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The heart rate monitor - an athlete's best friend

Tony Paladin explains how a heart rate monitor can help you to achieve your fitness objectives.

The combination of frequency, intensity, and duration is the art every athlete and coach carefully balance in the quest for success. Whether it be winning the Olympic gold medal or just losing 5 kilograms, the optimal combination of these three key elements will culminate in the realisation of one's fitness goals. The fundamental question is: "how much of each does one factor into their training program taking individuality into account"? The answer to this question is practical heart rate training.

With the correct implementation of this simple tool, one can achieve fitness and weight loss goals without overtraining or following a draconian diet. One will also have peace of mind that sufficient work is being done to elicit an appropriate training stimulus. Having been involved at top-level rowing for ten years, I compared our approach now to the process a decade ago. Initially, we used to train daily, close to upper-end intensity capacity (only once per day). Each session became a race, and it was not deemed successful unless you had been fatigued.

It worked of course; we were an extremely well-conditioned bunch of athletes who could hold their own for most of our racing distance of 2km. The problem was that on an international level, being world-class for the first 1500 meters of a 2000-meter race was not good enough. It also was not good enough that we lost 4 of our top athletes within one year due to "burn out", "overtraining" and "fatigue". The following year we changed coaches, and he encouraged us to all start using heart rate monitors during our training sessions. He re-structured our training programs to include more minutes at a lower intensity. He explained that our previous training methods had too much anaerobic work. This done often enough or with insufficient rest can result in damage to the muscles.

He introduced us to a training method called "long slow steady-state". Training consisted of low-intensity "minute crunching" at a constant heart rate worked out from the direct percentage method ([220-age] x %). The arbitrary percentage was around 75% or 150 bpm for a 20-year-old male. This method of training improved aerobic capacity. Upon starting, our average training speeds were far slower than what we were used to (4:20 min/km compared to 4:00 min/ km). This, however, improved so drastically that within six months, we were at the same speeds at 150 bpm as before (4:05 min/ km compared to 4:00 min/ km).

This meant that we were burning fat far more effectively than before. We could hold average training speeds at 150 to 155 bpm that the previous year would have been closer to 185 or 190 bpm! This is far more efficient training. Other important benefits included fewer injuries, less burnout and more focus during training. After following this pattern for another six months, we started building anaerobic training back into our program. On top of a solid aerobic base, the improvements in sustained top-end speed were notable compared to previous years.

Since then, we have adopted using the Karvonen method to establish a heart rate training zone. This considers the resting heart rate (HRrest) and is hence more applicable to trained athletes. The Karvonen equation is as follows (([220-age] - HRrest) x %) + HRrest. For practical application purposes, a formula will help determine one's maximum aerobic heart rate. This heart rate is the maximum heart rate one should go and still be able to recover steadily on a day to day basis, whilst maximising aerobic improvement and heart muscle strength.

The formula is as follows (as adapted from Mark Allen, world champion triathlete and sports coach)

  • (180 - Age) and then add
    • -10 if you do not do any training at present
    • - 5 if you train 1 - 2 times a week
    • - 0 if you train 3 - 4 times a week
    • + 5 if you train more than 5 times per week for > 6 months
    • + 5 if you are over 60 or under 20

The number that is left is the maximum heart rate that the majority of aerobic training should be done. Eventually, steady-state training will plateau, and one will need to start, including interval training into the program to optimise the top end. This type of training should be appropriately periodised into the pre-competition phase of the training schedule. It should be increased at no more than 10% intensity or duration per week and done no more than three times per week (preferably twice a week). The work duration should last 20 to 30 minutes. It should increase weekly within the time limit until the intensity can be increased to a higher percentage of the maximum heart rate (HRmax) using the Karvonen method. For example:

  • Week 1: 12 x 2 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 2: 8 x 3 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 3: 6 x 4 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 4: 5 x 5 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 5: 4 x 6 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 7: 3 x 8 min @ 90% HRmax
  • Week 8: 2 x 12 min @ 90% HRmax

The closer to an athletic peak one becomes, the more their anaerobic threshold will improve. Therefore, the more years of consistent training an athlete strings together, the higher their maximum aerobic heart rate will go, hence allowing them to work harder, but more aerobically for longer.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • PALADIN, T. (2007) The heart rate monitor - an athlete's best friend. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 42/ May), p. 9-10

Page Reference

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

  • PALADIN, T. (2007) The heart rate monitor - an athlete's best friend [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Tony Paladin is a qualified personal fitness trainer, spinning instructor and rowing coach. He has represented South Africa in Rowing 7 times at various World Championships and World Cups, been 12 times national rowing champion and under 23 World Championship silver medallist. He has a BSc. WITS (Human Kinetics, Physiology and Psychology) and is currently studying BSc. Biokinetics Honours.