Heart Rate and Training
I got my first heart rate monitor in 1983 and still recall what a great thrill it was to see my heart rate in real time on my wrist while training. Prior to that we used to stop during a workout and count pulse beats for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to get an estimate of what was going on. Of course, heart rate dropped when we stopped. So this was a great breakthrough. For the first few weeks I wore it daily just to see how my heart responded to everything – walking up stairs, brushing my teeth, touching my wife (she didn’t like that), eating, and about everything else including sleeping.
It took a couple of years to figure out how to train with heart rate. Then I began a mission to get athletes to start using them. By 1992 the device seemed to have reached a tipping point. That year I noticed that almost everyone was wearing them when I went to running, triathlon and bike races. That was 15 years after the heart rate monitor was invented by the founder of Polar in 1977.
Now athletes take them for granted. Unfortunately, due to this technology most athletes have now come to believe that their training has a singular focus – to improve the cardiovascular system. That’s not the case. Most athletes would improve faster by focusing on their muscular systems. Many also seem to believe, based on their heart rates, that they know what their fitness is and if they are overtrained or not. Those things can’t be measured by heart rate alone.
Nevertheless, heart rate still is valuable information. I require everyone I coach to have a monitor. I also require them to have a power meter and a speed-distance device (GPS or accelerometer) if they are triathletes. By comparing heart rate with power or speed we now have a very good idea of how good one’s aerobic fitness is. For example, if for a given low- to moderate-intensity workout power or speed increases but heart rate remains the same then you are in better aerobic condition. The same may be said if at the same power or speed heart rate is lower. It’s a simple measure but you must know both input (heart rate) and output (power or speed) to draw such a conclusion. (You can find more on this topic here and here.)
The key to using a heart rate monitor is determining your training zones. That is done by first finding your lactate threshold heart rate. This is much more precise than using max heart rate. It’s also more precise than using the formula 220 minus age to predict max heart rate. If you do that you had might as well guess. The formula is close to useless for individuals. It works fairly well with large groups of people. If you tested a large group you’d produce a bell-shaped curve. For those in the middle of the curve the formula would predict max heart rate rather closely. But there would be many people at the far ends of the curve, both high and low, for whom the formula is way off. Since you don’t know where you fall on the curve, the formula is mere speculation and likely to be 15 to 20 or more beats off. I’ve also never found any evidence that heart rate changes with age. I’m now 65 and have been using a monitor since I was 39. My lactate threshold heart rate on the bike has remained quite constant at about 152 all of these years. I have also been coaching one athlete for 7 years. His lactate threshold heart rate has not changed either. Bottom line: Forget about your age, using a formula of any kind and finding max heart rate. What you need to know is lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).
There are many ways to find LTHR. The simplest (not the easiest by any means) is to complete a 30-minute time trial all by yourself (no training partners or races). Warm-up and then go as fast as you can for the entire 30 minutes. Treat it as if it is a race. Ten minutes after the start hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor. When you are all done look to see what your average heart rate was that last 20 minutes. This is a good estimation of LTHR, I’ve found. Please note that this is NOT a 10-minute warm-up and a 20-minute race effort. For some reason many athletes assume that’s what I’m saying. It is a 30-minute, all-out effort. We are just looking at the last 20 minutes of it.
Also note that the first time athletes do this test they nearly always go out too fast and then fade badly in the last 10 minutes. Try to start a bit conservatively and gradually increase the effort as you progress. You’ll get better results that way. Also, note that if you are a triathlete you need to do this test for each sport. LTHR varies by sport.
Once you know your LTHR go to my Cyclist’s Training Bible, Triathlete’s Training Bible or Total Heart Rate Training books and find the table which provides zones based on LTHR. The books also describe how to use the zones in your training.
I suspect there may still be lots of questions about heart rate training so feel free to post them here. I’ll answer them as time allows with travel this week.