagle

5-7 minute read

Love is in the air, on the mind, and filling up the shelves of your local pharmacy.

It’s that time of year when we go out of our way to show a little extra affection towards the ones we love. February is also American Heart Month, which I’m using as a not so subtle excuse to remind you of the importance of aerobic training for athletes. 

Because while the heart might not be a muscle we can flex in the mirror, if we took our pump cover of meat suit off we might appreciate that it takes just as a consistent training as any other muscle to maintain its strength.

And if I know the demographic of Power Athlete, you don’t just want to maintain its strength; you want to build it and use it to maximize performance. 

In this blog, I’ll be breaking down how aerobic training has a place in every coach’s playbook. Let’s get started.

You Make My Heart Race

With the popularity of functional fitness, HIIT & fitness trackers that gamify and encourage excursion, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking more, harder, and longer is better for health, fitness, and performance.

But too much intensity for too long can have adverse effects on the body, putting the individual in a state of fight or flight that can lead to excess fatigue and body fat (1), inflammation (2) & poor recovery in and out of the gym.⁣

This isn’t to deter you from creating hammers out of your athletes but to emphasize that the attitude of no pain, no gain poses both fitness and performance problems and should balanced in your athletes training. 

Let’s take a step back and see what’s at play here with how the body fuels your movement

We’ve Got Chemistry

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the primary energy-providing molecule in the human body. Energy is released from ATP when a linkage is broken between one of its three (tri-) phosphate molecules during mechanical work. In this same process, ATP leaves behind a molecule called adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ADP’s job is to be converted into more ATP to sustain energy in the body and keep you moving. Break a bond, get energy; make a new bond which takes energy, only to break again to release more.

Beuller, Beuller… hang with me 

This process of phosphorylation (re-adding a phosphate molecule) happens in three ways: 

  1. The phosphagen system via short bouts of explosive movement. Think sprinting 
  2. Glycolytic system via lactate build-up in hard bouts around 30-60 seconds 
  3. Aerobic system via oxygen at rest or low-intensity exercise. 

All three energy systems work together to fulfill the body’s energy demands, but while the phosphagen & glycolytic systems have limitations and can only provide fuel from between a few seconds up until a few minutes (also known as the anaerobic pathways), the aerobic system can provide fuel indefinitely as well as help support the other systems. Such as helping the body better recycle lactate for fuel and help you recover and replenish ATP during rest periods of intense training.  

This is why having and expanding upon your aerobic base plays a vital and primary role in all physical activity & sports. The larger your base and the larger volume of oxygen you can take in during your training, the higher the intensity you can train at. 

Let’s keep this moving. 

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I Can’t Live Without You

As mentioned above, spending a majority of training redlining or only chasing high intensities can do the reverse of what you are intending it to do. This is because our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) gets overloaded with stress and cannot manage recovery.

The ANS takes two forms. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

The SNS is the system related to stress; the fight or flight response from above. This stress could be from everyday life stress, or something like training stress that we actively bring upon ourselves to create performance adaptations.

The PNS is the system related to recovery, and how we go about recovering and making gainz from training session to training session. Just as we can be active in stimulating the SNS, we can improve our body’s ability to recover from the stress we bring upon ourselves, or happen to come upon us, by stimulating the PNS through training & developing our aerobic system. Making both active (aerobic training) and passive rest as important as the intense training itself.

You’re Outta This World

So if improving your aerobic base is important for performance, why do we see statements being put out like “aerobic base is a myth”.

Here’s the thing with that. What gets lost in these cries for attention is that it’s not about if base work is beneficial, but how you go about it. 

Aerobic base training can take many forms and is not limited to “cardio”.

Take it from the guy who runs for enjoyment. Running long slow distances is not the best option for athletes looking to tear it up on the field. As a coach, you need to know your athlete’s sport. You need to know what they are training for. 

Let’s take a look at a few ways Power Athlete helps athletes achieve the necessary aerobic adaptations in their training.    

Key To My Heart

The Warm-up

A key to the Power Athlete methodology is taking advantage of every opportunity in a training session to create movement connections and adaptations to your sport. And every training session starts with a warm-up, so why not start here. 

The warm-up provides a great opportunity to pattern sport-specific movement, and specifically prep the demands of that day’s training through a low-stress aerobic environment.

The protocol: You’ll need a heart rate monitor for this one. The goal is to not allow the athlete’s heart rate to exceed 150bpm during the main sets of the warm up and not drop below 120bmp during the recovery periods. This is done through a balance of exercise selection and time management. 

Tempo Runs 

Speed is king, but there is a time when I’d prefer if you ran a little slower. 

Tempo runs are lower velocity-based sprinting workouts, typically around 75% of your best sprint time or slower. While tempo runs don’t directly improve speed, they improve qualities that provide for maximum effort sprinting to take place enhancing recovery through the PNS.

Set up: Choose intervals of 50m to 400m in length. Exact distances will be athlete dependent. Ask yourself what distance will the athlete have to cover at max velocity in their given sport? And what position does the athlete play/ what are the demands of that position?

Execution: Runs should be fairly relaxed and the velocity of each repetition should be the same all through the entire workout. Rest periods are active with walks between 50-60m on the low end and 100m-120m walk for a longer recovery. Again, this is athlete dependent. 


Are you down with GPP?… Well, you should be. GPP (General physical preparedness) creates a conditioning environment to increase your work capacity through multi energy system training. Don’t confuse GPP with the other three letter word, WOD. GPP work, while general, still follows some guidelines to save you from complete randomness. 

The general guidelines: Like tempo work, GPP is athlete dependent. What sport do they play and what’s the athlete’s training age? These are two good questions to start with. From there – full body every session with violent hip extension and multiplanar movement included. Don’t get stuck training in a doorway. 

Looking to see GPP programming in action? For the novice athlete take a look at the Bedrock program. For those who have spent some time under the bar, Field Strong’s French Contrast program includes GPP work to strategically transition athletes throughout the 8-week cycle. 

Empower Your Performance

The words “aerobic base” have been thrown around, used, and abused almost as many times as “functional fitness” has, so understandably its role in training and how to attack it can get watered down.   

But, by strategically (and intelligently) programming aerobic base work, you’ll be able to make use of all your energy systems when it matters the most: Game Day. 




EDU: Unlocking Athletic Potential through the Warm-Up

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1) Powers S, Jackson M. Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress: Cellular Mechanisms and Impact on Muscle Force Production. Physiol Rev. 2008;88(4):1243-1276. 2) van de Vyver M, Engelbrecht L, Smith C, Myburgh K. Neutrophil and monocyte responses to downhill running: Intracellular contents of MPO, IL-6, IL-10, pstat3, and SOCS3. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015.


Zack Nagle

Zack Nagle veteran of the fitness industry most recently and currently as Director of Performance for TrueForm, coaching and training athletes from virtually every sport ranging from youth beginner to the professional level. Zack found his calling battling the fitness BS & empowering individuals to reach their potential utilizing the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and strengthen his clients and athletes through movement coaching, and individualized program design.

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