Tips for Using a Heart Rate Monitor to Improve Your Training

When I first started pondering the idea of heart-rate monitor training, I thought it all sounded a little, well … obsessive. It seemed like I’d basically be micromanaging my heart. And to some extent, it was true. At times, it felt very much like a live-by-the-numbers,...

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When I first started pondering the idea of heart-rate monitor training, I thought it all sounded a little, well … obsessive. It seemed like I’d basically be micromanaging my heart. And to some extent, it was true.

At times, it felt very much like a live-by-the-numbers, die-by-the-numbers sort of thing — watching the digits on my watch being transmitted from the strap around my chest, waiting for it to show me that my heart had arrived in the correct training zone.

However, as Type-A as it all might sound, I noticed some really key benefits to this style of training that translated well to my running performance and helped improve my overall fitness.

So, in honor of American Heart Health Month, here are a few of the most awesome uses of your heart-rate monitor and how it can help you perform better, stay healthy and rock your workouts.

Great Ways to Use Your HR Monitor

  1. Be sure your hard workouts are at the right intensity. So, here’s the thing about hard workouts  — they’re supposed to be hard. The point is to be deliberate. Hard days are meant to challenge you, physically and mentally, meaning that you should need to recover from them and you shouldn’t do them on back-to-back days. Take running for example. Tempo runs (a staple of many runners’ training plans) are supposed to include 20-30 minutes of faster running at 75 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Drop below this level and you’re not pushing hard enough to promote improvement but rise above that level and the workout quickly becomes anaerobic while lactic acid starts to accumulate in your muscles. In either case, you’re not reaping the full benefits of the tempo run. That’s where your HR monitor comes in handy — it’ll keep you in the target zone to get maximum rewards.
  2. Gauging recovery time between intervals. I find the HR monitor to be especially helpful for interval training. For interval training to be most beneficial, you need to have a work-to-rest ratio that’s appropriate and allows you to tackle each higher intensity interval with consistent speed and power. To do that, you’ve got to let your heart recover (for most people that means an HR below 120 beats per minute). When monitoring your heart rate between intervals, you can (a) determine which rest interval is appropriate for you and (b) gauge how much your aerobic fitness is improving over time by seeing the time it takes to recover after a hard effort.
  3. Monitoring the intensity of active recovery/rest days. Let’s be real — these days are for rebuilding, not for fitness. But, alas, it’s easy to get carried away. The problem is that you don’t often know that you got carried away until it’s too late. Your body and your mind need to recover from the hard work you put in, otherwise you risk not having the stuff to get through those intense workouts that form the backbone of your training. My rule of thumb is that recovery runs/workouts shouldn’t have your HR exceeding 75 percent of your max.
  4. Reducing the risk of overtraining and overuse injuries. If you notice that your HR is consistently running high during your regular workouts or if you’re resting HR (taken first thing in the morning) starts to rise, this could be a sign that you’re overtraining. When you do too much, you start to feel run down, but seeing it quantified in the form of HR numbers gives you a concrete sign that you’re heading into the danger zone and need to ease off to let your body catch up or risk burnout, overuse injuries and/or longer recovery due to extreme fatigue.

One last bit of advice: While I find HR monitoring to be incredibly useful for specific purposes, there’s a lot to be said for learning to run by feel. If you use the HR monitor for every run all the time, you become dependent on it and ultimately lose your connection with yourself and the way your runs feel.

It’s critical for runners to learn how it feels to run at different efforts and speeds — the way your feet hit the ground, the way your legs move, the feeling of your breath and (of course) your heart beating. Using a heart-rate monitor to help you learn this skill is great. Allowing your obsession with the HR monitor’s reading interfere with this skill is not. It’s a fine line but one you should pay attention to.

Have ever monitored your HR during workouts? What did you learn? —Alison

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