Recently, my family and I were driving along Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. As we were cruising east, my daughter, Bella, screamed out, "Look at that guy coming down the hill!" I turned my head in time to see a brave and sweaty man making his way down a very steep hill on a unicycle. Yes, a unicycle. "Crazy" was one word that came to mind. But what was more perplexing about the situation -- from my nerdy trainer POV -- was that this one-wheeled wonder was wearing a heart rate (HR) monitor.
Why was that the oddest thing about the scene? Well, first, fear can cause an elevation in HR (like when you're watching a scary movie), therefore making a workout seem more intense then it actually is. Clearly, coming down that big hill, the unicyclist's ticker was cranking overtime, not necessarily because he was working hard but because he was slightly terrified. In addition, with that type of activity, staying within a target zone (as fancy watches and trainers will often prescribe based on your age, sex, etc.) is pretty much impossible. So what's the point of wearing a monitor at all?
I bring up the unicyclist story because it illustrates the point that HR monitors are useful only in certain situations -- and only if you understand how to maximize the numbers and stats they spit out.
Most importantly, when training is based on heart rate, every athlete (and aspiring athlete) needs to remember that HR monitors derive your numbers based on other people's numbers, which are computed from a formula that includes age, max heart rate and resting heart rate. So really, it's just a gauge -- and not one that is customized for you. In fact, current research suggests that HR monitors cause most people to work below the intensity level they are capable of. If you want to truly push your limits and make large strides in fitness, in most cases you'll need to go beyond your recommended zone. (Of course, before starting any workout program -- especially an intense one -- you should check with your doctor.)
Also, many factors influence HR, such as lack of sleep, emotions, medication, dehydration, alcohol and stress. These factors can make it appear as though you're working out harder than you are, so it's important to compare HR to something else: perceived exertion. The next time you're working out with an HR monitor, ask yourself how it feels. Does it feel easy (Having a full-on conversation with a training buddy is no prob)? Moderate (A few sentences here and there is doable)? Hard (You can speak only in spurts of three or four words)? Or are you out of breath (Talk? Not a chance.)? Write down the number and your exertion level. These numbers are a better indicator of your zone then the standard cookie-cutter chart.
Over time, you will be able to see if you are getting fitter by comparing your feeling to the number. For example, your max HR or "breathless number" during week one of your training might be 175; fast-forward eight weeks and your number is 180. This shows that your cardiovascular engine is getting stronger, circulating more blood with each beat. You'll also soon notice that you can maintain the "uncomfortably hard" level pace for a longer time without becoming breathless. Woo-hoo, real progress!
To be clear, I'm not saying that heart rate monitors are superfluous training tools. When used smartly, they are very helpful in terms of tracking improvement and building motivation. You just need to understand what the numbers mean for you. Use how you feel as the main benchmark for tracking your numbers, and you'll tee yourself up for big results.