*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Heart Rate Training & HR Monitors

Excerpts from my Spintastic listserv mailings of yesteryear... compiled by topic, for your convenience.


Here are some warning signs that you may be overtraining:
1) Constant fatigue
2) Changes in sleep patterns
3) Irritability
4) Frequent illness/infection
5) Sugar cravings
6) Elevated resting heart rate

If that looks familiar, it's even more important to focus on building (or rebuilding) that aerobic base - specifically, staying below 80% max hr with NO exceptions - for a straight, consistent 4-8 weeks. If you want to do this right, get a monitor! (I often bring my extra one to classes as a conversion tool - ask to borrow it for a taste of just how enlightening it is). If you're still not sold, you can do a bit of guesswork: 80% is that "comfortably uncomfortable" point I talk about in class - can't talk much, but no burning in your legs.

"But if I stay below 80%, I'm not getting a good workout!" I hear that often. It's just plain wrong. You are getting a fantastic workout, and an important one. Here's what happens when you stay below that burn point:
1) Increase size/strength of your left ventricle of the heart, the part that pumps blood to the whole body
2) Increase blood volume pumped throughout the body
3) Increase fat metabolism - burn fat instead of stored muscle glycogen
4) Increase capillary density around working muscles - so more oxygen can be exchanged, and it's easier to stay aerobic... a circular pattern that keeps these benefits flyin'
5) Increased lactate threshold (the point where you switch from aerobic to anaerobic training)
6) Boosted immune function
7) Decreased blood pressure

Good stuff, right?


This has been the best week EVER. Not only did I get my first med school interview invite but 15+ different people in my classes asked me about getting heart rate monitors! Best thing ever. Riding with a HR monitor will literally revolutionize your training. Among MANY other benefits, you'll be able to:
* Observe your progress in recovery time and increased lactate threshold (how high your HR goes before you leave the aerobic training zone)
* Balance your weekly training schedule to cycle between high intensity and more moderate intensity rides
* Meet whatever your fitness goals happen to be - whether it be weight loss, building cardiovascular endurance and/or strength, etc. (I'm happy to discuss a training plan with anyone interested in where their HR ranges should be, depending on your goal).

Amazon.com typically has great deals. I recommend anything by Polar with a chest strap model. Cheapest, lowest frills: Polar FS2
Next step up: Polar F4
One step higher: Polar F6

If you train in "close quarters" with other HRM users (i.e., Spinning classes with lots of beeping watches), I recommend at least the F4 (if not the F6) to prevent cross-feeding heart rate signals.


I am thrilled at the recent surge of HR monitor converts! I come home every day and report to my boyfriend about all the new HR monitor-wearers who came to me to get their new ife-upgrades set up. It's seriously my favorite thing in the entire world. My second-favorite thing in the world is when people get cycling shoes. But that's for another post…


As Master Instructor Iona Passik says, "our hearts are the most important muscle in the body – and one that we cannot see!" Brilliant observation, really -- so true. The HR monitor is our only mechanism for observing our most important muscle, observing when it is strong, observing when it's not doing too hot, and observing its improvements over time. You can get a decent basic-function one for less than 50 bucks (ask me for shopping help! I look at web links students send me all the time…). For those of you who have never seen one, it's a light strap you wear around your chest, with a wrist watch that reads from the transmitter strap.

Without a HRM, you're going on perceived exertion – and perceived exertion is totally fallible. For example, I rode today at what I thought was REALLY REALLY hard effort (burning, pain, the whole nine yards). Looked down at my monitor: 118 bpm. Seriously. I wasn't working at all. This happens ALL the time.

Step 1: Open box. Strap on transmitter.
Step 2: Gasp in shock that your HR is through the roof, even when you don't
think you're working that hard.
Step 3: After you chat with me, you discipline yourself to spend the next 4-8 weeks remaining completely below 80% max HR. You slow down your pace. You stay in the seat for most of the ride, no matter what the class is doing.
Step 4: You complain to me that you're bored, you feel like you're not working hard, you're miserable. You miss pushing really hard and getting that endorphin surge.
Step 5: After 4-8 weeks, you have so greatly re-built your aerobic base that you find that you actually need to push HARDER with MORE resistance to hit that even that 80% aerobic barrier than you were using when you thought you were going "all out."

