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   December Issue Triathlete
In this Issue


Training Tip

5 Easy Steps to Heart Rate Monitoring
by Sally Edwards

If you're a beginning triathlete, heart rate monitoring will revolutionize the way you train…if you know how to interpret the numbers. Here's the quick and easy method to get it right.

After finishing a duathlon in Texas this past January, I was approached by an age-group triathlete named Michael. He asked me a question about his run-bike-run- race. He was curious as to why he couldn't sustain his heart rate on the second run, even though he experienced no problems in the first run and bike leg. Michael was watching his heart watch and using it as a window into his body's response to physiological stress racing.

The reading on his watch was telling him that he was stressed. Michael had gone too hard on the run and bike and had grown fatigued. The problem was that he didn't know how to interpret the numbers. This is one of the major challenges in using a heart rate monitor. What do all of the numbers mean? What do I do with the numbers and the information they provide me with during the run and the bike?

The answer that I gave Michael is that he was probably experiencing "cumulative fatigue." That is, the effects of the first two legs of the race had taken their toll on his sport-specific muscles and he was running on empty. He had burned through his stored energy and drained his muscles of power, speed and strength.

Michael's situation is an example of just one of the many things a heart rate monitor can do for you if you train and race with it, but don't know how to process the information to help diagnose your performance troubles. Heart rate monitoring is more than just monitoring your heartbeat: it's watching your heart in order to obtain analytical information. In this case, had Michael known how to read the monitor, he would have known he had gone out too fast or too hard.

The ABC's of Heart Rate Training

The following are the primary reasons why using a heart rate monitor will help your triathlon training.

A: Answers. What percentage of my maximum heart rate am I training or racing? How much time have I spent in one of the five heart zones (see chart below). How much fat, carbohydrate and total calories am I burning? If you can understand heart numbers on your monitor, it will answer these questions.

B: Benefits. For those who love to train "high and hard," which is at a high intensity for long periods, the benefit of training with a monitor is that it serves as a brake. Using a heart rate monitor can slow you down and keep you optimized in your heart zones. For those of you who like the "low and easy" type of training, a heart monitor is a powerful biofeedback device. It tells you that you need to increase your training intensity and dump on a lot more physiological stress or increase the intensity. After all, that's what a monitor is measuring - relative physiological stress.

C: Control. Watching your heart monitor provides you with a control tool. It provides you with a more accurate way of staying in tune with the answer to the training question, "How hard am I training?"

I recently spent time with Darvin McBrayer, research exercise physiologist at Baylor University. He measures the fitness of most of Dallas' professional men's sports teams, and what he calls "functional wellness," or basic fitness. His view on heart rate monitor use is that although it's accurate and controls the moment-to-moment exercise stress, it's too complicated a device for most people. I disagree. He uses a scale of one to 20 for perceived exertion. I use pin-point-accurate heart rate.

Getting Started With Your New Monitor

As a way to get immediate benefits from your heart rate monitor, start by applying the following three steps. This may be the kickoff to a major change in how you train.

1. Find out your maximum heart rate.
Take a few tests to determine your heart rate max, which is the highest number of beats your heart can contract in one minute. After 30 years as a serious multisport athlete, and as a 52-year-old woman, my maximum heart rate is 195 beats per minute while running. Ned Overend, the XTerra champion and three-time world mountain bike champion, has a maximum heart rate of 165 bpm; a 30 bpm difference. Maximum heart rate does not predict your success as an athlete. It's an anchor point to use to maximize your performance by setting your personal heart zones.

The most accurate way to find your maximum heart rate is to start running strong and get a big number on your heart watch. Another, less-accurate way, is to use a mathematical formula. I use the formula created by my company, Heart Zones, which is the best I've found:
Maximum Heart Rate = 210 minus half your age, minus 5 percent of your boy weight in pounds, plus 4 for men, or plus 0 for women.

2. Set your heart zones.
Once you have identified your maximum heart rate, set your 5 heart zones, which are each 10 percent of your max heart rate. For instance, zone 5 is your highest zone; zone 4 is 10% less. Now create a simple chart that you can refer to, listing your heart rates within the 5 zones.

3. Take a tour of your individual zones.
Now the fun part begins - strap on your heart rate monitor and start training. Train at different levels of exertion that will allow you to "tour the zones," so that you know what to expect. Next, do your favorite workout and see what zones you have been training in. Finally, try a new workout on an indoor bike or treadmill and see which of the five zones you are training in.

4. Plug your heart rate zones into your training schedule.
With your heart rate zones now in place, you can more accurately conquer the specifics of a workout goal. For instance, if the purpose of a workout is to develop your aerobic base, you can set the upper and lower limits of your monitor's alarms to your Zone 3 parameters. Now that you have a more exact way to develop your ability, you can prepare yourself for the strenuous demands of racing. For example - try spending 20 minutes of your workout in your anaerobic zone (Zone 4).

Ideally, you're in a situation where you're working with a coach whose approach is grounded in physiology. But even if you're self-coached, most of the better triathlon training books available today organize triathlon-training programs with heart rate zones in mind.

5. Plot your heart rate information from your workout in your training log book.
The value of your logbook takes on a new dimension with the addition of monitoring your heart rate during training. Now you can compare your workout speeds from one year to the next. Plotting the numerics of your training sessions throughout the training cycles of the year is a great way to spot which types of approaches are working for you and those that are working against you. This process will also help you and your coach to develop pinpoint methods of tapering for important races.

Once you're started watching your heart rates and monitoring your workouts, you'll probably discover the answers to your most vexing fitness questions. If you've been killing yourself trying to lose those last 5 to 10 pounds of body fat, you might find that you're simply working in too high of a zone.

Or, if you're like Michael, and can't get your heart rate to the number you want in a race, you need to spend more time training at your racing heart rate, so that you can sustain that pace when it comes time to race. Fading at the end of race usually indicates that you haven't adequately built on top of your aerobic foundation - a layer of Zone 4 threshold training that is 80 to 90 percent of your max heart rate.

Using a monitor helps you to strengthen the body, prevent premature aging and prolong your youthful energy. With the guaranteed answers, benefits and control you can achieve through using a heart rate monitor, you have a great tool to help you achieve your personal best. Sally Edwards is a member of the Triathlon Hall of Fame, the National Spokesperson for the Danskin Women's Triathlon and the author of 12 books including The Heart Rate Monitor Guidebook (1999). Edwards holds a graduate degree in exercise physiology from U.C. Berkeley and a master's degree in business. Visit her website at

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