Warning: reliance on a heart monitor can seriously damage your performance
If you’ve decided to engage in the popular practice of performing a race or workout at a particular heart rate (or fixed percentage of max heart rate), you’ve eliminated a big problem: you won’t have to worry about estimating your actual cycling or running speed during your exertion or try to judge the overall quality of your effort by how you feel
Your effort – at least your cardiovascular effort – will be precisely defined by the reading on the face of your heart-rate receiver. If you have an upscale monitor, any excessive deviation from your desired pulse will trigger warning whoops from your receiver; with a low-end model, you’ll simply need to glance at your receiver every minute or so to find out if you’re doing the right thing. You’ll be able to cruise through your whole race or workout at the exact heart rate you want, without worries about your actual velocity
Using a monitor can be pretty relaxing; during workouts, you can focus intently on your running form and how you feel, listen for the occasional communiques from your receiver, and just let the miles roll. With a monitor, there’s no need to be concerned about whether you’re exceeding a level of cardiovascular effort which you know you can handle. However, in spite of this ease, precision, and comfort, if you use a monitor to measure the intensity of your workout or race, you’re probably headed for trouble
The trouble will come in a variety of ways, but a key source of difficulty will be something called ‘cardiac drift’. This phrase simply refers to your heart’s perverse tendency to avoid a constant rate of functioning. More specifically, cardiac drift means that your heart rate tends to rise slowly but steadily as you exercise, even when you’re cruising along at a constant pace. And the magnitude of this drift is usually more than just a pesky beat or two: heart rates can rise by as much as 20 beats per minute during constant-velocity efforts lasting less than 30 minutes!
There’s no need to worry about why cardiac drift occurs, although staying well hydrated before and during your effort can partially control – but not eliminate – your heart’s tendency to beat faster and faster (if your exertion is going to last for about 40 to 45 minutes or more and you’re going to be sweating fairly profusely, you should try to thwart drift by drinking 12 ounces of fluid before you start and taking in three to four swallows of liquid every 10 minutes thereafter)
If you monitor your efforts by using heart rate, you do need to consider what effect drift will have on your exertion. Basically, if you’re locked into a particular heart rate for a race or long workout, drift will force you to run slower and slower as the effort proceeds, even though you have the ability to maintain your even pace. For example, if you’re running, you might be cruising along fairly comfortably at seven-minute pace and a heart rate of 160, until drift sends your ticker up to 166. If you’re too in love with your heart rate, you would ease off on your pace until you simmer your cardiac rate down to 160, and you would suddenly find yourself at 7:15 tempo, instead of the seven-minute effort which you actually could handle. In a race, that would leave you with a disappointing time; in a workout, you would spend less time practising your goal pace – and therefore develop less efficiency at that pace. Most of the time, it’s better to just let heart rate rise slowly and steadily during your effort (as long as you’re still feeling okay). Let fatigue – not the gadget on your wrist – be your guide to what you can do
A range of paces
Of course, another problem is that a specific heart rate – the one a coach has recommended for a race or workouts, or the one you’ve decided to use based on a recommendation in a newsletter or book – is going to produce a variety of different cycling speeds or running paces during your training. That’s because heart rate is quite sensitive to environmental conditions – and your psychological state. Generally, your heart rate is going to be higher than usual when the weather is hotter or more humid – or when you’re more tense and irritable
To see what can actually happen, let’s say that you’re a runner and you want to develop the ability to run a half-marathon at 90 per cent of your max heart rate – a laudable goal. And let’s say that – in deference to the specificity of training principle – you’ve decided to run a variety of different workouts at that specific intensity. That sounds good in theory!
The first time out, on a fairly hot and humid day, you run for an hour at your desired heart rate – 90 per cent of maximal. Your average running pace for the whole workout turns out to be seven minutes per mile
The next time you train at 90 per cent, it’s a perfect day for running – cool and dry. You zip along for an hour again at 90 per cent of max, but when you get through, you discover a startling fact: your pace was 6:45 per mile!
The third time out, it’s hot and humid and windy. You’re still stuck like glue on 90 per cent of max heart rate, though, and so your hour passes at a comparatively lethargic pace of 7:20 per mile (remember that when it’s hot and humid, heart rate rises more quickly than usual, bringing you to a specific rate at a slower running pace; running against wind compounds the problem)
On your fourth encounter with 90 per cent of max heart rate, weather conditions are fine again, but you’ve just had a fight with your spouse. You’re tense and excitable, sending your heart rate to higher-than-usual levels. So, you reach 90 per cent of max too easily. In fact, at 90 per cent, your running pace is only 7:30 per mile
Suddenly it’s race day, and by golly you’re pretty sure you can handle the half-marathon at 90 per cent of max heart rate. But when you finish the race, are people going to ask you, ‘Hey, what heart rate did you have out there?’ Or will they ask you about your time? And are you going to care more about your heart rate or your actual finishing time?
