Ironman races and heart surgeries share many similarities. According to Jeffrey H. Newman, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon with the Palm Beach Health Network and a retired triathlete, this is a likely fact.
Dr. Newman, who last completed an Ironman in 2010, explains, “Our operations are anywhere from two to five hours, and you have to remain focused on the task at hand and be efficient. So with triathlon, it was very easy to hone that concentration and that focus.”
Dr. Newman has honed how to create a training plan—or even just a workout routine—for maximum cardiovascular benefits through years of heart surgeries and Ironman triathlons. Here, Dr. Newman shares how his expertise in heart health has shaped his approach to exercise and his recommendations for optimizing your workouts to bolster your heart, whether you’re an Ironman or an occasional gym-goer.
Consistency is crucial
Ironman triathlons consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Dr. Newman would exercise twice a day on weekdays and engage in long runs, bike rides, or swims on weekends while training for his races, including the exclusive Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. “Training for an endurance race means you have to prepare your body to be in that slogging state of exercising all day,” he says.
According to Dr. Newman, to enhance your heart health, you don’t necessarily need to be logging 20-plus hours of exercise a week. However, being consistent is vital. He suggests that five to seven hours a week over four to five days, with a mix of aerobic and strength work, is probably sufficient to keep your heart robust. Dr. Newman emphasizes, “If you exercise intermittently or engage in intense physical activity only on weekends, you’re not really obtaining the benefits you believe you are.”
Most days, keep things easy
An important aspect of Ironman training is that the majority of workouts are done in heart rate zone two, which should feel relatively effortless and sustainable over a long period. Zone two work builds endurance and aerobic capacity, progressively enhancing your heart’s efficiency in carrying oxygen to your muscles, enabling you to achieve more in your workouts with less effort.
Dr. Newman explains that while higher-intensity training has its time and place, zone two training will likely be more advantageous in the long run for the heart than workouts that cause your heart rate to spike and then rest.
The heart requires rest days, too
Dr. Newman points out that the heart, primarily consisting of muscular tissue, needs recovery days just like your other muscles. He suggests that although a rest day doesn’t necessarily mean doing absolutely nothing, it shouldn’t involve anything intense that elevates your heart rate above a low zone two. This is because just like the need for your other muscles to rest and rebuild after workouts, the heart also needs time to recover.
Dr. Newman emphasizes the importance of allowing your heart to rest, explaining that it’s during rest that muscles rebuild and become stronger. If you never let your heart rest, you’ll never reap the maximum benefit of the time and effort you put into strengthening it.