Want to Boost
Performance? Monitor Your Heart Rate
By Joe Friel -
UltraFit.comTen years ago hardly anyone
had a heart rate monitor. Now almost every endurance
athlete has one.
Generally, Im glad to see that trend, but
theres a downside. It seems that were becoming overly concerned
with heart rate and are forgetting what athletes knew so well in the
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
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 wasnt 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 ones pulse, heart rate might drop at the rate of 50 beats per
minute or more. That means the counted pulse wasnt really an exercise
heart rate, but rather a recovering heart rate. But that wasnt a big deal
It wasnt 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
Runners did intervals based on how fast they could
currently run some distance such as a 5K or 10K race. Given todays 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 isnt
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 dont get me wrong heart rate is
not unimportant. It certainly has a place in the athletes 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, lets first examine how heart
rate and speed may best be used in a training program.
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 dont place nearly as much
importance on recovery as on their workouts, it is actually the most important
piece of the training puzzle, I believe.
Its 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
its 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 isnt 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 isnt an excessive burden.
Gareth Thomas' article for more on what "lactate
threshold" and "anaerobic threshold" mean.)
If its not possible to keep heart rate this
low, then its probably best to abandon the workout altogether and
completely rest. And if heart rate continually drifts above this number,
its time to call it a day.
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.
Im afraid his concept was forgotten as we
became enamored with our heart rates. He used what he called "date pace" and
Date pace is the time per mile you are currently
capable of for some given race distance. Lets say that you can now run a
40-minute 10K; thats a pace of about 6:30 per mile your 10K
date pace. This pace might be used when doing longer intervals, such as
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 lets 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.
Whats the fastest youve ever run a 10K
race? Thats 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, thats 48 to 72
seconds, making a new PB of 38:50 a stretch, but likely, especially given a PB
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. Lets see how.
Pace and pulse
Its 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
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?
Lets 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
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. Heres where the heart rate monitor comes in
Lets change the workout somewhat. This time,
instead of running at goal pace for a fixed distance one mile
lets 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, its time to stop the
workout. Youve 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 dont 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