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     You’re perhaps aware of your heart rate as you’re putting down some serious workouts this winter, but are you really gleaning the most you can from your heart rate data? Using heart rate metrics to assist your training can prevent you from getting stale and overtrained and lead to significant performance gains if used correctly. In a series of articles, we will briefly highlight three broad categories where utilization of heart rate data may help you maximize your training efforts. From assessments, to program planning and execution, to protocol modification, you’re bound to benefit from the valuable information that your device is capturing.  

Part One: Heart Rate-Based Fitness Assessments

     For starters, you should know your current fitness status. Although quite helpful, you don’t have to be assessed at a physiology lab to test your present capacity. Choose a set distance to run, e.g., 3,000m or 5,000m and cover the distance as fast as possible recording your finishing time and heart rate throughout. If your monitor doesn’t store copious heart rate data, make mental notes every 1,000m. At the very least, capture your finishing heart rate. A field test such as this is usually far better than simply relying on a theoretical formula to determine your maximum heart rate and your distinct heart rate zones. If you’ve never had any guidance on the matter, consult with a coach to at least delineate what your unique data reflects. No matter what your numbers look like, you’re now armed with a great baseline that will help guide your subsequent workouts. While many factors come into play on any given day, this is at least a fantastic place to start from. 

     Periodically and frequently monitoring your progression throughout your training cycle will eliminate surprises as you get closer to your goal. It can also be highly motivating to watch your fitness improvements. Without doing a time trial every couple weeks, you can simply choose a specific heart rate to run a specified distance and see if your system is responding to the training load. As an example, run 2,000m at a heart rate of exactly 145 beats per minute. If you’re getting fitter, you should be able to run faster at that same heart rate. Ideally repeat this at least every eight weeks. 

     Monitoring your resting heart rate, and heart rate variability if you have that option, may reflect interesting trends when taken over longer periods of time. Take note of these first thing in the morning for consistency. It is normal for your resting heart rate to fluctuate plus or minus 2 beats per minute on any given day. A gradual decrease in resting heart rate is a normal adaptation to training and may indicate increased fitness. When there is an elevation of approximately 5 beats or more on any particular day or over several days, your system may be in need of rest or a reduced load. Likewise, heart rate variability, the normal time variation between successive beats, may elevate with an increase in fitness and indicate an improved state of readiness. This neatly packaged explanation is unfortunately not that simple. A lowered resting heart rate or raised heart rate variability are not always indicative of good things! Relying on such a gross simplification can be misleading. What is important to note are trends matched with your actual feeling. You may feel better when your numbers are opposite of what they theoretically indicate. To illustrate, depending on the phase of your training, you may feel like you are getting fitter and your times would indicate so, however; your heart rate variability may be dropping. Your parasympathetic system may be less active in higher intensity phases. Understanding your system’s response is tremendously helpful over time. Log the data as best you can. This will help you and your coach understand your unique profile.

     Another method to gauge your fitness changes and fatigue is by using recovery heart rates within your workouts. If you regularly run the same workout, take note of the recovery time to baseline. For example, if you run repeats of 800m on the track, how long does it take your heart rate to return to e.g. 120 beats per minute on each repeat. How does this look over time? You should be able to run faster, and/or have a reduced recovery time between repeats if things are on track.

Part Two: Program Planning & Execution

     This is a second installment in a series regarding heart rate-based training. In the first article you learned about the importance and value of using heart rate metrics as an assessment tool. Once you know your present fitness and your training zones, you’re better informed and capable of setting more realistic and achievable goals. The fitter you get, the harder it is to make huge gains; however, you’ll still be able to move towards your goal in incremental steps. Work backwards from goal and set concrete objectives along the way.

     For many athletes, the main purpose for implementing a specific training protocol is to minimize the chance of injury and put their fastest foot forward come race day. Your best chance of succeeding requires structure. You will need to emulate what you will experience race day. Determine what your critical workouts are that most closely reflect your ultimate task. Plan your other workouts around these vital sessions. You don’t want to be ‘racing’ in your training, but you need to stimulate your system to handle progressively greater loads. Plan for specific stimuli at regular intervals allowing sufficient rest in between. As an example, if your goal is a PR in a half marathon, you’ll want to condition your system to handle threshold zone efforts for an extended period of time without a significant drop in speed. Key threshold workouts approximately every ten days at specifically determined heart rates will play an instrumental role in determining your ultimate performance. If you use your heart rate metrics to explicitly plan your workouts, you’ll likely glean far more insights and benefits from your efforts.

     Know what your objective is before you head out the door. If you are supposed to run easy, i.e., staying in a comfortable aerobic zone, look at your heart rate and ensure it doesn’t creep up where you are running harder than you should. Doing your best to stick to a plan and recording feedback are keys to refining your program. This may mean pushing yourself outside your comfort zone on some days and taking it easy when you know you have more to give. By closely following a more rigid program when you’re relatively new at structured training, you will learn what actually worked and what did not. You still need to be sensible about what you do execute on any given day, such as not ignoring obvious bodily cues of strain. Your subsequent training programs should continue to evolve as you become more aware and knowledgeable about your unique physiology. In the next installment, we will discuss protocol modification based on your feedback and the alignment of your performance and your pre-determined objectives.

Part Three: Protocol Modification

     The last in a series regarding heart rate-based training, this article will review the indicators and methods of adjusting your exercise prescription should the need arise. The availability and beauty of having heart rate metrics literally at arm’s length, is something you athletes should definitely capitalize on.

     As previously discussed in our prior articles, there is a case for sticking to a pre-defined protocol early in your athletic development. You need to follow a well thought out progression to know what stimuli benefits you and what does not. If you make too many changes when you’re starting out, you’ll never truly test the formula. That being said, you should expect to make significant changes with experience. 

     There is tremendous value in recording heart rates over time and observing the trends that ensue. Should you notice the trends aren’t going in the direction planned, you’d be wise to start examining the reasons why and making the necessary modifications. Are your resting heart rates on the rise? This is often a sign you’re in need of more recovery time. Try taking 1 to 3 days easy and see how your numbers change. Resume your regular training once your resting level is back to your unique baseline. Don’t be judgmental with yourself. Listening to your body’s signals is the smartest thing you can do. Record your metrics along with your modified training. Analogously, if your heart rate variability is low over several days in a row, that is yet another sign you may need to incorporate more rest in your routine. After having a few easier days, your numbers should improve. If not, or if you’re having difficultly interpreting the trends, consult with a coach to get their input. Be proactive and save yourself from a poor performance, injury or burnout. The better handle you have on your own physiology, the less guesswork involved and the more confidence you will have in what you are doing.

     Your heart rate may or may not reflect general fatigue or musculoskeletal issues, so subjective feedback should take precedence. As an example, delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is anticipated as you load your system to a greater extent over the course of a training program. You may even experience more localized acute discomfort. When does this soreness indicate something you should be concerned about? As a very general rule, once you’ve warmed up, that being running easy for approximately fifteen minutes, if the issue isn’t subsiding/improving and may be even feeling worse, you should back off the stress and either rest or do some crosstraining. Likewise, if you are feeling significant fatigue even after you’ve given your body a chance to warm up, slow yourself down to an easy jog or walk. 

     Adhering too rigidly to a theoretical schedule without tuning into and adapting to your body’s response is a lost opportunity and potentially injurious. It’s not worth risking injury or sickness to foolishly complete a workout when your body is screaming otherwise. Fine tuning your training to match your workouts with your body’s readiness is your ticket to optimal performance. Listen to your heart & you can’t go wrong!! 

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