So, you have purchased your fancy, new, high end running heart rate monitor and are just itching to give it a try.  The question is, what is the best way to utilize your new gadget?  There are a couple things that you need to do to get the most out of your new monitor.

First, and foremost, you need to figure out what your maximum heart rate is.  This is important, as most heart rate training is based on this maximum heart rate.  There are a couple of ways you can go about this.  The most accurate is probably to engage in a brief period of extremely intense exercise to see where your heart rate maxes out at.  Unfortunately, this is probably the most dangerous to do unless you are extremely fit and are doing it under the supervision of a physician.  You are much better off using one of the common mathematical formulas to determine your maximum heart rate.  None of these formulas are 100% accurate, so I am not going to endorse one over the other.  It is just important to be in the ballpark, unless you are an elite athlete looking to shave seconds off of your performance.

Next, you need to determine your fitness goals.  This is very important, and very often overlooked.  Are you looking to improve performance, lose weight, or increase endurance?  Each one of these goals require very different heart rate training techniques.  

Weight Loss

Let’s assume you want to lose weight.  Believe it or not, you are being counterproductive if you hop on the treadmill and run as fast as you can.  Instead, you want to exercise at a level that has you at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.  At this heart rate, you should be breathing slightly heavy, but you should still be able to talk in sentences with relative ease.  This heart rate zone is commonly called the fitness or weight management zone.  For weight loss, this zone is critical as your energy (i.e. calories) burned are roughly 85% derived from fat.  

It does seem counter-intuitive, but the slower you go, the more fat you will burn.  If you want to lose weight and you exercise at higher heart rate levels, you are burning more carbohydrates than fat.  Your muscles have a finite amount of stored carbs, so there is only so long you can exercise at higher heart rate levels.  The worst part is, your body will implore you to replace those carbs after exercising.  Obviously, this defeats the purpose of exercising to lose weight!

Endurance Improvement

If weight management is not your priority, you can extend yourself into the next heart rate zone, sometimes called the aerobic zone.  At this level, your heart rate should be roughly 70-80% of your maximum.  Exercising at this intensity, you should only be able to speak in short phrases.  Exercising at this heart rate level is useful for building up your endurance.  Fat burning decreases at this level, as your energy needs are evenly split 50/50 between carbohydrates and fat.  As a result of this energy split, those exercising at this level for longer periods of time usually need to “fuel” themselves with extra carbs as the body will eventually burn through the stored carbohydrate.

Performance Improvement

Once you raise your heart rate to 80-90% of your maximum, you have entered the anaerobic zone.  This zone is useful for improving cardiovascular performance and is good for improving your short range running fitness.  In other words, exercising at this intensity for shorter periods improves the level of oxygen that your body can utilize.  It is difficult to maintain this level of activity for very long, so most seasoned athletes will exercise in this zone for short intervals or bursts.  Furthermore, they will only do it sporadically.  Exercising in this zone is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns.  There is a point where you do more harm to your performance (and your health) by exercising too often in this zone.  About 85% of the energy burned in this zone is from carbohydrate, so it is not very useful for those looking to burn fat and lose weight.

The Choice is Yours

As you can see, there are options available to you for designing a workout routine using your running heart rate monitor.  Be clear about your goals and be very mindful of the fact that faster is not always better.  Once you are clear on those matters, you have the power to use your new gadget to improve your health and athletic performance.