This is called *adaptation*. When we let the body work in the heart rate zones that it's supposed to work at, it gets damned good at it. It just requires a little bit of patience – an investment at the front end – to be able to get to that point.


Everything we do in HR training relies on taking percentages of our "max HR" – i.e., below 80% MHR is aerobic training. The problem is that most of us do not know our max HR!

Since it is the anchor point for *all *of our training, we at least need to take an estimate. We can do that in one of four ways: (1) actually get it measured in a laboratory setting (best way, but costly and inconvenient); (2) lactate field test (very good way, but requires a lot of self discipline); (3) sub-max HR test (pretty good way, requires a bit of self-discipline); and (4) age-predicted calculations (not ideal, but better than nothing!)

Of these, I will walk you through the ones we can do ourselves. *All of these should be done when we feel rested, and have not engaged in intense anaerobic exercise (both Spinning and non-Spinning – anything above 85% MHR – any BURNING!) in 24 hours.*

*1) Foster Sub-Max HR Test (developed by Carl Foster, Ph.D.)*

* **I have modified the descriptions to make more sense than I think the actual Foster scale instructions read:*

Step 1: Warm-up adequately for 5-10 mins
Step 2: Get yourself to 120 bpm. Recite the Pledge of Allegiance out loud.
* Ask yourself: Can you speak COMFORTABLY? "Yes" or "Uncertain"*
Step 3: Increase your exercise effort to raise your heart rate by 10 bpm (i.e., 130 bpm)
After 90 seconds, recite the pledge of allegiance out loud.
*Ask yourself: Can you speak COMFORTABLY? "Yes" or "Uncertain"*
Step 4: Repeat this every two minutes until your answer is "Uncertain." *Record your HR (in bpm) at the point where you answered "Uncertain."* **

Step 5: Cool down adequately for 5-10 minutes
Step 6: Calculations/mathematical adjustments:
If you are in poor shape, add 50 bpm
If you are in average shape, add 40 bpm
If you are in excellent shape, add 30 bpm
If you are in competitive athletic shape, add 20 bpm.

Step 7: *Arrive at your calculated estimated maximum heart rate*.
This is the number we then multiply by 70%, 80%, 85%, etc. for our various
training zones.

*2) Lactate Field Test* ***Requires a HR monitor that records average HR!*

Step 1: Warm up adequately for 20 minutes.

Step 2: Get on a tough seated climb. Accelerate until you are pedaling as fast as you can while sustaining that resistance, keeping all your weight toward the very back of the seat. NO BOUNCING. If you're bouncing in the seat, slow down. Think: MAX EFFORT WITHOUT BOUNCING. *Start your HR monitor.*

Step 3: Hold this for 30 minutes. Yes, 30 minutes! *Stop your HR monitor*.

Step 4: Look at what the HR monitor reports as Average HR. That is your field-measured 85% MHR value (otherwise known as "Lactate Threshold" – when we start to go anaerobic). If we then want to reverse-calculate your max (to then calculate the other percentage numbers), take Lactate Threshold divided by 0.85 = Max HR. Then we can work with that number further.

*3) Age-Predicted… with a new twist that I just learned today!*
You've heard me (or others) talk about age-predicted Max HR values. In the
fitness world, we use the age-predictive formulae as follows:
For men: 220 – age = Max HR (then we multiply by percentages)
For women: 226 – age = Max HR

This of course does not account for fitness conditioning level, body composition (fat vs. muscle), or the phase of the moon. It's just a starting point, when we have nothing better.

There's a standard reference chart where one can find their age and then see all their percentages pre-calculated. I have the one for men posted on my website, http://spintastic.googlegroups.com/ under "Features." Women are a bit different, since it's based on 226, not 220 – age.

I took a Spin instructor continuing education workshop today and learned the COOLEST trick ever in the entire world, to adjust the numbers to make them more accurate.

I'd like to credit NYSC instructor (and Master Spinning Instructor) Iona Passik for this absolutely friggin' brilliant amazing technique. I'm obsessed with it, and I want to do it for all of you who have HR monitors. And it's just so amazing that the rest of you NEED to go out and get HR monitors, *just* so that I can do this for you (in addition to that whole "change your life" thing).

