How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Photo Courtesy of Polar
I'm a beginning runner—do I need to use a heart rate monitor?

Using a heart rate monitor will improve your running more quickly than simply relying on how you feel—if you know how to use it. Employed properly, a heart rate monitor is like having a coach along for every workout. It will help ensure that you train at an appropriate intensity—neither too hard nor too easy. When it's time to work a bit harder, your heart rate monitor nudges you up to the right intensity. And on those days when you need to go easy, you can rely on it to keep you under control.

To improve your fitness, there are only three variables you can control and change:

  • Frequency—how often you exercise.
  • Duration—how long the individual exercise sessions are.
  • Intensity—how challenging the individual exercise sessions are.
These variables remain the same whether you want to lose a couple of pounds or train for the Olympics. If you simply want to be healthy, a handful of easy workouts a week will do it, and you don't need a heart rate monitor to get this right. But if your goal is to become more fit, or if you have goals such as finishing or going faster in a marathon, triathlon or cycling event, the intensity of your workout becomes very important.

More: Heart Rate Training Tips

Getting the frequency and duration of your exercise right is easy. Intensity is more difficult to target and is also the most important variable in achieving your goals. One way to measure intensity is to rely on how you feel when exercising by rating your effort as easy, moderate or hard. That's not a very accurate gauge. Mood swings, training partners, enthusiasm and other factors will influence your ratings.

A heart rate monitor makes achieving the right intensity of exercise much easier to determine. You decide what your heart rate will be for a given workout and then watch your monitor to make sure you reach it. It's quite simple. Want to get faster? Train with higher heart rates to build speed. Want to go farther? Train with lower heart rates to develop endurance.

I've trained with a heart rate monitor a few times, but I don't know what to do with the information it's giving me. How do I make sense of the numbers?

Until you learn what the numbers displayed on your wrist mean, the heart rate monitor is just a "gee whiz" toy. To give the numbers meaning, you need a reference point, a heart rate unique to you at a given level of intensity. Depending on the brand and model of your heart rate monitor, some will take you through a simple workout to determine this number, but this isn't always the most accurate method to use. It's better to calculate this on your own.

More: The Power of Pace and Heart Rate Training

Try the following: First, find your Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR). There are a few ways to find your FTHR. Wear your heart rate monitor and warm up, then run hard for 30 minutes as if you were in a race. Or you may actually participate in a race that will take you about 60 minutes to complete. Your average heart rate for either run, if you were going hard, is a good predictor of your FTHR.
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About the Author

Joe Friel

Joe Friel is the author of several books on training for endurance sports, including Total Heart Rate Training. He is also the founder and president of Training Bible Coaching and For more information, visit

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