Why Use a Heart Rate Monitor?

Heart monitors are devices that are designed for wear during strenuous exercise, and serve the purpose of measuring and recording your heart rate, while giving you instant feedback about the work level of your heart. The fitness of the heart is the key to one's aerobic endurance - sometimes called 'cardiovascular respiratory endurance'. Both for health and racing reasons, aerobic endurance is a point of focus for almost any runner. Heart monitors are one of the most effective aids for tracking and developing your progress on the path to increased aerobic endurance.

 

1) Accuracy And Ease: Heart monitors are the only effective way to track and record your heart rate over the course of an entire workout. Not only do heart monitors provide you with a complete record of your heart rate for the duration of your workout, but they are also more accurate than manual methods. Stopping during a run to count your pulse disrupts both your workout and your heart rate, and even the application of pressure to the carotid artery - perhaps the most common point for manual pulse detection - slows down the pulse.
2) Monitor Your Fitness: Cardiovascular fitness is the single most significant factor in your speed as a runner. Consequently, being able to track your cardiovascular fitness - not to mention tailoring your workouts to meet cardiovascular goals - is an extremely useful training tool. Measuring the work-rate of the heart is the most accurate method of determining how much benefit you are deriving from your workout (a discussion on how to gauge results can be seen in section III). Other methods, such as how hard one is breathing, or how tired one feels, can reflect other factors and give imprecise impressions of the effectiveness of your workout.
 

3) Prevent Over-Training: For many competitive runners, every week's workout regimen is essentially a seven-day dance along the fine line between optimal training and over-training. Using a heart monitor to avoid stressing your body too much means that you will maximize the efficiency of your training, while minimizing the opportunity for injury. Injuries are much less likely to occur when you are not over-taxing your body, and avoiding injuries is tantamount to avoiding setbacks in your training. While opinions differ on how much running is too much (we will discuss this more later), once you determine the desired intensity of your weekly workouts, you can use the monitor as a gauge. Are your recovery days really allowing your body to recover? The surprising answer, in many cases, is that runners' easy days are simply not easy enough. Use your monitor to stay below a certain ceiling, and you will avoid depleting your body's glycogen stores, ensuring that you will have the energy to perform your intense workouts with vigor and that you will not have to take unexpected days off from fatigue.

4) Prevent Under-Training: Though perhaps less common than over-training, some runners simply do not run hard enough, often enough. In this case, the monitor can function as a sort of coach, telling you when your body can handle more, and consequently, when you should pick up the pace. Set a minimum heart-rate goal for your run, and the monitor will sound an alarm when you have dropped below your target, telling you to work harder.
 

5) Pacing During Training: Perhaps the most obvious use for a heart monitor is to pace your training runs. Sometimes your time is not the best measure of how hard you are working. Different terrain, different energy levels, inconsistent distance measurements, and any number of factors can mislead you into thinking that you have performed well or poorly when the opposite may be true. Your cardiovascular performance is best measured by the work-rate of your heart, so pacing your training runs according to your heart rate is the best method of targeting your cardiovascular fitness as you do your workout.

6) Pacing During A Race: Some runners not only train with a heart monitor, but race with one as well. The monitor is a better tool for gauging effort during a race than mile markers, as the appropriate speed of each mile during a race can vary. Also, the monitor is indifferent to the wind, the paces of the other runners, the cheering of the crowds, the silence of lonely stretches that occur towards the end of some races, and any hills and curves; it is an objective observer than can help you maintain a consistent work rate, both over varied terrain and in areas where external factors affect your motivation and speed. Within a racing context, a monitor is perhaps most useful in preventing you from going out too fast or working too hard early in the race.
 

7) Enjoyment: While many runners enjoy their long runs, using a heart monitor adds a twist to running, whether it is being worn for a race or for training, for one mile or for twenty. Monitors can give you an accurate and fun way to quantify your progress, and if for no other reason, contribute some variety to the activity.

 

How To Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Heart monitors are tools that provide feedback specific to your body. As a result, heart monitor training can only be effective if you use that information to design and implement a workout regimen that is tailored to your body and fitness level. To do this, you will calculate the various work-rate zones for your heart, and use these zones to guide your work-rate during your workouts. The first thing you will need to do in order to accomplish this is to figure out a couple of key values.
Specifically, the zones you will calculate can be derived from two numbers: your maximum heart rate (MHR), which is the fastest rate your heart is able to beat per minute, and your resting heart rate (RHR), the rate at which your heart beats when you are completely at rest and in the absence of stressful external stimuli.
 