Here's how it works. You tell me the highest HR number you've ever seen on a HR monitor during what you call your most intense, ridiculous over-the-top effort. I ask you if you felt like your heart was going to explode out of your chest and you were going to throw up. I add 5-10 bpm to that, perhaps a few beats more if you tell me that you didn't feel like you were seriously going to be sick. That imagery is *fantastic* to recall that feeling of feeling utterly maxed out. We don't do that in spin classes – we don't go higher than 92% in our classes. That's why I add a few points higher. I've been there. For me, it's 198 bpm and I've had it on psychotic explosive runs (when someone else is teaching, of course. I never run at max effort with you guys… I can't talk at 198 bpm!).

We call that your max HR. We then find that number on the standard reference chart, regardless of what age that number is associated with, and read off the other pre-calculated numbers. Starting tomorrow, I am bringing these charts with me to every single class I teach.

*If you have a HR monitor and need help calculating (or re-calculating) your heart rate percentages** per this estimated max HR, PLEASE COME TALK TO ME. I'm seriously so excited to do this for all of you. I'll spit out your numbers to have in front of you, and it'll be fantastic. *

From my previous posting from Dec 16th:
*Overtraining is NOT reflective of frequency of exercise - it's reflective of intensity. The Spinning program was actually designed to be done 7 days a week... but properly distributed by HR range:
1-3 days Endurance: 65-80% max HR
1-2 days Strength 75-85% MHR
*1 day Interval*: 65-92% MHR
1 day Recovery (or completely off from cardio exercise): 55-65% MHR

See that? One day a week when you're going "all out" - that's it! For many of you, you're doing 92% far more often than that. Overtraining is totally counterproductive. I did it for years, prior to commencing training with a hr monitor. So let's just... not.

Here are some warning signs that you may
be overtraining:
1) Constant fatigue
2) Changes in sleep patterns
3) Irritability
4) Frequent illness/infection
5) Sugar cravings
6) Elevated resting heart rate**

*If you train particularly hard on a given day* *(see also: ANYONE who took my class at 41st/3rd this morning…)*, active recovery rides (nice and easy, low HR, work on form, smoothness of pedal strokes, relaxation) or passive (completely off from exercise)* recovery* *days should follow the day after.

Why do we do Endurance work?

Because when we stay below 80% MHR, we burn fat the entire time... as soon as we cross that, we're burning sugar - not fat.
What happens when we don't do Endurance work?
When we train above 80% MHR without having established an "aerobic base" (accomplished for most people by staying below that mark for at least 8-12 weeks - without exception!), we teach the body to *prefer *to burn sugar all the time... instead of fat.
What happens when we burn sugar, instead of fat, for sustained periods of time?
We eat more. Our appetites are ravenous. We get fatigued... if not immediately after exercise, then we can almost certainly expect to crash at some point later in the day. We are prone to injury, compromised immune systems. We are irritable, anxious, and moody.
So why do we LOVE aerobic base-building work, through Endurance training?
Our bodies learn to accommodate greater effort (more resistance, faster speed, etc) -- and thus burn more calories -- while REMAINING aerobic... and thus, burning fat (not sugar) even at that greater effort!
How do we know when our heart rates are below 80% MHR? Can we just "feel"
Uh, sure, go ahead... but you'll be wrong. BUY A HR MONITOR. Check out my archives for links to cheap, good ones on Amazon.com. I'll help you set it up, and it'll change your life.
Does this apply only to Spinning?
Absolutely not! This applies to ALL of our training. When you're base-building, staying below 80% MHR is a requirement throughout EVERYTHING you do. Wear your HR monitor during everything... it's fascinating to see how your heart responds differently to different challenges. For example, I've recently taken up kickboxing as a cross-training mechanism (SO important for one's body to cross-train... not just when you're teaching 16-18 Spin classes a week, either!) -- turns out that, for me, kickboxing is the PERFECT aerobic exercise for me. I don't have to discipline myself to control my HR at all -- I'm square between 65-80% MHR the entire time with no special effort (whereas to remain in that zone on a bike, at times, takes
a lot of control) -- so, perfect base-building activity! So, wear your HRM and experiment to find what works for your body!
Did I have any intention of creating this Q&A list?
No. I'm just ranting now... I'm done. I definitely encourage you to visit the Spintastic homepage (link above) and read through the archives. I've written a ton over the past few months about the merits of training by heart rate.


