Heart Rate Monitoring

August 10, 2016

"Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped." - Groucho Marx


Last week we discussed RPE (Ratings of Perceived Exertion) to help you determine if you are in fact dead or your gizmo's batteries are.  And also to give the numbers we're going to discuss a sense of relevancy as we now toss ourselves into the land of training zones your electronics can deliver.  This week we discuss  Heart Rate Monitoring.

Heart Rate Monitoring is currently a tool used to help you determine the "quality" of your training by using heart rate as a measure of effort: an extremely objective measurement.  Knowing the bounds of your heart rate we can identify zones (usually 4 or 5) which will help identify what the objective of your workout should be.  In this section we will learn about HRM, measuring your limits to define your Heart Rate Zones, and how to use these in your training.

But first I pontificate.

With the way technology is progressing just about everything but your toaster can give you your heart rate.  But lets be clear right from the very start: heart rate monitoring is a religion.  Meaning that you have to have faith in whatever dribble your HRM packaging came with or the latest article in Triathlete Magazine focusing on the use of HRM or even whatever your coach says about the HRM (us included).  Now, its not that we're skeptics. Actually yes we are but we're skeptical about everything because information, especially about training and especially anything to do with medical information, is a nails hair from nonsense based on one critical piece of scientific data someone let loose into the wild.  Case in point: the Heart Rate Monitor.  Yes, your heart beats. Yes, we can monitor it several different ways (which adds great variability.)  Yes, it has been shown to improve the "quality"  of training. No, we aren't sure how the science works yet.  But we do know that if whatever you're using flatlines that its either time to charge the thing or have someone attach a couple of leads and a car battery to you.  And nope it's not Coach Vic who has the view but the people who invented the thing and the researchers (including the world's top coaches) who see it this way.  So you ask, "Coach, why preface an article on HRM like this!?  I just calculated by HRM Zones and I live and er' um die by them!"  It's because you paid a buck twenty five for my advice and more importantly its because when we get into the area of getting "objective" measurements you have to know how to read them.  And what to have faith in.

So now that we have religion.

Let's discuss a few terms and concepts to make the discussion useful and thought provoking.

  • Device Specific Measurement - Holding your finger against your iPhone camera isn't quite the same as all those wires connected to a patient in an episode of "Scrubs."  Having your watch sensor against your wrist is not the same as having a heart rate monitor strap against your chest.  Having a surgeon see your heart beat isn't the same as ...  You get the idea.  What is the variability in accuracy?  The answer appropriately is: it depends.  What are we trying to do here?  The saving grace of HRM is that its relativity based: where are you now versus a minute, hour, day, week ago.  In that case you better stick with one method and now days wearing a watch that measures pulse is the most comfy.  It also depends on what you're training for.

  • VO2 Max - You know this term.  It's the holy grail of something and if you have an overabundance of money you can actually have it measured in the only place where it can be accurately measured: your local hospital or sports training center.  It is the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in and use.  And yes you can train to improve this but it really is an upper bound for comparative analysis - you cannot sustain this for more than a few minutes before you drop dead and pass on your HRM to your buddy.

  • Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) - You're born with this and it can't be changed.  It's what the name says, the maximum heart rate you can achieve.  Go to a track and do half a pyramid building from a hard 400 to a harder one and then 800 hard with the last 300 as hard as you can.  Do an easy 400 in between each hard build.  Measure at the end of the 800.  Then vomit.

  • Anaerobic Threshold (AT) and Anaerobic Threshold Heart Rate (ATHR) - We're not going to use these but it's important you know about them as you may use a training program that does use them to help calculate your training zones.  AT is the point at which your body is producing more lactic acid than can be cleared from your body.  Now this is the traditional definition created when lactic acid was the bogey man of training and strictly considered a waste product of muscle exhalation.  Over the last few years research has shown that lactic acid may assist with performance and is no longer seen as "waste.". (Beginning to see what I meant by "faith".)  The ATHR is the heart rate when you're training at your AT.  Some training programs use this measure to define upper bounds of your training zones.  The Dt Coaching Staff can help you find your AT and ATHR as it is a very involved process but it can be done at any gym or even your home if you have a trainer.  We'd need you to sign a disclaimer.  Another way to do this is to visit an Exercise Physiologist's Lab which is slightly more accurate.

