Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Heart Rate and Training

I got my first heart rate monitor in 1983 and still recall what a great thrill it was to see my heart rate in real time on my wrist while training. Prior to that we used to stop during a workout and count pulse beats for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to get an estimate of what was going on. Of course, heart rate dropped when we stopped. So this was a great breakthrough. For the first few weeks I wore it daily just to see how my heart responded to everything – walking up stairs, brushing my teeth, touching my wife (she didn’t like that), eating, and about everything else including sleeping.

It took a couple of years to figure out how to train with heart rate. Then I began a mission to get athletes to start using them. By 1992 the device seemed to have reached a tipping point. That year I noticed that almost everyone was wearing them when I went to running, triathlon and bike races. That was 15 years after the heart rate monitor was invented by the founder of
Polar in 1977.

Now athletes take them for granted. Unfortunately, due to this technology most athletes have now come to believe that their training has a singular focus – to improve the cardiovascular system. That’s not the case. Most athletes would improve faster by focusing on their muscular systems. Many also seem to believe, based on their heart rates, that they know what their fitness is and if they are overtrained or not. Those things can’t be measured by heart rate alone.

Nevertheless, heart rate still is valuable information. I require everyone I coach to have a monitor. I also require them to have a power meter and a speed-distance device (GPS or accelerometer) if they are triathletes. By comparing heart rate with power or speed we now have a very good idea of how good one’s aerobic fitness is. For example, if for a given low- to moderate-intensity workout power or speed increases but heart rate remains the same then you are in better aerobic condition. The same may be said if at the same power or speed heart rate is lower. It’s a simple measure but you must know both input (heart rate) and output (power or speed) to draw such a conclusion. (You can find more on this topic
here and here.)

The key to using a heart rate monitor is determining your training zones. That is done by first finding your lactate threshold heart rate. This is much more precise than using max heart rate. It’s also more precise than using the formula 220 minus age to predict max heart rate. If you do that you had might as well guess. The formula is close to useless for individuals. It works fairly well with large groups of people. If you tested a large group you’d produce a bell-shaped curve. For those in the middle of the curve the formula would predict max heart rate rather closely. But there would be many people at the far ends of the curve, both high and low, for whom the formula is way off. Since you don’t know where you fall on the curve, the formula is mere speculation and likely to be 15 to 20 or more beats off. I’ve also never found any evidence that heart rate changes with age. I’m now 65 and have been using a monitor since I was 39. My lactate threshold heart rate on the bike has remained quite constant at about 152 all of these years. I have also been coaching one athlete for 7 years. His lactate threshold heart rate has not changed either. Bottom line: Forget about your age, using a formula of any kind and finding max heart rate. What you need to know is lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).

There are many ways to find LTHR. The simplest (not the easiest by any means) is to complete a 30-minute time trial all by yourself (no training partners or races). Warm-up and then go as fast as you can for the entire 30 minutes. Treat it as if it is a race. Ten minutes after the start hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor. When you are all done look to see what your average heart rate was that last 20 minutes. This is a good estimation of LTHR, I’ve found. Please note that this is NOT a 10-minute warm-up and a 20-minute race effort. For some reason many athletes assume that’s what I’m saying. It is a 30-minute, all-out effort. We are just looking at the last 20 minutes of it.

Also note that the first time athletes do this test they nearly always go out too fast and then fade badly in the last 10 minutes. Try to start a bit conservatively and gradually increase the effort as you progress. You’ll get better results that way. Also, note that if you are a triathlete you need to do this test for each sport. LTHR varies by sport.

Once you know your LTHR go to my Cyclist’s Training Bible, Triathlete’s Training Bible or Total Heart Rate Training
books and find the table which provides zones based on LTHR. The books also describe how to use the zones in your training.

I suspect there may still be lots of questions about heart rate training so feel free to post them here. I’ll answer them as time allows with travel this week.


At April 1, 2009 3:43 AM , Blogger DB said...

Great article Joe,
I have your Mtn Bikers Training Bible and am following it to train for competing in Single speed mtb events this year. My question...I seem to find that my LTHR is consistently 5-7 beats lower inside (on the trainer) than outside on the bike. In fact all zones tend to be a few to several beats higher now that I am training more outside as opposed to all those hrs on the trainer this past winter. Any thoughts?

At April 1, 2009 4:19 AM , Blogger Bryan said...

I’ll definitely give that a go before the end of the month.

I recently downloaded a 20 metre shuttle test (bleep test) from the internet. If I did that wearing a heart rate monitor would it give me any useful data for working out HR training zones?


At April 1, 2009 6:08 AM , Blogger Robert Lejeune said...

Hi Joe,

I own a copy of Triathlete's Training Bible and I just love all the information that we can find in it. But I always wondered, why can't we use races to measure LTHR? Since I am sure that I will go all out during a race I always thought that it would be a good place to measure it.