Now let's chat about Periodization -- a training concept that requires a great deal of discipline and planning, but from which we can derive a rich host of rewards. As an overview, periodization is the concept of dividing the calendar year into different "periods" where we focus on different types of training - recovery, aerobic base-building, cardiovascular strength development, and anaerobic training. Research has shown that this is the most effective way to train for athletes -- which you all are -- of all conditioning levels.

I initially became acquainted with Periodization whilst preparing for my advanced Spinning certification last year - and I started on this training path (and truly started to see its effects in my own fitness!) then got distracted when I quit my day job and started teaching so much. I always wished that I could somehow adjust my life to be able to commit to it - and I've even successfully started a few of you on a periodization plan as you've begun to get HR monitors. Well, now I'm doing it, too! Starting tomorrow. I welcome you to do it with me!

Here's how it works, as an average plan based on a 6 or 7 day training week (not just Spinning - ANY cardio, this applies to). If you're interested, I will be happy to tweak this for you to your own time-availabilities and needs.

*- 4-5x cardio sessions per week - 50-80% MHR
- Every 2 weeks, try to ride a bit longer... arrive to class 15 or 20 minute early to make it a full hour (1-3 hours is what we're shooting for), all below 80% MHR

- 2-3x/week: 75-85% (don't drop below 75% either!)
- 2-3x/week: 50-75%
- Every 2 weeks, as above, 1-3 hours all below 80% MHR

- 1-2x/week: 85-92% MHR intervals (~ 80% inbetween... remember, this is just ONCE per week)
- 2-3x/week - 50-80% MHR
- Note that we exercise fewer times per week during these two weeks

- Either "active" (train between 50-65% for the entire two weeks)
or "passive" (off all-together).
- I swear to you, you will not lose your fitness. I had to do this after my surgery over the summer, and I didn't lose an ounce of what I'd gained in my training before surgery.

You can repeat the cycle just as above - 8 weeks base-building, 4 weeks strength, 3 weeks anaerobic focus, 2 weeks rest. Or, you can do what is called "microperiodization" - where we shorten each phase as follows:
*4 weeks: micro-aerobic & strength combined
*- 2-3x/week: 50-80%
- 2-3x/week - 75-85%
- Every 2 weeks, like before, 1-3 hours <80%>

*3 weeks: micro-anaerobic*
- 1-2x week/ 85-92% intervals
- 2-3x/wk - 50-80%
*2 weeks: rest*
.... then repeat the micro-periodization cycle all over again

Micro-periodization is not effective until you've completed the first cycle with the full base-building period. I know, it sounds rough. But it works. And your body will thank you for it for the rest of your life.

If you feel like reading more, here's an article written by Johnny Goldberg ("Johnny G")- founder of the Spinning program:*
*Just to clarify some of the terms he uses: The Spinning program uses "Energy Zones" to correspond with different HR ranges. When Goldberg refers to the "Endurance Energy Zone," he means " staying under 80% MHR the whole time."


Remember, to be able to get the effect of what I've been promising you about staying below 80% MHR (re-setting the body to prefer fat-burning over sugar-burning) for 8 weeks, there can be NO exceptions (on the bike or off the bike!) -- no matter how good it feels to rip into that explosive sprint or monster climb out of the saddle. *8 weeks of pure discipline.* Adaptation will occur -- but only if you truly commit to it. To that end, I am starting over tomorrow. Not allowed to cross 80% MHR until May 13, and that's final. Do let me know if you want to start with me, and I'll do my best to personally discipline you to stay on-track. Science works... if you
don't obstruct it!

When we train anaerobically before building that aerobic base, we actually teach the body to *prefer* burning glucose instead of fat. *This leads to sugar cravings, irritability, fatigue, sleep problems, and all sorts of other bad stuff.

So, we've got to build that aerobic base. We just have to.



Hope your 2008 is off to a fantastic start -- at *least* as fantastic as mine (on Thursday, I was officially accepted to medical school! Ahhhh!).

