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Heart Rate Training

By Roch Frey

You finally purchased one. A heart rate monitor. Every training article and all the people in your training group have been pushing the funky little unit saying that by monitoring your heart rate while training you will conquer at the next race. If used properly, yes, it will help you training more efficiently and smarter getting you up to or closer to the podium at your races. If it just gets used as a cool new toy to see how high you can get it on your hilly run or in comparison with your training partners heart rate then no, it will not benefit you at all and will eventually end up collecting dust in the drawer.

Why use a Heart rate monitor?

A heart rate monitor used properly while training is a great tool to non-invasively find out what is going on in side you. Your heart rate does not lie and with the aid of a heart rate monitor you can most times tell exactly how your system is responding to your training session. A heart rate monitor helps take the guesswork out of your training in comparison to only using perceived effort to gauge your training.

How do you determine your heart rate training Zones?

Each and every person's training zones are very individual and need to be determined before using a heart rate monitor to effectively help you while training. Your maximum heart rate is the highest heart rate you can achieve and is completely specific to you and is not trainable. Your Anaerobic Threshold (AT) is also specific to each individual, but is trainable. Your AT is the point at which enough anaerobic metabolism occurs such that more lactic acid is produced than can be rapidly cleared from the body. This occurs from 65-95% of ones maximum heart rate depending on an individuals fitness level. You know this level as that point where breathing becomes labored but maintainable. If you continue to raise this pace, you soon will reach failure and will have to slow the pace in order to continue. Your AT will be different from sport to sport. On average, in relation to triathlon your running AT will be higher than your bike AT and your bike AT will be higher than while swimming. This will be dependant upon which sport you have more experience in.

There are several formulas out there such as 220 minus your age to determine your Maximum heart rate. Using this formula you would then calculate your training levels to training at. This and several other formulas using age, resting heart rate, and your current level of fitness are predictions and will only work with a small majority of people. It is best to determine your training heart rate zones without the use of a generic formula. You can do this by performing a max heart rate test in each sport, but this may sometimes seem like holding a gun to your head and could be dangerous. A better way is to determine your AT rather than Max heart rate and then determine your training levels from this. This can be performed as easily as wearing your heart rate monitor at your next 10km road race, 30-40km Time Trial on the bike, or by checking your heart rate throughout a hard 30-40 minute set at the pool. Most athletes can maintain just at or slightly above their AT throughout a 30-45min effort. There are also several coaches and physiology labs that can perform a simple AT test on a windtrainer or running on a treadmill.

So after you find your AT what do you do with this number? Remember that your AT differs from sport to sport. Break your heart rate into three Zones. Take the number and to train your AT system (this is the system you ultimately what to train and increase its efficiency so you can go longer faster without tiring out) train anywhere from 15 beats below up to this number (Zone #2). For aerobic workouts, easier sessions, train 30-50 beats below this number (Zone #1). For shorter hard lactate tolerance sessions training just above your AT is needed (Zone #3).

How much training should you do in each zone?

This depends on the time of the year and what length of race you are preparing for. Earlier in the season you what to keep the majority of your training well below your AT and as the race season approaches you need to train some of your sessions close to and at your AT. If the race you are training for is less than 30 minutes than your harder session should be at or slightly above your AT. Events longer than this are best trained at or slightly below AT on hard training days. It should be noted that all athletes in most sports should try to train all systems at different heart rate zones at one time or the other throughout the year. If your training for Ironman you still need to do a small amount of training at and above your AT. Training with a heart rate monitor is extremely useful on long easy training sessions. It will keep you under control.

Should I always follow my heart rate monitor and ignore how I am feeling during a workout?

NO. The use of a heart rate monitor is best used in conjunction with perceived effort or exertion. Dr. Gunnar Borg developed a scale in the early 70's to determine perceived exertion. The scale ranges from 7 to 20 with the lower number being a very, very light effort and 20 being a maximum effort. Your AT should be some where between 16 and 18 at a hard to very hard effort. The day after a hard training session you may find that the pace of an easy aerobic training session may feel harder and performed slower than normal while your heart rate is extremely low. Do you work even harder and try to get your heart rate up into zone 1 or do you listen to your body and slow down even more realizing that the hard session the day before took more out of you than you realize? In this case it would be best to listen to how you feel rather than only watching your heart rate monitor.

Several outside factors such as lack of sleep, stress, sickness and physical fatigue can have severe effects on your heart rate while training and need to be taken into account when training with a heart rate monitor. Don't become a slave to your heart rate monitor. Try to perform some training sessions without a monitor and go by effort only. It should be noted that there is what is referred to as a heart rate drift. This occurs during longer periods of training. For example, your heart rate may start to rise towards the end of a 2-hour run while your perceived exertion stays the same. This is usually caused by dehydration.

To sum things up on training with a heart rate monitor:

  1. Try to properly determine your heart rate training zones rather than using a formula.
  2. Remember that your training zones will differ from sport to sport.
  3. Use a combination of perceived effort along with what your heart rate monitor is telling you when training.