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Blog / 2014 / October / The Use of Heart Rate Training Technolog...
October 19, 2014

The Use of Heart Rate Training Technology to Manage Training Stress and Recovery

by David DiFabio

Heart rate monitoring devices are just like any other training tool. The results produced will greatly depend on how it is implemented. The same can be said for dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, foam rollers, vibration plates, suspension bands, etc.

Therefore, some obvious questions are:

  1. What insight can heart rate monitors provide?
  2. How can heart rate feedback be used to modify or design a training program?
  3. What results can trainers and coaches expect?

What insight can heart rate monitors provide?

Heart rate (HR) training can give us a better understanding of our coaching and a better understanding of our athletes. All stress, whether good or bad, is reflected in the body's HR response and HR variability. Therefore, if such parameters are monitored it can allow us to compare how relatively stressful different modes of exercise may be on the body. It gives coaches a way to compare different modes even though one may be mostly "aerobic" while the other may be mostly "anaerobic." If one knows how stressful an exercise bout is, you can gain insight into how long it will take to recover from that bout. This is the essence of avoiding over training and training for peak performance.

We know that stress response during sport and exercise can be affected by factors including:

  • fitness level,
  • respiration,
  • sport and positional demands,
  • fatigue and recovery status,
  • personal traits and characteristics,
  • and environmental conditions.

We also know that stress response is modulated by the neuroendocrine system, specifically a complex communication between the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands (HPA Axis). This can construct a complicated puzzle. Fortunately, stress response is reflected in HR response. Thus, HR data analysis can give insight into the body's response to stress and help simplify an otherwise complicated puzzle.

How can heart rate feedback be used to modify or design a training program?

A good place to start deconstructing the puzzle is to use HR feedback to improve the specificity of training. Training programs should be tailored to both the athlete and the sport. This begins with a needs analysis for the individual athlete to analyze the demands of the sport and position. It has been said, "If we are not assessing, then we are guessing."

Needs Analysis - The Athlete

Field testing such as the "beep" test, is practical way of estimating HR Max and VO2 Max.

Figure 1. HR response during a graded "beep" test to exhaustion.

To measure resting HR, a coach could record HR while athletes lie down in a quiet comfortable room with the lights out for 10 minutes, preferably first thing in the morning before any activity has occurred. This could be done multiple mornings per week, as a coach may not want to rely solely on just one measurement session. Once these basic parameters are measured, coaches can then prescribe work to rest ratios based on HR response and recovery as opposed to an arbitrary time domain.

Many HR software analysis programs allow the plotting of a HR line graph. This would allow coaches to examine the peaks and valleys of HR response between intervals or drills. Interesting feedback begins to emerge when the slopes of the HR response and recovery graph of fit versus unfit athletes are compared. Coaches may want to analyze the recovery rate of two or more players of the same position, perhaps starters versus non-starters, while doing the same drills. For example, the coaches can evaluate differences in how long it takes players to recover from 90% HR max to 65% HR max. This type of data can help us define individual player profiles which makes it easier to manage training stress and recovery days for individual athletes, instead of treating the entire team the same way.

Coaches would expect fitter athletes to have a higher VO2 Max, higher Lactate/Ventilatory Threshold, and a lower resting HR (Max HR is highly genetic). Fit players will generally have to spend less time at or above threshold in performing their sport. This would mean they incur less training stress and expend less calories compared to the unfit athlete who had to work harder to perform the same tasks.

However, coaches know that athletic performance is not always so cut and dry. In analyzing data collected by teams we have seen exceptions to the above scenario. If left to their own devices, fitter, more motivated players have been able to generate more time above lactate and ventilatory thresholds, hence greater training stress. This could translate to more calories expended, thus a greater need for nutritional strategies to enhance recovery. Some coaches have affectionately referred to this type of athlete as being a "high-motor" athlete.

We have seen cases, in comparing two highly fit athletes, where the data is not exactly what coaches were expecting. For example, two players that have very similar resting HR and VO2 max, but Player A seems to be in much better, sports-specific, shape than Player B. If a lab test was done, perhaps we would see that Player A has a higher lactate and/or ventilatory threshold. That means Player A could exercise at a higher percentage of his/her V02/HR Max, and perhaps for longer duration, without getting overly fatigued. Player B could still achieve high heart rates at times, however, over the course of a long training session, Player B would not be able to sustain that for as long as Player A. In this scenario, Player B might look "slow" and not able to "keep up." Player B would not be able to sustain and repeat as many high speeds runs compared to Player A. This could translate into a lower time spent above threshold for player B. Here again we have a scenario where the fitter, high-motor athlete (Player A) produced data indicative of higher training stress simply because Player A was able to meet the demands of the game or practice, while Player B was not able.

Read the second part of the post, which covers a needs analysis according to the demands of the sport, as well as the results that trainers and coaches can expect.

As a national accounts manager for Polar USA, David DiFabio consults with numerous Olympic, collegiate, and professional teams regarding the use of heart rate technology. Previously, he has worked for his alma mater, Rutgers University, as a Fitness Coordinator, Personal Training Director, and Adjunct Professor. He has also worked in corporate fitness. His private training clientele includes collegiate and high school athletes, adults and children, and those with special needs or medical concerns. David earned his MA at Montclair State University, and holds multiple certifications with the NSCA and USAW. He has written articles for various media outlets such as Men's Fitness, The Fitness Expert Network, Men's Health, The Performance Menu, and FitOrbit.com. He has also been a presenter at NSCA NJ State Clinics as well as the CSCCa National Conference. You can follow David on his website, Team Speed Fitness.

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