Heart Rate Super Simplified

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Monday was day one of Lose the Training Wheels Camp! It’s funny because when folks hear you are coming to a camp like this they give out some advice…. take Luc to a parking lot and run with him, have him learn to ride downhill….. to all of that I have one thing to say…… the fact that we are attending this camp means I have run more miles holding onto his bike, in parking lots, downhill, grass downhills, taken the pedals off the bike……been through more pairs and styles of training wheels than you can imagine…. so the fact that we are now here means…. I have literally tried everything.

The philosophy of Lose the Training Wheels is to allow the bike to teach the kid. The kids are paired up with volunteers and they ride and ride and ride. The bike pictured is the bike they begin on. Each kid is fitted to their bike and every now and then the mechanic calls them over for a pit stop. Without the kids realizing what he’s doing he changes gears and switches out the rollers to lighter less stable rollers. This isn’t a place where you are told how to ride the bike.  This is a place where the bike teaches you.

Each day they tweak the bikes more but they have these kids ride a good 75 minutes. If you come and volunteer save some of your running mileage because not only will you run, you will run fast!  Luc was lucky on Monday to have Curt and Sister rosemary… the running nun as his volunteers!So stay tuned for updates on how the week is going!

Now onto today’s question: heart rate training. Heart rate training can be complicated and frustrating, only if you allow it to be. It’s a great window into how your training is going, and how you are reacting to training. In contrast if you ride with a power meter you have an instant reading of what you are doing, whereas heart rate can lag about 8-10 seconds behind.

Just like everything else in life, you have to take heart rate training with a grain of salt. When you initially go through some field tests and set up your zones they may be off a number or two. For example if your aerobic heart rate zone is 140-150 and during a run you are hovering around 138 or 151…. it’s not something to worry about. You have to take all of this with a grain of salt. Understand that not only are there margins of error in heart rate, there is a lot of variability.

Around here its been 95 degrees. Add a good 8-10 beats to your zones, maybe more if you are dehydrated, stressed, anxious.

With my athletes I test HR a few times a year. for the most part your heart rate zones will stay the same. It’s the speed within them that will drop. For example one of my athletes held an 8:30 mile for their endurance zone / zone 2 pace a year ago. Now they are holding a 7:38 pace in that same zone. It’s a great example of how this athlete’s fitness has improved.

I like to keep heart rate testing and training very simple. Not all coaches might agree with y system, but in the six years I have been coaching…. for my athletes it works. I use two tests for determining Lactate Threshold.

Initially to test in the winter we cycle through a 20 minute time trial on the bike. 20 minutes seems to be a good time especially for athletes who are not as fit during that time of the year, and it’s a good chunk of time to handle emotionally. There are arguments on whether you should do the 20 minute trial twice, but I have found that we get the same results. So we take the average and max HR during that 20 minutes and we plug it into a formula which helps us set up our zones.

Another test that I really like is the step test, done on a computrainer. We increase the wattage every 90 seconds and we watch the heart rate. There is a point where the HR stops increasing and in many cases we will see it decrease. we take all of the data from this test, plot it out on a graph and from there determine the Lactate Threshold.

I like to use Joel Friel’s Heart rate zone calculator. If you have Training Peaks it’s right in there.  Here is another good online one that you can plug numbers into and have your zones.

Keep in mind that your heart rate zones for cycling are about 8-10 beats lower then for running. Until my athletes can cycle through a 5K race we guestimate their run zones by adding 8-10 beats to the cycling zones. Now if you are a pool runner you are going to set your pool running zones 8-10 beats below your cycling heart rate zones.

So now we have these zones and these test results. Now what?

These devices ultimately teach you to understand your body. Right now I can take away the HRM from my athletes and they will just know where their zone 2 / endurance zone is. These devices will fail in some fashion whether they read your hr at 220 when you manually have it at 100….. just stop working…. or whatever. If the HRM doesn’t seem to be working correctly….. turn it off.

When you are climbing hills, allow the HR to rise. Don’t walk or slow down, it’s a hill. A good rule of thumb is to allow HR to get to the top of the next zone. When it’s hot add 8-10 beats. When you are wicked dehydrated, know there is even more variability.

If you find you are paying more attention to HR than you are to feeling the ride, turn it off.

Now when we talk about zones, you will find that Friel has about a zillion zones including zone 5a, 5b and so on. I use 3 zones:

Zone 1= recovery

Zone 2= endurance

Zone 3= Tempo

Beyond tempo we are typically working on pace and truthfully if I need you to run a 6 minute mile for 3 miles I don’t give a rats ass what your HR is.  It will be on thing: high.

I have seen HR rule people’s lives, I have seen athletes who could learn a thing or two from it. The most important lesson it teaches you is to make your easy days easy and your hard days hard. I see too many people going too hard all of the time. Your training paces should be slower than your racing paces. HR monitors can help you understand that.

They can help you really dial into specificity in your training, which ultimately helps you to become a faster athlete. But in the end they teach you to read your body. When that device fails my athletes know where they are, they are not gadget dependant.

Life isn’t run by a heart rate monitor. Use it to enhance, not hinder your training!