Heart rate monitoring used to be everything in the 1990s, but now it seems to be an afterthought at best. The goal of this article is to take a familiar method and make it better and more engaging for everyone in the athletic performance realm. For a long time now, heart rate measurement has lost traction, mainly because other technologies marketed their value far better than the providers of heart rate data. Add in the saturation of wrist-worn devices, and the measurement lost a lot of its luster and popularity.We are seeing more and more burnout and breakdown of athletes, and it seems that basic heart rate monitoring could prevent much of it, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Here is the unfortunate problem: We are seeing more and more burnout and breakdown of athletes, and it seems that basic heart rate monitoring could prevent much of it. This article covers why heart rate monitoring is still valuable and what we can do better with the modern athlete who craves novelty. After reading this review, I am confident you will be able to improve your coaching knowledge and add in a few new ideas for player monitoring.
It May Seem Boring, But It Offers a Conditioning Advantage
Heart rate monitoring can indeed get boring, as most of the information is exactly what you expect—harder workouts have higher numbers and fitter athletes have lower resting numbers. When I was in college, I was getting A’s in Kinesiology, but I only cared about speed and power training and left physiology as an afterthought. Dr. Ashley, my professor back then, literally saved me from being a limit to my future athletes’ goals as I didn’t take the physiology seriously. If it wasn’t for her, I really think my training wouldn’t have had a lot of the conditioning advantages that I have today.
I was passing exercise science with flying colors and certainly not failing, but she saw the gap between what I knew and what I could do, and I quickly realized that conditioning wasn’t something to take lightly. She was the one who helped me understand the essential principles of conditioning and gave me a broader understanding of how the body worked in a cohesive way. My only regret is that I didn’t pay attention more during my years as an athlete, as I really think I could have made myself into a better athlete if I had been more connected to my physiology. The good news is that this article is good road map for everyone, including both coaches and weekend warrior athletes, to get the most out of heart rate monitoring.
Is Heart Rate Still Relevant in Modern Sport?
A few coaches made some very valid points that if the best endurance runners don’t use heart rate data, should regular Joes or teams expect to find value from the measurement? I am sure I’ve written somewhere that we heard the same argument about the weightlifting community not using a lot of technology or barbell measurement with those on the podium. It’s a fair point, but tragically flawed. Just because someone uses or doesn’t use a method doesn’t mean it’s a valid option or you don’t have to worry.
Talent with good training will be successful, but in order to get the most out of an athlete, objective information is more likely to be effective than guessing. Remember that the paradox of endurance running not using heart rate monitoring is more about the community than the science. Running in the woods by yourself is a way to connect internally with pace and physical strain; it’s not the same as getting checked against the boards at 20 miles an hour in professional ice hockey.
Then we have the other point that Olympic sport is only training and usually highly specialized. An Olympic weightlifter may train on just two exercises 12 times a week for hours; a good football program may just do cleans or snatches twice a week for only minutes.
The fact that heart rate data has been around so long has also negatively contributed to its adoption pattern. HR data is no longer novel, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I feel that team sports and Olympic sport can benefit from heart rate monitoring if it’s done in a manner that is both compelling for the athlete and useful for a coach. Otherwise, just collecting data is interesting for presentations at sports analytics conferences, but it doesn’t help us get our athletes better. Similar to the smartphone camera, the accessibility and ubiquity of heart rate sensor technology around the wrist has caused an interesting trend. As heart rate data increases, the expertise and skill of using it may actually decrease. Does anyone really think the smartphone created more professional photographers or does it just allow more people to take photos? Since anyone can get heart rate data easily, and it’s less costly to get, the appreciation for the data has followed suit.
