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How to train with a heart rate monitor

par Philippe Baudoin © (reproduction prohibited)

© sport-passion.fr

Tame your heart !

Measuring in real time the value of an effort during physical activity and use this information to optimize training, evaluate fitness, calibrate an effort, track and evaluate progress or even lose weight, some people have dreamt it, others have made it : the heart rate monitor fulfills this mission. Explanations.

Basics of heart rate monitoring

The heart is a pump that circulates blood through the body, feeding muscles with oxygen and nutrients and eliminating toxins. During a workout, muscles are more demanding and require more toxins to be evacuated. The heart must beat faster to meet this need. The heart pulse is therefore closely linked to the level of effort.

Observation shows that heart rate is a linear function of the workload. A continuous measurement of its value therefore allows estimating in real time the intensity of the effort. This information is useful to assess the energy spent during an exercise, optimize an effort and adapt it to the limits determined by the coach or assess the ability to recover from an exercise.

What is a heart rate monitor ?

A heart rate monitor is an electronic device the size of a wristwatch that measures in real time, continuously, reliably and accurately the frequency of your heart beat. It gives an idea of the effort produced during an exercise.

It comprises :

A transmitter chest strap worn around the chest. Its sensor pads are in contact with the skin and transform the cardiac pulse into electrical signals that are broadcasted to the receiver unit.
A receiver unit worn around the wrist like a watch or placed on a bike.

Besides heart rate, heart rate monitors can indicate, depending on the model, other information such as :

Average hear rate during the workout
Calories burnt
Percentage of fat consumed
Estimation of the maximum heart rate (HRmax or MHR)
Estimation of the VO2max (Maximal Oxygen Uptake/consumption)
Fitness test and evaluation of the capacity to recover
Heart rate zone definition and time spent in a target zone
Pre-programmed workouts
Timers, alarms, clock, interval timers, speed and distance system, altimeter, etc.

More sophisticated devices provide instant recording of data and transmission to a computer for statistics purposes, building of graphics, recording or training preparations and tuning. Most models offer a coded transmitter strap which avoids interference with other heart rate monitors. There are also monitors giving the possibility to save the profile of 2 users (weight, size, sex, fitness level, etc) and thus allow the sharing of the device.

What are heart rate monitors used for ?

As we have seen above, heart rate monitors are not limited to heart beat measurement. They are used to evaluate the intensity of instantaneous efforts produced and thus help to better manage training. Typical usage include :

Training optimization by adequate calibration of efforts and the programming of target zones
Optimization of fat burning exercises in weight loss programs
Fitness test, VO2max, maximum heart rate, heart rate at rest
Management of the effort in a race

Heart rate monitors make training more efficient by structuring and customizing it. They contribute to increased motivation of the athlete by providing objective measures. They are today a must have for the professional for his preparation and are becoming more and more popular among amateurs.

Training with a heart rate : target training zones

There are 5 heart rate training zones corresponding to ranges of heart rates calculated from the maximum heart rate (HRmax) of the athlete. These values are quite arbitrary and may vary from one method to another, especially from one individual to another. Training is done according to these effort zones.

Zone% HRmaxActivity
1< 60Recovery
260 - 70Fitness zone
370 - 80Aerobic
480 - 90Anaerobic or threshold
5> 90Anaerobic power

Zone 1 : the recovery zone (also called healthy heart zone) – 50 to 60 % MHR

This is the range of active recovery following an effort or to warm up. This is the lowest level you can exercise in while still increasing fitness levels. It develops basic endurance and improves overall health. In this zone, energy is burnt from fat mainly (60 to 85%). It is therefore interesting for losing weight although the calorie expenditures remain low.

Zone 2 : the fitness zone (also called weight management zone or fat burning zone) – 60 to 70 % MHR

This zone allows the development of basic endurance, a crucial step when resuming training. It is important to stick to it at least during the first 4 weeks of resumption. Basic endurance work helps the development of muscle fibers, the opening of new blood capillaries contributing to the oxygenation of muscles and the ability of capillaries to transport oxygen. Training in this zone is sufficient to maintain fitness levels. It prepares the heart for intense efforts to come. Like in the recovery zone, fat is the primary source of energy utilized (60 to 85%), but as the pace is steadier, more total calories are burnt. It is therefore an efficient zone for losing weight.

