Training with heart rate can help to maximize your performance and elevate your training to reach the next level. However, heart rate monitoring is often misused and misunderstood, especially by novice athletes starting out in endurance sport. So how is heart rate effectively used as part of an exercise program?
Every athlete knows from experience that heart rate is affected by training intensity. Moreover, it is common knowledge that as you increase the intensity of exercise, your heart rate will also increase. This link exists due to the skeletal muscles demand for oxygen. As the exercise intensity increases, the demand for oxygen increases. The heart has to supply this demand by pumping harder and faster, delivering more oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles.
The heart rate response to exercise is controlled by the brain. Nerve impulses are sent from the medulla oblongata in the brain, to the heart. The heart then responds by increasing both the rate and strength of contractions, to match the current exercise demand. Heart rate is connected to many other physiological processes that make it a particularly useful marker for measuring exercise intensity. This is why many athletes use heart rate as part of a training program. The following tips aim to give an idea of how to do this effectively.
Tip 1 – We Are All Unique
Every athlete has a unique heart rate profile, due to many factors such as age, body size, gender, fitness and genetics. This will result in your own individual resting heart rate, maximum heart rate, lactate threshold heart rate and so on. For example, Miguel Indurain, five-time winner of the Tour de France, reported a resting heart rate of only 28 bpm! This may be different to Joe Bloggs down the road who cycles twice a week… It is important to understand that if you train with heart rate zones and intensities, they need to be individually customised.
Tip 2 – Determine Threshold Heart Rate
If you want to use heart rate effectively as part of a training plan it is important to determine your threshold heart rate. Identifying this number will enable an athlete to get the all important reference point to base custom heart rate zones. Exercise scientists often measure blood lactate concentration to determine the ‘lactate threshold’. An athlete’s correlating heart rate at this point is given as the lactate threshold heart rate. This method is often hard to come by and not readily accessible for the age group athlete. At Thanyapura, I use this model to create blood lactate profiles, with both speed and heart rate training zones. However, this is not always available to the everyday athlete.
One alternative method to find an approximation of threshold heart rate is to do a time trial. Here is how to do it for running: Warm up with 5-10 minutes jogging, then run as far as you can for 30 minutes. After 10 minutes start your heart rate monitor and stop when you finish the 30-minute effort. Your average heart rate for the last 20 minutes is your threshold heart rate. With this number, you can assess training zones based on percentage calculations of threshold heart rate. There are a lot of websites and guides online about how to do this. I tend to keep it simple with five basic training zones. If you would like your training zones calculated you can send me the test results in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tip 3 – Know When to Use Heart Rate
Using heart rate during training can give an effective guide of different exercise intensities. It also allows you to train more accurately within those intensities so you know how hard the session is on your body. I have used the following example of when to train with heart rate as I see this very often and view it as one of the most important ways to improve performance with heart rate training.
Many well established athletes use a heart rate monitor primarily to stop themselves from exercising too hard during an easy/recovery session. It is becoming increasingly well known that elite endurance athletes spend a lot of training hours at very low intensities. On the other hand, most age-group athletes spend many hours training at moderate intensity (that is not hard enough to reap benefits yet not easy enough to recover effectively). Using a heart rate monitor can help hold you back in an easy/recovery session effectively by giving a number to stay below. This can become a target to practice with and is preferred to using speed which can change due to the particular terrain (hills!).
Tip 4 – Know When NOT to Use Heart Rate
It is important to understand that heart rate is not gospel. Heart rate monitoring is sometimes not appropriate to accurately gauge exercise intensity. This is particularly apparent in high intensity training where cardiac lag comes into play. Cardiac lag is characterized as the time delay between the demand (due to high-intensity exercise) and the hearts response (increased contraction). This can take above 30 seconds. So an athlete doing 1-minute hill repeat efforts with 90 seconds recovery, may not reach the appropriate heart rate until they are at least half way up the hill!
When training at high intensity, perceived exertion is often the best method to use. Familiarizing yourself with a scale of perceived exertion such as the BORG scale can give a better understanding of what intensity feels like. I recommend all athletes to be aware of perceived exertion and practice this during training. This gives another opinion of your bodies responses and an alternative to heart rate monitoring.
So, there you have a few tips to help you effectively use heart rate as a tool for your training program. To summarise, heart rate can be effectively used in a training program but needs to be approached properly. It is important to know your body and understand your own individual responses to training. For more information or any questions on the topic email myself, at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Tom Topham holds a 1st class honours degree in Sports Science (Human Performance) from Brunel University, England. He also comes from a triathlon background, competing as an age-grouper and holds a level 2 triathlon coaching qualification.