The fact that heart rate data has been around so long has also negatively contributed to its adoption pattern. Since HR data is not novel, coaches are likely to get a little tired of the information as well. Add in the fact that you can capture data all the time, and it becomes a little stale to both coaches and athletes over the months and years of monitoring it. Clearly, the novelty has worn off, and in order to make progress, sometimes we need to look back to what made an impact and maintain the fire rather than start a new one with another technology. It’s not that you can’t use other monitoring tools and methods, it just means we shouldn’t toss out the tried and true just because it has a few gray hairs and crow’s feet.
The Timeless Heart Rate Advantage
I don’t recommend heart rate monitoring unless you want to improve conditioning and recovery. Heart rate data alone will not turn a poorly planned program into a juggernaut; it simply will show the rise and fall of your cardiovascular system. While the number of beats per minute is rather dull and vanilla compared to player velocity or ground reaction forces during jumping, the heart is one of the most special muscles of the body. Cardiac muscle is an amazing tissue, and how we challenge this system is everything for performance and human health.The heart isn’t just a pump—it’s a rich tapestry of data that can help us see what the body is reflecting. Heart rate data is literally a vital sign, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The heart isn’t just a pump—it’s a rich tapestry of data that can help us see what the body is reflecting. Emotions, stress, and how we cope with training load are all available and fairly convenient to extract. Heart rate data is literally a vital sign, but because it’s binary or simple, we take it for granted.
It’s hard to talk about heart rate monitoring (HRM) without talking about the other three letter acronym, heart rate variability (HRV). SimpliFaster published enough articles that covered the measurement in more detail over the past few years, and I don’t want to go on a tangent when basic resting pulse rate is not even valued. Here is why I think HRM is valuable, and if you feel one or two of the points are useful, then by all means invest in both the hardware and education.
- Resting heart rate, while very crude and primitive, is extremely beneficial for determining general fitness. While a higher-than-average resting heart rate may not be indicative of fitness, eventually you should see a lower reading from the heart improving function.
- Maximal heart rate is a great test drive to see what the heart can do under extreme stress. You don’t need to break 200 beats per minute to be a good athlete, but having a reading from time to time keeps everyone honest on effort.
- Recovery from training or recovery from a bout of work is useful, especially with all of the ritual-like training that team coaches believe in. Take, for example, the recovery session we sometimes see after games. The runs themselves may not physiologically restore an athlete as much as we have believed, but getting recovery information and a way to improve mindfulness are very important.
- Autonomic data from various practices adds so much value to what we do with both athlete wellness and recovery. Today it’s almost silly to think that HRV is a waste of time, but I do acknowledge its limitations and requirements in collecting such information.
- Comparing external and internal load responses and performance of team sport is helpful because it removes a lot of noise. TRIMP is a wonderful measure that gives us a deeper understanding of the direct mechanical work that athletes display.
- Biofeedback, especially in today’s pressure- and anxiety-filled world, is even more important than it was in the 1980s. Empowering athletes to control their physiology beyond breathing patterns is extremely powerful.
- Finally, heart rate data connects a lot of the emotional and contextual information we need that makes us human. If we simply monitored heart rate and the variability between beats and used a word wall, we would see a lot more combative language and poorer social connections than ever before.
Remember: It’s strength and conditioning; meaning, we tend to see elaborate strength training periodization and a lot of resources spent on power, but most programs see practice as covering the bases instead of an area that could be an advantage. Heart rate monitoring will not prove that a team is doing a great job with conditioning, but it will make the case that coaches are not making foolish mistakes or being lucky. I have fallen in love with heart rate monitoring as I know how to watch it without becoming jaded by the burden. If you can pace yourself and know where to hunt, the data is no longer time-consuming or a chore.
Necessary Science – Stuff They Don’t Teach in College
Before I dive into the biology, I am concerned that sport science education is seen as superior to the core sciences. Basic principles of health are vital—literally—to the success of a coach and their athletes. Simple concepts like blood pressure, vasodilation, cardiac output, and electrophysiology are backbones of conditioning. If you don’t understand the foundational information, don’t try to get fancy with advanced statistical packages or regression analysis.