I'd like to begin this week's posting with two comments from students this week that really struck me:*
1) "I can't keep my heart rate down and do what all the instructors tell me to do!"
2) "I can't be over-training... I *only* spin 4 times a week... and besides, I haven't lost any weight."*

I'll take them one at a time.

*1) "I can't keep my heart rate down and do what all the instructors tell me to do!"
*The Spinning program was founded upon the belief that training is personal and individualized, with riders modifying in both speed and resistance according to their a) fitness levels; b) training program/schedule; c) any other reason they damn well please.

Right now, commit to a training schedule. *Always be "in training" for something*. It doesn't have to be a Century or an Iron Man. You can be "in training" to improve your energy level through an average day. What are your goals? If you've been away from regular cardiovascular exercise for awhile, it's a good idea to aim to build a solid aerobic base. To do that, you need 4-8 weeks of PURELY aerobic effort - that is, staying below 80% of your max heart rate for your ENTIRE course of exercise (whether that be on a spin bike, a treadmill, or whatever else you're doing). *Any time you exceed 80% during your aerobic base-building period, you counteract any progress you've made.* So commit to it.

Give yourself permission to accept that you know your body better than anyone else. If you're climbing steady, even hills at 75-80% for 30 minutes and then, BAM, your instructor (myself included) throws in a full-throttle push.... even a short one.... *don't do it*. Modify your effort. If you're in an aerobic base-building period (*which *all* new Spinners should be... and many seasoned riders as well!)*, and I coach you through those six 30-second accelerations to Kelly Clarkson and Pink at the end of a ride... *don't do it*. That 3.5 minute speed run to the finish line? Slow it down. *This isn't my ride; it's yours.* *Once you get your heart-rate monitor and can properly gauge where you are, commit to your training program and stick with it.

*Many of my students approach me before class and tell me things like, "Hey, just so that you know, I'm going for Endurance today... didn't want you to think I was ignoring you!" Nothing makes me happier in the world to hear stuff like that. That's *fantastic* when people have HR parameter goals carved out for themselves. *** If you want me to set you up with a plan for your training week/month/year*, I'd be happy to do so -- but you have to stick with it..*. *even if it's tempting to go all-out sometimes. *

You will be happy, later, that you did this. *When I first started wearing a HR monitor years before I became a certified instructor, I was shocked that I was averaging 95% MHR effort during what I thought were "easier" rides. I was further shocked to see that I could not stay below 80% anytime I got out of the seat -- no runs, no standing climbs, no jumps. I stayed in that seat. To give myself a challenge, I'd increase the resistance as much as I could while remaining aerobic -- and it was a completely different ride I was on than that my instructor was coaching. But that's what I needed then. After 1-2 months of aerobic base-building, you'll be able to do all of those runs, standing climbs, jumps, etc. at 80% MHR. And those seated climbs you plowed through? Those will be your recharges.

*2) "I can't be over-training... I *only* spin 4 times a week... and besides, I haven't lost any weight." *
Remember, over-training is not only a function of frequency of exercise! It is also a function of intensity. Even if you train three times a week - but you're pushing so hard to the point of post-exercise exhaustion (because you think that compensates for working out fewer days per week) - you run the risk of over-training. *Elite competitive cyclists do the majority of their training between 60-75% MHR for endurance, advancing to 85% a few days per week for a short period of their competitive year to build cardiovascular strength and get their anaerobic system geared up, then up to max effort leading right up and through Race Day*. *Why would we work harder than competitive cyclists?
As for this student's remark about "not losing weight," this is precisely *because* she was pushing so hard. *We do not burn much fat during anaerobic training. If your legs are burning, you are not burning fat as your primary source of fuel.

I'd also like to take this time to re-introduce the concept of proper Recovery. *Recovery can be both passive (total rest, taking a day off) and active (riding at 50-65% max heart rate with light speed and juuuuuuust enough resistance to feel that pull in the back of your leg).* Those active recovery rides can be quite energizing, indeed -- and it's actually quite effective in flushing out accumulated lactic acid from the body and improving oxygen circulation to tired muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Active Recovery is my new "thing" for 2008, now that I'm teaching so much but don't like to coach off the bike for full classes at a time. I encourage you to join me whenever you want. Just chill out.


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