Know your heart

by Mark Montgomery (



was swimming with my masters team the other night and our coach, like so many other coaches around the world, had everyone take their heart rate after a set. She began to tell the whole group that this was supposed to be a moderate swim at about a 135 heart rate. Virtually everyone in the pool thought this seemed reasonable. I was going crazy and biting my tongue. I wouldn't speak out and diminish my coach's authority in front of the group, but I will now vent my pent-up frustration at the lack of heart rate understanding.

There are many myths out there about heart rate that have lingered for way too long. You all know the one about 220 minus your age. Ballpark, right? Wrong! I've coached many athletes and trained with the best pros in the world for more than 20 years. I've watched and learned in the trenches. There was a 19-year-old girl from Mexico who had a max heart rate of 260. Then there was Spencer Smith, a 20-year-old world-beater with a max rate in the high 160s or so. I remember running with Spencer before I knew about his low max. He was at about 130 and I was at 170. It was about a 5:15 pace. I figured his monitor was broken. It wasn't. Kenny Souza races at about 190, and his max is about 210. He was also one of the few elite athletes who could hold a steady heart rate line on the bike and run, foreshadowing his later dominance in duathlon. My friend and former pro Paul Lundgren once saw a 215 on his monitor in a 5K. How can this all be? Let's look at a little history in this area.

In the early and mid 1980's, Gary Hooker, a top masters triathlete and an inventor, began to play with the first heart rate monitors. He gave them out to all of us young pros to wear during our races and high-intensity training. This became a groundbreaking experiment that blew away all the standard rules. One of the examples was two guys about the same age, in their 50s. Both were 51-minute-plus 40k riders who rode very steady straight-line races. The only problem was that one did it at 190 beats and the other at 160. How could that be? Everything else was virtually the same, except for the wide variance in their heart rates. What we all learned then and there was that the number that really matters is the percentage of your own max that you can work at. Rider one had a max over 200 and rider two around 170. Their actual heart rates couldn't be compared, but the percentage of their own max heart rates could be.

Now the question is, what determines this max rate? As far as I can tell it is mostly hereditary. You seem to be able to affect your lower rate with training somewhat, but the max seems to be fixed until you get older. I'll get to that in a later article.

So now you can see how important it is to know your own individual max rate. I can't stress too much the importance of training with a monitor. Training without one is like trying to have sex with all your clothes on. You'll eventually get the job done if persistent, but it will take longer, be less enjoyable, and you'll wind up with a mess in the end.

I use the treadmill to find a max heart rate. Set the pace at about your half-marathon pace, run for a few minutes on the flat, and then increase the grade about 1 percent every minute. It's best to have someone there to help you and hold the monitor—and catch you when you get spit off the back! I would usually tell the person to tell me when they thought they only had about 30 seconds left. When they got there (we're all big cowards at heart), I yelled at them to give me 30 more. No one ever failed me—you see, we all plan an early escape when we're hurting. Now, having been spit off the back of the treadmill at some ungodly grade, up your steepest nightmare, you will have hit a pretty high rate. I then add three to five beats, because you still probably wimped out a bit. I've found that this number is pretty damn close to your true max.

The variable when doing this test will be your fitness level. What I've found is that it is almost better to be out of shape than super fit. Why, you ask? Your max is your max, whether or not you're fit. If you're out of shape you will hit it very early on the treadmill and will be spared some of the torture. If you're fit it will take minutes more, and more time suffering, but you will eventually get there.

Now that you have your own personal max number, you can begin to use some of the training formulas out there. I've found that they basically all get you to the same training levels, it's just that some of them seem like trigonometry. It's a way that many trainers and so-called experts will try and dazzle you—with bullshit!

So now when you are climbing a long grade in a pack with your training buddies, you won't ask, "What is your heart rate, man?" but ,"What percentage of your max are you working at?" It's the old apples and oranges comparison—you have to focus on the relevant numbers. What I have found is that it doesn't matter if you have a high or low max. Don't worry what your number comes out to be. There are world-class athletes at both ends of the spectrum and in between. Now go get yourself a monitor if you don't have one, and start having sex with your clothes off.


I previously left off with a method for discovering your own max heart rate. Now we are going to explore what to do with that information. I'll leave it to to coaches and physiologists to give you percentages and how long to stay in what zone. I'll just give you the perspective of a former pro who's observed the range of how other pros treat their heart rate data.

I wrote above about the max heart rate, and great a range there among athletes there can be in that number. What is important is, of course, the percentage of your own max which you can, or should, sustain during work. That said, my own view is that you shouldn't get too crazy about your heart rates and training. It should be one of several tools to help you achieve your goals. My way is not the only way, though, and I'll share an anecdote of someone who represents the "Polar" opposite.

There was a top-level pro in my day from Finland, named Pauli Kiuru. He wouldn't go out the door without his monitor, and everything he did was dictated by it. I was in New Zealand training with my longtime friend Scott Molina, and Pauli was wintering there. We would start an hour run, and for about three minutes it would be a comfortable 7-minute pace. Then Pauli would ramp it down to 5:40 pace and that was that. I asked Scott what was going on and he said that Pauli hit his target heart rate and it would be like that for the entire hour. His bike rides were the same, 25 miles per hour, no stops. If you got caught at a light, then you could wave goodbye to Pauli. In the pool it was more of the same. He would swim 20 by 200-meters––as hard as he could it appeared to me––and then he'd put his finger to his carotid artery until the rate would drop to his target level. Then he'd go again.

There was no pace with this training scheme––no interval, no time––just heart rate. This means, of course, that if this is the proper way to train, everybody will always train alone. Therefore, I considered Pauli the most boring guy to train with on the pro circuit. Was he sucessful? In a word, yes. He probably turned in more low-8-hour Ironman times than anyone to date. Was his training regimen fun? You'd have to ask him. I just know that it wouldn't be fun for me.

One way to use heart rate is as a diagnostic tool, to check progress at periodic intervals. I use it to measure efficiency. There is a test that everyone can do––weekly if you feel like it. Go to a running track with your monitor and after about a 2-mile warm-up, run 2 miles at about your marathon pace. If it is an 8-minute mile then make sure every quarter is right at 2 minutes. Watch your rate at each quarter and note it. You should have an ascending curve up to the high rate of the run. Continue to run the same pace as the season progresses––do your 2 mile run in the same time. If your training is going well then the heart rates should drop, and they will also tend to level off. You are becoming more efficient at the same pace, and therefore will be able to pick up your training and racing paces.

Remember not to increase the test pace, this isn't a track workout. It is just a measure of how you are progressing. I would often do some speedwork after the test since I was already at the track and warmed up. You have to control the test as much as possible. Don't do it after your 100-mile ride or tough swim. Pick the same time of day, and make it the first workout of the day.

A negative result can mean that you may be over trained or sick [see our article on overtraining for reference]. If you start your test and your heart rate is 20 beats higher right away, then go home and go to bed. You won't be doing yourself any good that day. The test is easy enough that you could do it weekly, and if done properly will help you evaluate your workout program. It is also quite uplifting mentally to be able to really see the progress that you are making. Many of us are self-coached, reading and listening to whatever we can, and it's helpful to have a way of measuring our progress that is within our control.

In the above diagnostic tool (as opposed to Pauli's techniques) we are using the heart rate as a measure of our fitness and training program (not to dictate our control each training session). There is no right way to use heart rate as a tool. How you use it depends on your personal sense and level of discipline, your goals, and your need or desire for the social element of sport.