220 Minus Your Age

Now before we proceed, yes, you can do the 220 minus your age to determine your Heart Rate Max.  This method was created by the American Heart Association about 25 years ago (there are people on the team only slightly older than this approach which should make you hmmm.).  I'll use myself as an example.  I am 39 years old,  Don't laugh.  So 220 - 39 = 181.  This makes 181 beats per minute my Max Heart Rate.  Now look at the chart waaaaaaay up at the top.  I am going to calculate my training zones using it:

Max Heart Rate: 181

Zone 5 - Maximum: 181 - 163
Zone 4 - Hard: 163 - 145
Zone 3 - Moderate: 145 - 128
Zone 2 - Light: 128 - 109
Zone 1 - Very Light: 109 - 91

Now, what's great is that your watch/smart phone/bike computer/toaster will ask you for your age (your real age) and it will calculate these zones for you automatically!  And you can even program it to tell you when you're in what zone and to either harass you or encourage you!  And this ladies and gents is where many people just stop because they want to be in Zone 4 to 5 for the rest of their sporting careers.

You on the other hand are an athlete.  Don't laugh.  But before I expand on that let's go to the other way of calculating this which is our preference.

Target Heart Rate Zones

If you recall from last week:

Perceived Exertion Rating (6 - 20):
6 - ha, ha, ha - this is just above eating breakfast with Dreamfar
7 - you order the spicy breakfast and then put hot sauce on top of that.
8 - Very very light working out - think putting on a wetsuit.
9 - Very light - your warm up swim, the ride out of Walden to the first light.
10 - You're sweating and realize you're pedaling.
11 - Fairly light workout.
12 - "Who the hell put me in a workout?"
13 - Somewhat hard.
14 - You can keep this up but at some point you can either put the hammer down or call it a day.
15 - You put the hammer down - this is hard.  This is the point everyone looks at their electronics to verify they're just so freakin awesome or lost.
16 - "Lord, I paid someone to do this to me."
17 - Very Hard - you're breathing out of places you didn't know you could.
18 - Your'e considering crashing into a tree to stop the workout.
19 - Very very hard.  This can only be maintained for a few minutes if that.
20 - You're seconds from the pearly gates.  No one will believe you made it to 20.  In fact you're designed to pass out cause your brain ain't smart enough to stop.

We are now going to match that with a percentage of your measured Max Heart Rate (remember the track where you threw-up?)

Your RPE and Heart Rate Zones based on your MHR:
6 - Zone 1 - 70% of MHR
7 - 
8 - 
9 - 
10 - Zone 2 - 71% to 80% of MHR
11 -
12 - 
13 - 
14 - Zone 3 - 81% to 90% MHR
15 - 
16 -
17 - 
18 - Zone 4 90% and above of MHR
19 - VO2 Max - You're being chased by a Cheetah otherwise we don't know what you're doing here.
20 - No one will believe you made it to 20.  Liar!

Using Your Zones

Up above somewhere I called you an athlete meaning that you're training to improve your performance and not just so that you can enjoy a delicious All-American Skillet afterwards without guilt (which is a story for another day.)  Depending on what you're training for (and I'm assuming its triathlon) you're going to spend a good chunk of time in Zones 2 and 3 to work on your endurance and a small amount of time in Zone 4 to improve speed.  And here the heavens part and a loud booming voice says, "Thou shalt not train for endurance and speed at the same time!"  Most training plans will come with a distance, a time goal, and an HRM Zone profile saying you will be in Zone 2 X amount of time and Zone 3 for such and such, etc.  You can even have your Smart Phone download these profiles for you.  If you look at the Dt ironman Training program it has Zones/Level of Effort identified for each workout.

And here is where we will end our story for today.  I'll leave it for you to imagine the hundreds of variables that go along with your heart rate training zones that range from everything such as your nutrition, allergies, medication you take, family history, blah, blah, blah that introduces variability to how HRM works.  And yes there is a different HRM for swim, bike, and run!  You'll have to calculate all three or rely on your Garmin/Polar/Sears Toaster to calculate each for you.  For those of you who work individually with the coaches you usually get a profile for certain workouts.  Next week we will connect HRM, RPE with Power delivery.  Have faith my friends!

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