Establish Your Max Heart Rate

Simple Formulaic Estimation of the MHR Based on Age:
In general, this method will provide reasonable accuracy for about 80% of runners, but it should almost invariably be supplemented with an actual test. Typically, one of three simple formulas is used to estimate one's maximum heart rate.
Formula #1: The first formula involves simply subtracting your age from the number 220 (for men) or from 226 (for women). This method is preferred for beginning runners, those who have been leading a sedentary lifestyle. MarathonGuide.com Simple Heart Zones Calculator
Formula #2: The second formula is very similar, but is preferable for those who are already quite active. For this formula, simply subtract half of your age from the number 205.
Formula #3: The third formula runs along the same vein as the two preceding it. For men, subtract 80% of your age from the number 214. For women, subtract 70% of your age from the number 209.
All of these formulas provide approximations that are based on the standard curves representing the "normal" MHR's for any given age, and they get you close to your own MHR, but not close enough. The numbers you will get when you plug in your own age would best be used as a guide, as opposed to an accurate measure.
Actual Testing of the MHR Through Physical Exertion:
The only way to truly find your maximum heart rate is to exert yourself vigorously for several minutes, obviously while wearing your heart monitor. In doing this, you have two options.
Option 1: Personal Test
Perhaps the best way for most people to find their MHR is to calculate it themselves. The most effective method is to do interval training, preferably on a hill. A hill of at least 200 or 300 meters will suffice. Sprint up the hill and jog back down, using only the jog as a resting period. Repeat this cycle five or six times, and you will likely attain a heart rate that is at least very near your MHR (your MHR being simply the highest number of beats per minute that you were able to provoke). In the absence of a hill, you may wish to extend the length of your intervals to 400 meters.
Option 2: Lab Test
In a lab test, you will be put on a treadmill with a pulse monitor, and asked by a specialist to run a specific, short, intense program. This option tends to cost around $150, and is best if you have a heart condition, or if you are unsure of your physical health, for medical personnel and equipment are all either present or nearby.
Keep in mind that your MHR can be a little elusive. If, a week after you determine your MHR to be 186 BPM, you see 192 flash across your display as you do interval training, then your MHR is actually 192. This does not indicate a change in fitness or health, but would instead serve as evidence that when you tested you MHR before you were tired, rundown, or perhaps did not exert yourself hard enough. Your MHR is genetically predetermined, and has basically nothing to do with your level of fitness. Some athletes have had MHR's in the 160 BPM-range, while others have rates that exceed 200 beats per minutes. The sole variation in your MHR is a decrease of approximately 1 BPM a year, a process that accompanies aging.
 

Establish Your Resting Heart Rate

Unlike your MHR, which is basically fixed, the RHR is a measure of fitness, and should slowly decrease, as you get more and more fit. In general, the resting heart rates of different individuals can vary greatly. Someone leading a sedentary lifestyle can have a RHR nearing or even exceeding 100 BPM. Most endurance runners will have one below 60 or 50 BPM, and possibly even below 40 BPM. The absolute lowest RHR's belong to elite runners, some of which dip below 30 beats per minute. The reason for this is that the stroke volume of these elite runners is so high that each heartbeat pumps more than twice as much blood as that of a sedentary adult. This allows the heart to slow its rate substantially, while still supplying the entire body with adequate blood flow. A high stroke volume is reflective of a large, strong heart, which results from a high level of aerobic fitness.
Your resting heart rate is exactly what it sounds like: the rate at which your heart beats when you are totally at rest. While finding this number is less strenuous than calculating your MHR, it is easy to make the mistake of trying to derive your RHR at an inappropriate time. The best method for determining your RHR involves strapping on your heart monitor when you wake up in the morning, before you even get out of bed. Simply lay there for two or three minutes; your lowest pulse rate will be your RHR. Doing this test first thing in the morning is logical, for there are many factors aside from physical activity that can lead to an increased heart rate - including stress and the presence of caffeine in your system - which can be eliminated by doing the test immediately after waking up. Dehydration, on-setting illness, and insufficient rest can also manifest themselves in an increased RHR.
Step 3: Calculate Your Training Zones
Calculating training zones allows you to customize your workout to your heart and current fitness level. Using a heart monitor without tailoring your workout to your own personal training zones essentially eliminates the benefits of heart monitor training.
Once you have your MHR and your RHR, you can grab a calculator or visit the MarathonGuide.com heart zones calculator, and easily set up a chart to help you determine how much strain you are putting on your heart at a given heart rate. Typically the chart is based on percentile markers, where your MHR is 100%. To create your chart, calculate the percentile markers in 5% increments, descending from 100% to around 50%, and using the following formula:
((MHR-RHR) x Percent level) + RHR
For example, suppose your MHR is 190 and your RHR is 50. Your calculation for your 95% level would look like this:
((190-50) x .95) + 50) = 183 BPM
For your 90% level, your calculation would appear as follows:
((190-50) x .90) + 50) = 176 BPM
Your chart, then, would show 190 as 100% of your max, 183 at 95% of your max, 176 at 90% of my your, and so on down the line until you reach 50%.
These zones will be crucial when you determine your training program and start to track results.
Step 4: Implement A Training Program And Track Your Results
If you have completed the first three steps, then you are prepared to begin training using your heart rate monitor. How you wish to train, however, depends on your ultimate goals. Some trainers recommend that runners should not run two consecutive days over their 70% level, setting that value as the ceiling for recovery days. Most agree that hard days should be run at the 85% level, if not higher.
Regardless of how you are training, and what you are training for, it will be useful to keep track of your results. It is highly recommended that you track not only your heart rate for each workout and the activities that the workout entailed, but also that you record your RHR daily. Some have even worn their heart monitors for entire days, simply to see what kinds of activities and stimuli provoke what speed of pulse.
 

