Put Some Heart Into It

Calling all fitness Luddites and low-tech aerobic warriors—it's time to change your ways. Let us unlock the mysteries of heart-rate training and help you maximize your workouts.

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AT WHAT POINT does a gizmo make you stupid? When you start making cell-phone calls from chairlifts? When you turn to your GPS instead of the local gas station for directions? A gizmo put a “stupid” sign on my back this past November. I was on a run, trying out Polar's brand-spanking-new S510 heart-rate monitor (HRM, in fitness parlance)—$260 worth of chest-belt transmitter and wristwatch—and its myriad functions prompted a frantic button-pushing, run-aborting meltdown. In my own defense, I had reason to get confused: This little beauty, all curvy lines and sexy displays, tells you not only your current heart rate, but your resting heart rate, your estimated maximum heart rate (MHR), and your percentage of MHR, as well as high, low, and average rates. You can program ideal heart rates for various portions of your slog, and the S510 will enforce these zones with pleasant little beeps when you push too hard or, in a fit of slackness, back off too much.

Wait, there's more! You also get cycling-specific functions (average speed, max speed, trip distance, total distance, and an optional cadence feature), as well as the requisite bike attachments to collect the data. There's the first-ever self-administered VO2 max test (derived from heart rate). There are timers within timers, a bevy of calorie-crunching functions, and a proprietary “SonicLink” that chirps a month's worth of workouts into your personal computer for ever-more-anal record keeping. I'm not sure, but I think the S510 will also file your taxes.

For those who claim such high-tech gewgaws are a sign of civilization in decline, a retreat from the purity of sport, this would surely be Exhibit A. Yet with 5.5 million folks nationwide using HRMs, including everyone from trail runners to circuit trainers, these devices are no longer secret weapons for the fitness elite: They've gone mainstream. Count me among the believers, now that I've achieved oneness with my S510 (no more trailside conniptions). The reason is simple. Conventional gauges of athletic achievement—distance and time—are relatively anemic. So you ran three miles in 25 minutes. Were there hills? Did you start out wiped or fresh? Battle a headwind? You get the idea. What you need is a way to track the intensity of your workout, and your perceived exertion is only part of the equation. HRMs may have a learning curve, but this is the thing—they are nearly perfect measuring devices. “Use it right,” says Ed Burke, author of Precision Heart Rate Training, “and your endurance will skyrocket.”

The philosophy of heart-rate training, in general, is based on the four intensity zones of exercise workload—recovery, aerobic, threshold, and anaerobic. Recovery entails easy work that doesn't significantly increase your breathing or raise your pulse past 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. Aerobic output is exertion with enough oxygen to keep your muscles working efficiently at 70 percent of your MHR, strengthening the lungs and cardiovascular system. Threshold exercise—at “race pace,” roughly 80 percent of your maximum heart rate—takes you to the edge of anaerobic metabolism, when you simply can't take in enough oxygen to meet your body's demand. Here your heart pumps at 85 percent or more of its maximum, and lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism, causes your muscles to burn, cramp, and fail. Train at threshold with enough diligence and control, however, and you can increase your ability to process oxygen at the cellular level—your VO2 max. Congrats. You're now stronger at speeds that used to shut you down.

But your HRM is there to tell you what your head and your lungs can't. “If your heart-rate monitor shows you a number that's normally comfortable, but you're now hurting, that means you may have overtrained,” says Jay Blahnik, a nationally known fitness expert based in Laguna Beach, California. “If a heart rate feels better than normal, conversely, it may be time to push yourself.”

Aerobics instructors have been telling people to check their pulses using the finger-on-the-neck method for decades—mostly to keep clients from falling over in a sternum-clutching heap. But the inaccuracy of palpating your carotid artery is one of the dirty secrets of the fitness world—with upward of 2.5 beats to count each second, it can be off by as much as 25 beats per minute—and it's impractical for anyone riding a bike or running a trail. Early HRMs weren't much better—imagine running with a wire clipped to your earlobe or fingertip—and neither were the first wireless models, which had clunky wristwatch units and often picked up signals from other athletes' HRMs. But since their first appearance, in 1977, chest-strap transmitters have become some of the most trusted tools available to sports labs, performing at 99.9 percent of the EKG gold standard. They've gotten cheaper, too. Though you can still pay as much as $700 for a unit with all the bells and whistles, most of the half-dozen brands out there offer midrange models for the price of a pair of running shoes (see chart at left).

