Thursday, February 23, 2006

How to train with a Heart Rate Monitor

A heart rate monitor (HRM) will make you smarter. You will train smarter and become better, knowing yourself, your limits and how to extend them. You’ll do all your training to a certain % of your maximum. A HRM puts science into training, and gets rid of a lot of the guessing.

Do you have a digital camera? Know how to use it? HRMs are easier, and a lot more fun. There’s something fabulous about knowing what your heartbeat is, and trying to get the numbers rolling towards 200. But you also learn how to slow yourself down. Breathe. Think about blue. Think soothing, pleasant thoughts. See? Now, if you had a heart rate monitor you could actually monitor how much your thoughts and breathing influenced your resting heart rate.

It’s a useful tool, it’s fun, but it also provides vital information. A heart rate monitor is a must for anyone who enjoys exercise, and is especially useful for those striving for specific goals. A HRM is for those who want results, whether these might be:

- Fat/weight loss
- Increasing fitness
- Getting into absolutely peak shape and performing consistently at a high level

The most obvious choice when it comes to HRMs is the patented Polar series, made in Finland. I have a silver 720i, and it’s a specialized device, it has attachments which fit onto the fork of a bike and measure everything cycling: altitude, temperature, speed, maximum speed, average speed, even cadence. The watch is attached to the handlebar and so while one is cycling you can see what your heart is doing and put yourself in the appropriate zone.

To determine the appropriate zone, you will need to determine your predicted maximum heart rate.
The age based formula is 220-age. For me it’s 220 – 34 = 186. Your heart rate monitor can even determine this value, called HRmax-p. To do it you will (having not eaten 2-3 hours prior to the test) undergo a Fit. Test. Don’t worry, you do so lying down, and lying very still. You shouldn’t even talk to anyone.
At the end of the test you will hear a sound signal. Scroll through your wrist unit and you will see the test result for both your predicted maximum heart beat and a value describing your fitness level (OwnIndex), and the date.

OwnIndex is another useful piece of data. As the name suggests, it’s a unique digit which becomes meaningful when compared over a period of time. OwnIndex is really a description of your fitness. I am 34 years old and my OwnIndex is 60, my predicted maximum is 184. My user’s manual says that for my age, a value above 56 is excellent. Feels good. But a test done in August shows my OwnIndex at 63 (the higher the value, the better), and my maximum heart rate at 180. In my case, being fitter means my maximum heart rate is slightly lower. In a recent cycling race I maxed out at 176, and it felt like maximum. Now I know I can push quite a bit harder.

What makes these watches almost as fun as toys, is that they are so useful, and tell us in so much detail how we work. It’s also good to see results. Most heart rate monitors (from Polar) can download sessions onto a computer using an infrared device or uplinking, using ultrasound. Polar has excellent support software. Regular updates from can be downloaded from the internet, but a software filled CD comes with most units. It’s an inspiration to see a race or a series of training workouts instantly rendered on the calendar, and as a graph on your training log, giving the changing heart rate values, altitude, speed and at any reference point the specific values for that point. Improvements can be seen immediately on your Polar Precision Performance software.

Everyone is different, and each HRM will serve its purpose in a different way. Think of it as a coach. It will guide you to train more effectively. It can inspire and direct you how and when to race harder. It’s a tool, but that’s all it is. I do recommend buying a good HRM, but don’t become so fascinated with it that you forget to train. Or to focus on individual workouts. Often, knowing your heart rate is 176 may make you back off from pushing even harder.

For me, as a dedicated triathlete, the real gift of this device is showing me, in flashing numbers, not when I ought to go harder, but when my body is too tired to train, and rest is all important. Then the resting heart rate may be 10 or more beats above normal. Soon, with experience, you will know exactly what your heartbeat is without even looking at your HRM. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?

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