Target Heart Rate Part III: How to Monitor


Once you’ve decided to care about your target heart rate (THR) while exercising, the next step is to decide how to monitor it. There are two ways – low-tech (count your heart rate yourself), or high-tech (use a heart rate monitor.) We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of both methods.

Low-tech: The easiest way to count your pulse during exercise is either on the neck (carotid) or the inside of the wrist. To find your carotid pulse, gently place two-three fingers (don’t use your thumb) on the windpipe (trachea) at the center of your neck. Slide your fingers over either way until you find a depressed ridge – this is where the carotid artery lies. You should be able to feel the pulse fairly easily, without putting a lot of pressure on the artery. To find your pulse on your wrist, place two-three fingers on the inside of your wrist on the same side as your thumb – just above the bend in the wrist. Either spot will work, but most folks seem to find the carotid artery easier to use during exercise.

Pulse is measured in beats per minute (bpm). You can count your pulse for six seconds and multiply by ten, or 15 seconds and multiply by four, or 30 seconds and multiply by two. The idea is to get the most accurate count possible with the least interruption to your exercise. If you take a group exercise class where the leader stops the class for participants to check their heart rate, typically they will count for 10 seconds. Personally I feel that a 30 second count gives the most accurate result, but may be difficult to do for that long, especially if you’re running, swimming or biking.

To monitor your THR during exercise, you can count it one-four times or more during your exercise session. For example, if you’re running for 60 minutes, check your heart rate after you’ve warmed up and been exercising for 10-20 minutes, again when you’ve reached the mid-point of your exercise, again about 10 minutes from the end of your exercise time, and again after you’ve cooled down. Many people abbreviate this to once near the end of the session and at cool down. How frequently you check your heart rate during exercise will depend on how serious you are about staying in your THR zone. If you want to exercise vigorously enough to stay in the zone for the majority of your exercise, waiting to check it until you’re almost done makes this a moot point. Knowing how frequently to check your heart rate is definitely a process of trial and error.

The pros of self-monitoring? It’s fairly easy to do. Cost is minimal – you need a watch or clock with a second hand, and the ability to do basic math. The cons? Some find it inconvenient to stop or slow their exercise to monitor heart rate. Frequent monitoring causes more interruption to exercise; infrequent monitoring may give an inaccurate picture of how hard you’re working. If you’re working too hard, or not hard enough during exercise, this may be missed if you’re only checking heart rate once during exercise.

Who should opt for self-monitoring? It’s great if you’re completely happy with your weight and fitness level and don’t plan to change or improve anything. If you’re very comfortable with gauging your exercise intensity by how you feel combined with intermittent pulse checks, then self-monitoring may work great for you. 

High tech: There’s a wide variety of heart rate monitors available. Most consist of a strap that goes around the chest under your clothing, and a watch. You can spend anywhere from $60 to $300ish, depending on how many features you want in addition to heart rate monitoring. For basic exercise, most people don’t need a lot of extra features – you want to choose a monitor that gives you a continuous measure of your heart rate, allows you to set upper and lower limits for heart rate (your THR zone) and gives you feedback during exercise if you’re above or below you’re zone. To get a basic monitor with these features, expect to pay between $100-$150. Most people will get at least 10 years of use with a good monitor and basic intermittent service, which makes the investment worth it. I’ll talk more about choosing a heart rate monitor in the future, but for those who can’t wait, there’s plenty of information available online.

Who should opt for high-tech monitoring? Those who fall into any of the following categories may want to consider investing in a monitor:

-If you’ve been exercising a while without getting the results you want, either in overall fitness or endurance

-If you’re trying to lose weight and are not making progress

-If you’re in training for a particular goal above your current level of fitness, such as a marathon or triathlon

-If you want to track tangible results of improvement in your fitness over time

-If you need feedback during exercise to help you maintain your intensity

-If you enjoy gadgets and don’t mind spending a few minutes before and after exercise to care for your monitor (minimal)

-If you find it too cumbersome to count your heart rate during exercise

-If you’re unable to tell on your own if you’re exercising too hard or not hard enough, or if you have any physical conditions that make it dangerous for you too exercise too hard

-If you can afford the initial cost, plus occasional periodic maintenance costs

-If you are committed enough to use the monitor and not let it sit in the drawer

Next: how to choose a heart rate monitor.

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2 thoughts on “Target Heart Rate Part III: How to Monitor

  1. Pingback: Run Diary Part I | Huffygirl's Blog

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