Heart rate training can be a very effective method for improving performance, reducing injury, and enhancing health. It’s also great at helping an athlete understand how their body responds to training and developing their intuitive ability to gauge intensity.
As a coach who advocates the use of a heart rate monitor as a tool in training, there are several mistakes I regularly see athletes make.
Here they are.
Mistake 1: Not Establishing Accurate Training Zones
If you want to train effectively using heart rate, your zones must be right.
Effective training requires that you perform different types of sessions at various intensities, from low-intensity aerobic workouts to high-intensity anaerobic intervals.
A heart rate monitor can help you perform each type of session at the proper intensity by assigning a specific target heart rate or heart rate zone to each.
Most athletes set their zones using a percentage of max heart rate and a formula like 220-age, or use the heart rate calculation baked into their device. In my experience, these formulas are not very good because they don’t account for your unique heart rate profile.
Field testing to determine your lactate threshold heart rate is a better way to determine your zones. When you know your threshold heart rate, you can use a calculator to define each training zone that you can use in your training. These tests are incredibly hard, because of the high effort required, and also a certain degree of self-control and skill, so I don’t like to use them with beginners and less experienced athletes.
Lab testing is the gold standard for setting training zones. While testing comes with some expense, the insights gained are well worth your money. Not only will you determine training zones that are the most accurate for you, but you’ll also be able to measure and track your fitness and efficiency.
Mistake 2: Not Re-Testing Often Enough
Your thresholds and zones will change over time, especially if you’re just getting started. That means it’s crucial to check your zones regularly and to make adjustments.
Our work with hundreds of athletes over the past 12 years has given us some insight on how quickly these changes happen. For those who had more sedentary lifestyles, their zones can change significantly in as little as 2 months, while those who are active may see the change a little later.
When you don’t re-test yourself, you risk spending an extended period of time training in zones that may have in fact shifted, which could potentially lead to either being under- or over-trained.
Whether you use a field test or measure yourself in the lab, it’s useful to get new data regularly and to refine your zones as you go.
Mistake 3: Relying On HR During Short Intervals
One of the downsides to training with heart rate is the lag associated with a change in effort. When you increase your pace quickly, it takes some time for your heart rate to climb to the level, it will ultimately plateau.
If you’re doing a speed session made up of intense short intervals, it’s best to use perceived exertion or pace to regulate your intensity during the intervals. For insights, check your heart rate post-session to see how your heart rate responded during the session.
Mistake 4: Comparing Your HR To Others
Every athlete has a different heart rate profile based on their genetic makeup, age and level of fitness, so there’s little point comparing your heart rate to your friends.
It doesn’t matter that your heart rate is higher or lower than your friends even though you have similar finishing times or are the same age. What’s important is how you are performing and how your heart rate changes in response to your training over time.
Emotions can affect heart rate. When you are excited or anxious, for example, your heart rate increases. This alone could be the difference between you and your buddy, so worry about yourself and not those around you.
Mistake 5: Being A Slave To Your Heart Rate Monitor
A heart rate monitor is a tool to help you determine how hard to work in a particular training session and to ‘dial in’ your intuitive sense of perceived exertion. It’s not something that you must robotically obey at all times.
Sometimes your heart rate may climb above the desired zone as you run up a hill. So long as your perceived exertion still feels right, that’s ok; your heart rate will drop as you come down the other side and your average heart rate should be where you want it to be.
Heart rate monitors can be temperamental sometimes, especially if you’re using a wrist-based monitor. Rather than be a slave to the number, listen to your body and adjust as needed.
Mistake 6: Ignoring Pace And Perceived Exertion
Heart rate, pace and perceived exertion all have their pros and cons when used to regulate training intensity. Each contributes to your overall development as an athlete, so it makes no sense to use one in isolation of the other.
Heart rate training offers the best results when you can compare heart rate (input), with pace, speed or power (output), and with perceived exertion. Tracked over time, if your heart rate at a given output is lower, or your output at a given heart rate (or perceived exertion) has improved, your training is working.
If you can avoid these mistakes in your training, I am confident you’ll enjoy your training experience and achieve the goals you have set for yourself.