After running shoes and a source to play music, a heart rate monitor is usually the first piece of equipment runners add to their workouts. If you aren’t using one now, you’ve most likely at least played with them in the past, calculating whether you’re working too hard or not hard enough, estimating your total calories burned, and even tracking your mileage or sharing your workouts. Using a heart rate monitor can give you a lot of insight into the quality of your workouts, fitness level, and effective training. So what are the best ways to really get the most out of this popular gadget? Let’s break down the benefits:
Step 1: Get your real max heart rate. While the calculation of (220 minus your age) has long been the standard for estimating your max heart rate, there are newer, more accurate methods for fitter individuals. One favored formula is 205 – (.5 x your age).
The biggest take-home is to recognize that your maximum heart rate is very individual and isn’t going to be in complete agreement with any formula. If you see a number on your monitor that’s higher than you thought your maximum heart rate was, that number is your new maximum heart rate. Use it for planning your training.
Step 2: Calculate your training zones. Once you’ve established your actual maximum heart rate, you can use it to calculate your zones for training based on the amount of effort that you’re shooting for in a given workout. At a minimum you should calculate your easy zone, at 65% of your max (not above 70% of your max), and your work zone, at about 85% of your max.
Knowing these numbers allows you to design your workouts intelligently depending on your training goals on a given day. You should include easy days that are directed at increasing your endurance and providing active recovery, during which your heart rate stays below 70% of your maximum. While this may leave you working at a significantly lower effort than you’re used to, (perhaps even walking) you will find that your fitness improves in time as you’re able to work more efficiently on your hard training days.
Step 3: Alternate your training zones throughout your week. If you’re choosing cardiovascular workouts every day, make sure you’re building in active recovery days that keep your heart rate below 70% of your maximum at least twice a week, more frequently if you feel that your age or the demands of your training make that a necessity.
Heart rate monitor training is a great way to keep your efforts consistent between your treadmill sessions and time training on the road. For more on Heart Rate Monitor training, John Parker’s Heart Rate Monitor Training for the Complete Idiot gets consistently good reviews and includes programs that will both challenge you and improve your recovery. Polar’s website is also full of tips directed at helping you get the most from your monitor.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.