Thank you and have a great day.

At April 1, 2009 6:23 AM , Blogger giannip said...

But isn't the point of training, to improve / increase lactate threshold. which would suggest that it should "move" up (e.g. from 152bpm to 160bpm etc)as you get fitter ?

i.e. If one trains based on LTHR (NOT Max HR) then this should push up one's LTHR ?

At April 1, 2009 6:26 AM , Blogger Geordie said...

Hi Joe,

My understanding is that all of the key elements of aerobic fitness (mitochonrial development, blood volume, stroke volume etc) are increased at a greater rate when training above your maximum aerobic heart rate. How correct would it be then to say that the key role of endurance workouts is a) to bring along the muscular, soft tissue and mechanical fitness and, b) to balance out the intensity of training to avoid excess fatigue.


At April 1, 2009 12:15 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

DB--Nope. Never seen that before.

At April 1, 2009 12:17 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

bryan--If it's a steady state test I believe it takes in the neighborhood of 30 minutes of high effort to adequately estimate LTHR.

At April 1, 2009 12:19 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Robert L--You most certainly can use a race but it needs to be a 1 hour effort in that case. But it needs to be a stand alone race -- not a tri.

At April 1, 2009 12:20 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

giannip--No, the purpose of training is NOT to raise your HR. It is to go faster.

At April 1, 2009 12:22 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

geordie--"Training above max aerobic HR?" Training at VO2max/aerobic capacity does exactly what you suggest here as per the research of Veronique Billat for the last 10 years or so.

At April 1, 2009 4:52 PM , Blogger Ageisa said...

I am a couple years your senior and have been running since my mid-thirties taken up biking as well the last couple of years. I have always run by RPE until I purchased your Total Heart Rate Training book which has changed how I train completely. I performed a 30-min test for running which estimated my LT at 163. Since there aren’t any flat course around here I did a bike test at my health club on a stationary bike, my LT was 135. Is this large of difference normal?

At April 1, 2009 7:57 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

ageisa--LTHR for running is typically 5-10 bpm higher than for cycling. I suspect you just didn't have a good bike test. It seems to be much more difficult to push oneself when testing indoors on a bike.

At April 2, 2009 6:20 AM , Blogger giannip said...

Hi Joe

Maybe I didn't phrase the question correctly. I meant that I thought training was meant to raise one's LT and that if for e.g one's LT is @ 150BPM, byt training, it would raise to being @ e.g 160BPM.

I was surprised that you found LT didn't "move" over all the years fo training.

At April 2, 2009 7:39 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

giannip--When you start training for a new sport it will rise for a while as fitness improves. But not after this initial stage. What you want is to become faster at a standard HR, not to have a higher HR.

At April 2, 2009 7:55 AM , Blogger Bill said...

Hi Joe, I have been a follower to your way of thinking since the inception of the Training Bible.

I read this and was astonished to learn that LTHR never changes. How does this explain my 180 BPM for 1997 and now I can barely reach 170 BPM. Do I suck now? Is my training way off? Am I dying from a disease?

I used to use "Conconi Test" which uses a deviation verses a increased workload. Now I use the 30 minute all out time trail (or race). But this does not explain much because I can remember doing some races that lasted nearly 3 hours and averaged upper 170s. Right now if I reach 180 I will die of a heart attack.

I am curious if any one else used LTHR and they have seen any differences.

At April 2, 2009 8:02 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Bill--Interesting. I don't know why. I know nothing about your training over those years. If I was in your place I'd be interested in those changes and what may have happened to your max HR during this time also. And if power/pace has improved, stagnated or dropped. But then there are many strange things that happen in the body which are not understood.

At April 2, 2009 1:33 PM , Anonymous James said...


I've been struggling to understand something very similar to what Bill described. I've been using the CTS field test (3 mile time trial effort) for the last three years as I've begun to train more consistently. From year 1 to year 2 both my speed and average heart rate over a standard 3 mile course went up. I thought that reflected better power output and endurance.

This year, using your base plan and putting in much more force training plus endurance miles, I'm riding that same course at the same speed, but with a heart rate 10 bpm less than last year. I just can't get my legs to push hard enough for long enough to get my heart rate back up to where it was last year. It's the same power output at a lower heart rate, I just don't seem to have access above what I'm calling my LTHR.

At this point I figure I've improved my power and aerobic training level, but either I've accumulated too much fatigue to put out more continuous power or I don't have the endurance at even higher power levels.

At this point it's troubling that I'm no faster, but I'm hoping that as lower the volume and up the training intensity I'll see speed gains.

At April 2, 2009 2:07 PM , Anonymous Scott said...

