Beginner’s Guide to Heart Rate (Part 1)

Nikalas Cook explains how to get the most out of your heart rate monitor. Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

The first wireless heart rate monitor was invented in Finland in 1977 by Seppo Säynäjäkangas, founder of Polar, as a training aid for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski team. They became commercially available in 1983 and since then, with prices continually falling and designs improving, have become an affordable training aid for all. Despite their use become commonplace, many people just wear one, give it a cursory glance during training, have a quick scan through the post workout data but never really use this amazing device to its full potential.

Why you should train and race using heart rate

Whether you’re running or cycling, heart rate is the most affordable way for you to objectively monitor your intensity. Without doing this you’re effectively training and racing blind and certainly not making the most of your ability or training time. Without monitoring intensity you’ll almost certainly be going too hard when you should be taking it easy and not going hard enough when you’re supposed to be pushing it. You’ll be spending most of your training time in a “physiological no-mans’ land”, accumulating junk miles, increasing your risk of injury and not making the progress you should be.

Setting training zones

The most important step to successful heart rate training is to set personalised training zones. Forget arbitrary formulas, such as 220 minus age, that theoretically calculate your maximum heart rate and then apply percentage bands to this figure. These zones won’t have any relevance to your personal physiology and will be wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately most of the auto zone calculator functions on many heart rate monitors also use derivatives of these formulae and should be ignored also.

To set accurate training zones you have to test for your Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR) and then base your zone calculations from that figure. The good news is that testing for FTHR involves fairly simple field tests, the bad news is that they’re not especially pleasant.

If you run and cycle, you’ll need to test for and set zones for both activities as the testing protocols are slightly different and the zones can differ significantly. Both involve a sustained maximal effort, 15 minutes for running and 20 minutes for cycling, during which your average heart rate will equate to FTHR.  You can find the full cycling protocol on the British Cycling Website and also a link to their zone calculator.

For running you’ll need a flat running route without any obstructions (a running track is best) and a heart rate monitor that allows you to recall average heart rate.

Have a complete rest day the day before the test, don’t eat for two hours before and make sure you’re well hydrated. This test can be conducted as your Tempo Session in Week 13 of the plan.

• Warm-up for 10 minutes building up your heart rate progressively.
• Complete 6X50m acceleration strides with 30 seconds recovery. These are not all out sprints just purposeful strides at 60-70% of sprinting pace.
• Start the recorder of your heart rate monitor and run as hard as you sustainably can for 15 minutes. Don’t go off too hard and try to pace your effort so you cover as far as you can manage in the time. Stop the recorder on your heart rate monitor at the end of the 15 minutes.
• Cool down with 10 minutes easy jogging.
• Your average heart rate for the 15 minutes will equate to your FTHR. Note down that figure.

To calculate your running training zones, apply the following percentage bands to the average heart rate you obtained from the 15-minute effort.

Zone 1: < 70% Active Recovery

Zone 2: 70% – 80% Endurance

Zone 3: 80% – 90% Tempo

Zone 4: 90% – 105% Threshold

Zone 5: 105% – 120% VO2

You can find a variety of zone models, each with slightly differing percentages, number of zones and interpretations. The two I’ve described have always worked well for me but, if you do opt for another, the key thing is that you stick to it consistently.

Why not use maximum heart rate?

Many zone setting models advocate the use of maximal heart rate to calculate training zones from but FTHR is far more reliable. Pushing yourself to your genuine maximal heart rate is very painful and both physiologically and psychologically extremely difficult. In fact, there are credible theories that suggest that going to your true maximum might actually be impossible, with your body effectively having its own safety cut-off. You need to be incredibly motivated to push that hard and, if you are not quite up for it, your result will be significantly off. If you are not properly rested or have an underlying bug or virus, which may not even manifest any symptoms, you won’t be able to get anywhere near to your maximum. However the sub-maximal effort of a FTHR test is less affected and is therefore a far more robust test.

Disadvantages of using heart rate

If you are a little tired from the previous day, your heart rate may be elevated, by contrast if you have completed several days or weeks hard training and you feel very ‘run down’, your heart rate will be lower than normal. Heart rate is affected by a number of external variables. It will be higher in hot weather and lower in cool conditions. Event day nerves can elevate it, as can being chased by your neighbour’s dog. Over the course of a long workout, heart rate does not stay stable, for the same perceived intensity and output heart rate will tend to progressively rise due to phenomena known as cardiac drift. Finally, heart rate is very slow to respond to changes in pace, even when pushing very hard it may take several minutes for heart rate to rise to the expected level. This can make certain interval workouts hard to accurately pace using heart rate.

Buying Tips

Buying a heart rate monitor can be a bewildering experience. Knowing which features are relevant to your training needs and how much to spend is a potential minefield. It’s all too easy to end up with a monitor with an instruction manual that needs weeks to get through and a degree in electrical engineering to understand. In the majority of cases, features such as fitness tests and automatic zone setting are largely superfluous and often wildly inaccurate. You’re far better off focusing on key, but less glamorous features, such as being able to manually set training zones and decent session recall, including time spent in the desired training zone. GPS enabled heart rate monitors are now reliable, affordable and compact. Also, if you don’t get on with chest straps, some newer heart rate monitors have optical sensors which measure from the wrist.

In part 2, Nik explains more about heart rate zones and how you can use them to improve your training and racing.

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This article is a feature piece from Totally Active, a completely interactive online magazine written by active people for active people. Totally Active are on a mission to push endurance to its limits, to help readers achieve their potential, whatever the sport or activity. Totally Active have brought some of the world’s foremost endurance, performance, nutrition and fitness experts together in a publication which informs and inspires readers to go to the edge, to break boundaries, and to succeed. Read more articles like this at Totally Active today.