Geeking Out on Heart Rate, Part 1

When I started really focusing on running and getting fit, a heart rate monitor (HRM) was my primary geek-out tool. It really took me to a deeper level of understanding how my body works, and what it means physiologically to be fit and fitter. HRMs are an excellent resource for anyone looking for a way to measure their exertion and see changes in their fitness level. This series of articles will look at how to do that.

The Basics: HRMs usually come with a strap you fasten around your rib cage and a watch which receives data from the strap and presents it in a useful format. They range in price from $25 to over $100 depending on whether they include additional features. REI or Amazon are fine sources, but you can also pick them up at running, sporting goods and even some drug stores.

What HRMs Do: This little contraption is a window into your heart. It measures your heart rate at any given moment, and can be set to alert you at various levels of exertion (These are referred to as zones—more on zones later!). It allows you to see what various activities do vis-à-vis your heart rate, what spikes it, how quickly it stabilizes, how long you can go at a specific exertion level, and how quickly you recover after you stop. Though I’m going to talk about using HRMs while doing endurance sports and other fitness activities, it can be a revelation just to wear a HRM through the day and observe what your heart does as you sit at your desk, walk leisurely, walk briskly, climb stairs, mow the lawn, open credit card bills, and more.

An HRM is not a perfect tool—there can be variability in heart rate that isn’t related to exertion. For example, some people take medications that increase or decrease heart rate; and conditions like heat and humidity and altitude can also result in different readings. But the data you can get is still very helpful for non-elite athletes and recreational active people, especially those who do endurance sports.

In the next installment, Your Maximum HR–how it’s like your shoe size, and Your Resting HR and how it can predict your future.