cycling · running · training

Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2

heart_rate_monitorIn my last post on heart rate training, aimed at people new to the idea, Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1, I said that often we think we’re running easy when we’re not. Going easy is tough. It’s humbling to realize how slow you need to go to have the run count as easy for you when you first start out. But it can also be tough at the other end of the spectrum. Often we’re shocked to find we’re not working as hard as we thought either. When you first start running, or riding, there’s one natural speed you go at and it’s a challenge to get out of that zone in either direction.

Fern Oliner had been a runner for more than 25 years when she experienced a breakthrough in her performance. It happened at age 59, during a challenging half-marathon. “For the very first time, I felt like a true runner,” she recalls. “There I was on the uphill, passing people and feeling totally in control. I absolutely loved it.” Her secret? Oliner was wearing a heart-rate monitor. “I was breathing heavily as I was going up the hills, but the monitor told me I was okay. So I sped up,” she says. “If it weren’t for the monitor, I would’ve kept running at the slower pace, as I’d always done.” How To Use A Heart Rate Monitor

When do I use a heart rate monitor when going hard? Like Fern I’ve found it helpful on hills. I’ve reviewed heart rate data on climbs I thought were killing me only to discover, after the fact, that I was nowhere close to maxing out. I just hate hills.

I don’t look at my heart rate monitor while bike racing but I do review it after.

In my post about racing and about how racing forces you to go hard, I said:

I get that but to be fit you have to push yourself and trust me, you’ll never ever push yourself as hard in training as you do when racing. I wear a heart rate monitor when training on the bike and I’ve done VO2 max testing so I’ve got some idea of what the various sports training zones mean for me. I’ve also worn the heart rate monitor when criterium racing. The first time I did this and then looked at the data after I laughed out loud at how much time I’d spent in the red zone, E4. That’s something I just can’t make myself do for very long outside race situations. I won’t bore you with all the geeky gory details but here’s the my HR data from a crit last year: Avg HR 171, max HR 178 (32% in E4) Avg speed 33.2, max speed 42. No way I could do that outside a race.

The one exception to not looking at the heart rate monitor while racing are time trials.  What’s the difference?

During road races and criterium races you do everything you need to to stay with the pack. You’re not going to slow down because your heart rate monitor tells you to. There’s lots of spikes, lots of time in the red zone, but knowing about it won’t help. And even if you did want to look there isn’t time and you need to pay attention to what’s going on around you.

But in time trials–like the bike bit of a triathlon–you’re riding alone. You set the pace. Ideally you know the magic number at which the cost of going fast is too high, you won’t recover well, and you aim to keep your heart rate just under that number. That means learning to pedal downhill and keep up the pace and not blow up by going too fast. In time trials the heart rate monitor is your best friend. It can keep you focused on working hard enough, but not too hard.

In my post about my identity as a data and gadget geek  I talked about my experiences having VO2 max testing done. I’d post the video but it’s truly not very exciting. Me on a bike wearing a special mask! I have thought about having it done again to have new benchmarks.

Four years ago I even had lactate threshold testing done along with V02 max testing so I could accurately chart my heart rate training zones. It was all done on my bike and I even have gripping video footage to prove it.

The results: V02 max starting 13.2, lactate threshold 35.5, peak 39.7; heart rate starting 120, lactate threshold 162, peak 177; calories per hour starting 329, max 983; METS starting 3.8, max 11.3; Recovery: max 177, 1 min 158 (34%), 2 min 124 (93%); Fitness level: superior.

I liked that, fitness level: superior. Not elite. But that’s fine. I have a day job.

But you needn’t go all fancy and have individual lab testing done to get good use out of a heart rate monitor. While the 220 minus your age formula is way too simple, you can calculate your own max heart rate using data from a race such as a 5 km time trial. There’s some good info on training zones (for running) and calculating your max heart rate here: Heart Rate Training: Is It Right for You?

Here’s the bike version from Heart rate monitor training for cyclists:

Many believe that you can calculate your maximum HR by using the formula of 220 minus your age. For some people this may be accurate, but for many it will be wildly out. I’m 54 years old so, using the formula, my max HR should be 166 (220-54). It’s actually 178, which is a big difference when training in very tight zones.

A much more accurate formula is 210 minus half your age, then subtract 5% of your body weight in pounds. Add four for a male and 0 for a female. The only way to get a truly accurate max HR figure is to get a physiological test at a sport science centre, such as Fletcher Sport Science, but you can get a reasonable estimate by doing your own max HR test. Only undertake this test if you are fit and exercise regularly, though.

