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Heart Rate Training Basics

These longer spring days make it possible for more people to get out and skate on the trails.  For those of you who are committed to getting in shape, training with a heart rate monitor can be a great tool to add to your training regime.  Heart rate monitors are used by a wide variety of people from recreational exercisers to athletes.  They range in price from about $59 to over $200.  If cost is an issue, we will discuss other ways to monitor your exertion levels besides using a heart rate monitor, but heart rate monitor use is the main focus of this article.

Typically, a heart rate monitor consists of a chest strap which acts as a transmitter and a wrist watch which acts as a receiver.   A constant reading of your heart rate is shown on the watch.  These watches come in different models with a variety of different functions (reflected in the prices).  Really, all that is needed is the heart rate readings and a stop watch function; everything else extra (or just a heart rate monitor if you have another watch that has the stopwatch function).  Heart rate monitors are sold at most stores that service runners, cyclists, and other outdoor activities.  Polar is probably the most common brand, with Acumen and Freestyle being two others of the many that are out there.

Why use a heart rate monitor?  It is a great training tool because you can monitor your heart rate response to exercise to get precisely the level of workout that you intend to do before you start out.   You can monitor the intensity of your workouts and also monitor your fitness level by using a heart rate monitor.  As you continue your training and get more fit, the same amount of effort will elicit a lower heart rate response.  For example, you go out and exercise pretty hard at a heart rate of 150 beats per minute.  A month or so later you notice that you are able to skate harder and faster at that same heart rate.  That is the training effect.  Another indicator of your conditioning level is your resting heart rate.  Generally, the more fit an individual, the lower it is.  The average resting heart rate is 72 beats per minute, while an elite athlete might have a resting heart rate in the low s.

How do you use a heart rate monitor?  Generally speaking, there are 5 distinct training zones or levels that can be adhered to by monitoring your heart rate during exercise.  First of all you need to calculate your estimated maximum heart rate (MHR).  The most common and easiest formula for this is 220 minus your age (some literature says that for women, take 226 minus the age).  This is an estimate, and can be off by plus or minus 15 beats per minute (bpm).    An example would be a 45 year old male with an estimated MHR of 175 bpm (220-45=175).  The true way to find out your MHR is to get an exercise stress test (a pricey option), usually done on a treadmill at a sports medicine clinic.

Once you have calculated your MHR, you can choose the particular type of workout that you are going to do (i.e., long, slow distance or hard-core intervals).  The following chart lists the 5 zones or levels:

Zone 1 50-60% MHR very easy/easy
Zone 2 60-70% MHR easy/moderate
Zone 3 70-80% MHR moderately hard
Zone 4 80-90% MHR hard
Zone 5 90-100% MHR very hard


Most warm-ups should take place in zone 1, which is also the exercise level for a sedentary person.  A long, slow distance workout would be in zone 2 or low end zone 3 as would a recovery workout following a hard day.  Zone 3 is considered a good aerobic workout zone.  Zone 4 gets into anaerobic levels usually around 85% MHR (used for intervals and sprints).  Zone 5 is anaerobic and only for more serious athletes and is definitely a high-end sprint-type of workout. For people in optimum health, life insurance rates can be very affordable and easy to get. Some people do not like the intrusion of a doctor's exam, that is where no medical life insurance comes in. You can get insurance without the invasion of privacy by an insurance company's doctor.

How do you put this to work?  If you are working on endurance on a particular day, you would plan to keep your heart rate generally  in zones 2 and 3.   If your goal is to do an interval workout, you would skate your interval until you reach approximately mid-zone 4 and then drop back to zone 2 for a recovery period.  If you are fatigued and want an easy recovery skate the day after a hard interval workout, you would aim to keep your heart rate in zones 1-2.

If you don't have a heart rate monitor, you can still monitor your exertion level a couple of different ways.   Your pulse can be taken with your index and middle fingers either at the wrist (radial) or at the neck (carotid) by counting the beats for 10 seconds and multiplying the number by 6 (gives you how many beats per minute).   The drawback to this method is that you pretty much have to stop exercising to do this effectively and your heart rate starts to slow down quickly. 

Another method for determining exertion levels is the talk test.  If you can talk while exercising, then you are still in the aerobic zones (i.e. zone 1-3).  If you are out of breath, then you are entering the anaerobic zones (i.e. zone 4).  The third method is called Rating of Perceived Exertion or RPE.   Basically, you rate how you feel on a scale from zero to 10 with zero being no exertion at all and 10 being the greatest amount of exertion ever.  To be effective, you must take into account how your whole body feels, not just how tired your legs are.  Roughly speaking, a heart rate of 50-60% maximum correlates with an approximate RPE of 2-3.  A heart rate of 70-80% maximum correlates with RPE of  6-8.  This is referred to as the modified RPE scale, with the original scale being a range from 6-20.  Most people find it easier to relate to a scale of zero to 10.

This article touches on the basics of heart rate monitor training and how it can be useful.  No matter what level of skater you are, you can't go wrong by taking your training to the next level.  This is one way to do that.  Next month's column will discuss the different types of training (i.e. endurance vs. interval training).