Whenever you get a new piece of electrical equipment, the temptation is to rip off the packaging and get stuck in straight away, so the following advice may sound boring. Nevertheless, when you unpack your heart rate monitor (or HRM for short), whether it’s your first model or an upgrade, it makes sense to read the instructions and familiarise yourself with the equipment. The more sophisticated the monitor, the longer you’ll have to spend on this. A very basic model which displays your heart rate and nothing else will be practically ready for use.
So what can you expect to find inside the packaging? And what should you look for in the instruction leaflet?
Heart rate monitors come in two or three parts. Gone (thankfully) are the days of clips wired to the ear lobe and attachments to the fingertip; nowadays you have a chest strap (transmitter), a receiver (watch), and no wires.
Location is everything
It’s important to put the chest strap on in the correct position. For men, this is central and just below the chest muscles: for women, just below the bra, but as high a possible.
The strap can be adjusted for snugness around your chest and should be as tight as possible, without restricting your breathing. This is one parameter you should establish before your first run; otherwise you will feel great frustration when you have to keep stopping to make adjustments.
To ensure good readings, it will help if you dampen the contact area for the electrodes. This will make it easier for the transmitter to pick up the electrical activity in your heart. You can use electrode gel, water or – assuming the monitor is your own – good old-fashioned saliva.
If your strap is fitted correctly and you are wearing your receiver, you should be able to see your heart rate on the receiver. On some models the display will start immediately, without you having to do anything; other models require that you select the correct mode on the watch – another good reason to read the instructions before you start.
You don’t have to wear the watch on your wrist: if you ride a bike or use a rowing machine or other gym apparatus, you can fix the watch to the handle and still get a perfectly good trace. The telemetry range between transmitter and receiver varies between models, but will usually cover a distance of up to two metres. Though this might sound like a good feature, it also has its down side: if you run in a group and others are also wearing HRMs, the receivers will pick up heart rates from all the transmitters which are in range. So if you run in company, keep your distance!
Group training isn’t the only potential hazard. Overhead power cables will disrupt your heart rate readings, as will any machinery with strong electric currents – motorised treadmills affect many watches, often to the point where just walking elicits heart rates above 200!
Similarly, runners who live on the flight path to an airport can experience strange readings when low-flying aircraft pass overhead. In time you will get to know what sends your monitor haywire, but as long as you’re aware of the culprit, there’s no need to panic when the occasional blip occurs.
Get into the habit of taking your heart rate each morning. Ideally you should do this before you get out of bed, but if that’s impossible, do it at the same time each day, while inactive. Log this in your training diary and watch for patterns to develop. After a few days, you’ll get a baseline of your normal resting heart rate.
If you’re ill, tired, stressed or not fully recovered from a race or hard session, you may well see that your resting heart rate is higher than your baseline level. This is your body’s way of sending you warning signals, and you should heed the warning. If your reading is just a couple of beats above normal, don’t worry too much. If it’s 5-10 beats above the baseline, make your work-out an easy one. Ten beats or more above baseline should convince you to have a rest day.