Should I buy a heart rate monitor?

A while ago I went over the pros and cons of owning a GPS watch.

But you’ll notice I didn’t recommend a heart rate monitor.

Moderately lengthy story short – a GPS watch is not a necessity but I don’t consider it a luxury. I’m in favor of them as long as you don’t go overboard.

But I’ve seen it too many times. You go to buy a GPS watch and…Oh man, for only $50 more I can get the watch with a heart rate monitor. Do you think I should buy it?

You panic and visit the internet. The message boards tell you how important monitoring your heart rate is and throws out words like VO2 Max to further confuse you. You get overwhelmed and concerned for your own well-being. Well it’s only $50 and you never know. Better safe than sorry.

So you buy it. And then you never use it. Not even once. Sucka.

Now, I’m 100% on board with training in heart rate zones. It’s important for getting faster and also for not dying – both figuratively and literally. In fact, I have a heart rate monitor – shown below 

Heart Rate Monitor
I’ve mentioned that I was a competitive swimmer from about age 10 until I graduated college. I didn’t say I was amazing, but a Division I college did give me some money to swim and named me their Captain – twice. Being aware of our heart rate was a way of life – 15 x 200 on 2:30, heart rate at 150-160.  

How did we know our heart rates? Did we strap some monitors to our chests? 

Nope. We counted.

Take those two fingers shown above, put them on your neck and count the number of beats for 6 seconds. Now here comes the tricky part – multiply that number by 10.

16 beats in 6 seconds = 160 pulse. Not enough time between intervals? Maybe count for 3 seconds and multiply by 20. You you get the idea.

Alternatives to the two-finger method

Maybe you’re running and it’s tough to take your pulse without stabbing your neck or you don’t have any fingers. You still don’t have to buy a heart rate monitor. You have other body parts which can also help you:

Ears

Pay attention to your breathing. I know when I’m going super hard that my breathing takes on a higher pitch. Any time I hear that higher pitch I know I’m probably in the 170-180 range. If that’s not intended, I slow on down. 

Mouth

Your effort level should determine your ability to form sentences. If you’re with a running/cycling buddy you’re probably gonna be chatting it up. Form nice long sentences and contemplate the meaning of life and you’re probably at a lower heart rate. If you’re wishing your partner would just shut the heck up because you can’t even grunt out a response then you’re probably close to your max heart rate.

What is my max heart rate, anyway?

There’s a million calculators and formulas out there but the truth is this: it’s different for everyone. So the best way to figure it out is by experiment. 

Here’s an easy test. Go for a nice, easy 2 mile warm up jog and take note of your pulse right after you finish. This should be your recovery heart rate.

Now run a 1/2 mile as hard as you can possibly run that distance. Let’s go for the gold here! As soon as you finish take note of your heart rate again – that’s right about at your max heart rate.

Want to do it on a bike instead? Again go for a warm-up and then find a big ole hill. Sprint up that hill and take your heart rate at the top.

How do I know what my heart rate should be?

Typically you’ll see about 5 heart rate zones listed. For ease, were going to use my maximum heart rate of 180 for the rest of the article

Zone 1

Name: Recovery

Description: Warm up and down. For use in-between intervals and repeats.

Heart rate: 50-60% of max (~110 pulse)

Speakability: Can recite Shakespeare here

Zone 2

Name: Endurance

Description: Sort of your ride/run all day pace. Just going out for a run or a ride without trying too hard. Majority of miles should be logged in this zone

Heart rate: 60-70% of max (~130 pulse)

Speakability: Should have little difficulty with full on conversations and elaborate sentences

Zone 3

Name: Aerobic/Tempo

Description: Your long distance (half marathon/marathon) pace. Not too hard but not too easy. Should be able to sustain for quite a bit.

Heart rate: 70-80% of max (~150 pulse)

Speakability: Shorter, cave-man like sentences can be formed here. This hill hard. Legs hurt bad.

Zone 4

Name: Threshold

Description: Repeat speed. This should be your goal pace for a shorter run – say 5 miles. Only shorter repeats (1-3 miles) at this speed should be sustained. Typically followed by some good ole Zone 1 action.

Heart rate: 80-90% max (~160 pulse)

Speakability: 1 to 2 words here. Faster. Slower. Done.

Zone 5

Name: VO2 max

Description: Intense. Not to be sustained for a long period of time. Looking at 5k or faster pace here.

Heart rate: 90-100% max (180 pulse)

Speakability: Grunts and spittle.

Conclusion

I think a heart rate monitor is an unnecessary piece of equipment as mother nature has given you everything you need to figure out what level of intensity you’re at. Let’s save that $50 and not buy a piece of technology that you have only about a 10% chance of using anyway. 

Happy beat counting.