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a woman squats and looks at her heart rate monitor

Perhaps you want to burn more fat, or you’re determined to increase your speed and endurance. Then again, maybe you’ve maxed your energy stores so you don’t even feel like exercising anymore. Whether you’re determined to kick butt in a local road race or simply want better results and less suffering from the time and energy you spend on cardio workouts, it may be time you looked into a heart-rate monitor.

I’m a monitor convert myself. I’ve been a runner for years, and start off most mornings with a run – it’s my time to take stock and gear up for the day. Several years ago, though, I began finding it harder and harder to get out of bed and hit the road. I never felt completely rested, and I was irritable and depressed.

When I started using a heart-rate monitor, I discovered why. The numbers on the monitor told the story in simple digits. I’d been pushing myself way too hard. For me, every run was a high-intensity run, which left my body unable to recover. Under constant pressure, instead of performing better, my body had dug in its heels and said “enough.”

The moral of this particular story: To get better results, I didn’t need to pour on more power; I needed to back off. So, using my monitor, I started incorporating “easy” runs into my weekly schedule and noticed an immediate, dramatic difference in both my mood and my energy level.

High-Tech Training

Have you assumed that heart-rate monitors are only for competitive athletes? Think again. The popularity of these devices has soared in recent years – in large part because they’re relatively inexpensive (about the cost of a pair of decent running shoes), simple to operate, intriguing to use, and above all, highly effective.

You’ve probably used your fingers and a watch to take your pulse during exercise and then used a little mental math to calculate your beats-per-minute. A heart-rate monitor does that job for you, but more accurately, more constantly and with much less fuss and interruption to your workout. Just strap the transmitter around your chest, and presto! &ndashp your heart rate is automatically displayed on the receiver (which looks very much like a sports watch). You can now tell at a glance how fast your heart is pumping, and how hard your body is working, at any moment during your workout.

Models range from simple, continuous-read monitors that do nothing but display your current heart rate, to so-called “zone” monitors that allow you to program a range of customized training zones into the device. They track your heart rate based on that data, and issue a visual or audible alarm that alerts you if your heart rate falls outside the desired range.

Many more advanced watches come with a variety of other features (not all of which are terribly useful), and the more expensive ones let you download the information from your workout sessions into your computer to help you track your workouts, plan your training schedules and follow your fitness improvements over time. But don’t get too distracted by the bells and whistles. The main things to watch for are clarity of the display, comfort, ease of use – and, of course, accuracy.

Toil Gauge

“A heart-rate monitor allows you to exercise more efficiently,” says competitive athlete and businesswoman Sally Edwards, author of Heart Zone Training (Adams Media Corporation, 1996). “It’s a window into your body that gives you continuous information about what’s happening inside. Besides shoes, it’s the most essential piece of exercise equipment you can have.”

By giving you constant, accurate feedback, a heart monitor can keep you from overtraining the way I did, which is a common mistake among frequent exercisers. You may not notice the effects of overtraining at first, but they add up.

“In the early stages, the signs and symptoms are very subtle,” explains sports physician Dr. Philip Maffetone, author of In Fitness and In Health, the Fourth Edition (Barmare, 2002). “It can be anything from mild fatigue to not progressing, to minor aches and pains, to hormonal imbalance to mild depression. And those things can just get worse.”

The flip side of doing too much, of course, is doing too little. If you always work out at lower-intensity levels, you’ll plateau and won’t reap as many benefits from your program. To get the most results, you need to work out at the exertion level that’s appropriate for you.

“A heart-rate monitor brings some objectivity into your program,” says Maffetone. “It’s almost like having a coach with you at all times.”

Measuring Up

To use a heart-rate monitor, you’ll want to know your “max,” or maximum heart rate. While the formula of 220 minus your age = max is well known, it’s an accurate number only for about one-third of people; another third will have a higher max; the final third’s will be lower.

It’s also important to realize that your own max can fluctuate on a daily basis and be affected by stress, hydration, diet, fatigue, even the weather. You can have a sports physician or physiologist test your max, but if you prefer a less expensive (though slightly less accurate) method, try this formula:

For men: Subtract half your age from 210; then subtract [0.05 x weight] + 4 = max

For women: Subtract half your age from 210; then subtract [0.05 x weight] = max

Now the big question – how hard should you train? It depends on your current level of fitness. If you’re new to working out or coming back after a long layoff because of illness or injury, you’ll want to “build your base” and make sure that your aerobic system is well developed before you start training your anaerobic system (which comes into play at higher intensities).

Be patient – it can take several months or more to develop this kind of base, particularly if you’re used to training hard, because exercising at a lower heart rate – say 55 percent of your max on an active-recovery day – may feel too easy. It’s crucial, though, to train at both ends of the spectrum. If you work in the high end too often, you won’t build up your aerobic-energy pathways or develop the capillary density that helps your body operate efficiently and mobilize free fatty acids.

Building your foundation conditions your body to burn fat for fuel (vs. carbohydrates), and also enables you to better take on the challenges of anaerobic training at levels of 80 percent to 100 percent of your max. Over time, base-level training can also dramatically improve your speed, because you will find yourself gradually able to increase your average pace while maintaining that same low heart rate.