How To Measure Results

The ultimate goal of training with a heart monitor is to be able to run longer and faster with a lower heart rate. If you keep track of your results, there will be a couple of ways to see the progress.
First, as you improve, you will see that running the same distances at the same heart rate will become easier. Effectively, you will be able to run faster for these distances without your heart having to work as hard. This is a direct reflection of increased efficiency of the heart. To see this, try running a set course - with your monitor - that is several miles long, and stick to a preset speed, perhaps your marathon pace. Then, under similar weather conditions, try the same course again a few weeks later. Run it at the same pace as you ran previously, and compare your heart rates for the two runs. If you've gotten fitter since your first run, your heart rate should be lower during your second.
Another way to see results is to keep track of your resting heart rate by taking it down and recording it every morning before you get out of bed. Many trainers recommend that runners keep track of their RHR on a daily basis, and, as stated above in the RHR section, increased fitness should bring with it a lower RHR.
 

What Kind of Heart Rate Monitor Should You Buy?

While there are several styles of heart monitors, the most accurate and popular have two components: a chest strap that contains the sensor and the transmitter, and a watch-like display, with a receiver, for your wrist. These devices come with an array of different features, and can range greatly in price.
Basic Features: The most fundamental feature inherent to a heart monitor is the ability to measure your heart rate. Also, since they are worn on your wrist like a watch, most heart rate monitors feature a display that has all the functions of an athletic watch, as well as a feature that allows you to set adjustable heart rate limits. These displays can differ with regards to the size of the digits and the size of the screen, backlighting, water resistance, and so on.
Other Features: A number of the more advanced features are potentially quite useful.
Complex Data Analysis: Higher-end model heart rate monitors can make more complicated calculations and summaries of recorded data. Some heart monitors allow you to automatically record your MHR and your lowest heart rate for the workout, and to make more complex calculations, such as overall averages, disparities between high and low rates, and the like.
More Sophisticated Data Collection: Some heart monitors can estimate the number of calories you are burning and measure the ambient temperature. Other options include altitude measurement and estimation of your VO2 (a value related to your body's oxygen consumption).
Larger Memory Bank: Many basic heart rate monitors can record only one workout at a time, forcing you to record your data elsewhere between every use of the device. Heart rate monitors with larger memory banks can record multiple workout results without erasing earlier records. This can be convenient - especially if the monitor is not computer compatible, and recording results must be done manually instead.
Computer Compatibility: If you wish to record your results accurately and quickly, it may be better to seek out a heart monitor that can be plugged into your computer, though this tends to be among the most costly of features. These monitors come with software that will allow you to save and graph various readings that the monitor has taken over the course of your workouts. After a workout - or after several - you can download your results onto the computer, where you can display and analyze the data in a number of different ways.
Coded Signal: Because heart rate monitors have two separate components (the chest strap and the wrist display), the readings from the sensor on your chest must be transmitted to your display. If the signal is not coded, then interference caused by jogging with another runner who is wearing a heart monitor can occur, yielding inaccurate readings.
Recording of Bicycle Workout Data: Some of the more expensive models have a whole set of options for use while riding a bicycle, such as measurement of distance and a memory bank for more than one bicycle's wheel size, among others. This can be useful both for those who train by bicycle and those who are forced to use a bicycle to get back in shape after a leg injury.
Cost: A basic heart monitor can cost less than $50. A high-end monitor with many extra features can cost as much as $350, and possibly more. In general, the most expensive monitors are those that can download their data onto a computer. Ultimately, though, the feature combinations and the associated prices are so varied, that it is difficult to classify heart monitors by both cost and capability. There are quite a large number of functions as well, some which are not even discussed here. You may find that some cheaper models may actually contain more of the features that are desirable to you, so it would be a good idea to decide which of these features you value most before deciding on a model.