Often athletes with stagnant performance train too intensively and with pulse values that are too high. Those who train based on pulse values develop greater endurance and prevent injury.
Author: Sandra Rossi, MD, specialist in general internal medicine FMH, manual medicine SAMM, sports medicine SEMS, Medbase Winterthur Brunngasse.
What is pulse training?
Pulse/heart rate training is training with predefined pulse values that are individually determined for you. Using sports medicine performance diagnostics, your training zones and the corresponding pulse values are first determined. This data is then used to derive the pulse rate that will help you progress in your current training condition. With increasing endurance performance and better training condition, the pulse values also change: your resting pulse will decrease. Endurance athletes sometimes have resting pulse rates below 45 beats per minute.
Why train according to pulse?
You can control your training specifically and thus develop a better feeling for your own body. With pulse training you can improve your training condition, increase your endurance and prevent injuries caused by overtraining. Besides, your training will be objectively documented. An additional tool for training control is HRV (heart rate variability). The new sports watches have this function integrated.
How to determine your pulse
Heart rate monitors that are connected to a chest strap measure your heart rate very accurately. There are chest straps that also work in water. You can also measure your pulse directly on your wrist by counting the heartbeats/pulse. Since the readings from the devices are not always fully reliable, it is even more important to develop a feeling for your own pulse values and your body so that you are not completely dependent on the watch.
What heart rate variability (HRV) tells you
To measure it, you need a heart rate monitor that can measure frequency changes from heartbeat to heartbeat, called the RR interval. It tells you about the state of your neurovegetative nervous system. From this it can be deduced how much strain the cardiovascular system is under. HRV is reduced, for example, in the case of flu, psychological stress, lack of sleep or overtraining. It is increased with good aerobic endurance performance, good regeneration and well-being.
How you proceed with pulse training
First determine your resting and maximum heart rate (highest possible heart rate under load). From this, the different training zones can be derived (see the bulleted list below).
This is why it is important to know your resting heart rate
Your resting heart rate is an individual reference value. It can tell you a lot about your current training status. It can increase in hot weather, during an infection, overtraining, stress, too little sleep or during the menstrual cycle (oestrogen) in women – to name just a few causes. Some athletes, for example, still had an elevated resting pulse for a long time after a coronavirus infection. With such information (and the correct interpretation) you can better adapt and control your training and prevent or recognise a regression in training or a decline in performance at an early stage.
Performance diagnostics at Medbase
The sports scientists and sports physicians at Medbase check your performance level with an endurance test. Based on this, they explain to you in a clear and uncomplicated way how you can optimally incorporate the results into your training.
How to determine your maximum heart rate
Maximum heart rate is the heart rate at the highest level of exertion. It varies from person to person. For example, genes and gender play a role. The generalised formula of “220 minus your age” is merely a guide value that is not very precise. Sports medicine performance diagnostics determine the maximum pulse much more accurately. It can also be a helpful tool for training management.
How performance diagnostics work
A sports medicine lactate level test is the optimal procedure. Ideally, you should do the same type of sport that you normally do. According to a predefined step protocol, the intensity of the load is increased more and more until you reach your physical or circulatory performance limit. At regular intervals during the test, the lactate is determined using a drop of blood from the earlobe.
The lactate level test costs about 200 to 400 Swiss francs at Medbase. As a rule, it is not covered by health insurance.
What can be deduced from the lactate level test?
The pulse values and the lactate values in the blood can be used to determine the threshold at which your body changes from the aerobic (lactate can be broken down in advance) to the anaerobic (lactate builds up) training zone. This threshold varies from person to person, but with good training it can be shifted in a positive direction.
Insert from the running.COACH glossary:
The aerobic-anaerobic threshold refers to a certain intensity of exertion, for example a running speed, and refers to the supply of oxygen to the organism. Under resting conditions, glucose (grape sugar) is completely broken down into CO2 and water. During physical exertion and the associated lack of oxygen, this is no longer possible and lactate (lactic acid) is produced to an increasing extent. This is broken down at the same time. If the new formation of lactate corresponds to the maximum rate of degradation, this is called the maximum lactate steady state or the aerobic-anaerobic threshold.
Due to their generally lower oxygen intake, lower testosterone levels and smaller muscle percentage, women do not quite reach the performance levels of men.
Based on the maximum heart rate, you can define five heart rate zones/training zones – from the basic zone to the competition zone:
- Health zone 50 to 60% of maximum heart rate
- Fat burning zone 60 to 70% of maximum heart rate
- Aerobic medium zone 70 to 80% of maximum heart rate
- Anaerobic intensive zone 80 to 90% of maximum heart rate
- Competition zone 90 to 100% of maximum heart rate
What is important for beginners
Do not increase too fast! The body must first get used to the new load. This can take several months. Therefore, allow enough time for a good build-up and be patient. This will prevent overuse of tendons, ligaments and joints, and the cardiovascular system can also adapt.
If you are heavily overweight, it is best to increase your fitness with swimming, cycling or Nordic walking first. Beginners can use a heart rate monitor to help them avoid training too fast and too intensively.
Leave the heart rate monitor off in between training sessions so that you develop a better feel for your heart rate. It’s not about “how the watch is doing”, but how you feel.
Medbase is the largest multidisciplinary sports medicine network in Switzerland and offers specialised sports medicine services for athletes, clubs and sports associations at all levels of activity in the fields of sports medicine, sports physiotherapy, performance diagnostics and training advice.