Heart versus legs
The point is that if you have even an ounce of competitive spirit, you’re going to be more concerned about your overall performance time than the rate at which your heart was flapping during the race. Paradoxically, though, you’ve been training to run the race with a particular heart rate – not in a particular time. You’re at the mercy of your heart – and that expensive strap you’ve got around your chest. Wouldn’t it make more sense to choose a sensible goal pace for your half-marathon (say about 10 to 15 seconds slower per mile than 10K velocity), a pace which will bring you to the finish line in the time that you want, and then learn to handle that pace under a variety of different conditions during training? Practising that pace will give you the precise neuromuscular coordination and the exact leg-muscle functioning that you’ll want on race day. Who cares if your heart strays above some pre-defined rate of ticking? Believe me, it will be none the worse for wear on the following day
Basically, you have to make a decision about your training. You know that environmental conditions and your psychological state are going to vary on different workout days. Higher temperatures and humidity will send your heart rate up, as will tension and anxiety; cool weather and calmness will bring it down. You can stick with a specific heart rate – and therefore let actual running pace wander all over the map. Or you can stick with a specific pace – and let heart rate vary enormously. Which is better?
Obviously, sticking with a pace and letting heart rate vary is preferable. As mentioned, attaching yourself to a pace teaches your leg muscles and nervous system to function more effectively at that goal speed. The more you practise the pace, the better will be their coordination and efficiency – at that pace. The less you practise the pace, the lower will be coordination and economy
In contrast, the heart’s coordination and economy do not vary. The heart doesn’t need to practise beating away at 90 per cent of maximal to get good at it; it already has that down pat. It’s just as efficient at 90 per cent of max as it is at 87 per cent of max – or at 93 per cent
Don’t worry about your heart getting tired
Basically, your heart is pretty much along for the ride. It will do what your leg muscles tell it to do (within limits, of course; the legs can’t tell the heart to beat faster than max heart rate, for example). If your heart’s been whacking away at 93 per cent of max for a good deal of time, it will never shout down to the leg muscles, ‘Hey chaps! You’ve been pedalling (or scampering) for long enough. I’m getting tired, so will you please slow down?’
In fact, your legs will become fatigued far faster than your heart does. The heart will slow down if the leg muscles slow down, not the other way around. That’s why the focus of your training should be on your leg muscles – that is, on the pace created by the leg muscles. Your goal should be to develop greater fatigue resistance in those leg muscles at your desired running paces or cycling speeds. You don’t have to worry about the heart getting fatigued: that old fellow can pound away at high rates for long periods of time. Your leg muscles are your weak link
And yet training based on heart rate makes the heart dominant and the leg muscles subordinate – just the opposite of what should occur! If you really want to run a race at a goal pace, practise that pace, not a heart rate. You can let your heart rates roll around a bit
After all, the heart is an imperfect indicator of what’s happening to your leg muscles. An increase in heart rate might indicate increased stress in your leg muscles, or it might just represent tension, drift, or the fact that a little more blood has settled in the skin on a hot day. Don’t enshrine an imperfect indicator as the absolute dictator of your training and racing
What is threshold heart rate?
