Should You Train With a Heart Rate Monitor?

10 11 2011

 

By Jesse Kropelnicki
QT2 Systems

Triathletes typically have two very different approaches to training and racing. They tend to be either quantitative or qualitative in nature. Some are slaves to their power meters and have a permanent indentation on their upper-torso, from the strap of their heart rate (HR) monitor. Others live for the moment, and think only of how they feel right here and now. They wouldn’t know where to find a pulsing artery. Each has its pros and cons.

The qualitative athlete trains and races purely by feel. Their season is typically set up as blocks of aerobic development, intensity building, strength, endurance and speed, depending upon the specific time of year. Weekly workouts are scheduled as a series of hard, easy, or moderate efforts. They may wear a heart rate monitor, or use a power meter, though not within any particular parameters.

Alternatively, the quantitative athlete will typically have a more structured periodization plan outlining their entire season of training and racing. While the periodization plan acts as a working document, it defines the basis and logic of the season. Training is done with a HR monitor, at a minimum, and a power meter, whenever possible. The athlete focuses on specific training and racing zones, initially defined through testing and adjusted throughout training.

Either approach can be successful in creating a healthy, well-tuned athlete who makes progress year after year. But, how should the success of either approach be measured?

I like to assess two primary qualities. I first look at the athlete’s relative improvement from one season to the next; are they making progress every year in their race results. The other metric that’s telling of an athlete’s training program is consistency in race results. Do they have one amazing race, followed by a race where they are just way behind? These are two of the most difficult items to obtain and master. The success of these may be significantly more dependent upon your athlete’s ability to execute the training program, than the program itself.

Regardless of how you slice it, the coach is the one who is ultimately judged by the athlete’s performances. I call this the “one metric” assessment. It is what most outsiders use to judge coaches, and rightfully so.

There is a danger, especially among many self-coached athletes, in looking at the training programs of those who are currently winning or having high rates of success. These metrics can be greatly influenced by the successful athlete’s genetics and therefore the result itself may act as a mask for an otherwise poorly developed training program. For this reason, I encourage athletes to look for long-term progress in year-to-year race results and consistency in race results over the short term, when evaluating the training program of a fellow racer. These aspects are good indicators of both a solid training program, and an athlete who executes it well. More importantly, these qualities can be found in both the 8:15 and 12:00 Ironman finishers, alike. The athlete’s overall finish times, really do not act as a valid measure of their training program.

Are you, or should you be, a tracker of metrics? Below we will discuss the three biggest factors in the argument for or against metric tracking.

Training Load

Qualitative athletes never really know what their training load truly is. Even if they are very aware of their body, and its telltale signs, the qualitative athlete can tend to either over- or under-do particular workouts. This type of workout inconsistency will typically result in very similar racing inconsistencies. Some results will be remarkable, while others leave you scratching your head, wondering what went wrong.

Why? Because the actual build up to each race ends up being very different from event to event, as the nature of the pre-race intensities are so variable. As a result, the athlete will load and unload training stress in very different ways, leading into races.

The quantitative athlete, on the other hand, is better able to plan and execute the appropriate training stress, because they know exactly what is going into their training stew, at the beginning of every day, every block, and every season.

But, just as a stew is only as good as the ingredients that go into it, a season plan is only as good as the information on which it is based. That said, it is still very easy to over- or under-do the planning aspect of any particular training session. Even if perfectly executed, any given workout can result in an inappropriate training load for that point in the season.

Race Day Execution

Qualitative athletes go out on race day and rely on their experience to guide their day. In many cases this is a fantastic approach, which can lead to breakthrough performances. Leaving the HR monitor and power meter at home can be very freeing and allow the athlete to really push on performances, otherwise thought impossible.

However, for newer athletes and even seasoned veterans moving up in race distance, racing by feel often requires practice and a bit of trial and error. In long course racing, and especially Ironman, where the opportunities are relatively infrequent, this can result in a great deal of disappointment with the possibility of redemption a long way off.

The quantitative athlete approaches their races with a clear pacing plan, developed around very specific wattage and pace, or heart rate targets, which are always derived from recent training data. Initially, the athlete may feel a bit handcuffed by the pacing strategy, feeling as though it is holding them back. Most well-developed pacing strategies will feel much too easy very early on, causing a bit of doubt to creep into the athlete’s mind. But, if executed properly, the pacing will result in a “slow bleed”, where the athlete crosses the finish line in utter exhaustion, not a moment before, nor a moment later.

This type of pacing and execution results in the fastest possible triathlon time. Despite racing by the numbers, quantitative athletes must also have an eye on how they feel. It is never wise to race solely by data. The data should be used as a guide, alongside perceived exertion. The two, together, can become a very powerful combination.

Freedom

Qualitative proponents have a clear advantage in this piece of the argument. Reduced stress while training–absence of constant benchmarks and numbers staring you in the face can be a pretty strong selling point. Quantitative athletes have the power meter and/or heart rate monitor dictating every step that they take. And when a workout isn’t going as well as planned, that device reminds them of it. There is something to be said for heading out on a ride or run, without that stress constantly present.

Quantitative athletes, on the other hand, are able to see real-time validation of their hard work, and the progress that results. Naturally quantitative athletes do not see this type of training as lacking in freedom, but as defining purpose. They know exactly what they are supposed to do each and every day, and most importantly, why. Many find a great deal of solace in that.

I’m sure you guessed that I’m a quantitative guy. After years and years of tracking athlete data, I have found that it is the most efficient and accurate way to ensure long-term progress and accelerate the race day learning curve. When all is said and done, training tools such as a HR monitors and/or pace and power meters can greatly enhance your ability to feel your effort on race day.

Many talented professionals and age-groupers toe the starting line in Kona each year only to realize a result that in no way represents their fitness, because they do not yet know the feel of the proper pace. At the same time, there are others who know exactly what the race should feel like, but learned it as the result of several failed attempts. They know what it feels like to overheat, to suffer dehydration, or to over pace the early portion of the bike, and they know exactly what to do when this occurs. They know these things because they have lived them. Had these same athletes been a bit more quantitative in their training and racing early on, they may have more quickly developed the feel in training, and suffered fewer racing tribulations.

Time is of the essence in the sport of triathlon, and anything that can be done to speed the learning curve should be taken very seriously. I am a big advocate of using metrics, very early in an athlete’s career, as teaching tools. This allows the athlete to learn quickly, and then use their own sense as they gain experience. Many beginner athletes see very experienced and successful professionals not using metrics in their training and racing, and believe that this is the way to go. What they don’t see is the road that it took to get there.

At the very least, it is a great idea to record race day data. This allows you to review and learn from your efforts, opening a very clear lens on exactly what went well and what could have been better. What was executed perfectly, and what was executed poorly. This learning experience helps the athlete to approach the next event with a more accurate feel for the race. It doesn’t take too many iterations of this, and the increasingly well-informed athlete can begin to hone in on their feel. Once this is accomplished, feel becomes a metric just as valuable as any power meter or heart rate monitor.

 

 

Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite-level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching; TheCoreDiet.com, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2, a leading provider or marathon training programs. He coaches professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Jacqui Gordon, Ethan Brown and Tim Snow among others. He coaches professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. Find more coaching comments and ideas at kropelnicki.com.

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