Thresholds: Heart Rate Help

j0438743At the suggestion of a friend of mine who is an NSPA-certified instructor, I got a Polar heart rate watch last fall to help me train better. I read the Polar user manual and it was obvious the watch does a lot more than what I am ready to do in my training (different alarms for speedwork, a variety of lap settings, etc), and while I haven’t delved into the watch’s many functions, I did set it up to monitor my heart rate. My “own zone” is 65-85% of normal heart rate and I am almost always above the max.

I thought maybe it would be helpful to switch from the percent of heart rate to the actual heart rate setting thinking I would have a better idea of how I’m doing if I knew my actual heart rate. I do like seeing the HR rather than the percent of HR, however, I’m still not clear on what the numbers actually mean. For example, I did a 4.05 mile run with the watch beeping at me almost the entire time. My HR limits were 162/124 and I was only in my zone for 8 minutes of that run. Oddly, the rest of the time I was below my zone with an average HR of 120 despite the fact that my time on this run was the fastest I’ve had yet for that route. How could my HR have been so low when I was actually running faster?

Realizing the number of questions I have, I decided it was time to do some more reading. I turned to Polar’s website as well as an extremely helpful document called Optimal Results, a heart rate training program that was developed in 1994 by Dave Ruff, the National Personal Training Director for TFC Partners and owner of Ruff Fitness. In reading through the training articles on Polar’s website, I learned that I probably should first monitor my resting HR and then set up my own limits based on that number in order to properly conduct heart rate training.

Heart Rate Training Levels

Dave Ruff points out that heart rate training is an effective way to measure and monitor your fitness, weight loss, or sports-training program because your heart rate is an accurate and consistent source of training feedback when monitored and recorded properly. Heart rate training the way I see it can be integrated into any other training program and will allow you to accurately compare the intensity of a spin class with a run, something I’m often curious about.

The common way to measure heart rate training is by working within three levels of exercise all based on percentages of maximum heart rate. Exercise at each level offers a different benefit to training and it is a combination of exercising at each of the levels that will ultimately improve performance. There is no shortage of articles about heart rate training so I won’t spell out what others already have but I will at least cover the basic levels and try to identify how they are fitting into my own training.

Level One is considered by Polar as Light Intensity or Foundation Training in Ruff’s program. Exercise at this level should be done at 55-70% of max HR, usually serves as a warm-up or cool down, and should be a pace easy to maintain. On runs longer than 4 miles I think I am at the upper end of this level most of the time.

Level Two according to Polar is Moderate Intensity, referred to by Ruff as the Aerobic Zone, and is at 70-80% max HR. This is the level at which Ruff says one should experience endurance and the ability to maintain activity for a prolonged period of time. If I recall my HRs correctly from my long runs, it means I was under-training and not working hard enough during my long runs. If I indeed under-trained that would help explain in part why I experienced ITBS; I had not fully developed endurance and ultimately asked my body to do more than it was really ready for by the time the marathon arrived.

Level Three on Polar’s website is Hard Intensity which Ruff calls Lactate Threshold Training (a topic I will have to cover in a different post). This level is at 80-90% of max HR and therefore done in short intervals. In fact, interval training is the combination of exercise at Levels One and Three. I have only recently tried to really push myself to Level Three. I am much more successful with this in spin class than I am with running, but I am realizing the importance of needing to push harder to improve overall performance.

Zone Combination

The training program I’m using for my first triathlon maps out swims, bike rides, and runs at various levels of intensity that I think are closely related to the heart rate training levels. Understanding a little more now about what heart rate training is supposed to accomplish, I think I will be much more successful in properly performing the tri training drills. For example, a Foundation Ride would be at Level One. A Tempo Run would be at Level Two. And Sprint Swims are clearly at Level Three (according to Polar, I can swim with my watch but I have not yet tried this).

Ruff’s Optimal Results program also offers several sample interval and tempo work-outs that I look forward to trying and his program includes great training tips that maximize the benefits of hear rate training. I still can’t answer why my heart rate was so slow during one of my faster runs, but I’m hoping once I manually set up my heart rate zones I will be able to better monitor my HR as well as compare the results of my various work-outs.

I’m sure I’ll do a follow-up post once I make some more progress with HR training and learn how to use all the functions on my watch. If you have a success story or any feedback on heart rate training, please feel free to share it as a comment.

If you need to get your own heart rate watch, Runner’s World has done a great review of a selection of training watches and here is a great deal on Nike watches: 20% off Nike Heart Rate Monitors and Watches.

3 thoughts on “Thresholds: Heart Rate Help

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