Top 3 High Performance Lessons I Learned in 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012 | By Ben Greenfield
Email this article

Each year, I implement new methods in my training or learn important lessons that help me to become a better, more healthy triathlete. In 2012, I learned 3 valuable high performance lessons, which I’ll share with you below.

1. Learn From Your Nervous System

At the beginning of 2012, in an effort to more accurately track my recovery, I began more seriously experimenting with tracking my “Heart Rate Variability” (HRV).

Normally, when we think of our resting heart rate, we think of a number between 40 and 90 beats per minute (BPM), but in reality, our heart rate changes from beat to beat. For example, when you inhale, your heart beat speeds up and when you exhale, it slows down. So an average heart rate of 60 BPM may actually vary between 55 and 65 BPM. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring variation in the heart rate. So why is this important, and what can you learn from it?

Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls many automatic functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration and blood pressure and is divided into two subsystems: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. In general, these two subsystems are in a constant dance to keep the body in balance. However, when danger is present (such as when you’re sprinting on your bike) the sympathetic subsystem takes over in what is called the “fight or flight” response. Fight or flight is a stressful state and evolved to protect us from danger. Once the danger has passed, the ANS returns to balance.

Take the example of a rubber band. An old, stiff rubber band cannot stretch very well, but a new, fresh rubber band can stretch in many directions and return to its original shape. A regular heart beat (low HRV) is like an old rubber band that does not stretch, while a heart beat with lots of variation (high HRV) is like a new, stretchy rubber band. A healthy, well-recovered body, like a new rubber band, is able to respond to a wide variety of stressful physical or mental situations and quickly return to normal (referred to as HRV resilience). So high HRV can be a sign of proper recovery and resilience.

As it turns out, the pattern of your heartbeat (HRV) is a reflection of what your autonomic nervous system is doing. Because of this, you can use HRV to measure the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response. Also, because the nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure regulation and respiration are under control of the autonomic nervous system HRV is an excellent indicator of many health parameters.

So Low HRV is a symptom of stress and imbalance in the nervous system. This imbalance can be temporary, such as the case of brief periods of stress or it can be a persistent imbalance caused by busy, hectic and stressful life, too much training, inadequate recovery or poor diet inducing a constant state of fight or flight response.

The following are a few of the resources I used to track my HRV, and identify when I was overtrained or overstressed, and when I was healthy and ready for a hard workout:

  • HeartMath emWave2 – spendy, but comes with a good biofeedback training system for your computer that teaches how to relax and control your HRV.
  • Stress Check app by Azumio for tracking your HRV instantly (at $0.99, affordable compared to emWave2)
  • SweetBeat HRV App for real time monitoring of HRV using your smartphone and a heart rate chest strap. Good for during workouts.

2. Less Is Sometimes Better

After completing the 2011 Ironman Hawaii in 9:36 on an average training week of 10-12 hours, I decided to make even bigger time cuts in 2012, and limit myself to no more than 90 minutes of exercise per day, and then one “long” weekend session of 2 hours.

For example as I detail in a recent article on my blog, my current triathlon training routine (in preparation for next week’s Ironman 70.3 Phuket) consists of:

  • Monday – SwimSmooth swim (30 min), tennis (60-90 min)
  • Tuesday – SuperSlow strength (30 min), Sufferfest (40-60 min)
  • Wednesday – SwimSmooth swim (30 min), Runervals workout (25 min)
  • Thursday – Suspension Trainer (30 min), tennis (60-90 min)
  • Friday - SwimSmooth swim (30 min), Runervals workout (25 min)
  • Saturday – MaccaX12 Swim, Bike Or Run Workout (1-2 hours)
  • Sunday – easy mountain bike ride with wife (1-2 hours)

Even with this decrease in hours, I was able to win several triathlons this year and post faster splits at many races compared to 2011. At the same time, I’ve been testing my progress with a “CSS” test for the swim, a 20 minute treadmill test for the run and a timed mountain bike course for the bike – and noted significant weekly improvements despite the decreased volume.

What are the advantages to training less? In addition to lowering risk of chronic repetitive motion injury (and improving the heart rate variability numbers you just learned about), you also free up valuable time to spend with friends and family, pursuing other hobbies or advancing your career. There is no “rule” that states you must train 15-25 hours a week to successfully complete Half-Ironman or Ironman triathlon (click here for more details on avoiding chronic cardio self destruction).

3. Testing Yourself Is Important

If you’re serious about high performance, no matter how good you feel, it’s important to occasionally test not only using swim, bike and run field tests such as the ones I just described, but it’s also important to test your biomarkers to know what is happening inside your body.

In August of 2012, I reported the results of a series of tests I did with a company called WellnessFX to find out what was going on inside my body. From blood tests to food allergy tests to stool tests (yes, even that) I made several discoveries that directly influenced performance, including:

  • Sensitivity to eggs and cheese
  • Two different parasites living in my digestive tract
  • Slightly low thyroid
  • Elevated levels of ApoB (a plaque risk factor)

Since that initial series of testing, I’ve returned to WellnessFX for a hormone panel, which found low lutenizing hormone (which can affect testosterone production) and slightly low Vitamin D (an important hormone precursor). While these issues weren’t necessarily making me weak and sick, they certainly don’t help in a quest for optimum performance.

So armed with this information, I can now make important changes such as limiting dairy consumption, using a digestive cleansing formula and herbal based inflammatory, including an extra recovery day, and stepping up Vitamin D intake. Some of the resources I used in addition to WellnessFX for internal performance testing can be reviewed on this recommendations page.


What about you? Do you have lessons about your body, your training, or your recovery that you learned in 2012? Do you have questions, comments or feedback about heart rate variability, minimalist training, or testing yourself? Leave your thoughts below.

You can get more information about how to maximize performance, get a better body and "become superhuman" at a live conference he is hosting March 8-9 in Spokane, WA. Click here for event dates and details.

Get the latest news

Join Us