Using Heart Rate Monitoring To Enhance Training and Recovery
Step counters, chest straps, watches, sleep monitors, you name it. Technology is seemingly taking over the fitness industry, and heart rate training has officially hit its mainstream peak in recent years through accessibility and marketing. But is this a new trend, or just more of the same – repackaged, repurposed and sold to you as a training necessity?
So what’s the reason for this recent bump in heart rate training, fitness monitors and hundreds of different derivatives that are all framed as necessary to lose weight, build cardiovascular fitness and be a healthy human being? First off, technology has become far more practical to implement and utilize due to recent advancements throughout this growing space. With ease comes use. And with use comes popular demand. Pretty simple really.
While training technology can be extremely advantageous to add to a coaching and training repertoire, the rapid tech growth in fitness with advancements being released on a near monthly basis, we tend to forget just how valuable older, simpler, and comparatively cheaper tools are when used correctly. It shouldn’t cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to track your heart rate and make smart strategic training decisions based on this data. One of the original tools in the heart rate training space is Heart Rate Monitoring (HRM), and no, there’s no link to a product to buy, just straight up knowledge coming at you.
Although the fact that heart rate monitoring systems is indeed an older method and isn’t likely to arouse many shiny object seeking fitness fanatics looking for the latest and greatest tech to add into their training regimens, the practical application of Heart Rate Monitoring tools continues to evolve. Today’s tools provide us with deeper insight into Heart Rate Monitoring than ever before by having introduced measures such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), Sleep Monitoring, and many more trackable metrics.
While these are all effective at providing real-time snapshots of athlete adaptation and recovery, there is another low-tech bang-for-buck method of tracking short and long-term patterns in heart rate (HR) that can also give coaches a big advantage in our practice. I refer to this tool as the Heart Rate Monitoring and Tracking Sheet. It’s simple, efficient, effective and FREE. Here’s how to use it.
Yves Nadeau: Using a Heart Rate Tracking Sheet
I was fortunate enough to spend a day with Yves Nadeau, who was the Canadian Short Track Skating coach during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Yves has won more World and Olympic medals than almost any other sports coach in the sport’s history, and was the man who gave the late great Charles Poliquin his first strength and conditioning job.
Yves Nadeau showed us the system he used to monitor heart rate that he used with his athletes. When I began to implement this Heart Rate Monitoring method in my own practice, I quickly realized the vast amount of data that this simple tool could provide from the perspective of a strength coach:
The two top rows read AM and PM. It is here that the athlete records, using the letters in the legend, the activities performed that morning and that afternoon. The row beneath the AM and PM rows are the dates of the month (from 1 to 31). The leftmost column of the sheet is for the heart rate number reading from 40 beats per minute to 85 beats per minute.
I’ve taken Yves original sheet and added a column to it (the second from the left). This column is used to record the athlete’s BOLT Score (a measure of carbon dioxide tolerance), which would be taken at the same time as their heart rate. We can ignore this column for now. There is a legend at the bottom of the screen which you can’t see that reads:
- S = Sports Practice
- C = Competition
- P = Plyometrics
- W = Weight Training
- E = Energy Systems Work
- R = Rest
Before rising from bed in the morning the athlete records, on the corresponding day of the month, their morning heart rate by dotting the correct box with a blue pen. In the evening, they record it with a red pen. At the end of the month, they connect the blue dots with a blue pen, and the red dots with a red pen (although, this athlete used a black pen in place of blue. Typically, I use black is used to track the BOLT score).
At the end of the month, the sheet will look something like this:
Reading the Heart Rate Tracking Sheet
Let’s take a moment to analyze this sheet, which is the example of a boxer, and consider the type of information we can gather from it.
Each and every athlete may respond differently to the same training variables. Without even having to analyze the specific numbers, the sheet can be used to look for patterns. It provides instant visual feedback across, for example, meso-cycles during the off-seasons; micro-cycles during the in-seasons; and even individual days.
In general, the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet is used to identify red flags in the athlete’s response to training and in their ability to handle stress.
There are four things that we are going to look for with this sheet in order to help us better serve our athletes:
#1 Decrease Heart Rate As Fast As Possible After Training
After training, we want to bring the nervous system down as fast as possible to lower cortisol levels and induce recovery. Theoretically, those two things should allow the athlete to experience the desired adaptation(s). Naturally after a training session, the heart rate drops relative to the session. But we also want to see the heart rate drop over periods of time when the athlete is, say, de-loading after a camp or competition; or during a mid-season break designed for rest (such as in the All-Star Week); etc. During these periods if the HR does not drop, or if it increases, it is a pretty tell-tale sign that the athlete is not recovering as well as they should be. It then becomes our job to help them get into a more parasympathetic state.
