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Want to Boost Performance? Monitor Your Heart Rate

By Joe Friel - UltraFit.com

Ten years ago hardly anyone had a heart rate monitor. Now almost every endurance athlete has one.

Generally, I’m glad to see that trend, but there’s a downside. It seems that we’re becoming overly concerned with heart rate and are forgetting what athletes knew so well in the pre-heart-rate-monitor days.

As archaic as it may seem now, in those low-tech times heart rate was seldom monitored because it was a nuisance to do so. The workout had to be stopped as pulse was counted at the throat while staring at a watch.

About the only athletes using heart rate to any significant degree were swimmers, who tend to train primarily with intervals. The frequent stops on the wall with a large clock in view made checking pulse a natural. It still wasn’t accurate, however. When exercise stops, heart rate falls. And the more fit the athlete, the faster it falls.

In the 10 to 15 seconds it might take to find and count one’s pulse, heart rate might drop at the rate of 50 beats per minute or more. That means the counted pulse wasn’t really an exercise heart rate, but rather a recovering heart rate. But that wasn’t a big deal back then.

It wasn’t a big deal because heart rate was viewed as little more than interesting information. What was a big deal was speed or pace, regardless of the sport. In the "olden days," how fast you were going was considered the most important piece of information about training and racing.

Runners did intervals based on how fast they could currently run some distance such as a 5K or 10K race. Given today’s common training methods, this seems like a novel idea — workouts based on speed. But when was the last time you were in a race that gave trophies to those with the best heart rates?

The reason for serious training is performance. Heart rate is, at best, an indirect measure of performance. Generally, the faster you run or bike or swim, the higher your heart rate. But that isn’t always the case, as several external and even internal factors — including heat, humidity, diet, and race anxiety — can alter it.

Speed is the only true measure of performance. The trophies go to those who get to the finish line first.

Now don’t get me wrong — heart rate is not unimportant. It certainly has a place in the athlete’s training program. But so does speed.

While heart rate shows "input," speed reveals "output." It is even possible to use both synergistically to get more from training. Before getting into that, however, let’s first examine how heart rate and speed may best be used in a training program.

Pulse

Of the many possible ways in which a heart rate monitor may be used in training, perhaps the most important is for ensuring adequate recovery. While most athletes don’t place nearly as much importance on recovery as on their workouts, it is actually the most important piece of the training puzzle, I believe.

It’s during recovery that improved fitness happens. If you only exercise intensely without adequate recovery, then overtraining and reduced performance are sure bets. Hard exercise only provides the potential for fitness.

During rest and recovery, however, the potential is realized as the body grows stronger. Get the recovery part wrong and it’s all over.

For the most part, athletes, with their typically strong work ethic, are not very good at monitoring their state of recovery. Bring them together for group workouts and it gets even worse. Second only to having a coach along for the workout to continually exhort you to "slow down," wearing a heart rate monitor for an active recovery workout is an effective way to keep it easy so that the body isn’t overburdened.

For a fit and experienced athlete, exercising at 25 or more beats below lactate threshold heart rate or less than 75 percent of max heart rate, ensures that the intensity isn’t an excessive burden.

(Check out Gareth Thomas' article for more on what "lactate threshold" and "anaerobic threshold" mean.)

If it’s not possible to keep heart rate this low, then it’s probably best to abandon the workout altogether and completely rest. And if heart rate continually drifts above this number, it’s time to call it a day.

Pace

Way back in the Dark Ages of running — the 1960s and 1970s — when Americans dominated the world running stage, Bill Bowerman, the legendary track coach at the University of Oregon, trained his distance runners based on pace.

I’m afraid his concept was forgotten as we became enamored with our heart rates. He used what he called "date pace" and "goal pace."

Date pace is the time per mile you are currently capable of for some given race distance. Let’s say that you can now run a 40-minute 10K; that’s a pace of about 6:30 per mile — your 10K date pace. This pace might be used when doing longer intervals, such as mile repeats.

Since you are capable of running 6.2 miles at 6:30 pace, running five-mile repeats at this pace with 400-meter jog recoveries should be quite doable and would maintain your fitness well.

But let’s say your goal is to run 38:50 for 10K in a few weeks. This goal pace is about 6:10 per mile. Now running the same five-mile repeats at this pace will be much more challenging and a great way to become accustomed to the higher effort.

Such training will more effectively prepare you to run 38:50 for 10K than would doing the same old 6:30-paced repeats.

How should your goal pace be determined? Obviously, you can set a goal pace that is too fast or too slow, although the former is more common with serious athletes. One way to do this is to compare date pace with "personal best" (PB) pace.

What’s the fastest you’ve ever run a 10K race? That’s your PB pace. The more recent the PB pace, the more likely you can beat it.

With a few weeks of correctly focused training, an athlete in the first five years of competing should be capable of improving his date pace by 2 to 3 percent. For a 40-minute runner, that’s 48 to 72 seconds, making a new PB of 38:50 a stretch, but likely, especially given a PB of 39:30.

With a few months of training, the same runner may be capable of improving his 10K time by a couple of percent. The older the PB is, however, the less likely this is to happen.

Notice that all of these decisions about training were made without even considering heart rate. But by combining the old way (pace) with the new technology (heart rate monitors) we can do an even more effective job of training. Let’s see how.

Pace and pulse

It’s fine and dandy to say that you will run mile repeats at 6:10 goal pace, but what if you go deeply anaerobic near the end of each one and finally crash and burn early in the third mile interval?

It will be difficult to build the necessary fitness if two-plus miles are all you can manage in a session. After all, you will eventually have to run 6.2 miles at this goal pace without any recoveries. How can you pull it off?

Let’s put on the chest strap on to find a way. First, however, we need more information about your heart rate.

From previous experience, you know that you are capable of running a PB (39:30) for 6.2 miles with a heart rate six beats above lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR). (LTHR is the effort level above which lactate accumulates in the blood and eventually forces a slowing of your pace.)

Only now, in doing the mile repeats, your heart rate is going to eight to 10 beats above LTHR by the end of the second one. And by the third you are so full of lactate and heart rate is so high that the goal pace becomes impossible. Here’s where the heart rate monitor comes in quite handy.

Let’s change the workout somewhat. This time, instead of running at goal pace for a fixed distance — one mile — let’s run goal pace until your heart rate reaches six beats above LTHR. When that number appears on your monitor, the work interval stops and a recovery jog begins regardless of the distance covered. The next interval starts when heart rate drops 25 beats below LTHR.

What you will find is that the work intervals get shorter during the workout as the recovery intervals get longer. When the recovery interval finally exceeds the work interval, it’s time to stop the workout. You’ve accomplished all you can in the session.

But next week, when you do the same workout again, and in each subsequent weekly workout, you should accumulate more total time at the goal pace due to improving fitness. This, of course, assumes that you are also using your heart rate monitor to ensure adequate recovery following such a grueling workout, and are also doing some maintenance workouts weekly.

In a matter of few weeks, you should be ready to take a stab at holding your goal pace for the entire 10K distance.

The bottom line here is that training based solely on heart rate is folly. Use the information that this miraculous training tool gives you, but don’t rely on it alone. Your race performances will become much better if you combine both heart rate and pace — date, goal and personal best — in training.

© Joe Friel 2002

Joe Friel is the author of the "Training Bible" series of books and the founder of Ultrafit, a personal coaching business, and TrainingBible.com, a tool for self-coached athletes.

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