I can bet that your HR monitor has ended up at the bottom of your gym bag, forgotten and lonely. Why is this? Simply because after the novelty wears off, the value of using this important tool is lost to most people because they don't understand the positive impact that following heart rate can have. Training properly with a monitor can save you from injury, increase your performance, and give you more training pleasure if you know some of this tool's basics. Here's the Coles Notes version of how to use this device in an effective and meaningful way and rescue it from the cob webs growing at the bottom of your gym bag.
For endurance athletes, there are two key uses for a HR monitor. The first and most important use is to ensure that you don't train too fast on your easy and on your long days. These training days are designed to stimulate your aerobic fat-burning metabolism and increase your body's capacity for endurance. If you exceed your aerobic threshold, even if it's only for a minute or two up a hill, you will destroy the effect of this workout, switch into sugar burning, and your body won't be able to switch back for up to 10-12 hours! This is the most common mistake of endurance athletes, and it impacts your training in a negative way by compromising your recovery and limiting the development of your aerobic fat-burning system.
To train properly in the aerobic fat-burning zone you need to be below 180 minus your age and able to comfortably breathe through your nose. If your heart rate is low and your respiration is completely relaxed, then you can bet you're using fat to fuel your activity. The minute you pick up the pace or charge up a hill, you switch over to burning more sugar, tap into your anaerobic system, and virtually shut down your fatburning mechanism. This compromises your training effect. Without a monitor, you're guaranteed that you'll walk over this line without even knowing it - almost every athlete I've worked with does.
Commonly, endurance athletes do their long training sessions in groups, and groups are notorious for pushing the pace, even if you have seeded yourself properly. Most members in a group train too hard because they're motivated to keep up. Even when you think you're okay because you're talking and feeling fine, you're probably training too hard. And hooking up with a group based on pace is not always ideal because on any given day their pace may not match what your body is telling you is aerobic on that day. You need to follow the inner cues of heart rate and nasal breathing if you are to stay aerobic and develop your fat-burning machine properly.
I remember one athlete I was working with who wanted to run with a local group for his long runs. He put himself in what he felt was the right pace group. After wearing his monitor on these group runs, we quickly saw that he was at his aerobic training level for the first 20-30 minutes, but then he would drift up to well over 20 beats above his proper training level. He felt okay, a bit tired and sore, but he could keep up. He was, however, inadvertently training too hard and compromising his aerobic fitness development. In addition, he was also compromising his recovery and this left him in a fatigued state for a few days.
I suggested that he build his base of long runs on his own for a time, while staying in his aerobic range and skip these group runs. After six months he rejoined the same group of 10-minute milers. This time however, he was able to start the run 10 beats lower than before, and he never exceeded his aerobic heart rate threshold the entire time. He would tell me that he came back fresh and capable of repeating the same long run that day. He was finally ready to be with the group and able to keep the run entirely aerobic. I left him with the guidance that he could move up in groups provided he could maintain his aerobic heart rate, if not, stick with the group he was with. He lowered his PB in his next marathon by over 40 minutes!
The second important use for a monitor is to properly target your race pace in training. If you wear your monitor in races and simply observe the findings, after awhile you will discover the average heart rates that you race various distances at. Using this information you can then properly target the exact intensity for your interval training. What's even more beneficial is you can run this kind of workout anywhere because you don't need to go with pace or find a track, all you need is your heart monitor to help you to pace yourself on these workouts.
For example, I've worked with one marathoner who has progressively lowered his personal best in four successive marathons simply by using his monitor to pace his interval workouts. Here's how we did it. In each successive marathon, his average HR has been coming down. This is a good indicator that he is getting fitter aerobically, especially when his pace and subsequent finish time in each marathon has also been getting better. His aerobic training heart rate max is 135, and he completes all his long, easy runs below this heart rate.
His HR averages for the four marathons have been 158, 157, 155, 153. His times have been 4:00, 3:45, 3:38, 3:34. I have set his interval training heart rate at the 5 beat range below each of these values each time we have done interval training. For example after the first race run at a 158 average, I set his interval training heart rate at 153-158 and had him run 8-12 km repeats in this range. After that marathon, I lowered the training heart rate 1 beat to 152-157 and had him do 12-15 repeats. For the third race, I lowered his training rate to 150-155 and increased the repeats again to 15-20. And now, after the fourth race, we're doing the same - adding a few more repeats at a slightly lower HR.
In this way, he is able to extend the time frame his body is capable of holding his exact race pace. This is the specific training stimulus that his body needs in order to successively lower his race pace is each successive event. By training over this specific heart rate, we actually stimulate the wrong training response. By training too easy below this heart rate, we would miss the mark, slow him down, and add what runners call more "junk miles" to his program. So on his speed day each week, we need to be very specific with his training. The only way we can do this is by using actual race heart rates and designing the program from that data. This, I have found to be the most accurate way to train marathoners.
The overall training formula then, to properly train for endurance is to train in your aerobic training range as dictated by 180 minus your age, breathe through your nose, and build up your mileage here first. Once your mileage base has been developed in whatever sport you’re training for, then add one day a week of faster training, targeted at your race heart rate and based on your previous race. If you don't have a race heart rate to base it on then simply build your base, race, and establish one. You can't get any more accurate than having heart rates from a race. One of my Ironman athletes averaged 132 in the Penticton Ironman last year and our goal for this year is to increase his average by 5 beats, now that's being specific in training!
So there you have it, two simple but effective ways to use your monitor. The first allows you to target your fat-burning aerobic metabolism, and the second allows you to target your race objectives. I hope that takes the guesswork out of using your monitor and inspires you enough to dust the cobwebs off that lonely technological device.