As coaches we can look at hydration and nutrition interventions; we can look at extra sessions of stretching and mobility work; we can look at recovery strategies like baths using various ingredients; deep-tissue massage; or even the inclusion of grounding technology into their sleep regiment. The point is that we need to be awarethat there is a potential problem before we can prescribe a potential fix. Chronically high heart rates could also be a sign that the athlete is on the verge of getting sick.
#2 Monitor For Discrepancies Between AM and PM Heart Rates
When looking at daily patterns, we want to watch for unusual discrepancies between morning and evening heart rate. These can either be in relation to our natural circadian rhythm, or to the individual. In my brief experience using this heart rate tool, I have found that these discrepancies correlate with mismanagement of stressors- especially training.
Our circadian rhythms dictate that our heart rates are slightly lower in the evening and slightly higher in the morning. When the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet reveals that the opposite is occurring- this is a problem. Perhaps the training is too hard and too late in the day; or perhaps the athlete is in a caloric deficit during a period when their training dictates that they should be in a surplus. In a similar respect, very low dips in evening heart rate and huge spikes in morning heart rate is also problematic. In this case, maybe the athlete is suffering from anxiety or consuming too many sugary foods.
When looking at longer-term patterns, watch for heart rates that suddenly spike for an individual and remain chronically elevated; or heart rates that suddenly drop for an individual and remain chronically depressed. Prolonged spiking can be a sign someone is acutely overtrained (for example, a functional overreach) and that things will return to normal if they are allowed rest. But prolonged drops in heart rate can mean that someone is entering a space of chronic fatigue where they will no longer be able to get into the sympathetic state required to perform well in sport.
#3 Is There An Established Heart Rate Pattern?
What types of training phases, competition schedules, or cycles (including menstruation) result in what kind of heart rate patterns? All athletes will have inherent genetic advantages for certain types of training, and disadvantages for other types. Heart Rate Monitoring is a good way to see which types of training provide the least amount vs. the greatest amount of stress to an individual’s system. You can then modify your programming to accommodate this knowledge.
#4 Use Heart Rate Monitoring Data To Make Strategic Changes To Training
Saving the best for last, the most important use for the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet is communication with an athlete’s sports coach. The vast majority of the athlete’s training volume is coming from him or her, and this sheet can be invaluable. It can help coaches to better manage their athletes in multiple areas from determining the amount of minutes to be played; to the amount of attention they should get from med staff (massage, AT, etc.). It will help the coach to keep the best players playing at the highest level, and it also lets the coach know how much you care about the players.
How To Modify Training and Recovery via Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet
Let’s analyze the above Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet example with an eye to the above points. The biggest thing that stands out here are the large discrepancies between AM and PM heart rate, and the big, consecutive dips in heart rate that went to as low as 38 beats per minute. It happened to be that at this time, this athlete had the ghosts of past competitions haunting him as he was approaching a major trial, and was experiencing high levels of anxiety, poor sleep, and was training too hard too often to compensate for his nerves. I also suspect that his overtraining further contributed to his anxiety, creating a vicious cycle that left him feeling drained, uninspired, and borderline depressed about his situation and thinking, “Will I ever get over these fears?”
I only softly informed him of my concerns because I realized that revealing my shock might actually increase his stress levels! Mostly I said it was great he trained so hard but that he should emphasize making the time for recovery methods. I consulted with knowledgeable colleagues about it and was able to determine some appropriate program modifications and nutrition suggestions for him as he neared the big competition dates. The goal with him was to give his depressed nervous system a fresh start. He spoke with his sports coach about it and made some adjustments.
Identifying Key Fixes in Training and Recovery
In light of the above need for a “reboot,” There are tests you can do to determine corrective measures for this particular problem. For example, in Thomas Kurz, The Science of Sports Training, an athlete with a chronically depressed heart rate might take the Cold Water Test. After immersing the hand into cold water for sixty seconds, if the heart rate does not spike more than 10 beats per minute or so, it is indicative of the athlete’s central nervous system being unable to effectively enter a sympathetic state- in which case, your assumption about their nervous system would be proven correct.
This is a trick I learned from Christian Thibaudeau. In addition to the Cold Water Test, there are also hand-grip dynamometer tests, and the vertical jump. But, once again, unless you were monitoring the heart rate pattern over time, you might not know that there is a problem to fix.
