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The Beat Goes On:
Maximize Performance by Training with a Heart Rate Monitor

By James Herrera

Training at the proper intensity and allowing adequate recovery is the only way to achieve maximum development of your athletic abilities. Using a heart rate monitor is one of the best and most cost-effective ways to monitor your intensity and control your training efforts -- but to get the most out of one of these devices, you also need to know how to interpret the data it provides.

The components of training are intensity: how hard are you going to go; volume: how long are you going to do it; and frequency: how many times per session/week are you going to repeat the activity. We must also look to base this training on the principles of overload and progression. As we hit the body with an overload, the system is stressed and breaks down. Following a proper recovery, the system adapts and becomes stronger.

For all endurance athletes, aerobic system development is crucial. The aerobic, lactate threshold (LT) and maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) systems must be developed to their fullest extent and in the proper order. Time must be spent at each level, acquiring maximum development, before progression to the next system occurs.

Determining Zones

The question now becomes, "how hard do I go?" Going out with both guns blazing on every training session is certainly not the way to go. If you've taken this approach to training, chances are you've experienced undue soreness, fatigue and burnout.

Heart rate training is typically accomplished by dividing workout time into a handful of zones or ranges based on an individual's maximum heart rate. A formula that is sometimes used for deriving max heart rate is subtracting the athlete's age from 220. While this method is common in older literature, the formula yields a poor estimate of max heart rate, which can often lead to inaccurate ranges and over- or undertraining. The derived number is an "age predicted max," not specific to the individual. While lab testing is an expensive alternative to using the old formula, there's another way to gauge your training efforts: a sport-specific field test.

The coaches at Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) prescribe a three-mile cycling time trial and an eight-minute maximal intensity run on a 400-meter track to find an individual's LT heart rate (See sidebar). The average heart rate obtained for these efforts (FT) has been found to be highly correlated with the LT heart rate derived in laboratory settings.

Applying Zone Training

Once you've determined your maximum intensity range, you can use that number to gauge the various intensity zones in your training.

Long endurance workouts of 30 minutes to an hour should be done at 15 to 20 percent below the FT average to target aerobic system development. Your pace should be relatively comfortable and sustainable for long periods of time. This is the first system that needs to be targeted when building a proper training program. A minimum time frame of two months should be devoted to aerobic system development.

Intervals done at a heart rate that is 10 percent below the FT average will target the LT system and should be performed from five to 30 minutes based on the athlete's level of development. A sample workout may include 3 x 8- to 15-minute intervals performed after a 10- to 15-minute warm up. Take five to 10 minutes recovery between these medium-intensity intervals. LT development should be targeted for one to two months prior to attempting the higher intensity VO2 intervals.

Intervals performed above the FT average should be shorter in nature (less than five minutes) and will target the VO2 system. When doing VO2 intervals, use a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio and attempt two to five intervals in a set. A 10- to 15-minute recovery period can be taken when performing multiple sets. The nature of these intervals creates a higher level of stress on the body and adequate recovery time is a necessity. An athlete should take a recovery week of light intensity work following two to three weeks of VO2 intervals.


Spending adequate time at each level of intensity will prevent the undue soreness, fatigue and burnout associated with a shotgun training approach. Most importantly, you will ensure proper system development and have your best season ever.

Keep in mind that you should always attempt to enjoy one to two workouts a week without the restrictions of a heart rate range. These workouts are best accomplished in a group setting. The camaraderie and competition of group workouts will spur you on to new heights of development. Remember that your heart rate monitor is a great guide for working at the proper intensity for your workout, but it should not rule your life. Don't become so fixated on the numbers that you forget about the adventures of the outdoors.

James Herrera, MS, is an Elite coach with Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). To learn more about James and CTS visit the website at www.trainright.com.

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