When I speak with someone who’s interested in getting faster, I always ask them if their workouts include Heart Rate Training (HRT). The answer is typically “No”, “A little…” or “Well, I have a heart rate monitor…but I’m not really sure how to use it properly.” All too often, a training buddy might have suggested they need a Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) or they see someone else wearing one, and they go about trying to figure out how to use it and see if they can improve. Other reasons include having GPS functions so they can see their distance and pacing more accurately. But if you’re not using it to train specific to the cardiovascular system, it’s kind of like installing a GPS system in your vehicle, not turning it on, then wondering why you can’t get to those unknown destinations faster.
Training with a HRM is specific to the cardiovascular system (your engine), while actually using a HRM can provide feedback of your performance in all areas of physical activity. So just what does that mean? It means that if you train correctly with a HRM, you can actually see performance gains in the muscular system as well as the Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE in different tasks such as swimming, cycling or running. What you’re achieving is a strengthening of the your engine through adaptation, and by doing so you can perform at a higher level with less effort, both physical and perceived. As a result, your efforts get easier, while pace and endurance improves. And really, that’s the basis of getting faster. Think of it as your engine becoming more fuel efficient, and being able to work at a higher speed at less of a fuel cost. That’s a goal we should all strive to hit.
All HRT is accomplished based on specific zones, established through an Anaerobic Threshold (AT) test, also known as a VO2 Max test. This test might also be called Aerobic Threshold (AeT) or Lactate Threshold (LT) testing. Your body will burn glucose as fuel, two ways, aerobically (with oxygen) and anaerobically (without oxygen). In the case of an all out effort, requiring high power output, the body uses the anaerobic system. Energy is rapidly available, but the anaerobic pathways are not very efficient for producing long-term energy. In turn, the energy stores deplete, lactic acid builds up in the muscles, and the effort must cease. In contrast, distance events requiring steady output and pacing over extended periods, use the aerobic system. The aerobic pathways can’t generate near the power of the anaerobic system, but they are more efficient and will sustain higher endurance type efforts. Distance and effort will actually see both of these systems contributing in different proportions. So by definition, your AT, which you test for, is the point where lactate (lactic acid) begins to accumulate in the bloodstream. Higher levels of effort mean higher accumulations of lactate, to a point where the body cannot keep it within a range that allows it to be easily cleared from the bloodstream. When this occurs, effort will drop, as will performance. Your threshold is an important point or value to know, as all training will be based on the value found through testing. Working below your threshold point works your anaerobic system, while working above it works the anaerobic system. When you work at or around your threshold point, you are working at an intensity that can teach your body how to handle the accumulation of lactate, and learn how to flush it more efficiently. By doing this, you can actually raise your AT. This won’t necessarily raise your maximum heart rate, but there’s little can be done to raise this genetically determined marker.
Typically, anywhere from five to six zones are used in establishing your aerobic and anaerobic intensity levels, with Zone 1 or Z1 being the lowest intensity. The number of zones is usually based on the method you choose to test with. For illustration purposes, Z1 would be a slow jog or maybe a moderately brisk walk. Effort is low and most of the fuel energy is derived from stored fats. The highest zones are at intensities high enough that you’d only be able to maintain them for several seconds at most. At this level you are consuming pure glycogen (sugars) energy without the benefit of oxygen. Most folks would assume that the faster (harder) they train, the faster they will become. This thinking is flawed, in that efforts at high intensity do little to build the aerobic engine. The heart is a muscle that, like other muscles, responds to training adaptations through stressing and recovery. The strong foundation needs to be in place to support those efforts, before one can build on them.
Let’s touch on equipment for a moment. There are tons of options for HRMs out there. I have owned several in my time, and I now believe the product I currently own is the perfect all-round HRM for the multisport athlete. The following features are what I consider to be basic necessity, and you should not settle for a model with less than these features.
Chest Strap with Removable Transmitter. Why a removable transmitter? They are easier to clean, you can change the battery yourself, and because it’s detachable, females have the option of using them in sports bras that feature a built in sensor material. Snaps are built in to the lower front of the sports bra, which allows the transmitter to attach sans strap. One less item to worry about, and most women report less chaffing as a result.
Programmable Workouts. This feature allows your to input workout profiles for such things as intervals, tempo runs and speed workouts. Be cautioned though, as there are Pros and Cons between the two leaders in HRMs. Polar requires the workout to be developed on a computer (PC) and transferred to the wristwatch as an exercise file, whereas Garmin allows you to build the workout on the watch just before starting the actual workout. This comes in very handy when you’ve forgotten to download the workout of the day.
Downloadable Capability. This function allows for downloading and analyzing your data on a PC, Mac or any of the online services such as Garmin Connect or Training Peaks. Graphical analysis and storage of your data is invaluable for comparison purposes. Also, if you’re working with a coach, most will require your data in the form of a file, or file upload to a designated site for analyzing. Handwritten data that’s been plucked off the watch each time you use it is near worthless.
Distance Foot Pod or GPS Tracking. This may seem like a luxury, be really, how many times will you want to plan your route to the extent that you have to know every single mileage marker along the way, so you can hit the lap button and figure out your pace? The value of being able to head out on a run or ride, without having to worry about remembering every mileage mark, becomes priceless. If you want to get 8 miles in, run out 4 miles and run back 4 miles, no matter what direction or route you choose to go.
Long Battery Life. Polar has an advantage here, in that it has a replaceable battery and can run for hours, days or weeks. Battery life with regular use has lasted me for a good two years. Garmin requires disciplined recharging. The latest Garmin multisport model touts battery life up to 20 hours on a recharge. Although I’ve never pushed mine that far, I have used it for 14+ hours without it showing signs of an impending DNF. Shop around and shop wisely.
For lack of space, I will say that there are many publications and training plans for using HRT. Certified coaches are a good source for developing training plans to target your heart rate improvements. The plans I design for HRT will vary throughout the month and weeks of a training cycle phase, thereby targeting specific zones to challenge, adapt and improve. You can usually find AT testing in your area through local health clubs, triathlon clubs, cycling clubs or through your doctor’s office. Just remember, if you want to get faster, sometimes you just have to slow down a bit. You heart will respond favorably.
FYI: I use the Garmin 310XT. It has a lot of features, most of which I actually use, and it’s rated Swim Capable which bodes well for triathletes. I was very pleased to see a lot of the pro field at Rev3 using this model too. With its ANT+ capability, it pairs nicely with the Power Tap hub system.