Ask the Coach: What do heart rate monitors tell you?

Q. I've been athletic (playing soccer in college, etc.) for my entire life and regularly run and cross train regularly. I recently bought a heart rate monitor to make my runs less stressful. I want to get the most out of each and every run.

I've always been told to play hard or go home ... but now at 30 years old, I want to enjoy running and exercising.

I set-up the heart rate monitor with the product's defaults of low (121) and high (171), not knowing what mine should be. I used it for a 4.7-mile run, which took 50 minutes, in which my heart rate averaged 161, with a low of 120 and a high of 180.

So, what does this information mean? Is that too high? I've also heard that if you're breathing too hard then you're not getting enough oxygen and putting too much stress on your body.

A. You have a great question that's not easily answered. The short answer is you don't need to go all-out hard each time you run in order to gain benefits from the workout. More than likely, if you continue this all-out approach, there's a good chance you'll suffer an injury or overtraining symptoms.

A heart rate monitor is non-invasive peek at your body's energy production system. The monitor can help estimate how your body is producing energy. This energy production, and related exercise intensity, can help you plan your training and recovery.

Your training intensity for any given workout should have purpose if you hope to make improvements. Recovery workouts and rest cycles in your training help you absorb the training work, elevating your fitness to new levels.

The energy production systems most widely discussed in fitness literature include aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) energy production. These two systems are working all the time within your body. The percentage of energy that your body produces from each system depends on your activity level or exercise intensity.

Your average exercise intensity or pace is related to the distance of your event. For example, sprinting as fast as possible across the street is different than running a 5k or a 10k. If you want to run a couple of events averaging the fastest pace possible, the pace and average heart rate will be different for a 5k than it is for a 10k. The pace you can achieve for a given heart rate is quite trainable.

What your heart rate monitor is telling you in the question you posted depends on your current fitness level, how much warm-up and cool-down time was in your average heart rate value, and the pace or intensity for each segment of your run. Based on many of the athletes I've coached, an average heart rate of 161 for 50 minutes is a relatively tough workout.

The real question is did that workout help or hurt your efforts to reach your fitness goals? There really isn't a straightforward answer to your question without knowing more information about you.

The answer depends on your goals, personal training zones, pace at any given heart rate, current fitness level and how that particular workout fits into your overall training plan.

There's an entire chapter of my book Triathlon Training Basics devoted to discussing energy production and how to do your own testing to estimate training zones to get the most from your workouts. The book also includes four detailed training plans for runners, looking to run a 5k or 10k event. The plans were intended for individuals who want to be part of a triathlon team, but the plans also work great for athletes who want to run one of those events on their own.

Even if you don't use my book, I highly recommend you begin educating yourself on training concepts. There are dozens of books that discuss training theories, training periodization concepts, heart rate training (keep in mind that there's not one single methodology that all coaches and scientists agree on), pace training, nutrition and injury prevention. Hopefully, by educating yourself you can stay healthy and fit for a life time.

Do you have a specific training or sport related question? Have world-renowned coach Gale Bernhardt answer it! Send your questions to

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Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic Coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

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