First-time buyers should keep it simple—extra functions can be a liability if you don't need them. Save the calorie-crunching for the grocery aisles and the downloaded spreadsheets for your rotisserie football. Look for an accuracy rating of at least 90 percent of the EKG standard, a coded-signal chest strap (so your watch doesn't pick up the arteriosclerotic sack of Spam pumping in the monitor-wearing huffer next to you), big, readable numbers, and programmable training zones.

Eventually, and maybe a little ironically, your aim is to grow so comfortable with your monitor that it is no longer necessary. “The ultimate goal is to be able to do workouts with and without a heart-rate monitor,” says endurance coach Ray Browning. “It should be an educational tool. Something to help you say, 'Oh, this is what a 70-percent effort feels like,' without always being attached to a number. That's using technology to its maximum benefit.”   

Paul Scott wrote about outdoor winter training in the December issue of Outside.

Finding Your Numbers


Before embarking on one of the following workouts, you must establish some working numbers. Most heart-rate training programs ask you to find your maximum heart rate and calculate the percentages for your four training zones from there. Typically, you subtract your age from 220 to establish your MHR, but such calculations are often inaccurate, failing to consider the differences among age groups and fitness levels—even differences within an individual moving from one sport to another. And maximum heart rate has more to do with genetic traits, such as the size of your heart, than with your level of fitness. A better solution, says fitness expert Jay Blahnik, is to learn to recognize the four workload zones—recovery, aerobic, threshold, anaerobic—and then glance at your HRM to find the corresponding heart rates.

To find your targets, strap on an HRM and warm up as you normally would for your ski, ride, or run. Gradually increase your pace, evaluating how your body feels after three to five minutes at each level of intensity. When you reach each of the zones below, note your heart rate.
Recovery: You feel you could carry this pace for 60 minutes or more.
Aerobic: If you had to, you could maintain this exertion level for 20 to 40 minutes.
Threshold: You could do this for no more than ten minutes.
Anaerobic: This hurts. You feel like you can do it for a minute, maybe two at most.

Do the sport on the same terrain two or three times over a few weeks, says Blahnik, and when some common numbers begin to appear, assign them the following values: recovery, 60 percent of your max heart rate; aerobic, 70 percent; threshold, 80 percent; anaerobic, 80 to 90 percent.


Two elements are critical for a recreational racer who wants to improve his performance, says Chris Grover, assistant coach of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team. “If you only get out twice a week, you want to spend one session working on straight distance at 60 percent of your max heart rate or lower, ideally for twice your standard race distance. The other day should be spent doing intervals.” Gradually, you'll increase the amount of time you can work at high intensity without rest and without going anaerobic. You'll also begin to intuitively measure your own intensity levels. “Our guys use HRMs so much,” says Grover, “that they can feel the difference between 130 beats per minute and 145.”

On your first day, begin with four five-minute intervals at 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Follow each interval with five minutes of recovery at 60 percent. Shoot for three seven-minute sets, and then two ten-minute sets, each followed by equal recovery time. Work in an outing a week at a slower-than-normal pace. On your second day, ski at 60 percent of your max for two to three hours.

Finding Your Numbers


There are three kinds of runners, says Roy Benson, a trainer based in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of The Runner's Coach: competitive runners, recreational runners, and fit joggers. Competitive runners know who they are, so we'll leave them out of this. “Recreational runners can finish a race with a smile,” says Benson. And fit joggers? “Those are people who want to lose weight and don't give a damn about anything else. They run around and around the block until they wear a path in the concrete.” For those who find themselves in the second category or want to bust out of the third, it's time to strap on an HRM. This weekly program devotes four days to recovery training and two to aerobic and threshold training, via fartlek or “speed play” exercise. “It means running your heart rate up and down like a roller coaster,” says Benson. “Swedish runners popularized it on trails through forests, where they would spurt ahead when the path was clear.”

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday: Easy recovery days. Run your standard route for 20 to 45 minutes, at 60 to 70 percent (recovery training zone) of your MHR.

