How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Regardless of whether you’re a professional fighter, an up and coming amateur, or just train recreationally for fun, you no doubt want to get as much out of your hard work as possible. After all, nobody wants to go into the gym day in and day out and yet not see any real improvements from all their effort. Sadly, this is exactly what happens all too often and most athletes and trainees have experienced times in their training where progress has grinded to a halt and a plateau has been reached.

One the easiest ways to make sure this doesn’t happen to you is to take advantage of the cheapest coaches you could ever have – a high quality heart rate monitor. Even though most people would never dream of trying to teach themselves the skills of mixed martial arts and they spend good money to have a coach tell them what to do and provide feedback about what they are doing wrong, it’s unfortunately all too common for athletes to go through training without the objective and invaluable feedback that using a heart rate monitor properly can provide.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to get too far if you were to try to drive across the country with a map or GPS to guide you along the way, you shouldn’t expect to get the most out of your training program without the use of a heart rate monitor. These incredibly powerful little tools can mean the difference between developing world class conditioning and wasting endless hours of time training ineffectively.

If you take your time and hard work seriously, always make sure to train with a heart rate monitor and follow the simple guidelines below to get the most out of it. Once you begin using a heart rate monitor as suggested, I guarantee you’ll quickly wonder how you ever trained without it.

Optimize Recovery Between Sets

One of the biggest mistakes most often made when it comes to training is trying to turn everything into some form of conditioning. Instead of taking the time to rest enough between sets to fully regain strength and power, combat athletes are often used to doing everything in a circuit fashion with little rest between exercises or sets. If you’ve ever watched a Powerlifter or Olympic lifter train, on the other hand, you’ve no doubt seen the incredibly long rest periods they utilize between each and every set.

The primary reason for such long rest periods is to ensure the strongest, most powerful muscle fibers and nervous system have fully recovered from the previous set and are ready to go to work again. When the rest period is insufficient, these fibers aren’t able to contribute as much and the result is that they don’t improve their ability to produce force and power to nearly the same extent. In other words, you don’t get as strong, or as explosive, as possible when you rush the rest between sets.

Utilizing a simple heart rate monitor is an easy way to help gauge recovery from strength and power training. A good general rule of thumb is to make sure your heart rate has recovered a range of at least 110-130 beats per minute before beginning the next set. Not only will this lead to improved quality of your sets and reduce your chance of injury because you won’t be as fatigued, but you’ll also see greater strength and power gains as well.

Gauge Recovery Between Rounds

One of the hallmarks and defining features of good conditioning is the ability to still be explosive and strong in the later rounds. One of the real keys to being the kind of fighter that still has gas in the later rounds is being in good enough shape to recover quickly during the one minute rest period between rounds. The more quickly you can recover between rounds, the less likely you are to fatigue as time goes on and the greater advantage you’ll have against an opponent in lesser shape.

Wearing a heart rate monitor and using it to gauge your recovery between rounds not only gives you a good indication of your fitness levels, it also helps make sure your training is headed in the right direction. The ability of the heart rate to drop quickly between rounds is known as heart rate recovery and a well-conditioned fighter can expect to see his or her heart rate drop 40 beats per minute or more within one minute of rest.

If you’re seeing substantially less than this, it’s a sign you need to improve your conditioning levels if you want to avoid gassing out in the later rounds. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to get down to a heat rate in the low 140s between each and every round, regardless of how high your heart rate gets during the round. Because the heart rate is too high and changes rapidly over the course of a minute, trying to get an accurate gauge of heart rate recovery without a heart rate monitor is difficult and problematic at best. A heart rate monitor makes measuring the heart rate recovery between rounds both extremely simple and accurate.

Track Your Resting Heart Rate

Resting heart rate has been used as a good general gauge of aerobic fitness levels and work capacity by endurance athletes for generations. Even though combat sports do not require the same level of aerobic fitness as pure endurance athletes like marathon runners and triathletes, there is no doubt that combat sports do require a high level of aerobic fitness nonetheless.

Although individual variances do occur, the vast majority of the best conditioned combat athletes have resting heart rates in the low 50s and even upper 40s. With rare exception, this is the range of resting heart rate that’s necessary for a high level of conditioning and a heart rate monitor is the tool of choice to measure and track where your resting heart rate is at.

To get the most accurate reading, it’s always a good idea to take a measure of resting heart rate first thing in the morning, before any stimulants have been consumed and before you’ve started your day. The best position to measure it is in generally either seated or lying down, but whichever you choose, the important thing is to always measure in the same position each time because resting heart rate can change by as much as 10 beats per minute from one position to the next.

Train in the right zone

Back in the 1980s, the concept of training in different heart rate zones began to catch on and sales of heart rate monitors took off. Treadmills in gyms all over the US soon began to have labels showing different ideal target heart rate zones for maximum fat burning, or for increasing your “cardio” and such.

Although the different zones developed and popularized back then are a bit overly simplistic and not always accurate, the principle of making sure you’re training at the right intensity for your goals is still an important one. All combat sports require the right balance of energy system development and using a heart rate monitor can help ensure you’re training at the proper intensity given your goal and overall training program.

