Whatever your sport—hiking, cycling, running, skiing—if you’re training, you’re trying to do your sport most efficiently, which should also help you be faster. Use a heart rate monitor to train. It measures the electrical signal from your heart to help you track your body’s rhythms, monitor your output and chart your efficiency. Here’s how:
Tweak your habits.
Find a circuit—a running or biking loop, for example—and a timeframe for completing it; let’s say a mile-long loop you’ll run in ten minutes. “The time you pick doesn’t matter,” advises Andrew Gardiner, former Middlebury College Nordic coach and competitive cyclist. Your heart rate monitor will record your average heart rate over the time you’re running or biking. “Once you have a baseline,” says Gardiner, “tweak what you eat and drink and when, and how much you sleep. See what raises your heart rate—less efficient; and what lowers it—more efficient. Tweak stride length if you run or hike, or cadence if you’re a cyclist. Ask yourself how you can run/bike/hike the same ten-minute mile with five beats less exertion per minute.”
Check in on yourself.
Each morning when you wake, check your heart rate and chart it. If it’s usually 38, then one morning it’s 47, your body is working harder than usual. You might be getting sick. Women might be at a certain point in their menstrual cycle. A heart rate monitor gives you the data to be your own coach so you know when to take a rest day so your body can use its resources in other ways.
Determine your lactate threshold.
According to Gardiner, lactate threshold (LT) is the most important number your heart rate monitor can reveal. Up your lactate threshold with training and you’ve increased your fitness, efficiency and likely speed. Find it by exercising with a friend and carrying on a conversation. When your conversation breaks up because you’re breathing hard—you’ve hit your lactate threshold—usually about 75% of your max heart rate.
Get the right recovery.
Doing intervals? A heart rate monitor can help you understand how much recovery you need. Use it to track your BPM. “It acts like a governor at the beginning of a set,” explains Gardiner. For maximum benefit from intervals, heart rate needs to drop to 40%–50% of max before you start another round.
Find your max.
“Subtracting your age from 220 is not an accurate way to find your maximum heart rate,” says Gardiner. Use a negative ladder workout. Warm up slowly to what you believe to be 40%–50% of your max. Then, go hard for 10, 5, 2.5 and 1 minute with half as much rest between sets. Your highest heart rate from the workout is your max. “But,” Gardiner warns,” if you’re not in shape, it’s hard to reach your maximum heart rate. So as your fitness improves, retest yourself.”