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Training With a Heart Rate Monitor

Mar 13, 2007 |

Doug Wilson writes about triathlon training with a heart rate monitor:

Training with a heart rate monitor is one of the most important things you can do for several reasons. First and foremost, your primary goal should be to train safely. Never begin a training regimen without first getting clearance from your physician. You don’t want to put yourself in a dangerous situation and compromise your health or your life by elevating your heart rate into dangerous levels. Training with a heart rate monitor will help you stay within safe limits.

Second, most people tend to over train. They may think that they need to have the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. This actually impedes your ability to achieve greater gains in your performance. If you consistently over train, you are setting yourself up for injury or at least burnout. If you get injured, then you will have to stop training to allow yourself time to heal and you will end up at square one anyway.

Also, as your heart rate elevates, your body will transition from a primarily aerobic fat-burning mode into a cardiovascular mode and then into an anaerobic mode. Once you are into the anaerobic mode, your body will begin to draw on the energy stores in your muscles (glycogen). Not only are those energy stores limited, but you will also create lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes that soreness and burning after a workout).

There are a number of ways to calculate your maximum heart rate. The simplest formula is (220 – your age). For example, if you are 30 years old, your maximum heart rate would be (220 – 30) = 190. You should never exceed your maximum heart rate.

Generally speaking, if you train at a level that is between 55% to 65% of your maximum heart rate, then you will be training in a primarily fat burning aerobic mode. Between 65% and 75%, you’ll be in a primarily cardiovascular mode. Between 75% and 90%, you’ll be in a primarily high-intensity or anaerobic mode.

You’ll probably be surprised to know that you can actually train at a lot lower (easier) level and have incredible gains. It may initially feel weird to train at an easier heart rate level, but here’s what happens. First, you can go a lot longer in your training. Your body will adjust so that your metabolism increases over time. Your body will become very efficient at burning your body’s fat stores, which will enable you to feel like you can go forever. Your cardiovascular system will improve and you will probably have less joint and muscle pain.

Over time, your speed will continue to improve, but your heart rate will stay roughly the same. For example, let’s say you begin to train in a heart rate range of 127-134. When you begin training in this range, you might be just fast-walking or jogging lightly in order to stay in the range. You might be running a 12:00 mile. Over time, though, (a few months, maybe) you’ll find that you work down to a 9:00 mile and still stay within the same heart rate range. Eventually, your performance gains will level out. Once your pace levels out consistently for a month or two, it will be time to alter your workouts to intensify and do some harder intervals and anaerobic sprints for a few months. For example, you might need to train in a range of 134-152. (Again, your actual ranges will vary based on your age, your level of fitness and the advice of your physician).

You’ll find that as you work through the more intense phase of workouts for a few months, your performance will show similar improvement until it eventually flattens out. Once it does, you’ll then need to transition back to the easier aerobic phase. The difference is, you’ll be running at a much faster pace. You might be running a 7:00 mile now at the original heart rate range of 127-134.

If you keep working out using this training methodology, you can eventually run (or bike) very fast for sustained periods of time at a relatively low perceived level of difficulty. Your race times will dramatically improve.

There are a number of heart rate models and brands on the market (see our reviews of heart rate monitors). Most of them have a chest strap that is worn around the torso. The strap has electrodes that contact the skin just below the chest/breast area. The one I use has flexible electrodes and is very comfortable to wear for extended periods. Usually they transmit your heart rate to a wristwatch unit. The watch will display your heart rate and most will provide audible beeps if your heart rate falls outside of a programmed range. Some units will also transmit heart rate data to your computer to use with various software programs.

I use some training software when I train. The software allows me to enter information about myself such as age, gender, fitness level, the amount of time I have to train each week and the type of race I want to train for. It then calculates workouts in blocks of 3 weeks at a time. At the end of each 3 week period, there is a fitness test where I run a very specific distance at a very specific heart rate. This data is plotted over time so that once the software detects that the time to run the specified distance is no longer improving, it then switches the workouts into the anaerobic mode and it includes intervals and higher intensity workouts. The software lets me download the heart rate information from my heart rate monitor after each workout. Each workout is given with a specific heart rate range and a specific time frame. It doesn’t matter how far you run or bike – it only matters how long you do the workout in the heart rate range. For example, it might say to warm up for 15 minutes in a range of 108-127 BPM (beats per minute) and then do 40 minutes in a range of 127-136 BPM and then cool down for 15 minutes in a range of 137 to 80 BPM.

The bottom line is, you really can’t (and shouldn’t) train without a heart rate monitor. The benefits far outweigh the dollar cost of the monitor and you will have a much better training experience and help yourself to avoid injury and safely improve your performance.

Doug Wilson Triathlon Gear- How to Train with a Heart Rate Monitor

Posted in: Triathlon Training

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