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Heart Rate Training Explained

by Paul Duncan Jr

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.27.53 PMWhat’s the best way to measure effort in training? From heart rate, power, rate of perceived effort, to low intensity versus high intensity, the options abound. When it comes to recommending a workout for an athlete, I consider the following three factors:

1. How long will the session be?
2. What’s the purpose of the session?
3. How hard should the athlete be pushing during the session?

The answer to the first question is generally pretty simple: I give a time or distance goal. For the second and third questions, I suggest heart rate zones. While it may seem fairly basic nowadays, I believe training with a heart rate monitor is the most useful measure of effort for athletes, but it takes patience and discipline. Most people want to go hard all the time and, when they think they are going “easy,” they’re just training less hard than usual. Using a heart rate monitor forces you to stick to the zones. How does a coach determine an athlete’s training zones?

Some coaches prefer to use maximum heart rate to determine an athlete’s zones. Most readers are probably familiar with the formula of 220 minus your age to deter- mine zones. Some coaches also do lactate testing during training to figure out lactate threshold and determine zones from that. Alternatively, Phil Maffetone’s formula of 180 minus the athlete’s age, followed by making adjustments based on the athlete’s cur- rent fitness level and experience, offers a more customizable approach.

Maffetone’s formula will give you your Maximum Aerobic Function (maf) or Maximum Aerobic Heart Rate (mahr). Bear in mind this is not maximum heart rate. This number is a guideline for where you can make the most aerobic gains. The impor- tance of training at this number is underestimated. When training and racing, the energy required will come from two different sources: muscle and liver glycogen and body fat. Using glycogen for energy can be very limited as the human body can only store 90 to 120 minutes worth of it. Fat, on the other hand, is a virtually limitless source if your body knows how to tap into it. Teaching your body how to tap into fat for energy requires athletes to do a significant amount of training at a lower heart rate than they are generally used to, which means that they will need to slow down quite a bit, especially during the base-building phase of training.

As athletes become more efficient at burning fat, they become faster at a lower heart rate. Yet, many people are afraid of this concept (low heart rate training) because they feel like they have to train fast all the time in order to race fast. Obviously the plan is not to race easy. This is one of the biggest misconceptions of this method of training. The key is to build a big aerobic engine, then sharpen the body with higher intensity training as the race gets closer and you have developed your systems with lower intensity train- ing first. Once it’s time to go hard, your body is going to be ready for it, and you will see much bigger gains.

Paul Duncan Jr is a triathlon coach at paulduncanjr.com