Sunday, December 11, 2011

How I Use A Heart Rate Monitor For Training

All my life I've been addicted to aerobic exercise. In middle school and early on in high school I raced mountain bikes competitively. In high school I also ran track and cross-country.

My former coach, Jack Martin, who's a living legend among high school coaches in NJ, recognized talent in his athletes and pushed us hard. He pushed me harder than I thought I could go. Our squad trained hard multiple days a week and frequently did crippling workouts. With several highly motivated and talented runners on the team, our road runs precipitated into lung-busting race pace battles that went on for miles.

During college I would work out twice a day, and it wasn't uncommon for me to do a 40 mile road ride and run 4-6 miles in the same day. Sleep was unimportant and I ate whatever I wanted. Going hard during a workout was a given.

Now I'm 33. I'm pretty fit and I still eat whatever I want. Mostly. I can do without sleep too. For a few nights. However, going hard all the time isn't as easy to do anymore.

Rest is really important. It might be the most crucial component to an intensive training program, and it's frequently overlooked. Have you ever gone climbing after a hiatus from climbing and noticed you perform really well? Have you also noticed that this window of good performance only lasts 1-2 days? That good performance is likely due to the fact that the muscles you use for climbing are completely rested.

The first run after a break is like that too. The next day's run, not so much. That might be part of the reason so few people like running. You have to break through the hurt to get the reward. If you can break this cycle aerobic training begins to feel good, and it gets addictive.

Even good things like aerobic training can become counterproductive at times though. This is especially true when you're combining aerobic training with weight-training or climbing. It's easy to overtrain, and if you don't recognize the feeling you could get sick, injured, or just end up feeling unmotivated.

What's the best way to prevent overtraining? Eating well, staying hydrated and sleeping a lot are important. Resting is the most important thing you can do to prevent overtraining.

Have you ever felt more out of breath than normal on a climb or during a workout? Is your heart racing even though you feel like you're taking it easy? Perhaps you worked out several of the past few days. This is an indicator that you're efforts are becoming counterproductive. Feeling tired or lethargic is another sign. I'm not talking post workout lethargy, or the morning pre-coffee sleepies, I'm talking about a real fatigue that's hard to push through and doesn't go away for several days.

This is overtraining and it's easy to prevent. One way is to take several days or a week off. It's hard to do, but frequently this is the best way to recover from a serious training effort. Another effective way to prevent overtraining is by using a heart rate monitor for aerobic workouts.

This may seem counterintuitive, but I only use a heart rate monitor on easy days. When I want to work out hard I don't mind getting physically blasted. Many of your other training days should just be mileage though, and these days should be fairly easy. While not exactly leisurely, during these workouts you should be able to zone out, think about other things, or look around and enjoy the day.

If you're not careful though, these days can turn into something harder. All of a sudden you've done 3-4 semi-hard days in a row, you feel tired, and none of the workouts, except maybe the first one, were particularly fast or rewarding.

It's easy to psychologically trick yourself into working harder during the easy days and this is what you want to prevent. A heart rate monitor is useful for this. A good heart rate monitor will accurately measure your heart rate the way a tachometer measures RPM in your car. You can tell how hard your heart is working no matter how hard you feel like your body is working.

You can use the heart rate monitor and conduct a few tests to determine several training zones. Recently, I haven't concerned myself too much with all of the different target zones.  I've identified a range that I can roughly say is my running "lactate threshold" range. This is the range above which my muscles cells no longer work aerobically. The lactate threshold range can vary depending on activity (generally because of muscle size and efficiency or lack thereof) so if you're cycling and running to gain aerobic fitness, your lactate threshold range might be a bit lower for one (probably cycling) and a bit higher for the other (probably running).

I use the heart rate monitor on mileage and recovery days when I'm already feeling a bit tired. I can use it to keep my heart rate far below my "lactate threshold" range. This keeps that particular workout easy, no matter how slow or fast I'm actually running.

During hard workouts, if I wear the monitor at all, I use it to make sure I recover fully between hard efforts.

Look forward to more fitness posts in the future. I will be attempting to post more regularly about fitness.