Tuesday and Thursday: Set your monitor to signal both 70 and 85 percent of your max heart rate. Warm up for ten minutes in the 60 to 70 percent, or recovery range. Then, over 30 to 90 seconds, increase your pace until your alarm signals you've reached the 85-percent mark—placing you into the threshold zone. “You don't want to sprint,” says Benson. “Your heart rate doesn't actually rise that much during a sprint. Instead, gradually increase your heart rate to your target.” Then ease off the intensity until your monitor signals you're back at 70 percent. When you feel sufficiently recovered, repeat. Shoot for five to ten reps per workout, spread out over 30 to 45 minutes.

Saturday or Sunday: endurance day. Run at 60 to 75 percent of your MHR for 60 to 75 minutes.

Chris Carmichael, personal coach for Lance Armstrong, says that cyclists often err on the side of overtraining with HRMs. “Most tend to calculate the threshold higher than it is,” he says. “Train too high and you're not going to raise your threshold.” Carmichael recommends steady-state heart-rate (SSHR) training, a level a hair lower than threshold to compensate for a cyclist's lower maximum heart rate. To find your SSHR, plot a three-mile course over level terrain. After warming up, pedal the route as hard as you can, noting your time, average heart rate, and top heart rate. Allow ten minutes of easy riding to recover, and then repeat. The average heart rate on the second lap will be your SSHR. “Both rides will be well into the threshold zone,” says Carmichael. “But on the second time around, the fatigue will have reduced your average heart rate by three to eight beats per minute, bringing you down into steady-state heart-rate range.” Will this make you stronger? “Absofuckinlutely,” he says. “Ask Lance Armstrong.”

Monday, Wednesday, Friday: Over a period of eight weeks, do three ten-minute intervals at your target SSHR. Allow eight minutes of rest between intervals. Each week, take two minutes off your rest period. After you can ride 30 consecutive minutes at your SSHR, restart the process with 15-minute intervals and ten-minute rests. Shorten your rests weekly until you can ride 45 minutes at SSHR. Armstrong started this drill at six 15-minute intervals, eventually building up to riding for two hours at his SSHR target—with fairly impressive results.

Heart Monitors

So you've started shopping for a heart-rate monitor and now you're thoroughly confused. Take heart—we've ferreted out a few that will meet your needs, and then some. See our picks below.

Sigma Sport PC 3
$50; 888-744-6277;

The bare necessities—heart rate, stopwatch, and clock, in a three-button, idiot-proof unit

The PC 3's no-brainer operation/Only three basic functions, which are quickly outgrown by serious athletes

The largest numerical display among this batch of HRMs 


Physi-Cal Mio $119; 877-566-4636;

A transmitter-less HRM that takes readings from your fingertips

Not wearing a constricting chest strap/Trying to take an accurate reading mid-ride or in inclement weather

Its futuristic, self-contained style

FreeStyle ECG4 $120; 800-776-6449;

A sharp-looking, well-appointed HRM that goes from workout to theater in style

Its comfy ergonomic design/The absence of key high-end functions, such as a calculator for average heart rate or percent of MHR

The calorie tracker, which, based on your weight, tallies just what you're burning off

Cardiosport Advanced $149; 888-760-3059;

A dependable unit with enough features to make you feel (or at least look) like a pro

That it automatically converts BPMs to a percentage of your max heart rate/Painstakingly programming your target zones to the exact digit

Being savvy enough to buy a watch with sophisticated, but not over-the-top, functions

Polar S510 $240; 800-227-1314;

A state-of-the-art supercomputer for type-A multisport athletes

The bike attachments that calculate cadence, distance, and speed/Feeling pressured to analyze every minute aspect of your workouts just because now you can

The do-it-yourself VO2 max test; your advanced degree in applied mathematics (which you completed to help you operate your HRM)

Acumen TZ-Max 100
$299; 800-852-7823;

A fully loaded rig from one of the top names in the business

The raft of functions and the PC-compatible software/The price and the Bible-size manual that reads like a precalculus textbook

Its water resistance (use it while swimming); the “Nite Site,” which automatically illuminates display in the dark

The New Digital Athlete

Space-age body-fat analyzers, futuristic pedometers, Internet bike racing… they're here, they're gear—get used to it

FS-1 ($200; 800-419-3667; Until now, runners have gotten short shrift when it comes to electronics for accurately gauging pace and distance. Enter FitSense's FS-1, a watch-cum-workout-computer. While the wireless “accelerometer” attaches to your shoelaces, measuring each individual stride, the dashboard-style wristwatch displays total distance, speed, pace, calories burned, and heart rate (with optional chest-strap transmitter). Sure, the watch is about the size of a dashboard, but you gotta start somewhere.

