Until last year, I almost never trained with a heart rate monitor. Now, I wear one for nearly every practice. For most athletes, a coac...

Heart Rate Monitors


Until last year, I almost never trained with a heart rate monitor. Now, I wear one for nearly every practice.

For most athletes, a coach dictates whether to use a heart rate monitor. Some athletes choose to use them independently. Regardless of your heart rate monitor status, it's helpful to know some of the pros and cons of the straps. This can help you use them more wisely.


Heart rate monitors:

==> allow for more precise training
Especially coupled with lactate testing, heart rate monitors can provide personalized, precise training. By using the heart rate coupled with blood lactate levels, you can focus your time on crucial intensities. For example, in winter, we do most of our training at blood lactate levels of 0.8-1.8 mmol/L—well below the generally established 'lactate threshold' of 4 mmol/L.

You can use the same principle by using one of many heart rate zone calculators based on maximum and resting heart rates. They won't be as precise, but they will help you target your training. If using these tools, understand that you may need to adjust the provided heart rates to maximize your training.

==> provide clear and manageable targets for workouts
I know I can do 100 minutes with my heart rate between 167 and 174. Even if I'm fatigued and mentally struggling, physically I can complete the workout. Similarly, I know I can complete 10km with my heart rate between 180 and 189, regardless of speed.

It takes experience and/or an experience coach to provide useful heart rate targets. However, those targets can take the guesswork out of what's do-able.

==> can help adjust for the effects of weather, fatigue, dehydration, etc.
Sometimes, perfectly reasonable split targets from last week are way off this week. If it's much hotter or you've done a challenging lifting session the day before, the same splits may be much more work to maintain. That's totally normal.

Using a heart rate monitor helps adjust for those environmental factors, allowing you to continue benefitting from your most useful workouts.


Heart rate monitors:

==> don't account for mental and emotional fatigue
Although they're great at adjusting for physical effects, heart rate monitors don't monitor the brain. Sometimes you're slow because your head isn't in it.

If you always listen to your heart rate monitor, you might fail to give yourself crucial mental and emotional recovery.

==> are inappropriate for some workouts
This week, we did a pyramid workout with very short distances (starting at 3 hard strokes at a time, working our way up to 17 hard strokes at a time). The longest work segment was around 30 seconds. It takes the heart time to react to changes in exercise intensity, meaning your heart rate will not accurately reflect your effort after just 30 seconds. Generally, we don't use heart rate zones for any work segments less than 2 minutes.

We also don't use heart rate zones for weight lifting workouts. It can be fun to see your heart rate during lifting sessions, but to get the most of lifting we trying to avoid using them as an additional cardio workout. Since we're not stressing the cardiovascular system, which the HR monitor monitors, we don't need the data.

==> over-focus on the numbers
There is pleasure in simply rowing: listening to the glide of the boat, the thwack of the oars, the swish of the water. Data takes away from the beauty. Of course, it's not just the heart rate—it's the splits and the stroke rate and the time and the meters. There something wonderful about rowing as fast or slow as you want, until you want to turn around, and then coming back. It's a bit of mental respite that heart rate monitors can't provide.

==> can make you lose touch with your body
Heart rate zones change. Over the course of six months, my heart rate zones shifted as much as 10 bpm. Over-reliance on numbers can dampen body awareness crucial to making zone and intensity adjustments. Regular lactate testing can help the latter, but body awareness is incredibly important in racing. You have to be able to determine when to risk everything—and your heart rate monitor can't always tell you.

How can this help your training?

If you train with a heart rate monitor, be aware of the cons. Account for your own mental fatigue, leave the monitor behind for some workouts, and stay aware of how your body feels not just your heart rate.

If you haven't yet taken the plunge, consider the pros. If these are areas where you've struggled, it might be time to invest in a heart rate monitor. Maybe you have trouble finishing workouts, or find your numbers jumping around from week to week. If used correctly, a heart rate monitor can help you with pacing and consistency.

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