Modifying Training and Recovery via Heart Rate Monitoring
In a different Heart Rate Monitoring sheet example (above), the athlete had a five-day performance camp on the 8th of the month and you can see the heart rate progressively spiking with each day she was there. I communicated with her often during that period, and man, it was not an easy week. During her brief rest period beginning the first day post-camp it can be seen how quickly her heart rate drops to below pre-camp levels.
The discrepancies between morning and evening heart rate are much smaller than they are in the first example, resembling more of the healthy, “hammock” type pattern (slightly lower in the evening than in the morning) which could be indicative of more regulated cortisol levels and an athlete who may have better inherent mechanisms for handling stress. This would be an athlete who is a good example of there not being any red flags to be concerned about, she is responding to training and rest as we would expect her to. No huge or chronic dips, and no huge or chronic spikes.
The Karvonen Method: Determining Accurate Heart Rate Training Zones
Aside from response and recovery, another bonus of the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet is that it helps to determine more accurate heart rate zones to target when developing energy systems via the Karvonen Method. As we know, the use of this method requires a value for an individual’s average heart rate. The trouble with this is that finding this number is not so simple.
Just to review, these are some baseline established numbers for general heart rate training zones you can start utilizing as a starting point for yourself or your clients/athletes:
The average heart rate of an athlete is a dynamic number that changes according to the training phase they are in as well as the activities partaken in the day before. Because athletes are engaged in a variety of training and recovery modalities throughout the week, the value for the average heart rate is somewhat unknowable.
This is where heart rate tracking comes in. When planning a new training cycle, the coach can apply his or her Central Tendency(s) of choice to the previous month’s graph to determine the average heart rate of that month, and then use that value for preparing the energy system work for the new cycle. Some examples are:
- Average out the mean of the blue line by summing up the two outlying values and the median value. Average out the mean of the red line in the same way. And then average out those two numbers.
- You may calculate the Mean of the blue line, the mean of the red line, and then the Mean of those two numbers
- Average out the Mode of the blue line and the mode of the red line.
- Use any of the above averages with only the last two weeks of the previous month
- Any combination of the above, etc.
The method of Central Tendency used is up to the decision of the strength coach based on the “heart line” of the month. A month with a lot of spiking and dropping values would lend itself to different Central Tendencies than a month with comparatively stable values. This is a more realistic model for determining effective heart rate targets because it more closely reflects the ever-changing dynamism present in the athlete’s physiology.
Big Gains For Small Focused Efforts
Now, like all technology, this method of tracking heart rate isn’t perfect. And the main piece of criticism I would give it is that the information you gather will usually be after-the-fact. In other words, you won’t know about a chronically low heart rate until the athlete brings you the sheet at the end of the month and you just stand there stupefied like I did.
The solution would be to check it at regular intervals by having the athlete scan or bring it in to you. Otherwise, even seeing it after-the-fact gives you insight about what to do, or what not to do, during either the athlete’s next training phase; the following season as you approach the same time of year; or even the next time you write a program to achieve a similar adaptation.
To recap, many of today’s technological advancements provide much greater insight than the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet with, among other things, information about how prepared a nervous system is for a certain activity (ie. Heavy lifting). This would be another criticism of the potential limitations of the Heart Rate Monitoring sheet. However, these techs may only give you a snapshot of the athlete at the moment that they arrive in your facility. They do not necessarily provide you with information about the athlete’s response to overall stress and training volume over the cumulative days, weeks, and months where you, the strength coach, do not see them. Furthermore, the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet is less invasive, essentially takes less time, and is still accurate.
Aside from the insight that it grants coaches, it also gives a lot to athletes. It provides them with a habit-building tool to objectively observe what is happening with their physiology. It can really help them to “connect the dots” in their own day-to-day relationship between their training, their sleep, and the way that they feel.
So, to conclude, although Heart Rate Monitoring is by no means a novel method for the analysis of athlete response and adaptation, a new practice for utilizing it can allow us, as coaches, to get the most out of our repertoire of programming tools. If you ask me, for the amount of effort it takes to jot a couple of dots down on a piece of paper, the Heart Rate Monitoring Sheet is a huge win for everyone involved. Yves did not talk about every point discussed here as regards to using this sheet, but I think we as coaches are limited in using it only by our own awareness. Thanks, Yves!
About The Author
Alex is a Strength & Athletic Development Coach who augments his programs with Neurokinetic testing principles. He trains occupational, youth, and professional athletes, as well as individuals looking to lose fat or build muscle. He is the Co-Director of AXIS Performance + Training located in Scarborough, Ontario.