I remember as a kid watching the space shuttle lift off. We were glued to the screen to watch the countdown and blast off. Later on, as I started to study human performance, I found myself watching the lift off again, but this time, I was more interested in the pre countdown diagnostics they used on each astronaut such as minute ventilation, blood pressure, and heart rate. As they got closer to final count down, heart rates would go way up. At blast off, the astronauts were buckled down, unable to move; yet heart rates were in the red, close to if not at max heart rate. This was a great example for me in my studies that heart rate cannot tell us what true intensity really is. It can’t tell us how hard we are working and it can’t tell us how hard we should be working. If the astronaut was unable to move but at max heart rate, then heart rate can only be a correlate of intensity. It can only show a small picture of fitness and work effort.
Dr. Fritz Hagerman, an exercise scientist, who was well know for studying heart rate in world class rowers said that trying to predict max heart rate is ludicrous and that using heart rate as a training tool is ineffective. Everyone pumps blood differently through the chambers of the heart. Some use quick shorter beats, while others have longer more powerful beats. Genetics play a role and so does muscle tissue type. Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, makes it a point to note that 40% of patients can get their heart rate to more than 100% of predicted max.
I have done a number of experiments in the gym with heart rate and have found without a doubt, athletes who rely on heart rate to determine level of intensity or effort, are leaving much of their effort on the table and not achieving their full potential. My example is simple. When training people to run 2 minute max efforts with 2 minutes of rest between each, and asking subjectively for people to increase speed in each interval until failure only based on how they feel, not using any external validator like heart rate - 9 people out of 10 reach true max effort and intensity. Doing the same drill with people who have a heart rate monitor on and using heart rate as a guide as opposed to feeling, I usually see a blunted effort - something that falls shy of their max. The first group that doesn’t use heart rate usually is surprised at how fast they run. It’s almost always beyond what they thought their max heart rate was (and their speed!). It’s very eye opening for people who have depended on heart rate as a training tool.
I was happy to see a study come out in March 2017 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that supports what I’m seeing happen with heart rate monitor training. The study confirms that over a 6 week period when 2 groups followed the same training program, one group used heart rate as a guide for intensity and the other used perceived exertion (suggestive loading) or training based on how you should feel during each effort. The group that used subjective loading displayed greater outcomes across the board. They produced more intensity and more results.
If you’re addicted to your heart rate monitor… try a few of your training sessions without it. You’ll likely surprise yourself!
For those of you attending stride class on Wednesday, May 10, we are going to have a component that will use heart rate only as a diagnostic for recovery, the way it was meant to be used, not for intensity. If you have a HR monitor, bring it to class and we will show you how you should can maximize using your HR monitor in your training.