Warm up thoroughly for at least 15 minutes. On a long, steady hill start off fairly briskly and increase your effort every minute. Do this seated for at least five minutes until you can’t go any faster. At this point get out of the saddle and sprint as hard as you can for 15 seconds. Stop and get off the bike and immediately check your HR reading. This is your max HR.

“Don’t forget that your max HR figure is sport specific,” says Fletcher. “This means that your maximum on a bike will invariably be much lower than it is when you’re running because the bike is taking some of your weight.”

And here’s the Chris Carmichael version from Bicycling:

The Carmichael Training Systems Field Test
My field test consists of two eight-minute time-trial efforts separated by 10 minutes of easy spinning for recovery. If you’re riding outside, try to complete both efforts on the same course and from the same starting point. Spend the first 30 to 45 seconds getting up to speed, then settle into the highest intensity you can maintain for the full eight minutes. Do your best to keep your cadence at or above 90 rpm. For each effort, record average heart rate and/or power, distance covered, and average cadence. Then, use the higher of the two average heart rates to calculate your ideal training intensities, as indicated by the chart below.

NOTE: Your field-test heart rate is not the same as your lab-measured lactate threshold heart rate, so the calculations based on this heart rate are specific to this field test.

 Base aerobic
 50–91% The 91% is a ceiling to account for variables like hills. Aim to stay at 60 to 75% during the majority of your ride.
 Tempo  Aerobic power  88–90 Intervals should be long (20 to 25 minutes), with as little interruption as possible.
 Power at lactate
 92–94 Intervals should be 10 to 20 minutes each, with recoveries half as long as the intervals.
climbing power
 95–97 Targets the same energy system as Steady State; the intensity is higher because of the extra muscle  involved in climbing.
 Power at VO2
 101 or more Heart rate will lag behind your effort during these short (one to three minutes max) efforts. Go as hard as you can and use HR data for evaluation afterward.

What’s a tough workout at high heart rate?

You might try the T-Max Intervals:  Perform 2:30-minute intervals at 95 to 100 percent of max heart rate (the point at which you cannot speak), followed by recovery to 60 percent of max, or until you can speak in full sentences. Do two to six sets twice a week, with at least two days of spinning or rest between.

There’s lots of debate about how often to do interval training and how long the intervals should be but the biggest thing that makes a difference in performance results is intensity. You can read some of the discussion here.

Good luck! And you might want to reread the posts on throwing up and suffering before heading out.

6 thoughts on “Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2

  1. Great post! You just motivated me to replace my currently dead HR monitor. Trainer season is coming up (well, it’s here– we have snow outside and it’s sleeting; yuck) and for me, wearing a HR monitor is crucial to working hard (or easy) enough on the trainer. I have to retest myself to get my new LT– I haven’t done a road test in 5 years.

    A tip for readers: there are loads of expensive HR monitors (and power taps, etc), but I train with a cheapo timex HR monitor watch and strap. As long as it seems reliable (which it is) as I put it through its paces (through all my HR zones during road or trainer workouts), whether it is super-accurate is not so much an issue for me. I work based on its numbers, and that seems to work fine. Of course, if people want to download data, use software to map progress, etc.– definitely feel free to geek out on fancy models! Just saying there are cheap bare-bones alternatives that are out there.

    1. Good advice for those who know that’s all they want.
      Even if you decide to spend money on a HR monitor/watch, there’s a range of what you can spend. I’ve just done some research, looking for a multi-sport training watch that combines GPS with heartrate monitor. I wanted something that I could wear on my wrist for running and put on the bike when riding, and perhaps use in a limited way for swimming if I’m not at the pool where I use the big wall timers. Lots of people were recommending the Garmin 910 XT, which comes in at just under $500 Canadian. A bit much even though I’m prepared to spend money. I settled on a Garmin 310 XT, just under $300 Cdn. I’ll report back about it once I get it (it’s on its way) and have a chance to figure it out (Christmas morning, probably!).
      You need to know what you want. I bought a very basic bike computer for my new roadbike, and if I’d waited even a few months I would have bought something fancier. In that sense, if I upgrade to fancier, I’ve thrown away the money on the cheaper. It’s not always a longrun savings to get the most basic gadget unless you know for sure that’s all you’re going to need.

      1. The inexpensive bike computer can go on your commuter bike! Or your next bike. You can never have too many bikes so in that way bike gear is rarely wasted. It just moves downstream.

  2. I LOVE data! I just bought a new Garmin a few years ago (so it really does not need to be replaced), but I’m still tempted by this: It works with ANT+, and has an SOS alarm–so you could call 911 or your spouse from it. Plus, it’s both cute and designed to sit on smaller wrists better. (I have to get the velcro straps for the Garmins or they bounce around on my wrist enough to bruise the bone).

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