Your capacity for exercise and endurance is limited by the rate at which you can deliver oxygen to your muscles. Although training does condition your muscles to move you over the road at a faster rate and longer distances, it is the condition of the heart that needs the most attention for longevity and continual gains. Just as you monitor your run times to gauge overall performance, it makes sense that any endurance athlete would want to monitor and hopefully train the primary pump that runs the whole system.
Heart rate monitors were created to observe, measure, and record the heart rate. With a heart rate monitor an athlete can easily track progress in training the cardiovascular system to efficiently deliver oxygen to her muscles as she runs. The simple act of measuring something will almost always improve its outcome.
There are three basic goals runners seem to shoot for 1) running at a faster pace over a given distance, 2) running a longer distance while maintaining a certain pace, 3) increasing fitness to be healthier and hopefully live longer. Increasing the efficiency of your heart can help all three.
There was a time when a heart rate monitor was perceived as a highly advanced gizmo reserved for the pros. Today at road races all over the world, they are as common as a wristwatch. In many cases, they are one and the same. Most heart rate monitors combine the features of a wrist watch, stop watch, etc. with a chest strap that records data from the heart and transmits it wirelessly to the wrist where you can get real time feedback about your heart rate.
In training you should think of your heart rate monitor as the tachometer in your car. You need to know what the normal idle speed rpm is (Resting Heart Rate (RHR)) as well as the redline rpm (Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)). Once you know the numbers, you can watch the tachometer, make sure you aren’t just idling, but be sure not to redline either.
Your MHR (redline) is basically fixed and will decrease about 1 beat per minute per year. You can figure out what that is today by testing the motor. Keep in mind that this should never ever be attempted without consulting your primary care doctor or cardiologist first! This is not a joke. You can die of a heart attack if you have a heart condition attempting to run your heart rate up during the MHR test.
Once your doctor gives you the “okey dokey” put on your heart rate monitor and find a hill 200-300 meters long. Warm up with some easy jogging. To find your MHR, sprint up the hill and jog down. This is an all out effort up the hill. The only rest you get is the slow log back down the hill. Complete six laps up and down. The highest number you generate is your MHR.
Next you need to figure out your RHR (idle speed). This is an indicator of your fitness and it will decrease over time as your develop a higher level of fitness. If you are a 400 pound couch pilot who’s idea of exercise is wrestling a bag of pork rinds from the clutches of your spouse, your RHR may be 100. If you are Lance Armstrong, it may closer to 30. Most well conditioned runners are somewhere in the 50’s or 60’s.
You figure out your RHR number by putting on your heart rate monitor before you get out of bed. Just lay there and rest for two or three minutes and record the lowest value. Try it on several consecutive days. Stress, illness, dehydration and caffeine can all artificially elevate your RHR.
Once you have those two numbers you can figure out your training zones. Most heart rate monitors come with a chart to help you figure this out. There are many online calculators as well. If you are old school, you can do the math: ((MHR-RHR) x Percent level) + RHR = BPM. For aerobic (increasing distance) training stay in the 70-80% range. For hard workouts stay in the 80-90% range.
Now you can go train! As you watch your heart rate monitor you can adjust speed, effort and energy output. Hard days (such as intervals and tempo runs) should be at about 85% of your MHR. The hard training days have the most effect on training your heart to pump harder and more efficiently, eventually leading to reductions in your RHR. This is where tempo runs and intervals come in. Just don’t do hard days back to back.
If you figure out your training zones and make an effort to stay within them, you will improve. When your RHR starts to go down, you will feel it. You will be able to run the same distance with less effort. You will be able to cover the same distance in less time. This is because of the increased efficiency of the heart. It simply improves with exercise and gets worse with disuse. Elite runners have hearts than can pump more blood with each contraction. Because it moves more blood with each contraction, it has to contract less often to pump the same amount of blood through the system. That is why their heart rate might be in the low 30’s while sitting still.
The type of monitor you choose is as personal as running shoes. Pick the features that will help you train. They range widely in features and price. You can get one for way less than $100 but you can also spend several hundred dollars if you choose. I train with one that also includes a GPS unit and a cadence sensor. This way I can track not only my heart rate, but also my pace, terrain or even cadence (if on the bike). The only thing it doesn’t record is temperature and humidity. Keep in mind that your heart rate is affected by temperature, humidity, stress, exhaustion and other environmental factors. Don’t freak out if it seems a little off when training conditions change.
One other limitation of heart rate monitors is that they can have a slight delay. This means that during a long run, if you pass over a hill, the rate may continue to go up for a short time after the hill is done. This isn’t really a delay in the device, it is just your heart trying to catch up with the effort.
Having said that, heart rate monitors are an extremely valuable training tool. Not only will one allow you to train more effectively by staying within the appropriate training zones, but it will also allow you to document progress. Because endurance sports take so much time and commitment, any clear evidence of progress can provide additional motivation to put your running shoes on and head out the door the next morning.
Dr. Christopher Segler is an Ironman Finisher and award winning foot and ankle surgeon specializing in elite athletes. His Bay Area Sports Medicine Podiatry practice offers house calls in San Francisco, Marin and the East Bay. To learn more about Achilles tendonitis, runner’s heel pain, stress fractures, bunions and other common causes of foot pain, you can register for a FREE membership and copy of his monthly newsletter “Finisher’s Circle” by visiting http://www.AnkleCenter.com or www.MyRunningDoc.com.