Sunday, March 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Tracy Turner -- Heart Rate Zones and the Heart Rate Monitor

“I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time” - B. Pascal

Missi has been asking me to guest blog for quite some time.  So from time to time, I will be blogging here, primarily about equipment, physiological considerations, or both.  Although I am well read, I don’t purport to be an expert, so please consider these entries as just my two cents!

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about heart rate and what I consider to be the most important piece of equipment in any aerobic exercise program: the heart rate monitor.
Heart rate is the single best indicator of exercise intensity.  If your heart rate is too low during exercise, you will rarely see the results that you want to see.  If it is too high, you will likely become exhausted prematurely and ultimately probably give up on your exercise program because it is just too taxing.  The happy medium is called your Target Heart Rate. It is based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate.  To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.

Maximum Heart Rate = 220 - Your Age

There are differing opinions about where to go from here.  Most people concur that the Target Heart Rate zone is 50 to 75% of your maximum heart rate (MHR).  I would submit, however, that there are multiple “target” zones based on your overall fitness goals.  Elsewhere, they may be called by different names, but let’s call them Active Zone, Aerobic Zone, Training Zone, and Above Zone.

Active Zone (50 – 60% MHR):  This isn’t much!  This is very light intensity activity/exercise.  Depending on your beginning fitness level, 50% MHR may be near your resting heart rate.  About the only thing that will drop your heart rate below 50% is sitting or lying down.  The encouraging thing is that most of the calories burned at this level of activity are fat calories.  Imagine spending an entire day above 50%.

Aerobic Zone (60 – 70% MHR):  Do the math…this is still pretty low, but at this level of exertion, your body has the ideal level of oxygen coming in to properly combust maximum calories and fat.

Training Zone (70 – 85% MHR):  This is where cardiovascular and endurance gains are made.  This level of intensity is frankly taxing, but not exhausting.

Above Zone (>85% MHR):  Believe it or not, we should avoid this category.  This is the “pain” in the “no pain-no gain” nonsense slogan, and I believe it is the single-most contributing factor in the failure of most exercise programs.  At this level of activity, we have exceeded our aerobic threshold and have moved into an anaerobic state.  This simply means that we are not getting enough oxygen to efficiently burn calories, and we will be left with the byproducts of inefficient combustion, namely, lactic acid.  Don’t get me wrong; anaerobic training is great in the weight room or if you’re training to beat Michael Johnson’s world record in the 400m, but I am not; Are you?

What does this all mean?  Once you figure your zones, what should you do with the information? 

Train by them! 

I whole-heartedly believe that the most valuable piece of equipment you can own is a heart rate monitor.  And I prefer one with a chest strap, as it gives you immediate and ongoing information.  They are not that expensive (around $80 depending on features), and they help you train smarter not necessarily harder.  While features like programmable intervals (which we use with the beginner run schedule (ie. 4 min run/ 1 min walk cycle)) and programmable HR zones are great, having a real-time heart rate readout will change the way you train.  It will allow you to adjust your workout during your workout.  The point is to push yourself into your preferred zone but not to overtax yourself.

Almost all of your workouts on this beginner running program should be in the Training Zone.  I am forty, so my Training Zone is 126-153 bpm.  During a run, if my heart rate gets up to 160, I slow down or stop early, but if it drops to 120, I need to increase my intensity.  Those are easy to understand, but I also use my heart rate as an indication of recovery. 

If my heart rate is not recovering adequately during one of the walk phases during the workout, I pause the clock and wait for it to drop below 130 before beginning the next run phase.  That may mean walking for three minutes instead of the scheduled one. Even though I may be veering from the scheduled exercise, I am ultimately listening to my body and making adjustments accordingly.

I can tell you from experience that constantly pushing yourself Above Zone will not make more rapid gains; it will only lead you to DREAD your workouts!  That is not Joyful.

Listen to your body, or better yet, let a heart rate monitor do the listening for you!

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