The heart has been one of the most studied organs in the human body since the beginning of medicine, especially because there was a time in which it was related to the place where the soul lived. Heart equals life, in every way.
When medicine began to know how it responded during physical activity, attention was placed on it to control the workouts and to know what limits it reached when competing, especially in endurance races. And the fact is that the facility to measure the heart rate by placing the second and third fingers on the jugular was the first “heart rate monitor” used and from there, with the development of technology, the arrival of the heart rate monitors occurred. Now they are part of long distance traveler’s baggage.
It is evident that the heart rate is a fundamental variable to know and measure the athlete, but a variable that is necessary to know and from which certain data can be used, while other information do not indicate anything relevant to us.
If I review the most frequent question that athletes ask me when I meet them to talk about their training and planning, it always revolves around their heart rate and the relationship of this with other athletes. The sentence could be something like this: “when I train I see 185 beats per minute in my heart rate monitor while my partner moves arround 170”. The inverse would also be valid: “I looked at the heart rate monitor and when I see 165 beats my colleague is around 180”.
At that moment, the answer to that habitual conception that the pulse is used to compare two athletes has to be based on this idea: the data provided by a heart rate monitor only is useful to compare a person with himself/herself and thus know if he/she evolves.
The number of times the heart beats for one minute depends to a great extent on anatomical and physiological conditions that do not indicate a best or worse performance of the athlete. Among them, the size of the heart, the size of its muscles, the strength of that muscles (myocardium), the size of the heart cavities, the size of the arteries and veins that supply the entire organism, the amount of capillaries and the ability to maintain better ventilation (at the pulmonary level) are factors that affect the heart to have a higher or lower rate (higher or lower heart rate).
Therefore, two people with the same speed can have a different heart rate depending on all these variables. For example, a heart of a smaller size will beat more times than a larger one, without this being a condition for performance, without being that smaller size of the heart a problem, so that the athlete can maintain equal or even more power than the athlete with a heart higher.
A perfect example is obtained by reviewing the maximum heart rates of winners of the Tour de France. All of them are able to generate a power around 5.7 w/kg in their FTP (the most important data that marks their performance and we will talk about in other blog posts), although some do it at 175bpm and others at 195bpm. Is there a difference in their level? No, there is not. For the same reason the maximum heart rate is not used to know the performance level that can reach an athlete. There are no Tour ranking, nor any other endurance competition, based on the maximum heart rate that the athlete can reach.
For what is the heart rate monitor useful is to measure the evolution of heart rate in the same person. The comparison with himself/herself is a criterion that helps to know if he/she improves in his/her performance or if he/she is fatigued and does not absorb the training loads. For example, if for the same power the athlete shows a lower heart rate he/she will be directly showing a positive adaptation that will be associated with a higher performance. In short, the heart rate being compared to the power will be demonstrating in this case that the athlete is more efficient.
Another of the usual questions that athletes ask me is if they should continue using the heart rate monitor when they have already purchased a powermeter. And the answer is clear: of course. The previous example and the analysis of other variables that are studied in the athlete relate to how the heart rate behaves in relation to the power and with it one can even plan in a completely personalized way the training loads and the phases of the season. Thanks to that each athlete trains according to his/her characteristics, his/her qualities and comes to compete at his/her best.
On the other hand, another way to take advantage of the use of the heart rate monitor is to measure the resting heart rate since, compared to the same person during the course of the season, it can indicate when the athlete is well recovered between training days and when is accumulating fatigue helping even reduce the loads to avoid overtraining.
But, how to know what are the exact reference heart rates in each athlete? Simple: through a stress test in which, in addition to observing the health of the heart, the functioning of that wonderful part of the wonderful human body is analyzed, knowing with total precision what heart rate develops for each training zone.
In short, the heart rate monitor is a fundamental tool to know the athlete and to train correctly, especially if used in conjunction with the powermeter, but a tool that only talks of that athlete in particular, without being any possibility of comparing him/her with others. In one sentence: the heart rate is completely individual.