While we’re on the topic of heart rates, we should point out that there’s an incredible amount of information floating around about how to train with a heart monitor, but – unfortunately – a lot of it is worthless. For example, you might read or hear that the best training intensity for raising lactatethreshold – the key indicator of running performance – is 82 to 88 per cent of max heart rate. If someone tells you that, you’ve learned something important: never trust what they tell you about your training
That’s because – first – there’s no scientific evidence that this is true. In fact, the available research says that – for runners – running at 10-K pace (which is often around 90 to 93 per cent of max heart rate) is the most time-efficient way to boost threshold – and the method that produces the biggest increases. Second, while it’s true that training at your threshold can probably raise it pretty well, too (that’s why ‘tempo workouts’ are so darned good for you), threshold heart rate varies considerably between individuals. For example, for some athletes threshold occurs at 65 per cent of max heart rate. In others, it’s at 75 per cent. Experienced, competitive athletes often check in at 85 to 88 per cent or so, and some of the elite Kenyan runners don’t reach threshold until they get to 92 to 94 per cent of max
The bottom line? To lift threshold, you’re better off forgetting about heart rate and training at 10-K pace or a little slower (if you’re a runner, 10-minute intervals at 10-K pace represent a particularly good way to train). If you’re a cyclist, swimmer, or cross-country skier, it’s wise to carry out 10-minute intervals at an intensity you could sustain for no more than 30 to 35 minutes or so
Some coaches get really high-tech and measure heart rates at various blood-lactate levels. They then define workouts as ‘easy’ or ‘aerobic’ if they’re at a heart rate below the rate which produces a lactate concentration of 2 mmol/L, and they say that ‘threshold’ workouts are at the heart rate which lifts lactate to 4 mmol/L, while ‘hard’ efforts are at heart rates associated with lactate above 4 mmol. Their role is then to merely find the right balance of easy, threshold, and hard efforts
That’s great, except for three little things: (1) If training is going well, the paces associated with 2 and 4 mmol/L of lactate will increase steadily over time, so finger pricking for lactate detection will have to take place on a regular basis. (2) Threshold doesn’t always occur at 4 mmol/L. Some athletes reach threshold at 2 mmol, while others don’t hit it until 7. For those individuals, training at 4 may be too heavy or too light to be a real threshold session. (3) Heart rate varies according to environment and mood, but threshold does NOT follow heart rate up and down. Threshold is a function of how hard the muscles are working – not how fast the heart is beating!
Another increasingly popular practice is to use a heart monitor to assess the overall intensity of a training ‘cycle’ (which often turns out to be about a week of training). There are various ways to do this, including the unique ‘Banister Plan’ developed by exercise physiologist Eric Banister at the University of British Columbia in Canada
To use the Banister system, you simply determine your average heart rate during each workout. From your average workout heart rate, you subtract your resting heart rate to obtain a number we’ll call ‘A’. The rest is quite easy. From your maximum heart rate, you subtract your resting heart rate to obtain a second number – ‘B’. Finally, you divide A by B and multiply the result by the length (in minutes) of your workout
Here’s a specific example: Let’s say that Wilma rides her bicycle for 30 minutes at a heart rate of 150. Her resting heart rate is 50, so A = 150 – 50 = 100
Wilma’s max heart rate is 200, so B = 200 – 50 = 150. A/B = 100/150 = .67, the relative intensity of her workout. .67 X 30 minutes = 20.1, the overall value of her training session
If you’ve been following along closely, you’ll note what a logical way this is to determine your workout value. The number ‘A’ is simply a measure of how far you climb above your resting heart rate during a workout, and the number ‘B’ is an assessment of how far above the resting rate you could go if your workout were truly maximal. That means that dividing A by B automatically calculates the intensity of your workout, or – more specifically – how close you are to working full-tilt during your effort
If A and B are identical, it means that you’re at maximal heart rate throughout your session – you’re working as hard as you possibly can. On the other hand, if you barely climb above resting heart rate during your training session, A will be a very small number and the workout will have a low value – unless you train for many hours. Multiplying A/B by the number of minutes in your workout simply allows you to reckon the overall impact (value) of the session – and to compare one workout with another. In Wilma’s case, for example, 23 minutes of cycling with a heart rate of 180 will have about the same value as 30 minutes at a heart rate of 150 (figure it out!)
