There are many ways to gauge your fitness: number of reps, miles run, level of intensity. For those looking to tangibly track their progress, though, one of the most important tools to have is a heart rate monitor, both because it helps people measure their current state of fitness and it provides valuable data to help maximize workouts. Unfortunately, many people who use heart rate monitors don’t understand what the different numbers mean. And they’re not sure how to use those numbers to improve their workouts. So if you’ve shied away from using a heart rate monitor because you’re not sure what it’s all supposed to mean, don’t fret. Here’s how to overcome the two biggest obstacles: understanding the numbers and interpreting them to help measure your fitness.
Get to Know Your Heart Rate Numbers
There are different types of heart rate measurements, and each plays a significant role. Wear your heart rate monitor throughout the day for several days to track and record your normal heart rate data in various states, which include:
- Resting Heart Rate: This is how fast your heart beats while in a complete state of rest, which is best monitored first thing in the morning, while lying horizontally.
- Delta Heart Rate: This is the difference between your heart rate while resting and standing. So to find your delta heart rate, subtract your resting heart rate from your heart rate while standing.
- Heart Rate During Aerobic Activities: Track your heart rate during your favorite activities, such as walking, power walking, jogging, running and cycling. What heart rate does each activity elicit when you’re going easy, moderate or hard? How do you feel when you’re playing a recreational game of tennis versus a competitive game?
- Max Fat Burning: Despite what you may have heard about the fat burning potential of low intensity exercise, your max fat burning zone actually occurs at the upper end of your aerobic zone, about 80 percent of your max heart rate. It’s true that working at a lower level of intensity (50 to 65 percent of your max heart rate) is easier to maintain for an extended period of time (an hour or more), and it also allows you to burn a greater percentage of fat calories as compared to carbohydrate calories. Yet minute for minute, this lower level of exertion burns substantially fewer total calories and thus fewer fat calories overall. It’s at approximately 80 percent of max that you experience the largest total amount of fat being burned during the shortest duration of time. Generally, you’ll be able to hold your max fat burning intensity for at least 30 minutes (longer as you become more fit).
Estimate your max-fat-burning heart rate with this test.
- Choose an activity in which you can maintain a consistent intensity, such as running, cycling, skiing, rowing, etc.
- Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Increase your intensity to the highest heart rate you can comfortably maintain and then hold it for 10 minutes. You should be able to talk, but your sentences will be short and choppy.
- Active recovery should be three minutes. Keep moving but with light resistance or intensity.
- Return to the highest heart rate you can hold for 10 minutes and maintain it.
- Cool down for five to 10 minutes.
- Average your heart rate from the two vigorous 10 minute sessions to determine your estimated max fat burning. (Note: This number should be equivalent to the one displayed on most aerobic equipment.)
Maximum heart rate is the maximum number of times your heart can beat in one minute during an all-out effort.
As with your other numbers, maximum heart rate is unique to your physiology. You can estimate it using one of several available formulas, but each has its limitations. Here’s one we recommend for most people:
-  minus [1/2 your age] minus
- [5 percent of your body weight] plus
- [4 (males)] or [0 (females)]
For example, a 35 year old man who weighs 180 pounds would have a max heart rate of 187.5 (210-17.5-9+4=187.5).
Another way to determine your maximum heart rate is with a submaximal test. Here are two examples of such a test. (Note: Before completing these tests, anyone over the age of 40 should first check with a doctor or qualified trainer.)
- Ladder Talk Test: Select an activity for which you can gradually increase the intensity, such as running, cycling or rowing. Begin at a heart rate of 110 beats per minute and recite something out loud for 30 to 40 seconds. Continue to increase your heart rate until you can no longer comfortably speak. This is your “talk threshold.” Add 40 to this number to determine your estimated maximum heart rate.
- Walk Test: After warming up, walk briskly for five minutes and note your peak (highest) heart rate. Then choose your current fitness level and add the corresponding fitness factor number (see table below) to your peak heart rate for your estimated maximum heart rate.
- Recovery Heart Rate: From 75 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, slow or stop moving and determine how many beats per minute your heart can drop during both a one minute and a two minute period.
Using Your Heart Rate Numbers
Once you know your normal heart rate numbers, it’s time to do something with them. Being able to interpret and respond to your numbers is critical to determining whether your training program is on target, requires more recovery time or needs to be intensified.
- Resting Heart Rate: A drop in resting heart rate usually equates to an increase in fitness. If you see a rise in your resting heart rate of 10 percent or more above normal, it may indicate you are fatigued, are emotionally stressed or your immune system is under attack.
- Delta Heart Rate: As your fitness improves, your delta heart rate will also decrease. This provides you with the confidence that your training program has sufficient stress and recovery to allow your body to get stronger. If you notice a rise in your delta heart rate, it could be a result of overtraining, stress, lack of sleep, a cold or virus or new medication.
- Heart Rate During Aerobic Activities: As you become more fit, your heart rate will decline at various workloads, and during vigorous activities, you will be able to maintain a higher heart rate. If your heart rate becomes higher than normal for the same workload, then you need to find out why (e.g., dehydration, medication, lack of recovery, temperature, humidity, etc.).
- Max Fat Burning: Most beginners find that their max fat burning is between 70 and 80 percent of their maximum heart rate. (In comparison, seasoned athletes usually have a threshold between 85 and 90 percent of maximum heart rate.) As your fitness increases, you will move your max fat burning closer to your maximum heart rate. Over time, you will also be able to sustain the intensity for a longer period. For example, someone just beginning an exercise program may be able to hold his or her max fat burning rate for 15 minutes, whereas a seasoned athlete will be able to hold his or hers for approximately 60 minutes. To raise your max fat burning rate, you need to overload your cardiovascular system by working out once or twice a week around and above this intensity. It could be in the form of a tempo workout, time trials or long intervals, where you work out vigorously for five minutes, then easily for two minutes and repeat the cycle several times.
- Maximum Heart Rate: A higher maximum heart rate does not indicate greater fitness, nor does a lower maximum heart rate represent less fitness. Your maximum heart rate remains relatively stable during your life when you maintain a regular training regimen. It also is sport specific. For example, maximum heart rate in swimming tends to be lower than cycling, cycling lower than running and running lower than cross country skiing. Maximum heart rate is largely dependent on the amount of muscle mass involved, your body position and supporting structure. If you’re involved in multiple activities, take the time to determine your maximum heart rate for each. It’s recommended that you assess it at least a couple of times each year.
- Recovery Heart Rate: Your heart will recover more quickly as you become more fit. A recovery heart rate of 25 to 30 beats in one minute is a good score, and 50 to 60 beats in one minute is considered excellent. You should monitor your one minute and two minute recovery heart rate at least twice weekly to gauge whether your fitness level is improving. If it’s not, then you may need to alter your workouts so they’re more demanding.
Of course, there is much more to heart rate training than running formulas. But understanding your personal numbers is the first step toward taking your fitness to the next level... and beyond!