How to Conduct a Heart Rate Test


Why do a majority of endurance sport coaches want/require you to train with a Heart Rate (HR) monitor?

It’s a great question! I know a lot of athletes who have fancy Garmin watches who don’t wear their straps. Personally, I think they are making a big mistake here. Now, HR isn’t a 100% accurate and there is certainly some day-to-day variability (i.e., heat, stress, time of day, etc.); but, overall, HR training is effectivearv

Why should you wear that annoying little strap that is probably chafing your skin? Here are some good reasons:

  • Wearing a HR strap ensures that your easy days are easy and your hard days are hard. Most athletes (myself included) have a tendency to work too hard on easy days and not hard enough on hard days. By knowing your HR zones you can ensure that you are working at the correct intensity levels to ensure the best physiological adaptations in your body.
  • Wearing a HR strap will aid you in determining what level of intensity you should be working at during exercise. We’ll discuss HR zones later below, but each HR zone specializes and trains different physiological adaptations and metabolic pathways in the body. For example, if you want to improve aerobic or endurance fitness then you should train primarily in Zone 2 (at or below aerobic threshold).
  • Wearing a HR strap can help you lose weight and “teach” your body to utilize fat for fuel. Now, we should emphasize the word “can.” Everyone’s metabolism is slightly different and not everyone will have the same results. While working at a lower intensity, HR between 55-65% of maximal HR, the body will utilize more fat molecules to fuel the body instead of glycogen. This is important for long-course triathletes. Staying in lower intensities will allow the body to use more fat vs glycogen (carbs) since fat is essentially an infinite fuel source vs. glycogen, which is a finite fuel source. Note: If you are not an endurance athlete and looking to lose weight, then you want to utilize a different method. We’ll discuss that another time.

As I mentioned above, there are HR zones. Depending who you ask, there may be slightly different versions of the HR Zones. Below is what I use with my athletes:

  • Zone 1 – Active Recovery (aerobic) or 50-60% of Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)
  • Zone 2 – Aerobic Endurance or 60-70% of MHR
  • Zone 3 – Aerobic Stamina/Tempo Pace or 70-80% of MHR
  • Zone 4 – Economy (anaerobic) or 80-90% of MHR
  • Zone 5 – Speed (anaerobic) or 90-100% of MHR

You might also see zones broken down by lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the point in training intensity where lactic acid (or commonly called lactate) starts to accumulate in the bloodstream. In a nutshell, lactic acid is a by-product of metabolism at certain exercise intensities.

In order to determine an athlete’s HR zones, an athlete must undergo a Maximal Heart Rate Test. These, of course, can be done in the laboratory setting, but most athletes don’t have the time or money to do so. A field test works for most people.

You’ve probably read in a billion books and magazines that you can calculate your HR using a simple mathematical formula. You can, but, it’s not the most accurate, because the results can vary due to genetic differences between individuals and also between different activities. However, if you’re interested you can calculate your MHR using Karvonen’s Formula:

MHR = 220 – age or

The newer gender specific calculation:

Male = 214 – (0.8xage)

Female = 209 – (0.9xage)

For a more accurate test, I suggest conducting a Maximal Heart Rate Test for each running and cycling. Generally, your MHR will be about 5 beats per minute (bpm) higher during running than cycling.

Disclaimer: Heart rate tests are very stressful on the body. PLEASE get cleared by your medical provider before attempting any HR testing. This is especially important if you have any known heart conditions. Attempt at your own risk.

Here is the below protocol I generally use with my athletes for both cycling and running.

  • 5 minutes – warm up slowly to a pace where at the end you breathe a little hard, but are able to complete a full sentence without grasping for air
  • 5 minutes – maintain pace, but increase a bit during the less 60-90 seconds
  • 5 minutes – increase pace to labored breathing
  • 5 minutes – on a gradual incline, increase your pace from breathing hard to breathing very hard
  • 2 minutes – all out sprint on incline to maximum pace you can hold for 2 minutes
  • 1 minute – push absolute maximum speed (this should feel like hell)
  • 10-15 minutes – cool down at an easy pace to bring HR down and breathing should return to normal

This could be done on a flat surface or a treadmill, but I find that a gradual hill works best because my own personal HR increases higher when running on a hill.

The same protocol above can also be utilized on the bike. I recommend using an indoor trainer, but certainly it can be completed outside as well. It is important to maintain a consistent cadence, usually between 85-95rpm (aiming for 90rpm), throughout the test. As you progress through the test protocol, increase your gearing to a harder gear.

Once you have completed your test, download your data. If you have a coach, give the data file to your coach for analysis. If you use TrainingPeaks then you can easily figure out your HR zones through their software. If not, you can do it the manual way. Take your MHR value and multiple it by each zones’ percentage. For example:

MHR = 190


Minimum   Zone

Maximum   Zone

Zone 1 (50-60%) 190*0.5 = 95bpm 190*0.6 = 114bpm
Zone 2 (60-70%) 190*0.6 = 114bpm 190*0.7 = 133bpm
Zone 3 (70-80%) 190*0.7 = 133bpm 190*0.8 = 152bpm
Zone 4 (80-90%) 190*0.8 = 152bpm 190*0.9 = 171bpm
Zone 5 (90-100%) 190*0.9 = 171bpm 190*1.0 = 190bpm

Your zones may vary slightly depending on what HR zone calculations are used. Some zone calculations will break Zone 5 into Zone 5a, 5b, and 5c. If you work with a coach, your coach will help you with this. The above is just one method you can use. Once you know your HR zones, you can begin training. Now, if you have a power meter on your bike, then you will probably train using power metrics and thus you must complete a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test. More on that later this week!

