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
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
Establish Your Max Heart Rate
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
The first formula
subtracting your age
from the number 220
(for men) or from
226 (for women).
This method is
those who have been
leading a sedentary
Simple Heart Zones
formula is very
similar, but is
those who are
active. For this
subtract half of
your age from
the number 205.
same vein as
it. For men,
of your age
of your age
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
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
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
((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
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.
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.