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Heart Rate Monitors: Don't Run Without One

Heart Rate Monitors: Don't Run Without One

Whether you run 5k's marathons or Ironman races

, you need to increase aerobic fitness if you want to go faster. The best way to do this is by training with a heart rate monitor. But you have to understand how to use this training tool.

Heart rate monitors were originally created to observe, measure, and record the activity of 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 it.

There are three basic goals runners seem to aim for 1) running at a faster pace over some distance, 2) running for a longer distance while maintaining a given pace, 3) increasing overall fitness to be healthier and hopefully live longer. Increasing the efficiency of your heart can help you achieve all of these.

At one time, a heart rate monitor was perceived as a highly advanced gizmo reserved for the pros. Today at road races everywhere, they are as common as a wristwatch. Often, they are one and the same. Most heart rate monitors combine the features of a wrist watch, stop watch, etc. with a strap around the torso that repords heart rate and sends it to your wrist-watch style monitor for you to see.Heart Rate Monitors: Don't Run Without One

Think of your heart rate monitor as the tachometer in your car. You need to know what the normal idle rpm is (Resting Heart Rate (RHR)) as well as the redline (Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)). Once you know your range, you can watch the tachometer, making sure you are not idling, not redlining either.

The maximumm heart rate won't really change, but it decreases by about one beat/minute per year as you age. You can easily figure out what your MHR is today by testing the heart rate motor. It is critical that you talk about this with your doctor first! This is no joke. It is possible to die of a heart attack. Especially if you have an undiagnosed heart condition and run your heart rate up during the MHR test.

If you doctor says it is OK, you can wear you heart rate monitor as you head out to a long hill about the length of a football field. Warm up with some slow jogging. Then, sprint up the hill and jog down. This should be as hard and fast as you can run up the hill. The only bit of rest you get is slowly jogging back down. Do six laps up and down the hill. The highest reading during this test is your MHR.

You should also figure out your RHR (idle speed). This tells you about your aerobic fitness. Your heart rate at rest will decrease gradually as long as you are increasing your fitness level. A dedicated sloth may have a resting heart rate of ninety. If you are a world-class endurance athlete, your resting heart rate may be around thirty. Highly conditioned athletes often have a RHR somewhere around sixty beats per minute.

You find out your RHR number by putting on your heart rate monitor early in the day. Even before you get out of bed in the morning, you should put the heart rate monitor on and just lay still for two or three minutes. The lowest value is your RHR. Try it on several consecutive days. Stress, illness, dehydration and caffeine can all falsely elevate your RHR.

With these numbers you can then figure out your training zones. Some heart rate monitors come with a little chart to help you figure it out. There are also online calculators to do this. If you are like math, you can do it yourself: ((MHR-RHR) x Percent level) + RHR = BPM. For aerobic training (such as Long Runs in marathon training and base training for Ironman triathlon) stay in the 70-80% range. For hard workouts (such as tempo runs and intervals) stay in the 80-90% range.

Now you can train using your brain! Just watch your heart rate monitor and adjust speed, effort and energy output. Your toughest endurance run training days should be at about eighty-five percent of your maximum heart rate. 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. That can put you at risk for injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints and muscle strains.

If you figure out your training zones and make an effort to stay within them, you will gradually see your numbers change as you improve. When your RHR starts to go down, you will feel better and stronger. You will run the same distance with less effort. You will be cabaple of running the same number of miles in a shorter time span. All of this is related to a more efficient heart. Cardiovascular fitness simply improves with exercise and gets worse with disuse. Elite runners have hearts than pump more blood with each contraction. Because it moves more blood with each contraction, it has to pump less often to push the same amount of blood through the system. That is why their heart rate can be in the low 30's while sitting still.

The type of monitor you choose is as personal as shoes style. Just pick the features you think you will use. You have lots of choices. You can get one for under $100 or you can spend several hundred dollars. I train with one that also includes a GPS unit and a cadence sensor. I track my heart rate, pace, average pace, terrain and cadence (if on the bike). The only factor my monitor doesn't track is temperature and humidity. Remember that your heart rate is affected by temperature, humidity, stress, exhaustion and other environmental factors. JUst realize that your heart rate may be several beats highter when environmental conditions change.

Another limitation of heart rate monitors is that they typically have a slight delay. During a long run, if you pass over a hill, the rate may continue to go up for a short time after you are over the hill. This isn't really a delay in the device, it is just your heart trying to recover from the energy expenditure of making up the hill.

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, it will also allow you to chart your progress. Endurance sports time and commitment. Any clear evidence of progress can provide more motivation to put your running shoes on and head out the door the next morning.

by: Dr Christopher Segler
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