You’ve seen people wearing HRM straps at the gym and runners checking their watches as they speed past, but just how accurate – and necessary – is it to track your heart rate while exercising?
How do you know you’ve had a good training session? Most of us associate a successful workout with that tired-yet-satisfied feeling we get after pushing ourselves. But there is a more scientific way to ensure we maximise our workouts, and it lies in monitoring our heart rate.
Whether it’s through a fitness watch or a dedicated HRM strap worn across your chest during exercise, being able to track how different heart rate zones affect different areas of fitness – aerobic and anaerobic – can help you get even more out of your workout.
We asked an expert to explain the benefits of tracking your heart rate, whatever your training style, and how to do it safely and mindfully.
Should you use a heart rate monitor while training?
“A heart rate monitor is a great tool to use during exercise as it helps us ensure that we’re exercising at the correct intensity for our goals,” Myprotein personal trainer Lauren Evans tells Stylist.
“It’s important that we get to know our resting heart rate as well as our maximum heart rate, so we can safely push ourselves into desired training zones specific to our goals. You can monitor if your fitness is improving by monitoring how quickly you return to resting heart rate after a workout,” she explains.
It can be useful to see how high your heart rate spikes and then returns to normal after a heavy lift, for example, to gauge how much you’re exerting at that particular weight. Alternatively, a more cardio-focused interval training session can be geared towards keeping your heart rate above a certain level to improve your cardiovascular fitness.
What are the benefits of using a heart rate monitor?
According to Evans, there are two ways to measure workout intensity: how we feel during them (our levels of breathlessness, how much we’re sweating, how tough we’re finding it) and our heart rates.
“As PTs, we use something called the RPE scale with clients to get an idea of how physically demanding they are finding an exercise. RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. It’s pretty subjective as the name suggests, so it’s not always the best way to garner how far we’re pushing ourselves. Heart rate tracking is much more accurate and reliable,” she explains.
Wearing a heart rate monitor can help to give us a more accurate idea of the efficacy of our workouts, as well as being a motivator to increase our cardio fitness. By having that kind of data at our hands, we can also decide how hard we push ourselves during training sessions.
Can using a heart rate monitor maximise your workout?
“It will depend on our goals as to where we want our heart rates to ideally sit during our workouts, as it won’t always be at the upper limit,” Evans says. It’s important to note that training sessions don’t have to be at a high intensity to be a ‘good’ workout.
Yoga or pilates, balance and stability work, as well as some forms of weight and strength training, require more slow and controlled movements with a focus on mind-muscle connection and longer rest periods. Because of that, our heart rates won’t always rise as much as they would during a run – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not getting a good workout.
To estimate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. “Consistently wearing a heart rate monitor throughout the day is a good idea,” advises Evans. “Generally speaking, moderate exercise intensity is 50% to70% of your MHR and intense exercise is classed at anywhere between 70 to 85%.”
How to track your workouts mindfully
Data monitoring can be a great tool to help maximise our training, but there is always a danger of becoming too caught up in the numbers – which can be damaging to both physical and mental health. It’s important that we use tracking mindfully and use the data as a suggestion, not a definitive.
“I like to use my smartwatch to track my heart rate during my workouts so I can see how far I can push myself and keep track of my cardio health, but I always advise clients not to focus on calorie burn,” says Evans.
She suggests that heart rate monitors should always be used as a guide, as there are many external factors that can affect your heart rate such as nutrition, caffeine intake, sleep and medication.
“Fitness trackers aren’t always accurate when it comes to calorie burn and more calories burned doesn’t always mean a better workout. Track your workouts mindfully by measuring if your endurance or strength is improving week on week, and ultimately by how much you’re enjoying it.”
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