~ Happy Training!

Ironman Lake Placid: The Why, the Data, and the Photo I Carried

So, it’s been over 3 months since Ironman Lake Placid and I finally got around to uploading all my data from my GPS devices for the day. Better late than never, eh?

The Why

I’ve never really come out and said why I wanted to do an Ironman. For a long time I never thought I would want to do an Ironman. The miles and time involved to complete an Ironman seemed impossible, especially for a mediocre athlete like myself. Swimming, cycling, and running over 140 miles in under 17 hours was ridiculous and best left to the crazy, ripped and lean athletes. Even after my first Half-Ironman in 2011 I didn’t want to do an Ironman. Then, I watched the 2011 Ironman World Championships tracking my coach and a few fellow Maine triathletes and watched Chrissie Wellington not only come from behind to win, but with broken bones and serious road rash. I realized that there was something special about Ironman. My resistance against the idea started to turn into curiosity and finally the seed was planted. I was determined to become an Ironman someday. Ironman no longer seemed impossible, but a major goal that I was seeking to reach. Perhaps I was crazy to think little old me with my overabundance of injuries could hear Mike Reilly say that “You are an Ironman.”

I’ve always been very self-critical of myself. My father was very hard on me growing up and often pushed me to my breaking point with harsh, uncalled for comments. But, it formed who I am today. I am stubborn and I don’t give up easy. I will die trying. I hired a wonderful and supportive coach in 2012 to help prime me for my potential debut Ironman in 2013. I was still on the fence about it until I went to training camp and realized that I could do it. The impossible became the possible. I chose to do an Ironman to prove to myself that I am capable of what I put my mind too. I’ve always strived to be the best and worked hard to achieve it. I’m competitive by nature. I know I’m not the best. Many people are stronger and faster than me, but I strive to be the best and strongest person I know I can be. Completing Ironman Lake Placid this summer allowed me to put the little voice in my head that is constantly telling me I’m not good enough to rest. Ironman, the holy grail of triathlon, is achievable to anyone who is willing to take the leap and put in the work.

The Data

As I mentioned above, I finally uploaded all my Garmin devices to Training Peaks. During the race I used my Garmin 910XT and my Edge 800. Of course, being the technical idiot that I am, I messed up my 910XT and had the longest transition one of 112 miles! 🙂 Luckily, I had my Edge on my bike to catch a majority of my bike leg.

I felt like I had a good swim leg. I stayed off the cable to avoid the flailing arms and legs, but I guess I also swam an extra 0.26 miles by doing so! But, that also brings my pace down to 1:38/100 yards!

My awesome ability to swim a straight line...

My awesome ability to swim a straight line…

My bike data was fun to view. According to Training Peaks I gained 10,423 feet! I’m thinking there is a major glitch in their elevation algorithm since I know I didn’t ride my bike a few times up and down Mt. Washington! I averaged a cadence of 80 rpm, which I’m happy with since that includes all the zeros from the 10k downhill section riding into Keene (that happened twice!), thus my cadence is actually higher. Winning! My power VI was 1.15, which is good for me, especially with the ups and downs of the course.

My run data was kind of sad to view, watching my declining pace over the course of 26.2 miles. But, I knew it inevitable. Darn, knee…

Declining run pace

Declining run pace


The Photo I Carried

I knew my first Ironman would be special. I also knew it would be a long, long day that might involve some mental negative talk. I needed and wanted some motivation over the course of the day. My father refused to come to Lake Placid to watch and cheer me on and I was definitely disappointed about that. My mother was always one of my biggest cheerleaders in life and I knew that if she was still alive that she would have been there, getting up at the crack of dawn to drive me to transition and been there until I crawled across that finish line. On race day I carried her in spirit and also a picture in a little baggie tucked into my sports bra. When my thoughts turned negative and the little voice started whispering that I couldn’t do it, I thought about my mother. I was able to find my strength again and proceed onwards to the Olympic Circle. When my knee gave out at mile 18 of the run I thought back to her battle with CJD and realized the last 8 miles of the run was nothing compared to what that disease did to her.

My mom and Duke riding in Acadia National Park circa 1998

My mom and Duke riding in Acadia National Park circa 1997

My advice to anyone doing an Ironman is find something (a photo, a pin, a quote, etc.) to either carry with you physically or mentally throughout the day that will remind you why you are doing the race because there are times that your thoughts will go dark and you start to doubt your fitness, ability, and training. The mind can often push our bodies far past its breaking point when we believe we have a reason bigger than ourselves to be doing the crazy things we do.

One of my favorite quotes! (Source)

One of my favorite quotes! (Source)


~ Happy Training!