A very simple way to look at heart rate zones is to consider a “Low” zone anything in the heart rate range of 130-150 beats per minute. This is the range generally used for low intensity training like roadwork and is primarily utilized to develop the efficiency of the heart and develop the network of blood vessels and capillaries necessary to deliver as much oxygen as possible to the working muscles.

The next zone is from about 160 beats per minute up to 90% of your maximum heart rate and this can be considered a “Moderate” training zone. Keep in mind, however, that there is no formula to accurately determine your maximum heart rate and the only real way to find it is to work up to it in training. When you get to the point that you’re working as hard as you possibly can but you’re heart rate isn’t increasing, then you have found your maximum heart rate.

The moderate zone is an important one for combat sports and the faster pace you can work at while in this zone, the better your conditioning is. Typically the middle of this zone is where most people’s anaerobic threshold range will be and training focused in this area can help maximize aerobic power and fitness.

Finally, the last heart rate zone is “High” and it can be considered anything over 90% of your maximum heart rate. This is where the true limits of anaerobic energy production are pushed and your body is worked to its maximum. It’s always a good idea to track how much time you spend in this zone through training and make sure it doesn’t exceed your recovery ability. Too much time spent in the highest heart rate zone is a recipe for overtraining so you’ll want to pay close attention and monitor the total time spent, both daily and weekly, training in this High zone.

Watch for Overtraining

Finally, another way that a heart rate monitor can be utilized is as a detector of the early symptoms of overtraining – especially in conjunction with the use of heart rate variability. There are essentially two different ways that using a heart rate monitor can serve to offer warning signs that you may be training too much. Using both in combination is the best way to make sure you avoid overtraining syndrome along with the decreased performance and increased likelihood of injury and sickness that so often accompanies it.

First, large and sudden changes in resting heart rate away from normal can be an indication that there is an imbalance between training and recovery. It’s perfectly normal for day to day variations to occur, but large swings in resting heart rate, either up or down, are a warning sign that you may be headed towards overtraining. Any time you see a sudden and persistent increase or decrease of morning resting heart rate of 5-10 beats per minute or more combined with a period of high load training, it’s a clear indication that more rest is needed.

Even more, when combined with heart rate variability information from a system like BioForce HRV, resting heart rate trends can become an even better indicator because they will mirror the changes in HRV and provide further insight into the your training and recovery.

Typically, increases in resting heart rate will accompany a decrease in HRV, while decreases in resting heart rate will generally correspond with increases in HRV.

The value of using heart rate variablity, however, is that it can help you understand if the changes in resting heart rate within normal limits and nothing more than typical fluctuations, or if they are strong indications you are not recovering and headed down the path of overtraining.

Second, aside from changes in resting heart rate and heart rate variability, overtraining can also be seen in altered rate responses to exercise as well. In other words, you may find your heart rates are significantly different in training than where they typically are and should be. It’s not uncommon to see heart rates 10 beats per minute, or even higher, than where they would normally be for a given level of intensity.

In the later stages of overtraining, you may even find the opposite and have a difficult time getting your heart rate as high as it would normally be – this is a very clear sign you’re in a deeply overtrained state and in need of a great deal of rest and reduced training volume.

When taken together, monitoring both morning resting heart rate along with heart rate variability as well as how your heart rate responds to training, these measures can provide tremendous insight into how hard your body is working and whether or not it’s able to recover from a given level of daily and weekly training. When all signs point to the fact that you need more rest, simply backing off for a few days can get you back and track and keep you from ending up injured or in a deeply overtrained state that can take weeks or even months to truly get out of.

Get the Right Monitor

RS100Although there are just about endless options for heart rate monitors these days, the most important thing to consider when buying one is which features you really need and which ones you’ll probably never use. For most people, only the basic features are really necessary and there is no point in spending several hundred dollars on a watch with tons of features that you don’t need.

My own personal recommendation is the Polar RS100, simply because it’s a high-quality watch at a reasonable price and its lap feature makes it extremely easy for athletes to record average heart rates over different periods of time. For MMA athletes, this lap feature is perfect for recording each round because you can then easily see how your heart rates are changing each round, as well as in between rounds, during a training session.

The next step up in monitors is the Polar RS300 and this is a great monitor if you want to be able to upload your heart rate data to the web and track it because it will allow you to sync your data with the polarpersonaltrainer. The RS300 also provides you with Polar’s “Training Load” calculation, certainly a very useful feature and one that works particular well with the use heart rate variability and BioForce HRV

One final suggestion is to pick up one of Polar’s soft straps to use during your training. Not only are these straps significantly more comfortable to wear than any other strap on the market, they also tend to provide a better signal because of improved skin contact. Even better, they work well even on dry skin so they are the best to use for taking morning heart rate variability measurements. Trust me, once you put on one of the soft straps, you’ll never want to go back to one of the old straps again.

Please Note: This article has been reprinted with persmission from Fight! Magazine – The Premier Mixed Martial Arts Magazine. Make sure to subscribe to Fight! Magazine to get access to the full printed article as well as the latest in mixed martial arts training and news