“What’s your heart rate right now?”
I love asking this question on the cardio fitness floor.
I don’t have to know who you are, what your goals are, or even whether or not you would like to chat while working out today.
But the answer to this question tells me a lot about all of those things.
Namely, do you even care about one of the most important aspects of cardiovascular training?
The number and strength of the beats per minute that the most important muscle in your body puts out affects weight loss, endurance, muscle growth, recovery and even how long you will live.
That’s a ridiculous number of variables. Arguably, even more numerous and important than the deadlift (which pains me to admit, but it’s true).
Are you paying attention to your Heart Rate?
You will be when I’m done with you.
What is heart rate training?
Heart rate training is the practice of measuring heart rate during your workouts and using it as a guide to navigate rest periods, recovery days, intensity changes and interval durations.
Initially, heart rate training began as an extension of the prevention of the number one cause of death in our species – heart disease.[i]
It was found over and over again that cardiovascular exercise decreased risk of death from heart disease.
No one likes dying, so it became an area of scientific research to understand why and how it worked, in hopes of creating exercise protocols to help lengthen and improve the lives of the human animals.[ii]
Thus the discipline of heart rate training was born and spawned a plethora of technologies, programs, opinions, facts — and misconceptions all at the same time.
I won’t be diving into a lengthy discussion of the complete history, relevant technological debates and contrasting theories of implementation today. That’s probably not something you want to read anyway.
Instead, I want to help you understand what’s in it for you and your goals by outlining the current methods of determining appropriate heart rate guidelines. Then I’ll briefly address the adaptations that can come when you do it well.
Then, you can decide if and how you want to incorporate this tool in your life.
It’s always your choice!
Why does Heart Rate Matter?
Heart rate training can be very confusing for many. Let me try to clear it up:
It’s all about stimulus and response.
It helps to think of it in terms of weight training.
In weight training, the load, volume and tempo are all stimuli placed on the muscle — whereas the lactic burn, the delayed onset muscle soreness and the time needed to rest between sets is the response.
In cardio, the workload (how fast you run, climb the stairs or how hard you pull the rower handle) is the stimulus and the heart rate is the response.
Being able to see the exact response to a given stimulus (how high your heart rate goes when you hike up a hill and how fast you come back to normal when you reach the top) allows you to gauge the appropriateness of the stimulus and whether the response is positive or negative.
In other words, in weight training, I can just ask you how that exercise felt and where you felt it in order to determine if the weight was appropriate, if you did it correctly and if you will get the benefit. Easy peasy.
I can’t do that with cardio. I can’t ask, “How does your heart feel?”
Your nervous system doesn’t work that way. Thus, the stimulus and response gets a bit more complicated.
You don’t know the response. So you have to MEASURE it. Not as easy, but today’s technology is making it easier than ever.
Heart rate training gives intelligent direction to cardio, allows you to measure IF your workout was good or bad, AND can allow you to make the necessary adjustments for your next workout to be more effective.
What you get out of it?
Heart rate training during cardio is just like periodization in weight training. That is, we should do it to bring about positive adaptations, not just to burn calories.
I often tell my clients, if you are doing your cardio just to burn fuel, not to create a change, then don’t be surprised if a few years from now, you are still burning fuel AND HAVE NOT CHANGED.
What kind of changes can we create through Heart Rate Training?
Weight Loss: Tracking heart rate can help with weight loss. We know that base, moderate intensity and high intensity intervals all have their place in increasing the percentage and amount of fat burned through our metabolism. Tracking your heart rate can help you achieve these all-important weight loss adaptations. Remember: the intervals are the stimulus and heart rate is the response. If you intend to do high intensity intervals, but in tracking your heart rate you see that during your “rest”, your heart rate never comes down, then you know you need to adjust your workout (shorter work periods and/or longer rest periods) to reflect the true ebb and flow of intervals.
Endurance: Tracking heart rate helps with endurance training. In general, to run, cycle, swim, row, faster for longer, we (along with several other prominent exercise scientists[iii]) abide by the 80/20 rule.
That is, during 80% of your week, heart rate training should be around your aerobic base (zones 1 and 2 by the 5 zone system). 20% of your training should be around your anaerobic threshold (zones 3-5 by the 5 zone system).
Most heart rate monitors today have the capability to compile your weekly (and even your monthly) data to show you how much time you spent in each zone.
Analyze the look back and plan the next week accordingly. Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up!
Muscle Growth: Tracking your heart rate can help with muscle growth. A strong cardiovascular system improves type-1 muscle fiber functionality, increases blood flow through new capillaries, and even bolsters mitochondrial density (cellular powerhouses) so that you can lift heavier weight for more reps with less recovery.
All of that equates to more intense weight lifting that will force the growth of muscle tissue.
Recovery and Program Progression: Tracking your heart rate can help you recover better. Muscles won’t grow, endurance won’t improve and weight won’t be lost if you don’t recover well.
A lack of recovery between intervals (heart rate stays high when it would normally drop) or even exaggerated spiking (heart rate is higher than normal during a particular workload) can both be indicative of poor recovery. Maybe your sleep is affecting your recovery. Maybe you need to take a rest day, or maybe your nutrition is sabotaging your efforts. Tracking your heart rate can clue you in!
Life: As I said earlier, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the world. Heart rate training has been shown over and over again to improve all of the risk factors that are associated with risk of death by heart disease.[iv]
Lowered LDL cholesterol, increased HDL cholesterol, reduction in blood pressure, reduction in body weight, increased exercise tolerance, and increased insulin sensitivity are all of the studied benefits over the last 40 years![v]
It’s always great to choose your exercise goals based on the best version of you. However, as a good buddy of mine once told me “no one looks good in a pine box”.
Before you worry about all of the other adaptations, train your heart rate to help you live a long, healthy life.
How to get started
Have I convinced you that you need to heart rate train? Good. But how do you get started?
It can be confusing if you’re new. But never fear, you have options.
I recommend starting by getting into the habit of tracking. You can pick up something simple that links to your phone via Bluetooth and use your favorite fitness app. Or you can get real fancy and go for something James Bond would wear. Either way, pick something that is convenient and that you can grow into.
After you’re into the habit of tracking, it’s time to start using that information. You can subscribe to our free, educational podcast with our Metabolic Expert — Coach Dan to jump-start your general knowledge. Or, if you’re a “go all out” kind of person, you can complete a metabolic assessment. This is the best way to get a personalized breakdown of your heart rate zones and how you should train in them.
Remember, we often change on the inside before we see it reflected on the outside.
Next time I see you the fitness floor, I hope to catch you tracking what’s going on inside.
[i] Froelicher, V.F. & Myers, J.N. 2000; Exercise and the heart. 4th ed. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company
[ii] Fox III, S.M. Naughton, J.P. and Haskell, W.L. Physical activity and the prevention of coronary heart disease. Ann Clin Res 1971;3:404-432.
[iii] Seebohar, Bob. Metabolic Efficiency Training. 2009. < https://www.amazon.com/Metabolic-Efficiency-Training-Teaching-Body/dp/0984275908>
[iv] Karvonen, M.J., Kentala, E. and Mustala, O. The effects of training on heart rate: a longitudinal study. Ann Med Exper Fenn 1957;35(3):307-315.
[v] Jonathan Myers Exercise and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation. 2003;107:e2-e5, published online before print January 7, 2003 http://dx.doi.org/10.1161/01.CIR.0000048890.59383.8D