Great subject, but now I am a little confused. I was tested last year on bike and run and had LTH of 158 and 168 determined. (I am 53) As I have trained more in the last year and gotten faster I have been expecting that my LTH rates would have gone up, especially as I have found that I seem to be able to race longer at rates above LTH, especially at the end of races. I am set for retesting next week. Is that a waste of time? If one is tested at a good baseline fitness should we expect future testing to provide similar results (aging aside). If so, why does there seem to be an emphasis on frequent testing?

At April 2, 2009 2:33 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Scott--Thanks for posting. I hope you are finding our more than your LTHR when testing. If that's all the data you're getting then there is no reason to continue doing it. You can easily find that in a field test. You didn't say what sort of testing it is. If VO2 test then you should find out a great deal of info to gauge progress.

At April 2, 2009 2:44 PM , Blogger Bill said...

Good point Scott. Should we keep testing. Maybe we need to know when to back off and that is what testing does, shows us that we are off track and that is related to my question.

Answering a earlier question by Joe, I did notice a huge jump in max heart rate in my 40s instead of a linear decrease. BUT, my pace has increased except for recently where I have started training for 24 solo races and my top end pace has dramatically decreased.

At April 3, 2009 12:36 AM , Blogger Heikki56 said...

If you want to compare your max HR with averages, instead of formula 220-age try this for men: 2310/AGE^0.01-2042.4 and 380/AGE^0.06-121 for women.

I found those curves some ten years ago from the net and made the formulas to follow. I can't remember how large this study was or who had made it.

For a 50 year old man the formula gives 179 which is much higher than 220-age.

Thanks for your books J.F.

Heikki from Finland

At April 4, 2009 12:04 AM , Blogger Aaron said...

Hi Joe,
first off, thanks for your book "your first triathlon" as it gave me the confidence to tackle my first event, and it was a success.

My question is, even though I tried to simulate race conditions in my training, I was surprised by how much race-day adrenaline increased my heart-rate. It was about >10bpm higher than I expected, and despite trying to "go easy," relax, deep breathing, etc, I was unable to lower it to baseline levels. Is there a way to train for this? My first thought was to train at higher HR all the time, but then you run the risk of over-training, right?

p.s. Heikki56 your equation agrees very well with my age/sex and measured max HR (31 male & 189bpm, respectively).

At April 4, 2009 6:38 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Brian--The closer the race is to 1 hour and the flatter it is the more likely the average HR is to be a good predictor of LTHR.

At April 4, 2009 6:41 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Aaron--Thanks for buying my book. Experience leads to lower HRs in races. Another day at the office.

At April 6, 2009 12:14 PM , Anonymous Shane84 said...

Will weather effect a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate test for cycling or running?

At April 6, 2009 12:35 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

shane84--Good question. Heat could very definitely affect the output of such a test (power or pace), but it shouldn't affect HR. You'll still go anaerobic at the same HR, I believe, although I've never seen any research on this. I have coached athletes who live in the Phoenix area where it is over 100F every day in the summer. Even in such heat those athletes had heart rates which agreed with what we found in cooler weather. Cold shouldn't affect HR especially either if dressed appropriately and warmed up well before the test.

At April 6, 2009 3:33 PM , Blogger Doug Howe said...

I train for bike racing with a heart rate monitor, but no power data. I often notice the day after a very intense workout or race that my heart rate appears to be lower than expected for the perceived effort being exerted. This could simply be tired legs, but performance as determined by riding speed on familiar courses seems fine...just at a lower heart rate than usual. Is there an rapid adaptive response of the cardio system (increased stroke volume perhaps?) to these extremely hard effots that might explain this observation? Perhaps having the power data to go with the HR is the only way to really know how to interpret this phenomenon?

At April 6, 2009 8:55 PM , Blogger experiments in inudstrial organization 1912 said...

Joe, i've got your 2nd edition version. In this edition, you suggest using a test that increases power (or speed) every min until you can no longer increase speed. You then compare this with RPE and VT and get your threshold from this. It seems you've changed tactics to the 30min all out test.

Why the change?

At April 9, 2009 10:18 AM , Blogger Jigger said...

Hi Joe,

Just did my first LTHR test as prescribed in your book "Cycling Past 50" - went the 8 mile route.

I am 52, have a decent base, but need to lose weight as I ramp up for a 5 day MTB trip this summer.

I am following your plan for the first century as a guide to increase fitness and prepare for the trip in 15 weeks. Would a different plan in that book be more effective?

How often should I repeat this time trial? My first attempt netted a result of 141 LTHR, and it seems pretty close, but I'm only on my first week.

Thanks! Love all your work on this, especially the Paleo Diet with Dr. Cordain!


At April 9, 2009 2:02 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

jigger--That plan is about as good as you could get from my bike for such an event. Tset every 4-8 weeks depending on how fitness is changing. The faster you are gaining fitness the more frequently to test. Good luck!

At April 10, 2009 1:24 PM , Anonymous Gunnar said...