Back to your heart-rate training strategy. Once you’ve determined your max, it’s time to determine your training zones. In general, working at 55 percent (or less) to 80 percent of your max heart rate will let you build aerobic fitness and recover from more difficult workouts. Once you get into 80 percent or more of your max, you’re working anaerobically and your body will be relying primarily on carbs, not fat, as fuel. As a result, you’ll burn out much faster at this pace. You’ll also take longer to recover.

Edwards breaks the zones into the following categories:

50-60 percent of your max: the “Healthy Heart” zone.
Exercising at this rate, you strengthen your heart, lungs and build your aerobic capability. You burn fat as your primary source of fuel in this zone, and it may feel very easy if you’re used to working out at higher intensities.

60-70 percent of your max: the “Temperate” zone.
You burn a higher percentage of fat here than in the healthy heart zone. This is a good place to exercise during low-key and “active recovery” workouts.

70-80 percent of your max: the “Aerobic” zone.
In the Aerobic zone, you burn an almost equal mix of carbohydrates and fat. You’re probably exercising in this zone if you can pass the “talk test” (you can speak with a little effort, but can’t sing).

80-90 percent of your max: the “Hot” zone.
Training in this zone increases your endurance and is often used for interval and speed work; it’s for fit exercisers only.

90-100 percent of your max: “Red Line” zone.
Highly trained athletes train here to improve their performance, but like the Hot zone, it’s impossible – and dangerous – to stay here for any length of time.

Getting Into a Groove

Periodization – following a strategically varied training program that’s designed to help you consistently improve your fitness by incorporating both active-recovery time and time off – is another important component of training with a heart-rate monitor. Training without a monitor, you may find it difficult to accurately gauge your various levels of intensity, and thus ensure you’re getting a proper distribution and mix.

Your program will depend on your individual goals, but below you’ll find three sample workouts that illustrate how you might use heart-rate training in a periodized routine. These suggested workouts come from senior personal trainer Chris Clark, director of the LTF/X advanced-training program at Life Time Fitness:

Workout 1: Beginners

If you’re new to cardio exercise or are coming back from a long layoff, you’ll want to focus on building your aerobic base. That means working at 55 percent of your max or lower five times a week. You may want to exercise for 20 or 30 minutes a day, or go as long as an hour, depending on your current fitness level. By training this way, you’ll gradually develop your aerobic capacity. Remember that when you exercise aerobically, you’re burning mostly fat. When you start pushing too hard, you start burning carbs and sugars as your primary source of fuel.

Workout 2: Fit Exercisers

The nature and duration of your workouts will depend on your fitness level:

Monday: An “over-distance” workout – a longer session (e.g., an hour or more) where you keep your heart rate at 55 percent of your max or lower.
Tuesday: Interval training. After warming up, do a series of hard/easy intervals (30- to 90-seconds each) at a 1:1 ratio, working at up to 80 percent of your max for the hard intervals, and aiming for 55 percent for the recovery intervals.

Wednesday: A medium-distance day – work at 55 percent of max or below, cutting your cardio workout shorter than you did on Monday, and mixing in some functional strength training during your remaining time.

Thursday: Do a “steady state” workout at 55 percent to 70 percent of your max or at “swing” tempo (staying aerobic, but alternating between the high and low ends of this range).

Friday: Interval training similar to Tuesday.

Workout 3: Extremely Fit Exercisers
Again, the durations of the workouts will vary based on your fitness state, goals and habits:

Monday: A longer workout at “swing tempo” of 55 percent to 70 percent of your max.

Tuesday: A strength day incorporating hills or interval training, getting up to 90-100 percent of max on the hard intervals.

Wednesday: An over-distance workout at 55 percent of your max or lower.

Thursday: Shorter workout at 55 percent of max and functional strength training.

Friday: Aerobic workout at 55-75 percent of max.

How to Start Using a Heart Rate Monitor

When you start wearing a monitor, it’s a good idea to experiment with it a little. Wear it for a few “test” workouts to get a feel for your current tendencies. Are you typically exercising too hard, or not hard enough? How long does it take for your body to warm up at the beginning of your workout? (You’ll find there’s a point, somewhere at the beginning of your steady-state workout, at which your heart rate begins to level off, but for some people it’s five minutes, for others it could be 20 or more.) What kind of pace do you need to maintain to keep your heart rate in your Temperate zone? What kind of effect does slightly increasing your effort have on your heart rate, and how quickly does it occur? How long does it take for your heart rate to drop and level off after interval spikes?

Start paying attention to these things and to the feedback your body gives you at various heart-rate zones. This will give you a sense of your body’s natural rhythms and reactions, and also give you some current baseline readings. Over time, you can expect to start seeing significant changes in all these factors, and getting that kind of feedback can make exercise a lot more fun.

As you learn to work with your body more cooperatively and intelligently, you can expect to see some striking improvements in your fitness level. By using a periodization strategy – and in particular by using your monitor to keep from overtraining on your “easy” and active-recovery days – you’ll fall into a more natural, sustainable conditioning pattern, preventing burnout and fatigue. Then, with your base-fitness level in place, you can start including more advanced workouts in the anaerobic zones to further maximize your fitness.

Whether you’re looking to burn more fat, get over an athletic hump, simplify your workout approach or just get over the nasty, telltale symptoms of overtraining, consider adding a heart-rate monitor to your program. This simple device may just turn out to be the most cost-effective and enlightening health-and-fitness investment you’ll ever make.

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