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Using a Heart Rate Monitor
Legal disclaimer: Since we are not doctors, never follow anything based on health-related topics on this or related sites without first consulting with your doctor or other trusted health professional.
A heart rate monitor can be a useful training tool, but is definitely not a “no brainer” as far as understanding what’s going on. Here are tips on the best ways to use and interpret heart rate data.
Key features of a heart rate monitor
A good heart rate monitor requires the following:
- A comfortable chest strap that lasts. For example, I no longer use Polar brand heart rate monitors because all the recent model chest straps have failed miserably; their new design is subject to degradation and provided flaky transmission, which I attribute to a poor design of the electrode area that detects heart rate. The old Polar plastic straps worked great, and still do work for me. I currently use a Suunto coded strap.
- A coded transmitter that is ANT+ compatible. The “coding” means both that the wireless transmission resists electronic interference, and that your heart rate monitor will recognize your strap, and not the person’s next to you.
- A device that records data over time and can be downloaded. Without this, it becomes difficult to do any analysis of workouts, or other effects, such as heart rate drift.
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Real time vs recorded data
A heart rate monitor that only gives the heart rate right now is of some use, but omits context crucial to understanding your effort level over the course of the workout. Only by downloading a workout and viewing the heart rate over its duration can you see where the effort level was held to an appropriate level, where you slacked off, etc.
A graph of your workout also allows selecting a data range, such as the start of an interval or climb, etc. Granted some monitors have interval features, but those don’t work if you forget to use them, which is easy to do on a long ride with multiple climbs, or spontaneous efforts, etc.
In the morning
Before getting out of bed, check your heart rate (lie still and let it settle after putting the strap on). A morning heart rate that is 5-10 beats higher than usual generally means that you have not recovered from a workout, or that you’re getting sick— very useful feedback for that day’s training.
As fitness increases, the waking heart rate will decline. When in peak shape, I see a morning resting heart rate from 35-39 beats per minute.
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During the workout
The instant feedback during a workout is helpful only insofar as you have context for understanding it. To interpret heart rate, you must take into account the level of effort, hydration, effective temperature (temperature + humidity), altitude, illness, etc. For all those reasons, heart rate alone without power measurement is not particularly useful during the workout. As an approximation, time or speed on a known course can be used to estimate the level of effort (power output).
For serious training, you must determine your real maximum heart rate, for it provides a fixed reference point that translates into appropriate effort levels for the desired training goal.
After a hard effort
After finishing a maximal effort, observe how quickly the heart rate drops from near maximum to a more normal level (if it’s hot, the heart rate will likely not go below a certain threshold, since the body still must cool itself).
For an athlete in peak condition, the heart rate should drop by at least 60 beats in one minute after stopping a maximum effort, e.g. from ~190 beats to ~130 beats. Conditions (heat, etc) of course affect this significantly; if it’s cool out then one might see an 80 beat drop. How quickly the heart rate drops can be seen on a graph, and is a strong measure of fitness.
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After the workout
By graphing your heart rate for the workout, you can see how consistent your effort was, the average heart rate, and the change over the workout, such as with heart rate drift. These data all offer valuable clues as to future workouts.
Just as important is being able to see, over a longer period of time (weeks to months) how your heart rate is dropping for the same effort level— a key measure of fitness.
If the heart rate does not steadily drop with extended training for the same effort, then your training program is ineffective, and should be modified. I personally observe a variation of up to 20 beats per minute for the same effort from the off season to peak condition late in the season.