Hi Joe, you said that the LTHR is going to increase when you start training for a new sport. Why does it stop increasing?
Then I assume, when you aren't doing any sports, it decreases?

At April 11, 2009 5:51 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Gunnar--Hard to say exactly why. Probably has to do with some sort of physiological ceiling for such. Realize that this does not limit performance. That's why power and pace are so important. Regardless of what happens to LTHR power and pace can still improve. And I agree that with detraining it will drop.

At April 11, 2009 12:44 PM , Anonymous Gunnar said...

Joe-- So when I have understood it correctly: LTHR is important for knowing at which heart rate level to train. This can easily be found out, for example by lactate testing. But I also understand, you actually only has to this test once!? (Because the LTHR level isn't going to change)

What do you get out of such a test, when you also do VO2-testing. How can that help me become fitter?
Is it more of a test to see how fit I have become? How the body is responding to my training?

At April 12, 2009 11:05 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

gunnar--LTHR helps you to set up HR traning zones. It appears to change by rising when one is new to a sport. (I know of no research on this so my experience only). Once you establish (and maintain) a relatively high level of aerobic fitness then it isn't likely to change (altho it varies a bit from day to dasy based on recovery).

VO2 testing can tell you many things (depends on the tester). These can include changes in fitness since last test, LTHR, LT power or pace, economy changes, fat-carb useage rates at various intensities and VO2max.

At April 13, 2009 9:14 PM , Blogger Mark said...

I am not ready to use a power meter but do use a HRM w/ GPS ( Garmin 305). I just got your book THRT and wondered if it made sense to try to apply any power trianing principles as outined in Coggan/Hunter book. If so which ones, and are there any websites or charts that convert training levels ( Zones ) from Power to HR.

Hope the question makes sense. I did see one chart like this but wondered if it was worth trying or just stick to HR training.

At April 14, 2009 8:22 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Mark--Not sure I fully understand, but the HR zones in that book correspond pretty well with one's power zones as per Coggan/Allen.

At May 28, 2009 9:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joe, According to Arnie Baker and Edmund Burke one can increase one's LTHR from 75-80% of your max HR to 90% of max HR with lactate threshold training. So it can be changed?

At May 28, 2009 9:41 AM , Blogger jon said...

Hi Joe,

According to Edmund Burke and Arnie Baker one can increase one's LTHR from 75-80% of max HR to 90% of max HR. So surely you can change the LTHR?

At January 1, 2010 8:25 AM , Blogger southwestcycling said...

hi Joe,
I'm confused about LT zone and training zones. I did the 3 mile/8 min. effort to find avg. HR (176) and plugged it in the formula on training peaks.com.
Heart Rate (HR) Intensity Ranges =
Endurance Miles-.50 .91
Tempo- .88 .90
Steady State- .92 .94
Climbing Repeat- .95 .97
Power Interval- 1.0 max

where is my TT zone and LT zone. I read LT zone is .90 or 90% but this would put it between tempo and steady state, and I thought that tempo and steady state or below LT. Is TT zone same as climbing?
Can you help clarify this?
thanks and love reading what you have to say

At January 1, 2010 4:04 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

swcycling--I'm sorry but I don't know anything about a 3M/8min test. it's not mine. Better look more closely to figure whose idea it was and then ask them.

At March 20, 2010 3:05 PM , Blogger paperonthetable said...

Hey Joe, Love your book. It literally is like a bible to me. It plans my training program and everything else in life.
I am in my second year of road racing, coming to the sport with pretty high fitness, and I have seen my LTHR bounce around considerably and was wonder why or what it means.
I test once a month, weekend of a rest week, do the same course, try to mimic what i eat, etc, but have tons of variation.
Last year was around 169, this year was 172, 170, now 175. Seems to have gone the opposite direction I would have imagined. That being said, speeds and distance are where they were at the end of last year, so that is improvement! Should I just set my training levels to whatever the LTHR test says? or should I explore this variation a bit more?

Thanks in advance. LOVE your PROgram.

At March 20, 2010 9:45 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

paper--there will be daily variation in HR based on fatigue/freshness, diet, stress an lots more. The range seems within tolerance. Test once a month or so when rested and use that number for the following month.

At May 10, 2010 6:22 AM , Blogger Kathi said...


Just wondering what else you would look at besides HR to determine overtraining. My resting HR has been fairly steady (except after a super hard effort the previous day) but my legs never seem to recover. I can no longer sustain the same speed on the bike as I could even a month ago, despite good quality training. I'm competing at the State Team TT in 3 weeks. Help!

At May 10, 2010 10:40 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Kathi--HR is not a good predictor of ovetaning. In fact, scientists hve not found a strong indicator the average athlete could rely on. The best appears to be a psychological test. Not real useful when you wake up in the morning.


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