Heart Rate Monitors Teach Rather Than Distract During Your Workouts


polar ft80
Polar FT80 heart rate monitor

I’m not a big tech person, both in life and in the gym. Some people are so wired up for their workouts they look like they are undergoing laboratory testing, but that’s not my thing. My workouts are a time for me to check out. Unplug. Get in tune and listen, really listen, to my body.

Some distraction is good, especially during cardio, the bane of my existence, but you don’t want to be so preoccupied with your electronic leashes that your focus is taken away from your workouts. (Cough, cough, mirrin’ Instagrammers, cough).

Aside from distraction gadgets like iPods, TV and social media, stat tracking gadgets can be useful for tracking training progress, but it can still be a slippery slope. When you are so preoccupied with your numbers, stats and calculations, the all important mind/body connection element of fitness gets thrown out the window. When you rely on a digital read out to gauge and dictate your speed/distance/intensity, you lose touch with being able to read your own body. This dependence can actually lead you to undercut yourself and your results.

How many times have you stopped your workout because you hit the arbitrary number you set for yourself: 30 minutes, 5 miles, etc.? How many times have you slapped that stop button on the treadmill the second that timer ticked from 29:59 to 30:00? If you went by how you feel as a gauge, honing in on the burn in your legs, the pumping of your lungs and the thumping of your heart, you might have been able to pound out another 10 minutes or mile without even knowing it.

My job requires me to try out the latest fitness gizmos (not complaining, it’s a pretty sweet gig) and while I never really find a reason to NOT recommend a certain product, full disclosure, most of the time I just find them more work than I’m willing to put forth on a regular basis. I’m not interested in having download an app, log on to a website, set up an account, and decipher a bunch of graphs and numbers that tell me I just went on a run. I know I ran. I have boob sweat trickling down my tummy from that run. Combine that with the fact I can barely remember to pack socks in my gym bag, let alone a million electronic leashes, and I usually find a nice spot for said gizmo in a drawer somewhere rather than making it a part of my regular fitness routine.

mio alpha
MIO Alpha Watch

That being said, there is one piece of technology I recommend to all: a heart rate monitor. Heart rate monitors tend to have the opposite affect of my gripe with gadgets: They teach you what it feels like to be working in your target intensity zone so you can better gauge your own intensity by feel, not digital display. This is an important component many techies miss, and allows you to mentally and physically push yourself harder.

Use me as an example: I’ll be on a run, feeling like I’m about to die (Running is very mental for me.) I’ll check my HRM and it says 160. It’s up there, I’m working hard, but not nearly death-inducing. Without it, I might have slowed to walk or caught a cab home, but I knew my brain was lying to me because I am physically capable of working a lot harder and do on a regular basis when it’s something I enjoy. And so, I continue to run, praying for death, but know its sweet release will never come because my heart is nowhere near my danger zone. And each time, it gets easier and easier to know what my heart rate is at any given moment based on what my body is telling me, instead of my lying, cardio-loathing brain. So, next time I’m on a run without my HRM, I can push through the mental block. The only way to do that is to know your body, really know it: what it feels like, what it looks like, and what it is saying to you while you are working out.

Heart rate monitors read how fast your heart is beating to pump oxygen to your exercising muscles. The harder you are working, the faster your heart beats because the more oxygen your body needs.

So what’s a good heart rate to shoot for? I get yelled at for using this equation (I don’t know if you’ve ever worked on the internet, but you get yelled at A LOT) but here is a GENERAL GUIDELINE to figure out your target heart rate. Obviously, everyone is going to be different and it will vary based on your individual height/weight/age, so pipe down, angry internet commentors.

220-your age= Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

Target Heart Rate = 65%-85% of your MHR. Anything higher is potentially dangerous, anything less, you aren’t going to see maximum results for the time you’re putting in.

wahoo-blue-hr-monitor
Wahoo Blue HR Monitor

The other good thing about heart rate monitors is that after you program your individual stats into it, it will give you a more accurate breakdown of your training intensity zones than the above equation. Also, if you use a cardio machine, many sync to the machine and display your heart rate on the machine’s display.

There are quite a few different types of heart rate monitors on the market. The most basic set up is a chest strap/wrist watch combo. I was sent a Polar FT80 to try out and I pretty much haven’t taken it off since. It has strength training capabilities, which is perfect for my anti-steady state cardio lifestyle. I keep my rest between sets to a bare minimum when lifting so my heart rate stays high enough that I also see cardiovascular benefits along with my strength gains. See? They also get you out of doing traditional boring cardio- another HRM bonus. If you just want the basics, the Polar FT4 is also an effective and most cost effective choice.

If you want to skip the chest strap, which can be a bit alarming on your bare skin first thing in the morning, you can use the MIO Alpha, which reads your heart rate directly from your wrist. Or, if it’s the watch portion you’d like to skip, try the Wahoo Blue HR which transmits to an app on your phone.

No matter which route you choose, be sure to go without any electronic devices every once in a while. It will keep you in tune with your body, and take the focus off numbers. Let your motivation, drive and energy levels dictate your workouts rather than a beeping ball and chain, because that’s when you push yourself further than you ever thought possible.

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