A new system created by German scientists keeps track of training stress in a different way: their system simply counts the total number of heart beats in a 24-hour period. The thinking is that the quantity of beats indicates the total amount of stress an athlete is experiencing, including both the stress of physical training and stress from other sources. The Germans reckon that, at least with elite athletes, a hard day has more than 105,000 beats (they must be working with athletes with low pulse rates, because that’s an average of just 73 beats per minute), a moderate day has around 85,000 beats, and an off day would feature just 72,000 ticks
Of course, those are somewhat arbitrary numbers; one can imagine that some 100,000-beat days might be pretty serene (you could get to 100,000 just by taking a long, rejuvenating walk at the beach, for example). Also, there will be a lot of variation from person to person; a given number of heart beats might be nothing for one athlete but a huge load for another
But a bigger problem is that the heart-rate counting systems – including both the Banister and German programmes – do not take into account the specificity of training needed for a particular event. For example, let’s say that two runners, Joe and Joanne, have equal resting and max heart rates, can run the 5K in about 19 minutes, and hope to set new PBs of 18:36 (six-minute per mile pace) in the near future. However, Joe and Joanne develop completely different training plans. Believing that high mileage is the answer, Joe trains for 600 minutes per week at a modest average heart rate of 140 beats per minute. Convinced that high intensity will help her run faster 5Ks, Joanne cuts back on her volume of training but raises her average running speed, ending up with just 120 minutes of training per week at an average heart rate of 170. A large share of Joanne’s mileage is completed at around six-minute per mile tempo – the exact velocity she’ll need to set her PB, while the bulk of Joe’s work consists of tortoise-like trotting
According to the Banister – or any – heartbeat-counting system, Joe is training ‘better’ (he is doing more total work, with 84,000 heart beats worth of training per week, versus just 20,400 beats for Joanne). However, Joanne is much more likely to run a faster 5K. She is focussing on the specific pace she needs for her new PB, while Joe’s mega-mileage is not necessary for – nor specific to – 5-K racing
The key pitfall associated with using a heart monitor to classify the intensity of your workouts and assess the overall difficulty of your training is that it can place the heart on too high a pedestal. Learning to cycle or run at a goal velocity is often ignored. In addition, your heart rate during certain types of workouts – hill repetitions or high-speed, short-distance intervals, for example – is irrelevant, so you shouldn’t even be worrying about it! Likewise, you don’t need heart rate to plan VO2max-building workouts; you can simply use your current 5-K pace (or, for cyclists, 95 per cent of the velocity you could sustain for only 12 minutes). And, as mentioned above, utilising heart rate is a notoriously inaccurate way to try to lift lactate threshold, unless you have a lactate analyser and can determine precise blood-lactate concentrations at different heart rates. Even then, cardiac drift and changes in psychological state and environmental conditions will ‘uncouple’ lactate threshold from a chosen heart rate
What monitors are good for
I’ve been pretty hard on heart-rate monitors so far, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re worthless. In fact, one of my favourite training sessions, which I call a ‘171’ workout, is carried out with a heart monitor. In this session, which I use to build endurance after a layoff period (and which I utilise when I’m not preparing for a specific race), I simply try to exercise at 90 per cent of maximal heart rate for 60 minutes or so. Since my max heart rate is 191, this turns out to be 171 beats per minute (hence the name 171). Recognising cardiac drift, I let heart rate inch up to 178 or so without concern in the latter part of the session. I don’t worry at all about actual speed of movement but just try to work hard and keep heart rate up. The lack of concern about velocity lets me really relax and focus on form, and when the 60 minutes are over, I’ve had a great workout. Other athletes successfully use monitors to prevent themselves from exercising too intensely during easy workouts, setting their upper limit at 70 to 75 per cent of maximum or so
I never bother to use a heart rate monitor when I engage in cross training (I know that my heart gets enough of a stimulus to improve from my usual running workouts, so I don’t worry when I climb aboard a bike), but heart-monitor usage during alternative activities raises an interesting point: your max heart rate when you do something other than running will usually be lower than your maximal running heart rate. In fact, it’s often 5 to 6 per cent lower. For me, that would mean that my max heart rate on the bike would be about 181, not 191, and a 90 per cent of max session would put me at 162, not 171. In fact, trying to get to 171 might actually induce quick, excessive fatigue and shorten the overall exertion
How to work out your max
If you want to actually reckon your max heart rate on the bike, it’s easy: simply warm up with 10 to 15 minutes of easy pedalling, and then ride ‘full-blast’ at nearly maximal power output (while maintaining an optimal rpm of 90 to 95 or so) for two minutes. ‘Spin’ easily against little resistance for 60 to 75 seconds, and then pedal at maximal capacity for two more minutes. Your heart rate should almost ‘top out’ after this second two-minute surge (make sure you get your doctor’s permission before you try this, however). To determine max heart rate while running, warm up and then run 800 metres nearly full-blast, jog easily for one minute, and then run 800 metres at top speed. You should reach max at the end of the second 800 (again, get your doctor’s permission before trying)
The bottom line – or rather the bottom lines? If you can avoid the pitfalls associated with heart-monitor training, using a heart monitor can be enjoyable and helpful, but bear in mind that even if you use your heart monitor to classify all your workouts as hard, moderate, or easy – and even after your monitor has told you whether you’ve had a hard or easy day, week, or month, your monitor can never tell you how you should be training. Your monitor is only a device which collects data; it’s not a programme planner
And the information your heart monitor collects refers specifically only to your heart; it doesn’t tell you whether your leg muscles are really ready to handle the rigours of your goal speed: only training at a specific pace can do that.