Aquapacer Solo ($100; 011-44-1467-629-360; Want to swim faster? Don't just swim harder. You need to refine your stroke length and pace to maximize your hydrodynamic efficiency. Mount this doohickey on your goggle strap or tuck it into your swim cap, where the Aquapacer Solo will emit a steady auditory signal to match your target stroke speed (like a metronome, but you're not playing piano, you're doing intervals!). Program the Aquapacer to cue you for complete workouts, including rests, or plug in your optimum stroke frequency (instructions included), turn it on, and go.

UltraCoach NetAthlon Software ($90; 800-400-1390; It's no mystery why your treadmill, rowing machine, or stationary bike has become your clothes-drying rack: no scenery, no competition, no fun. Fitcentric's NetAthlonaims to change that by linking your basement statuary to your PC, allowing you to ride, run, or row on virtual courses ranging from Arizona bike trails to the course of the Boston marathon. Load the software, patch your machine into the system, and watch your “live” character (and up to six competitors) race along the animated course. UltraCoach displays real-time stats, including pace, distance, and heart rate, and you can store workout performances and race yourself later in the week. Or, if that can't motivate you, use the company's Web link and e-race a friend in Toledo (or Tunisia) on the same virtual course.

BC1 ($300; 800-321-1218; www.stay Forget skin-fold calipers and those oh-so-impractical water displacement tests; simply clasp the silver receptors on both sides of Stayhealthy Inc.'s BC1 (for Body Composition), and it sends an electrical charge through your body to quickly and accurately measure body-fat percentage, muscle mass, and hydration level based on the amount of resistance the charge encounters. Don't worry, it's painless, which is more than we can say for the results. Use the unit's pager-size sister gizmo—the calorie-tracking CT1—to rein yourself in.


Seriously: The Vivonic Fitness Planner ($230; is not a toy. Well, OK, it looks like a toy—part Game Boy, part Tamagotchi—but this fitness-specific digital assistant packs your personal trainer, workout buddy, and dietician into one hand-size, 2.2-ounce package. Log the foods you eat, check their calories, protein, carbs, and fat, then calculate the myriad ways you can burn them off. (Erasing that Big Mac at lunch, by the way, is going to require 65 minutes of swimming.) Vivonic's Web site offers downloadable fitness plans, such as a beginning triathlon program, and Fitness Planner software for a Palm handheld ($50). Finally, a reason for gadget geeks and fitness freaks to unite. —James Glave

1) Central to the Fitness Planner is its touch-sensitive screen; use the stylus to input meals, snacks, and workouts. There are no character-recognition snafus á la Palm's units; just tap your way through a series of on-screen lists and prompts. The screen then shows you, with a simple calories-in/calories-out bar graph, whether you are gaining blubber, or dropping it. After a week, you may find yourself more consciously stocking the fridge and sticking to your program. If not, put the Fitness Planner to better use by wedging it under the leg of a wobbly table.

2) Vivonic's focus-group work is most palpable in the Fitness Planner's design. Grasp the ergonomic rubber-wrapped sports-grip housing and admire its decidedly unisex plum color—clearly the R&D team was aiming between jazzy iMac styling and the serious utility of, say, a geiger counter. A single button serves as both power switch and contrast control for the LCD screen, and a rakish waistband holster (included) frees your hands as you pump it up in the weight room, recording sets and reps as you go.

3) This cable (included) connects the Fitness Planner to a desktop mother ship and allows it to “sync,” or swap updated information, with a Windows program. (Vivonic, owned by Windows-oriented giant Intel, claims a Mac version is in the works.) Aside from producing charts and graphs of your fitness progress and dietary intake, the desktop software contains the same food and exercise database as the handheld unit, with full calorie/protein/fat/carb specs on everything from Pop-Tarts to sushi, and burn rates on every activity from leg extensions to lawn darts (an hour of the latter will allegedly burn 217 calories).

4) The plastic stylus feels like a cheap toothpick in big athletic hands, but those who opt for the Vivonic Fitness Planner hardware—and not the software for Palm handhelds—get an onboard bonus: an electronic pedometer. Switch it on, hit the hill, and presto, your walking distance and intensity are immortalized in the log. All that's missing is an altimeter to remind you why your lungs feel like they're collapsing.

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