Commander's Fit Tip: How does it know?

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
Last time we busted the "heart beat theory" myth and explored the value of tracking and learning from changes in your "resting" heart rate. Keeping with that theme, let's look at what else the ticker can tell us about our workout program. Now we know our resting heart rate will decline as we progress in a workout program. But eventually, that indicator plateaus. So we need more. Fortunately, there's LOTS more data to mine, if you have a heart rate monitor, of course! As I mentioned before, the recording heart rate monitors are the real deal, and armed with these gadgets, you can learn so much more about your progress. One of the best mid-term indicators is your recovery rate.

Just as your resting heart rate responds to improved efficiency, the recovery rate will, too, and improvement in this indicator tends to lag the resting heart rate response. It's a bit more difficult to measure though, so if you are going to use this data, you need to be a bit more diligent in the tracking, and that's where the recording heart rate monitor comes in.

Let's review. I've been "foot stomping" the recording heart rate monitor for months now, but just in case you haven't heard it enough, this device measures the electrical signals across your heart with a sensitive strap (usually worn across your chest) and displays the results on a watch or the display on a piece of cardio equipment (like a treadmill). The "recording" versions store the data so you can download a file to your computer after the workout. This is the real magic. These data files offer all the insight into what's happening with your workout, and since the device records the data at specific intervals (usually once a second) you can see rate trends very easily. This is the easiest way to see and compare recovery rates.

The classic recovery rate measurement looks at your heart rate immediately after a workout for set period of time at "rest." Typically, your heart will stabilize after about two minutes, so tracking any longer than that won't reveal much. But the real interesting part is how fast it recovers early in the measurement period. If you have that data at short intervals (say, every five seconds) and graph the results, you'll get a line. The slope of that line is the "recovery rate," and as your fitness improves, this line will get steeper. The difference is really easy to see. When it stops getting steeper (or gets shallower!) you know one of three things. Either you are "overtraining," plateaued, (next CFT topic!) or you've reached a point where this indicator just won't improve much. If it's the latter, you'll have to focus more on performance improvements to get feedback, but until that point, this indicator ROCKS!

If your heart rate monitor doesn't record your data, you can still use this method. Just jot down the displayed value every five or ten seconds for two minutes. You can graph it using a spreadsheet program, or even an old fashioned piece of graph paper. If you don't have the heart rate monitor yet, you can still use this technique. All you need is a watch and a notepad. But to get good data, you'll have to get good and finding and counting your pulse, so work that out first. I use the carotid pulse, since it's usually the strongest. With just slight pressure along the side of my neck, I can count the beats very easily. (Just don't push very hard! You'll choke off the blood flow to your noggin, and that drives LOTS of paperwork.) If you count the beats for six seconds, you can calculate your heart rate later by just adding a zero to the count (if you counted 11 pulses, your rate was 110). A ten second count is a bit more accurate, but then you have to multiply the result by six. Fifteen seconds is about the max (multiply the result by four), since the rate will be decreasing rapidly and what you are measuring is the "average" over that fifteen second period.

The recovery rate is a great tool to get objective feedback on your progress, and it works better than performance gains since it's not technique dependent. Track this data for a couple months, and you might be surprised how much you are improving when you can't "feel" it.