• Photo for Get to the Heart of the Matter: How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

Get to the Heart of the Matter: How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

By Devin Wicks

Many of you have seen them in the gym or on the trails—you know, those seemingly overly-obsessed, techno gear-head, wannabe athletes who are constantly throwing out words like “threshold” and “lactic acid”. They sound like they are in some crazy, fitness-obsessed cult, but, in fact, they are they are likely to be taking advantage of some of the most effective technology for tracking and planning a fitness routine—a heart rate monitor.

For most of us, just getting in a regular workout is a bit of a challenge—never mind trying to optimize that workout. But, with the cost of technology dropping, smarter fitness is easily within reach. With an inexpensive heart rate monitor and the right information, you can create workouts that save you time, focus your training—and give you better results.

  The Basics
  Most heart rate monitors work by measuring the electrical impulse produced by your heart. This measurement is taken with a chest strap and is often as accurate as an EKG. The information from the strap is then transmitted to a monitor on your wrist that calculates the information and gives you a measurement of how hard your cardiovascular system is working, specifically how many beats per minute (BPM) your heart is producing. So, if you were to stop reading this article right now, found your pulse and counted how many “lub-a-dubs” you felt in one minute, you’d have a number that represents your heart rate (in BPMs) in a relaxed state—assuming that you’re not reading this while, say, running on a treadmill. Now, if you began to work harder, your heart rate would respond to the increased workload by pumping harder. Eventually, you'd reach a maximum heart rate—the highest number of times your heart can contract in one minute. But—bear in mind that max heart rates vary greatly from person to person due to genetic variance, and they aren't indicative of performance ability.

  There are a few ways to find your max heart rate. The most accurate way to measure is to do a stress test—which you'll likely do in the presence of a physician because it is somewhat dangerous. If feel OK throwing up in front of the family doc, you can also consider doing a sub max heart rate test which will give you a fairly accurate max. There are two ways to do this.

  1. The SubMax One-Mile Walking Test: Go to any high school or college track (most are 400 meters or 440 yards around) and walk or stride as fast as you can in your current condition. Walk as fast as is comfortable for four continuous laps. Now, for the last lap only, take your pulse, or use your heart rate monitor, to determine your average heart rate in beats per minute. The first three laps are just to get you to reach a heart rate plateau; you stay at that plateau and measure for the last lap, averaging together the beats per minute you get for each minute of walking to get an average heart rate. Once you've got that average, add to it the one of the following that best matches your current fitness level:
    1. Poor Shape: +40 bpm
    2. Average Shape: +50 bpm
    3. Excellent Shape: +60 bpm

    Once you've done the adding, this final number should be fairly close to your Max Heart Rate.

  2. Heart Rate Over Time: Another way to find your Max Heart Rate is just by tracking your heart rate over time. When you're working out really, really hard, take your heart rate. If you challenge yourself hard enough, you'll reach a very high number. Take that number and add five. Keep doing this during your tough workouts, and keep track of those numbers (adding five each time to the original count you get while exercising). After a number of times, you'll begin to hone in on a number that you can't go above. This would be your Max Heart Rate.
Finding your Range
Your Max Heart Rate is useful to know because it allows you to determine various training intensities and design workouts  tailored to your specific goals. Ideally, the bulk of your cardiovascular training should be somewhere between 60 to 85 percent of your maximum. As your training gets more sophisticated, you can add short bursts of intense work to  take you above the 85 percent zone and push you into your anaerobic zone (think sprinting). One or two of these every couple of workouts will increase your cardiac output very effectively. As a general rule of thumb, the lower portion of your training zone is great for capillary base development—something a person with high blood pressure would consider a big plus. The upper range of your training zone, on the other hand, is effective at developing your cardiac output (strength of your heart), your VO2 Max (volume of air your lungs can manage), and your psychological ability to handle the physical stress.

People often think that the point of a heart rate monitor is to force you to get your heart rate up high enough to create an effective workout. But in fact, a major benefit to these monitors is for people who inadvertently over-train. Using a heart rate monitor is great if you are one who of those who always goes “all-out” for your cardio training (we call them lactic acid junkies). That kind of training can actually have a detrimental effect, especially if you don’t allow your body sufficient recovery time. Using a monitor will help you clearly define what that intense training looks like and the response your body will have (either positive or negative) as you track cumulative outcome of your training.   

More Ways to Use the Numbers
 Once you know your numbers, your heart rate monitor can tell you a lot more than just when you're pushing too hard. Really, it is best for refining your training, and allowing you to more precisely track and influence your basic fitness. Here are three other ways you can use the monitor beyond just making sure you're going hard enough:
  1. Track your resting heart rate: Over a series of several days, do a one-minute pulse check just before you get out of bed. Then find the average. This is your resting heart rate. It is a great barometer of your overall health. If you begin to track this regularly, you will find that you have a powerful tool for tracking your fitness. For example, as you get more fit, you'll find that your resting heart rate will begin to drop slightly over time. If you are on the verge of getting or you are overtraining, you'll notice that your resting heart rate average will start to go up.
  2. Find your anaerobic threshold (AT): Ideally, to find your AT you'll need to do a max heart rate test and take respiratory or blood measurements to find the point at which the production of lactate is too great for your system to remove. However, with a little time you should be able to reasonably predict your AT. Simply start paying attention to your heart rate as you train. You'll notice that, at a certain point, it takes a significant  increase in output to get your heart rate to increase just a few beats per minute. This is approximately your AT.  Knowing this number will help you track your fitness progress. As you get more fit, your anaerobic threshold will go up and your ability to do a greater amount of work with the same or less effort will increase.
  3. Chart your heart rate recovery: Design your own protocol to track how quickly your heart rate returns to rest. Example: choose a hill that you normally run up in your workout.  Run up that hill at a certain heart rate, preferably a higher rate. When you get to the top stop and time how long it take to reach a certain recovery level, like 50 percent of your max. As you run that test over time, you should notice that the amount of time it takes to return to your recovery rate should drop. If you are over-training or are not at your peak, it will take longer to reach that recovery.
Armed with this info, you can do a lot more than just look the part at the gym—you can make serious fitness gains using a relatively affordable piece of equipment. Have fun!

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.