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Heart Monitors as a Tool for Training

Ken Grace explains how to use a Heart Rate Monitor to set exercise intensity

The first wireless heart rate monitor (HRM) was introduced in 1983 and since then many improvements have been made e.g.

  • Coded transmission process (from the chest strap to watch) to reduce interference with other HRMs
  • Ability to capture large amounts of data
  • Functions to aid with training e.g. high and low ranges for setting training zones
  • Ability to download the captured data onto a computer and then analyse with special software

VO2 max

The use of an HRM to set exercise intensity is based on sound physiological principals - as the work increases, oxygen consumption (VO2) and heart rate increases in a linear relationship until near maximal intensities. Heart rate is easier to measure than oxygen consumption and the relationship between them has been established, however, there is one critical component - knowing your maximum heart rate. They are a good tool for seeing how stress affects the body because as workload goes up heart rate goes up. While heart monitors are not good for predicting or measuring V02 max they are a great tool for monitoring and measuring aerobic fitness levels below maximum effort.

Maximum oxygen uptake, or V02 max, is the body's highest ability to use oxygen at the cell level. Scientists and physiologists are constantly studying maximum oxygen uptake and give us numbers concerning the bodyweight of what is good, what is average and what is poor. The higher the V02 max the better the individual is at processing oxygen. So world-class endurance athletes tend to score high and sedentary people, who have underdeveloped aerobic systems, score low. As V02 max improves so does the general health and wellness of the individual.

Most coaches and physical education teachers do not have access to physiology labs so how do you get an idea of a person's V02 max? It turns out that V02 max is very close to the average pace that a person can cover in an all-out 10-minute run or bike ride (If they have properly trained to cover the distance.) To establish a V02 max have the rested athlete perform a 10-minute time trial. Use their average pace to figure out what is V02 max pace. A recent 2-mile or 3,000-meter race also provides a place to start when trying to establish a V02 max pace. For example, an athlete running a 10:00 two-mile would have a V02 max pace equal to around 5:00/mile. At the same time, if this is an all-out effort, you could use the heart monitor to establish a maximum heart rate.

A 10-minute all-out effort is too much to ask from a new athlete. It would probably scare them away! With new athletes and aerobically underdeveloped athletes, we can estimate their maximum heart rate and use these numbers to set up a beginning aerobic training plan at 65% of V02 max pace. First, we need to estimate the new person's maximum heart rate. Ideally, we would measure it…And at a much later date we can, but for the time being, I suggest you use the Miller formula outlined in "How to Use Heart Rate to Quantify Fitness Training Intensity" by McGuire.

The Miller formula is:

  • Maximum Heart Rate = 217 - (0.85 x Age)
  • Let us use a 27-year-old male: HRmax = 217 - (0.85 x 27) = 194 bpm
  • 75% max heart rate is approximately equal to 65% V02 max
  • So, 194 bpm x 0.75 = 145 bpm to be training at 65% V02 max pace

These same calculations can be used to figure percentages up to around 90% of VO2 max pace. Beyond 90% of VO2 max pace, the heart rate monitor becomes less reliable and the focus now should shift to timing and controlling the pace of the repetitions. In between efforts that are run above 90% V02 max pace a heart monitor is a great tool for measuring recovery heart rate. By monitoring the recovery rate, we can measure positive changes in fitness.

Heart monitors can be used with highly developed athletes. If the V02 max pace has been determined, the heart rate monitor can be used to build a heart rate training pace chart. For example, a 10-minute 2 miler has a V02 max pace equal to roughly 5 minutes per mile. A 90% V02 max run of 2 miles in ten minutes would be equivalent to around 5:33/mile pace. By having the athlete run at 5:33/mile pace we can establish a heart rate that corresponds to this effort. In the example below the athlete achieved a heart rate of 175 bpm while running at 90% V02 max pace.


A run at 65% of VO2 max for the athlete below elicits a heart rate of around 147 bpm

Name Joe Runner
V02 Max Pace 5:00/mile
Max Heart Rate 196
90% V02 Max Pace 5:33/mile
Heart Rate @ 90% V02 Max Pace 175 bpm
65% V02 Max Pace 7:41/mile
Heart Rate @ 65% V02 Max Pace 147

When VO2 max pace, and the corresponding heart rates, have been established the coach and athlete can develop a chart with a variety of percentages to meet their training needs. Heart monitors provide a method to measure effort, or intensity, more accurately than just asking the athlete how they feel. An athlete planning to do a recovery run away from the track at 65% VO2 maximum pace usually has to guess at the pace or go by how he feels. With many highly motivated athletes, this recovery run turns into another tough training session and the objective for the workout is lost. A heart monitor is a great tool for the over-ambitious athlete.

Heart monitors provide an inexpensive way to measure improvements in fitness levels, below maximum effort, and recovery. During a mesocycle of training (4 to 6 weeks) an athlete probably repeats a particular workout several times. By recording the heart rate at the end of each work repetition and then again at the end of the recovery the coach and athlete can gain insight into how effective the training process is. The key to measuring intensity away from a controlled environment, like the track, is being able to monitor effort using heart rate. Recording resting heart rate can alert both coach and athlete to the effects the training cycle has on the heart.

Heart Rate Monitors are a tool. Like all tools, they can be misused, or the information they provide can be misinterpreted. The coach and athlete need to remember that heart rate is only one measure of what is going on. Heart rates can be affected by several extraneous variables like heat, humidity and dehydration. The key is to use the heart rate monitor in conjunction with other training markers consistently measuring, comparing, and evaluating heart rate during training and performance.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • GRACE, K. (2004) Heart Monitors as a Tool for Training. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 12 / May), p. 10-11

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • GRACE, K. (2004) Heart Monitors as a Tool for Training [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Ken Grace has a B.S. in Kinesiology and Physical Education from Cal State Hayward 1979 and M.A. in Education (emphasis in Physical Education) Stanford University 1980. He has been a physical education teacher/track and cross-country coach in the California Community College system for 24 years and has USA Track and Field coaches` certification level II in jumps and endurance.