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How To Get Started Using a Heart Rate Monitor

BY AJ Johnson

Training with a heart rate monitor is a great way to begin using objective data to track your fatigue, fitness, and ensure that you are progressing. These tips from expert coaches will help you get started with the basics of using your heart rate monitor.

No matter if you are training for a 10k, Half marathon, or IRONMAN, finding a way to more objectively track improvement and understand your fatigue and fitness is important. Most athletes start this process using a heart rate monitor. While it may seem complicated at first, following some basic steps will help you with your training. Here are some ideas and tips to help you get started.

Getting Started

The first step is deciding on which monitor to buy. There are many great products on the market that will get the job done. Most models will suffice, however, having a lap function is a nice feature. Other functions are helpful, like screen customization, alerts, and even wi-fi, but those are not necessary.

Accuracy is another main concern. Coach O’brien Forbes suggests athletes should opt for a device that uses a heart rate strap. “The most accurate heart rate monitor is one that uses a chest strap. I have had clients that have tried the wrist mounted monitors and they have all had issues.” he says.

Testing and Setting Zones

Next comes figuring out what your lactate threshold is and to set your zones. This is done through testing, and it is the best way to ensure that you are progressing. There are several ways to test your fitness for running and cycling, the key is to use the same method every time to ensure consistency.

Once you have performed your test and have your threshold values, you can set up your training zones. Properly setting up your zones is crucial to accurately quantifying your training load using Training Stress Score (TSS).

Basic Usage

With your zones properly set up, you can now use your heart rate monitor to more accurately train and work on specific fitness limiters. Address your weaknesses as they relate to your key event, then work to improve those areas. As Coach Forbes says, “Training with heart rate and knowing your zones will allow you to scale your efforts correctly. First, it will allow you to build a plan specifically for your event or goal. Heart rate training and monitoring the data will help prevent over-training and allow you to customize training,” he comments. An example is that if you need to stay in zone 2 to build your endurance, you can use your heart rate monitor to make sure your effort is appropriate.

Training with heart rate can also be used to ensure you are not going too hard on a rest day. Many athletes push their recovery days too hard, then can not go hard enough during their tough training days. During easy training, set a maximum heart rate, typically zone 1 or mid zone 2, and make sure you do not exceed that level.

As suggested above, another manner to use your heart rate monitor is to know when you should cut back on a session or rest all together. An example is if you are using a plan or working with a coach and have some hard intervals where you are trying to reach a zone 4 heart rate. If during your intervals you can not get your heart rate into zone 4, that may be an indication of fatigue and you may want to stop the session completely.

Advanced Usage

Once you have a firm understanding of how training in different heart rate zones will help you improve different aerobic systems, you can move into some more advanced metrics. Expert endurance coach and author Joe Friel suggests looking at your Efficiency Factor (EF) to track your increase in aerobic fitness. “EF is simply Normalized Power® (NP®) divided by average heart rate for cyclists. An increasing EF over time for similar aerobic workouts is a good marker of improving aerobic fitness,” he says.

Heart rate has also been used to gauge if you are fully recovered from heavy training. As coach Mike Schultz wrote in this article for TrainingPeaks, “If you are experiencing a high level of perceived exertion and a hard time elevating your heart rate into the zone 2 to 3 ranges following a period of rest, that is a sign that additional rest is needed before taking on more training volume and intensity. At this point, making a change to the plan and backing off for a few additional days would be wise.” EF can also be calculated for runners using Normalized Graded Pace.

Cyclists and triathletes can use power data along with heart rate to get the most complete picture of their training.

Other Considerations

As important as training with data is, it is not the sole determinant of success. As Friel notes, “Understand that heart rate is only an indicator of effort- similar to perceived exertion. It is not an indicator of performance. The person with the highest heart rate does not necessarily win the race just as the person with the highest perceived exertion does not necessarily win the race. The perceived exertions and average heart rates of the first and last across the finish line may be the same.” Keep this in mind when a session doesn’t go as planned.

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About AJ Johnson

AJ Johnson has been a USA Triathlon certified coach for more than 15 years and is also certified by USA Cycling. He has worked with hundreds of triathletes and cyclists, from beginners to professionals, to help them achieve their goals. His coaching and training plans are designed to provide a balance between training and the needs of every day life so athletes can achieve their best and enjoy their journey. Find out more about his coaching options and training plans.