The Athlete’s Circulation

In the past 30 years sports medicine and sports science have developed into the most advanced techniques for research and the improvement of athletes both amateur and professional.  Areas such as psychology, physiology, nutrition and coaching have benefitted enormously.  While this is to be praised there is still one underlying flaw in the system.  It does not matter how advanced or complex the techniques or methods of training and investigation have become, if the world-view or Weltanschauung of the scientist is stuck in the 17th century then every thing is interpreted from this way of seeing.  This seventeen century approach is the machine-mechanical metaphor.

No other area of science is dominated so much by the machine metaphor as sports medicine and science.  This invisible metaphor undercuts our attempts at major improvements athletic ability.  I say invisible because we are unaware of the machine metaphor in eating, treating and training in sports. We talk of food as fuel, treating biomechanically and speed as the only measure of success.   Unfortunately, both sports medicine and sports science lack a dynamic real world perspective leading to a fragmented series of isolated and meaningless collections of data. 

Here I apply the real world dynamic approach to the athlete’s heart.


Blood forms in the embryo before the blood vessels about the 3rd week outside what will become the body. What eventually becomes the vessels of the circulation system originate from the blood.  At this point there is no pulse just blood moving about. Slowly walls of the vessels begin to form with contracting muscle fibres before the heart begins to form.  Blood flow forms the shape of the heart about the 22nd day.  Pulsing is initiated by the flow of blood as it moves backward and forwards. 

Thinking of the heart as a pump is an error.  We have adopted this mechanometaphor out of an historical context.  Early experiments removed the heart from the animal and we experience our own heart as a pulsing (pumping).  Only with the removed heart and fluid forced through it does fluid being ejected out the other end!  So we put 2 and 2 together to make 5. 

Blood Heart Circulation

The heart is too small to “pump” blood around the body.  It is the total amount of venous blood retuning to the heart that forces it to expand on the left side.  This is caused by the movement of your limbs especially the thigh area.  The returning blood causes a forced expansion which stretches the heart to a limit where the next phase is a perceived contraction.  Expansion is termed diastole and the reflex stretch response of contraction is termed systole.

Interestingly, 80% of the metabolic use of oxygen is converted to heat.  The heart warms the blood and directs the flow from the right side through the lungs and out into the arterial left side of the body.  When the heart beats fast, in fear or anxiety, without any movement of the limbs there is no increase in the amount of blood leaving the heart into the rest of the body!

Your circulation is not closed off from the world.  As the arterial system gets smaller the pulsing phenomenon becomes independent from the heart and eventually slows in the fine capillaries where any movement is chemical.  At this point it includes the lymphatic system which is really the outer region of the circulatory system, not the venous component.  As the venous system moves with the lymphatic system it all slows to a halt and there is no pulse in the fine structures of the circulation system and is driven by body movement as a whole and as mentioned chemical change.

1 Mile2

When you run, jump, throw and swim there is a minor increase in your blood pressure causing the heart to beat up to three times its resting rate.  Blood flow can increase five times and resistance to flow in your body decreases.  Depending on how fit you are soft tissue (muscle, fascia etc) circulation can increase up to 25 times the resting circulation while flow to your brain stays the same and organs like the kidney and intestine decrease in circualtion.


When you suddenly stop exercising the metabolic process continues to force blood back to the heart.  You can help this return by not standing or sitting still after your activity.  Walking about or a slow trot will help to aid the retuning flow clearing the chemical products from activity.


Good soft tissue tone and joint movement make the return of blood to the right side of the heart more efficient.  The veins follow the form and shape of the skeletal system.  Keeping the soft tissues and joint range at their best was the reason and origin of osteopathic manipulation in the late nineteenth century.    

Happy running!

Walter has over 35 years clinical experience in osteopathic sports medicine. Covering areas as philosophy, psychology, trauma, & coaching. Sports covered include running, American football, rugby (both codes) and tennis. He is an international lecturer and author.

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Disclaimer: There is no substitute for a qualified and experienced health care professional. Asking on social media, your mates, and your mum or dad (unless they are health care professionals) only leads to confusion.