Triathletes preparing for an event seem to spend as much time worrying over the details of their training programs as they do actually swimming, cycling and running. "Have I trained hard enough?" "Am I ready?" "Will I be able to endure?" are some of the questions that lay behind their concern.
Increasingly, athletes are using heart rate monitors to answer those questions. Watch runners in a local 5K and you will likely notice more than a few black straps wrapped around runners' chests, and not just on the runners at the front of the pack.
"The idea that you have to be an elite athlete with a professional coach to benefit from heart rate training is something people are realizing is a myth," Garmin International spokesman Jake Jacobson says. "Everyday athletes can use the same technology as elite athletes use and get as much out of their training even if they are not going to set an Olympic record."
Wall charts and posters in fitness centers and gyms often provide athletes with their first exposure to heart rate zones. Matt Kaplan, vice president and business director at Suunto USA, recommends moving beyond those charts quickly to get the most benefit.
"The charts are consistent in the information they give but, for the most part, it's a gross generalization. Everyone's physiology is so different," he says. "The more people work out and get in tune with their heart rate, it's important for them to determine their max heart rate to get the most out of their workout."
Jacobson adds, "The charts will show you what a 35-year-old should be doing. But look at several 35-year-olds around you in the gym. They are all different. Being able to work out within your own personal zones makes the workout much more meaningful."
Understanding what the heart rate numbers mean is another area in need of education. Pia Baker, a brand director for Timex, points out one misconception, "Heart rate monitors are only for people who have concerns about their heart. It is actually a valuable training tool that can help you achieve your goals, whether you're exercising to stay healthy, lose weight, train for a race or increase your speed."
Cindi Bannink, owner of Madison Multisport in Madison, Wisconsin, and a USA Triathlon-certified coach, requires all her athletes to use heart rate monitors. Still, her clients often misunderstand the purpose of the technology.
"One of the biggest things is they think the heart rate monitor is there to challenge them, to show how hard they can go all the time," Bannink says. "In reality a heart rate monitor can make sure you are not training too hard on recovery days."
More attention needs to be paid to what one's heart rate monitor records over time. "You need to build an aerobic base and slowly work through the heart rate zones to get to a peak and slowly work your way back down," Kaplan says.
By tracking your personal heart rate, you can improve the efficiency of your workouts and monitor fitness levels as the season progresses.
"A heart rate monitor can give you real-time feedback on how your body is performing," Baker says. "The biggest 'ah-ha' for most people is learning that they are overtraining or undertraining, both of which make workouts inefficient."
The difference is crucial. "If you can't carry on a conversation through most workouts and your heart rate is 85 percent of your max, you're overtraining and will probably have a hard time sustaining a desired pace or workout duration. Overtraining can also lead to injuries," Baker says.
"On the flip side, if you find that most workouts are at 40 percent of your max heart rate, it might help explain why you aren't seeing the results you want. Lastly, by tracking your heart rate over a longer period of time, you can get visual proof of your progress, which is very gratifying."
Following a triathlon training program that designates how far to swim, bike and run provides a good start for beginning and intermediate athletes. Too many, however, fail to understand the importance of varying the intensity of their workouts.
Bannink explains, "Someone starting out in an endurance sport may say, 'I run 5 miles every day at an 8-minute pace. I just ran a 5-mile race and I can't understand why I can't run faster than an 8-minute pace.' They aren't training their body to run anything different than that pace if they are doing the same thing every day. You want workouts to challenge and overextend them and then you want workouts to help them recover."
Jacobson adds, "People will spend too much time at the extremes. They are either maxing out all the time or they are so afraid of maxing out that they never reach a strong active heart rate. Heart rate monitors give you instant feedback about where you are at instead of you realizing afterword that you could have worked out harder or that you were running yourself into the ground for no good reason."
Athletes who previously used mileage or overall time to schedule workouts often question the benefit of "easy" days. "Slowing down can be challenging to people," Bannink says. "But when you explain the reasons why you are having them slow down, they usually understand and will follow that methodology. Even world-class marathon runners are going super easy on their easy days."
Training with a heart rate monitor increases the efficiency and effectiveness of swim, bike and run workouts. "Everybody wants to go faster and farther. But when you see that you are having an easier time going faster and farther than you were when you were going slower and shorter, that means your training effort is paying off," Jacobson says.