The heart of the matter


Imagine what it would be like to drive your automobile without an instrument panel. You could guess your speed by looking at other vehicles, but they may be going too fast or too slow. You would not know if you were about to run out of gas, if your engine was too hot, or your oil pressure too low. You could probably fake it for a week or two — if you didn’t get a ticket for speeding — but something eventually would go wrong that would bring your car to a halt — something that could have been prevented if you had an instrument panel.

When it comes to exercise, it is just as important — if not more so — to monitor your body for signs of trouble or, hopefully, signs of progress. The body has a built-in instrument panel and most of the gauges, dials, and indicators are packed into one organ — the heart. Feelings can be deceiving — you can feel good and have a lousy workout, and speed can be misleading — you can go slow but still finish feeling tired. The heart does not lie. It will tell you instantly the status of your body.

Getting your heart to tell you this information has come a long way since the days of stopping your exercise and counting heartbeats. Today’s pulse monitors are far more advanced, yet easier to use and less expensive, than their predecessors. Advanced limit settings, alarms, high, low, and average rates, and memory for up to eight workouts, are just a few of the features to be found on today’s pulse monitors. By using a pulse monitor with a computer, the truly compulsive or just plain curious athlete can do a detailed analysis of each and every workout. Graph overlays can then be used to take the analysis further by comparing many workouts to each other. Some high-end pulse monitors make the process easy by coming with an interface kit and the necessary software. This eliminates what would be an otherwise lengthy and tedious affair of manually entering every stored pulse rate.

Getting used to exercising by pulse can take some time. I used to gauge most of my workouts by how long I ran, with little thought as to what I was actually doing during that time. I had always had structured hard days but now even “easy runs” have structure and purpose. At first I found myself having to almost walk to get up steep hills to keep from going over my high limit and sprinting on downhills to maintain a pulse rate that was considered “exercise” and not “weight control.” I began referring to myself as a running ping-pong. I was having to vary my pace so much because my pulse bounced wildly between my low and high limits.

Soon I noticed that I was hearing the limit alarms on my pulse monitor less and less and my workouts began to feel more natural. I also noticed that my “easy days” felt harder while I was doing them, but as soon as I finished I felt more recovered than the pre-pulse monitor workouts. This can be attributed to the way I used to do my “easy days.” Previously, my heart rate was all over, including going very high as I charged up a hill. So while a lot of the time I was going easy — most of the time too easy and not really “exercising” — I was often stressing my body too much for an “easy day.” By using a pulse monitor I can make sure I never go too hard but am always going hard enough to gain a cardiovascular benefit. This allows my body to rest while my heart and lungs continue to improve.

When I analyzed several weeks worth of data what I saw was almost unbelievable. The time it took to run one of my shorter “easy day” courses was falling through the roof. In only four weeks the time dropped from a 35:30 to 31:45 with the same effort. In other words, both runs were done by averaging a pulse of 140 yet one was almost four minutes faster! I almost did not notice the time improvement because the entire month I was concentrating on keeping the same pulse.

Now some of the runs that I used to find boring are becoming a challenge in a fun way. I changed my high and low limits so they are only five apart and made it a “game” to keep from hearing any alarms. This “game” becomes a real mental challenge on hilly courses. I must constantly anticipate how my heart is going to react to each one. For me, time passes quickly playing this “game” because when I look at my watch to check my pulse, I am expecting — or at least hoping for — the same number. Before, when running by time, I found that time went very slowly (“a watched pot never boils”).

As each person is unique so, too, is the way their heart responds to exercise. Each athlete must go by a program developed for them and them alone. In a recent half marathon, for example, I was able to average 5:07 miles by maintaining a heart rate between 160 and 165 while another runner averaged 7:38 miles with a heart rate between 180 and 185. If both of us used the same training program, the outcomes would be predictable. This runner’s target pulse rate on an “easy day” would be overtraining for me as it is around 160 — a pace that I would call racing. Conversely, this runner would be wasting time training at my “easy day” pulse of 140 because the pace would be laughingly slow.

There are many factors that influence a heart rate at a given exercise level including age, sex, resting pulse, maximum pulse, fitness level, and the type of exercise being done. The key to using heart rate for training and racing is knowing at what percent of your maximum heart rate to exercise at in order to achieve the desired results. While several formulas exist to calculate maximum heart rate, the most common is subtracting your age from 220. However, formulas and reality are two different things and it is best to have someone help you determine your real maximum heart rate. For those just starting an exercise program, this test should be done by a doctor.

The half marathon runner mentioned above was able to run at or above the formula “maximum” pulse rate of 183 for almost two hours. The runner’s real maximum pulse rate is almost 200. Nothing can be more frustrating than spending a month or two following a program established by a formula only to learn that you do not fit into a formula. Several books are available on using a pulse monitor to set up and maintain an exercise training program — no matter if your goal is to lose weight or win races. Most good stores that sell pulse monitors also staff people who are knowledgeable in how to use them or can point you to someone who is.

As a competitive runner I have found my pulse monitor an indispensable training partner. From the incredible (watching how much I can improve in only a month of controlled workouts) to the trivial (I discovered that every time I burp my pulse instantly drops four beats) my pulse monitor has given me instant feedback on the status of my training.

The next time you hop into a car and notice that you are almost out of gas, ask yourself if you know as much about your own body. A set of bike tires or a pair of running shoes can cost more than a $100. Why not spend the same amount of money on a device that will enable you to get the most out of all that new rubber?

Back to the Rambling page