Zone 3 : the aerobic zone (also target heart rate zone) – 70 to 80 % MHR

Training in this zone improves cardiovascular fitness and respiratory conditions. It must be the next step following the basic endurance work started earlier (fitness zone). The aim is to accustom your body to long and sustained efforts by developing aerobic capacities. It requires long workouts (2 to 3 hours minimum). With practice, you will be able to cover more distance in less time and your body will be more efficient in burning fat than glucose. This zone is efficient for increasing overall muscle strength. Fat burning represents around 40 to 50 % of the total calories spent.

Zone 4 : anaerobic zone (80 to 90 % of MHR) or threshold zone (85 to 90 % of MHR)

Training in this zone increases overall performance levels. Your body ability to deal with lactic acid increases, thus pushing your anaerobic threshold (also call “red line”). It must be the next step following the training in the aerobic zone. During training, distance and intensity increase progressively at each workout. Alternate 20 to 30 minutes workouts in zone 4 with 20 to 30 minutes workouts in Zone 2. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy with only 15 % fat burnt in that zone.

Zone 5 : the aerobic power (or redline zone) - 90 to 100 % MHR

This is the zone where to work sprint, anaerobic threshold and VO2max. Training in this zone is very intense and can therefore only be for a very short period of time. You should consult with your doctor if you plan to practice aerobic power.

Pushing anaerobic levels requires threshold work (work at a maximum of 90 % of the HRM) including short or long interval training workouts in zone 2 and 5. For example 20 seconds of sprint followed by 20 seconds recovery or 1 to 3 minutes of aerobic power followed by 1 to 3 minutes in zone 2. The aim is to accustom the muscles to the effects of lactic acid, thus making them more resistant to greater efforts on longer workouts.

Sprint training aims to develop explosive power. This involves short but violent efforts.

Maximal aerobic power (MAP) training consists in short but intense efforts (15 to 60 seconds) followed by the same time of active recovery (zone 1)

Planning training and working outside or at home

Training requires preparation. Consider a minimum of 20 weeks integrating work in the zones described above. You will find practical advice in our Practical Handbook of Amateur Athletes and on the pages of our site.

For winter preparations or in addition to over-ground workouts, the bike trainer is the perfect tool for working efficiently sprint (explosive force), MAP, VO2max, force, velocity, endurance, coordination and threshold work. We provide many practical and motivating training programs in the Bicycle Indoor Trainer Guide.

The maximum heart rate (MHR) of a person is a fixed value that corresponds to the maximal value the heart is able to beat. It decreases with age. This value can be measured by a physical exertion test or by an over-ground test. It can also be evaluated through empirical formulas. The best known are :

Astrand and Ryhming (1954) : HRM = 220 - age (men) and 226-age (women)
Inbar (1994) : HRM = 205.8 - (0.685 x age)
Lanwher and Robers (2002) : HRM = 208.754 - (0.734 x age)

Some heart rate monitors give an approximate value based on age and a test of a few minutes at rest.

The over-ground test consists in warming up for at least 30 minutes then gradually increasing heart rate. Accelerate gradually to reach the speed of a cycle time workout. The heart once accustomed, increase the pace by climbing a hill for 3 minutes to reach the anaerobic threshold and finish with a sprint. This test is particularly demanding and should not be done by amateurs without the opinion of a doctor.

Avoid burnout !

The "redline" zone, also called anaerobic limit, corresponds to the threshold at which blood oxygen supply is insufficient to allow the conversion of glucose and glycogen into energy usable by muscles. Another chemical reaction that produces energy is then initiated. This reaction generates a large amount of lactic acid that muscle cells are unable to assimilate. Its accumulation in muscles is responsible for breathlessness or even well known cramps or nausea. An athlete, even well trained, can only stay for a short period of time beyond the anaerobic threshold.

For a trained athlete, the "redline" zone corresponds to a value situated between 90 and 95 % of the maximum heart rate. For sedentary people and under trained athletes, this threshold varies from 80 to 85 % of maximum heart rate. Experience and the help of a heart rate monitor will help determining approximately this value. There exist more precise tests that can be performed on a indoor bike trainer or ergotrainer. The red zone evolves with training. Specific workouts will raise its value and thus push body’s limits. We describe some of these techniques in our Indoor Bicycle Trainer Guide.

Philippe Baudoin
Reproduction prohibited

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