Our expert says:
Heart rate is a useful training tool if used wisely, and it can help prevent overtraining and thus optimise performance. Its role in aiding fat burning has been perhaps overplayed in the media, and I'm certainly not a huge fan of running your programme according to heart rate. However, there are advantages, but first a few basics that are important.
First, some terms which are used often, namely resting heart rate and maximum heart rate:
Resting heart rate varies widely between individuals. A normal resting heart rate for a moderately fit person is between 60 and 70 beats per minute. Fit people tend to have lower resting heart rates, but this is only a general rule and not always the case. Your resting heart rate will probably decrease slightly as you improve in fitness.
Your ideal max heart rate is roughly given by the equation 220 minus your age. This provides an estimate for max heart rate. Remember that it is an estimate at best and so it may be off by up to 10%, which means you can get into all kinds of confusion if you don't take this equation very liberally.
It's very important that you don't get caught up in to believing the heart rate monitor as the final authority in your fitness level. The best way to use your heart rate monitor is to use it to compare training sessions from week to week. Therefore, if you train one day doing a particular session, take note of your heart rate. The next time you do the exact same session (say 30 minutes run at 12 km/hour), you should be able to compare your heart rate during the session. If it is lower, then it indicates that you are fitter than before, and your training is going well. If it is higher, then it shows that you are either tired, or training too hard or are possibly becoming ill. This is a sign that you are in need of a few easy training days.
It is important that you don't think of heart rate as the absolute indication of fitness or health. It is the differences between heart rates in exactly the same session that is important, and understanding how your own individual heart rate differs from week to week will allow you to train with great precision.
Lastly, remember that heart rate depends on many factors - hydration, mood, stress levels, temperature and so on. Therefore, if your heart rate is not exactly what you think it should be, don't worry too much. Rather look at long term changes and patterns in heart rate, and try to interpret them as I explained above.
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