A heart rate monitor can be a great tool to boost your fitness level whether you are an elite marathoner or just want to lose a few pounds. This article talks about how to best use a monitor to get the most out of your training.
After you purchase your heart rate monitor the first thing you need to do before you start using it is to read your owner’s manual. Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I’m the same way, “I don’t need to read any darn owner’s manual, I’ll just strap this baby on and head out the door for a run and figure it out as I go.”
That may well work for some things, but for a heart rate monitor, even a basic model, you need to read the manual. Trust me, it will make things a lot easier for you and you’ll probably learn about some really cool features that your monitor has that you would never have discovered trying to figure it out on your own.
Your owner’s manual should cover the basics. Here are a few additional helpful tips to get you started with your monitor and ensure you get the most out of it.
1. Make sure your chest strap fits properly and is tight to your skin.
If your chest strap is not touching your body then you will not get an accurate reading. Most straps will fit you snugly, but not be too tight that they are uncomfortable. The main thing though is to make sure the leads touch your skin in the center of the chest. For men this is just below the chest muscles. Women should shoot for just below the bra. There are several sports bras that are designed specifically for heart rate monitors and these are worth looking into. One of our favorites is the Polar Cardio Sports Bra
To ensure that the leads on the measuring device are properly recording your heart rate you will need to moisten the contact area where the leads touch your skin. There are a couple of ways you can do this. One is to just use saliva if you’re not sharing you strap with anyone else. Another option is to use water from your water bottle or run the strap under the sink before you head out to exercise. Or if you really want to be professional you can use electrode gel.
There are strapless heart rate monitors as well. You can read our article on What Type of Heart Rate Monitor Should You Choose to learn more about these. If you have one of those models, you can just skip over step one because you won’t have a chest strap to worry about.
2. Test your fitness level and determine your maximum heart rate.
Many heart rate monitors have their own fitness test so that you can determine your baseline level. These tests are very close approximations of VO2 Max, which is a commonly used measure of overall fitness. There are several different formulas for estimating VO2 Max, with some taking into account maximum and resting heart rate, and others based on how far you can run in a certain amount of time.
Depending on the heart rate monitor model, some of VO2Max tests require a measure of resting heart rate over a couple of days at different times. Others require you to do a vigorous workout to determine your maximum heart rate and VO2 Max. Then there are some monitors that just calculate your maximum heart rate and training zones based on your age. This is not the most accurate measure and can vary greatly based on your physical condition. Most monitors though, like the Omron HR-100C heart rate monitor, will let you input your own max heart rate measure.
One really cool test for your VO2 max is called the Cooper test which was developed for the United States Air Force in the 1960’s. To get your VO2 Max (in ml/min/kg) take the distance that you can run in meters over 12 minutes. Say you’re fast (and to make the math easier for this example) and you can run 6 minute miles. That means you’ll cover about 2 miles in 12 minutes. One mile is 1,609 meters, so that’s 3,218 meters covered in 12 minutes. Then take 3,218 subtract 505 which is 2,713 and divide that by 45 which equals 60.29, your VO2 Max.
Elite endurance athletes like professional cyclists will have VO2 Max levels over 75 ml/kg/min. The average untrained male will have a VO2 Max of about 45 and females about 38.
If you want to be really accurate on your VO2 Max and your maximum heart rate, you can make an appointment for a stress test with your doctor. You can read more about how to test for your maximum heart rate on our site.
3. Program your basic monitor settings and set up a training schedule based on heart rate zones.
Once you have a good connection on the chest device and established your baseline level of fitness, you can start programming your watch settings. First simply set the date and time. Then, depending on your monitor, you should be able to input some basic data about yourself, including your age, weight, height, sex, and body fat percentage if you know it.
Next, you can move onto programming your workout schedule. Many monitors will automatically design a training program using your fitness and activity level, weight, height, age, and sex, and your training goals. The monitor will then analyze your training results over time, usually a week, and provide guidance and recommendations on how you should train the following week. Most programs are highly intelligent and will adapt to your training habits and your improving fitness level.
Most of the training goals that your monitor will set for you will be based on target heart rate zones. It will tell you how long you should be training in each intensity zone. Most heart rate zone training programs are based around three different zones. The easiest zone is typically 60-70% of your maximum heart rate. This zone provides a good warm up and can improve basic endurance and help recovery. The middle or moderate zone is 70-80% of max heart rate and is good for losing weight and building aerobic fitness. The high intensity zone is 80-90% of max heart rate. At this level you burn the most calories and boost your VO2 Max while increasing your anaerobic threshold.
You can read more about heart rate zone training on our website.
If one of your goals is weight loss, many monitors will even tell you how many calories you should burn each week based on your training schedule and desired amount of weight to lose.
The important thing to remember after you set up your training schedule is to stick to it. Your monitor will definitely help motivate you as it records all of your workouts and can show you where you need to concentrate your efforts.
4. Download software to integrate your monitor with your computer and join the online community offered by the manufacturer.
Integration with your computer and an active online community are great bonuses that not all monitors offer. If you are lucky enough to have one that does, then you definitely need to take advantage of it. Typically you’ll be able to download the software you need from the manufacturer’s website, although some may come with a disc.
Once you have the software on your computer you can transfer the data from your monitor to the computer. Some monitors require a separate device for this, others will wirelessly download data. You can then see charts and graphs of your training data and analyze it in a variety of ways. Over time you can track your fitness level and look for ways to train more intelligently.
Many manufactures will also offer online communities where you can register and get training tips and advice from experts and other members of the community. You can also find new ideas for workouts and even compete against others based on different criteria.
Timex is one company that offers a fantastic online community through its Timex Trainer online program. The Timex site is powered by Training Peaks which offers a complete program for enhancing your fitness level, and has detailed workouts from expert trainers as well as nutrition advice. It lets you track data on your pace, speed, distance and even elevation. The result is you can plan and measure your progress over time and really look in detail at ways you can become faster, stronger, and healthier.
So, in conclusion you can see that there are a ton of really cool things that you can get out of your heart rate monitor if you learn to use it properly and take advantage of all the features. If you you’d like to learn some more you can check out our article on the Features To Consider Before You Buy A Heart Rate Monitor.