I have often voiced my concern when teams try to force or squeeze decisions out of excessive analysis of the data rather than having a practical view of what is going on biologically. You don’t need machine learning when an athlete rolls their eyes during a session and goes through the motions. Use artificial intelligence and other automated calculations when possible, but only after you have a solid grasp of the science and process of heart rate monitoring.
Most heart rate approaches done commercially or by training programs don’t work. Magical zones, special intervals, and even many readiness programs are a waste of time, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Here is a sad fact you may not want to hear: Most heart rate approaches done commercially or by training programs don’t work. Magical zones, special intervals, and even many readiness programs are simply a waste of time. They use science or science-type language to gain trust, but they are horribly useless for the majority of applications.
The good news is that we are seeing some policing of what works, and we do know that limitations exist. Perhaps the most useful set of guidelines comes from Martin Buchheit, and he summarizes the monitoring process wonderfully in his article on heart rate analysis. I could go into much more detail, but the practical summary of what can be done with sport is more than enough.
Confounding variables is a real issue with attempts to take information from heart rate monitoring to a level it may not be able to go. Simple changes in caffeine intake, chronobiology, environmental factors, and even motivation play a part in the interpretation and validity of the data. Don’t worry—for the most part, the better approaches and protocols will take this into account. New coaches will likely overreact when seeing the data for the first time, while those who collect data consistently will get desensitized to the information. With most teams not performing any maximal effort fitness test, including lifting or sprinting, it’s hard to do anything more than see changes in basic fitness and fatigue.
I don’t recommend heart rate sensors at the wrist for elite athletes. If you want to get heart rate, you should stick to heart rate monitors that are chest strap offerings, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Finally, the technology. I don’t recommend using heart rate sensors at the wrist for elite athletes. If you want to get heart rate, you should stick to heart rate monitors that are chest strap offerings. It’s okay to use fitness tracking for fitness, as those products are suitable to guide basic exercise programming. If you want to get HRV and ECG indices, you should stay with conventional approaches. The straps are more comfortable than ever, and some companies offer really good team solutions.
Using an arm strap option is okay, as they are nice for some training programs, but they may not be practical for everyone. I currently use both validated arm and chest bands based on need. If a physician guides you to work with an athlete or even wellness client, evidence of past wrist-worn equipment hints that even monitoring regular Joes is a bad idea if they have a heart condition. Always check the research to see what models are validated, as the entire market is volatile with accuracy issues.
Practical Recommendations That Work
Based on the available science, it makes sense to look at sports by either team or individual (Olympic type) and decide if heart rate monitoring makes sense. I know a lot of research isn’t showing up for weightlifting and absolute power events like the throws and perhaps jumps in athletics, but to me, simple resting heart rate and HRV are universal. Moving into tracking heart rate in training is another story, and I know it helps to test athletes with a near-maximal or maximal test at some time during the season. Some athletes have never pushed themselves hard physiologically, as the load management bogeyman is so old now that a generation of kids is growing up afraid to sweat and breathe hard.
Daily Readiness: The easiest and most useful way to monitor an athlete’s resting heart rate. While far from perfect, over time it’s perhaps the most telling measurement of training and adaptation. The reason I love daily readiness is that it tells you who is committed to their body and who is not. Not everyone is willing to get their resting pulse or HRV, but it’s fantastic over the long run. Find a way to use resting heart rate as part of a process for athletes to slow down and connect to their body. I have done this for years and, for me, it is the simplest way to get started.
I don’t think you can use the term “readiness” for pulse or heart rate, but you can with cumulative load with athletes. HRV may not be perfect, but over time it’s helpful for seeing trends that can summarize fitness and resilience. In my experience, daily readings are perfect solutions to manage illness or stress, but if you want to get into readiness, you need additional data points outside of heart rate.
