Its a common scenario. I trained harder for this one than I ever have before, says the disbelieving runner, head bowed after a disappointing race. The reason? Quite simply, your body will let you train harder than is actually necessary to improve your performance. And unfortunately, elite and amateur competitors alike often believe that to get better, they have to train more and harder.
The answer? The correct use of a heart rate monitor (or HRM for short) in your training sessions can help you to get the best out of yourself with the least effort. Whats more, HRMs are far more accessible than they used to be, and sales are increasing exponentially.
There are many ways in which an HRM can be of use, whether you aim to prevent Paula Radcliffe repeating her London Marathon victory or your aspirations are more modest. But picking the right model for you can be tricky; with so many on the market and a variety of functions available, it may be difficult to decide exactly what you do and dont need.
Most HRMs have two major pieces. A chest strap picks up electrical activity in the heart and identifies each beat, and this information is then transmitted to a watch. These pieces are known respectively as the transmitter and the receiver (or monitor). The basic technology is pretty much the same, regardless of make or model, which means that there is little or no difference in the accuracy.
The differences creep in with cosmetics, ease of operation and extra functions. At the bottom end of the market, the monitor will simply display your heart rate as you train. This is fine if you are only interested in observing how hard youre working, but other models can offer much more.
Most runners select an HRM that also has a stopwatch facility, to save wearing two watches. Some models also have a countdown alarm, which is useful if youre doing a structured session and want to know when to start and finish your intervals and recovery. Another useful stopwatch function is splits, which may be essential if you do long reps.
Simply seeing your heart rate while training isnt always enough. You may wish to assess the situation afterwards, in which case you need some sort of data recall facility. You have a number of options here. Some receivers let you record a certain amount of heart rate readings every minute for 30 minutes, for example. Others store the heart rate throughout, for subsequent recall; most have varying recording intervals such as five, 15 and 60 seconds.
At the top end of the range, some heart rate monitors allow you to download all the information from a session onto a personal computer for thorough analysis. However, such models are the most expensive.
If you know exactly how you want to train before a session, some monitors allow you to program heart rate ranges, with an upper and a lower limit. If you go too hard or too easy, the alarm will beep at you until you get back into your zone. In this way you achieve the element of control, and its one of the most useful functions of an HRM provided, of course, that you know what heart rates you want to train at. Really top-end models even allow you to program whole interval sessions by time or heart rate.
One final aspect you should consider is the battery. With some models you can change the battery yourself (though replacements may not be all that widely available); with others you cant. In the latter case you have to send the whole thing back to the manufacturer, which costs more and means youre without your monitor for a while. On the other hand, the manufacturer takes the opportunity to do a full service on the monitor at the same time. The choice is yours.