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Sometimes athletes focus on the pebble in their shoe instead of the boulder in the trail. This can be especially true of runners who start training with a heart-rate monitor. With all the contention about max heart-rate formulas, the endless opinions on training zones and the debate over heart-rate technology, it’s easy to miss the point. So instead of focusing on the little details that might be contested in a few months, let’s focus on the boulder. How can you use heart-rate training to run faster, go farther and stay healthier? Here’s some tips from Cidney Carver at LifeBEAM on how to best use the monitor to optimize your results:
1. Pick a heart-rate monitor you’ll actually wear. Chest-strap heart rate monitors are still the norm, but most people hate using them. They chafe, itch and slide around. Motion, intense humidity or nasty weather can throw off the readings. Instead, look at heart-rate monitors with optical sensors. They use the same dual beam infra-red technology found in emergency room pulse oximeters (those close-pin style devices that clip on your finger). They come in visors, baseball hats, wrist bands, watches and other forms that are comfortable and designed to handle motion and weather. If you buy one of these versus a chest strap, you’ll be more likely to use it.
2. Check your resting heart rate every morning. Use you resting heart rate as a baseline measurement so you can follow your heart’s change in performance. Every morning when you wake up, check your heart rate. Some people write it down – I suggest pairing your optical heart monitor with your favorite smartphone app or fitness device that will record your resting heart rate automatically. As you run and workout, you want to see your resting heart rate fall. The Mayo Clinic says adults have an average resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute (dpm). Elite endurance athletes might be closer to 40 bpm. If your resting heart rate doesn’t change at all, you might not be training effectively.
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3. Train in multiple heart-rate zones. For mid- to long-distance races (more than 10K), a lot of endurance coaches recommend running in zone 3, which is 70% to 80% of your max heart rate. This is sound advice, but to improve your abilities, you have to train across all zones. A common split for new endurance athletes is to do three workouts per week: one tempo run, one interval day and one strength day. The tempo run focuses on zone 3. It helps you learn how fast to run in events. The interval day will involve high-intensity running and focus on zones 4 and 5. On the strength day (key for preventing injury and improving overall ability), you’ll spend time in all zones depending your chosen exercise, repetitions, sets and rest time.
4. Measure recovery time. When you’re doing intervals, measure how quickly your heart rate falls after an interval. This is an indication of how efficiently your heart recovers from exercise and your fitness level. The faster the recovery time, the better you will be able to manage your tempo during longer runs and the more fit you are becoming. On a hilly or mountainous course, your heart rate might spike up on steep sections. In races, you might go above zone 3 to pass a competitor. In either case, you want your heart rate to fall back to zone 3 as quickly as possible.
5. If you plateau or backslide, investigate why. Some runners see months of improvement through heart-rate training only to plateau or lose fitness. There are a myriad of possible reasons. Do you do the same workout every time, or do you switch up your strength routines, routes and running surfaces? Have you been drinking more caffeine, which elevates heart rate? Are you going through a stressful time at work? Heart-rate training can motivate you to examine all aspects of your life. What’s holding you back? What has to change for you to continue progressing?
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Sometimes, the hardest part about heart-rate training is believing the numbers. Weekend warriors and even accomplished athletes can be surprised at what the monitor says, so they sometimes rationalize that the device must be flawed. Trust your heart-rate monitor and focus on boulders in your heart-rate training. Lace up every day knowing that you’re training toward measurable goals, regardless of whether or not there are pebbles in your shoe.