Maximum Testing (Field Conditioning): Less frequently used are conditioning tests that incorporate heart rate monitoring. I like it because I want to see the combination of muscle oxygenation and heart rate when an athlete stops or reaches an absolute peak. Toughness is a very touchy subject, but a shuttle test is a clear way to see how an athlete responds when things get tough. Effort is a very challenging characteristic to evaluate, but starting with objective responses is very telling, including breathing rate and ratings of perception.
Submaximal Fatigue Assessments: Ramping up a warm-up can sometimes circumvent the need for a daily morning assessment, as the approach uses a load and checks the physiological response to it. I have used this a few times, and it’s the trickiest to work with because you must react acutely and have a plan waiting. Also, politically, pulling a player out because of fatigue may mean nobody trains that day or some athletes will be upset if they want to work on their game. Then we have team head coaches or assistants who may not like the resting patterns.
Pure Organic Monitoring: The last and most complex heart rate monitoring technique is teasing out information from the massive amount of training data. Many of the team sport products measure both heart rate and HRV indices, giving sport science or trained strength coaches a chance to conduct some very potent monitoring techniques. In fact, if you monitor soccer or another field sport properly, you can remove much of the formal testing to see trends in fitness. This approach has strengths and weaknesses; namely that a team can reduce nonspecific training and do more tactical work, but this isn’t always ideal. General training helps relieve training monotony issues and may keep athletes healthy by reducing overuse syndrome, but pattern overload is a gray area.
A few high-level coaches have brought up the importance of machine learning and other attempts to make HRM automated. This is not a shameless plug for Alan Couzens or other contributors here on the SimpliFaster website, but it is an essential discussion point. If you manage a lot of athletes, an AMS product with the right statistical analysis is necessary. You don’t need a radical or massive amount of analytics software; you just need to know how to make the protocols reveal more information, rather than simply hope you can turn noise into a symphony of music.
Team monitoring does take time, but it’s worth the front-end work. If done right, the software should do the heavy lifting, and you can spend more time discussing how to improve the training process.
What About RPE and Subjective Feel?
A fair point of contention is the athlete’s dependence on external sensors or technology instead of listening to their body. I do think understanding how the body feels matters, and there is plenty of time and opportunity to rehearse this skill. You don’t need to see technology as mutually exclusive from this, and, in fact, the right approach to technology can make its absence even more powerful. It’s great to get spiritual with training—I see value in separating from numbers and exploring the deeper parts of our souls, if you will—but we need to be honest. I strongly believe in subjective monitoring; I just don’t see it as superior when it’s isolated. A combination of both subjective and objective information works best.
Using technology to help sharpen an athlete’s own experience with training enables them to be less dependent on others, including sports devices, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I do think a period of time without heart rate or other types of session monitoring is necessary for athletes, especially athletes in endurance sport. Monitoring morning readiness and physiological status is different, though. I’m cautiously optimistic and believe if you have time and a connection with athletes, sessions that are more spiritual than scientific are great for learning ratings of perception. Focusing on breathing, which is arguably a better metric than heart rate sometimes, usually brings a connection to training better than a number on a watch.
Instead of letting training control the athlete, they need to control how they react to the load and manage their internal psychology and physiology with confidence. I prefer the combination of technology with near-spiritual practices. Using technology to help sharpen an athlete’s own experience with training enables them to be less dependent on others, including sports devices. Education in the form of storytelling and compelling explanations of how the body functions and what makes athletes great can definitely work. Lecturing on physiology usually bores everyone involved, so treat the training experience like a combination of science and a poetry slam.
Get Started by Creating a Culture
I don’t care how you start applying heart rate monitoring, but don’t wait to do it. I have used heart rate monitoring for 20 years, and as the data becomes more accessible, it seems to have fallen off because it’s so easy to capture with all of the technology.
If you want to get the most out of heart rate monitoring, you need to take the temperature of those around you. The grim reality is that if you are the only one who values it, you won’t get far with it. If you are serious about taking training to the next level, add heart rate measurements. Be aware that monitoring teams is work, but the results are important and it’s worth every minute.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF