Becoming a Better Animal: How to Effectively Use Your Heart Rate Monitor.
Welcome back! Hopefully the information from Part I was a good overview of the possibilities and limitations of using your heart rate monitor (HRM) and I also hope you had a good sweat while collecting those maximums for cycling and running. Here in Part II, we’ll put those numbers to use by presenting a couple options to use your HRM in workouts.
Many a manly man can tell by looking (while grunting) at their garage walls that no single tool is ever a complete solution, and your HRM is no exception. Now that you’ve dropped a thousand drachmas on your new monitor to help tell you everything your ticker is doing during your bike ride, I’m here to tell you that there’s an even more overall effective and low-rent tool available—your own body.
While you may not be able to pinpoint your exact heart rate at any given time during a workout without using a monitor, knowing those triple digits is not the goal of your training sessions and races—it’s your overall intensity that’s important. On Race Day, intensity correlates to speed over distance, which correlates to a finishing time. Training sessions also have a goal of time and/or distance and intensity. So far, no Olympic medals are given to the athlete who crosses the line with the lowest heart rate.
Planning workouts around these percentages is quite easy to apply. Let’s put a name to some common workout ranges and then assign values:
Your workouts could be planned using these ranges as:
Steady State: many training publications lately are recommending to not spend much time in this zone. It has been recommended to either drop back to the easier zones or move up. In the past I haven’t tried to avoid this area, so I can’t yet advise to follow this information. My personal training in the next year is aimed at experimenting with this to find out.
Dr. Borg devised scales to capture things like pain, taste, brightness, noise, and even moods. You have probably already seen one of his scales hanging up at the gym—the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The RPE scale was intended to subjectively put a concrete value to the amount of workload people experienced during physical exertion.
Below in Chart 2 is Borg’s Modified RPE chart showing exertion rates. The chart is numbered from 0 to 10 (with a peak category called “*” or off the chart). Borg wrote simple descriptions for each level ranging from complete rest at 0 to maximal possible exertion at “*”
Applying The Heart Rate Numbers--Your Personal RPE Chart
To fill in the chart, you’ll see that 0 indicates total rest—here you can enter your resting heart rate (RHR). At level “*” (or off the chart), enter your cycling and running maximum heart rates (MHR). In addition to Borg’s descriptions, I’ve added some more that should help.
Now comes the hard part—filling in the middle of the chart. The easiest way to do this is practice. Wear your monitor on bike rides and runs of all different intensities and get a feel for how hard you’re working and try to make an honest assessment placing an level number to that effort. While it would be much easier to calculate a fixed number but the values wouldn’t be accurate. Also, most of the values for expending effort take up most of the range of the chart so drawing a line between resting and maximal will not give accurate numbers.(2) The reason is that there are only a couple levels to describe everything from complete rest to fast walking is that most of us don’t have much of an interest in distinguishing effort levels from just watching TV to dialing the pizza guy while watching TV (although I’m sure the calorie burning does add up after enough dialing.)
So why isn’t there a formula to fill in the chart and why use it instead of the simple chart from Part I? Matching effort level to heart rate is very closely linked to your fitness level at a specific time in each sport . For example, in January, running at what feels like a moderate pace (Level 3) might show as 150. In June, that same moderate feeling run may only show as 140 due to many factors such as increased fitness and warmer temperatures, or even negative factors such as overtraining or illness. If you had stuck to running January’s 150 level for your run, you’d be going too hard for your moderately scheduled workout.
A good way to practice using the chart is to spend some workout time playing a game of Heart Rate Jeopardy: “I am working fairly strong.”….”What is 155?” It sounds cheesy (and it is) but you’ll be surprised after a few weeks of how close you can come to the actual reading. Also take your HRM to races and see how good you are at guessing. Race stress and increased pace from your normal training sessions might keep you out of the Final Jeopardy round for a while until you become more tuned in to your body, but practice, practice, practice. A final note about race heart rates…you might not be able to use your normal training values on race day due to increased stress and adrenalin. Using your training rates in a race situation can leave you going at a lower pace than your body is capable of for a given intensity due to “race stress.” Again, know your own body—if you don’t feel any stress and it feels like a calm day on the course you can trust the monitor a little more than if you’ve got cyclists zooming all around you with friends and family cheering roadside.
Chart 4: Compact RPE/Heart Rate Chart
(print one each for the bike and run)
Myth: The Fat Burning Range
It is true that while performing aerobic exercise that at the lower end of the aerobic zone (about Level 3 on the Modified RPE chart) that the body does burn a higher percentage of fat than carbohydrate and that at higher intensities (Level 8) the body burns a higher percentage of carbohydrate than fat as fuel.(3)
Notice that I said percentages and not total calories. A Level 8 workout for 30 minutes is going to burn far more calories than at Level 3. Let’s look at an example of a 150lb person running at Level 3 (ex: 12min pace) and also running at Level 8 (7.5min pace):
Level 3 run for 30 minutes: burn 55% fat, 45% carbohydrate, 288 total calories
Level 8 run for 30 minutes: burn 10% fat, 90% carbohydrate, 460 total calories
Even though the Level 8 workout may have burned less overall calories from fat, the overall number of calories is much higher. More total calories burned = Smaller Jeans.
Final Note: Cardiac Drift
Now that you have a good overview of RPE and using your monitor in workouts, I’d like to another point that can cause some discrepancies between effort level and heart rate. During long workouts of usually more than 1 hour, the heart has a tendency to beat slightly faster even though you do not feel as if you are working any harder—this is called cardiac drift, or cardiac creep. The heart rate increases even for the same effort expended because as you sweat, your blood volume decreases due to fluid loss and also your heart tries to do its part in regulating body temperature. The good thing for you is that in most cases you might not need to slow down as the heart rate creeps up. As long as your major muscle groups aren’t being affected and you don’t feel more laboured, there’s no reason to strictly obey your HRM. Common sense should prevail in extreme conditions of heat, cold and dehydration though. If you’re training or racing and your HRM is showing elevated (or depressed in the case of cold temps) values, do a self assessment to see if you really should follow the numbers or if common sense tells you to slow down. Again, the point of this entire article is to show that the HRM is a useful tool, but that it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know.
Thanks for reading and feel free to drop me a mail if you have questions or have had some interesting results using your monitor.