The Trouble with Relying on Heart Rate Monitors

September 26, 2016

Mike Ricci



Heart monitors were one of the best tools to be made available to the public in the mid 1980′s . The average Joe was able to afford a ‘coach’ and have their ‘coach’ with them at all times. If you thought you were training too hard, all you had to do was look down at your wrist and see what your HRM was telling you. Did you think you were going too easy? The HRM told you that as well. It was and is like having a coach right by your side.

You can even program HRMs now to let you know when to start and finish an interval. You can record data points for your HR, pace, max altitude, distance run, calories burned and even the elevation gain of your run. Pretty neat huh? Yeah, I think so too.

Somehow when we learned to be smarter about our training we got a little too smart. We check our HRs when we get up, at lunch before bed and !gasp! during our ‘night time, indoor, under the sheets exercise’. We know the altitude gain of our favorite runs and measure our pace to the tenths of a mile. We chase monthly training numbers like we are going to win a prize for compiling the most miles or the most accurate log or maybe even the most anal log. C’mon people, do we need to be that analytical about it? Some people would like you to think so. Of course being a civilization of information we constantly want to know how we are doing. We have GPS and temperature gauges in our cars, we know how many monthly minutes we use on our cell phones, how long to thaw the chicken in the microwave and how long it takes us to relieve ourselves in the rest room between commercials. It?s not that this is a completely bad thing, but we train to have fun, to relieve stress in our lives and to live happier, healthier and longer lives. At least that is why I do it. I enjoy the training a lot more than the racing and even more than that, I enjoy the camaraderie. So it’s important we drop the paralysis by analysis.

There are days when we feel great during a workout, but our HRM tells us otherwise. There are days when we can?t get our HRs above a certain threshold, yet we have our best workouts. So what happens when the HRM is not in line with how we ‘feel’? Do we listen anyway or should we ignore the HRM and keep on our merry way? In my opinion, sometimes it’s ok to ignore that little number on your wrist, and run by ‘feel’ or exertion.

There is a time of the year when I don’t use it; and that time is now: October, November, and December. I use my internal gauge, my exertion scale if you will, or to be more exact, my ‘rate of perceived exertion’ or RPE. A while back a man named Borg created a scale that went from 1-20 (20 being the hardest) that he used to calculate how hard someone was working. For me, a scale of 1-20 presents too many options. I mean really, what is the difference between a 12 and 13? It’s still no where near as hard as a 19 or 20, and its way harder than 1 or 2. I cut the scale back to 1-10, and I actually lined this up with my HR zones, so I have a system that lets me know how hard I am working, and how it correlates my RPE to HR.

I know that for me, a rating of 1-4 on the RPE scale is equivalent to my Zone 1 HR. A 5-6 rating is my Zone 2 HR, and a 7 is definitely a Zone 3. An 8/9 RPE is 4-5a (sub LT to LT) and a 9+ to 10 is equal to a place I don?t need to go, or Zone 5+++.

During this time of the year, I work out in my 5/6 effort zone, and on the hills or if I get bored, I might bring that up to a 7 on the RPE or Zone 3 effort. The best thing about this scale is that I can use it year round. I know that I if feel like the effort is a 7 and I look down and see that my HR is only a low Zone 2, well it could mean that I am tired that day, or I didn’t get enough sleep or that I drank too many Sam Adams? the night before. Whatever the case, I know that my body isn’t behaving like I expect it to and I need to make adjustments. An RPE system is also critical when you are racing someone to the finish line. You can’t worry about your HR number if you are trying to lay the smack down, but you should know where you are on the RPE scale. You know how long you can hold a certain RPE and you know once you get within site of the finish line you may have an extra gear or two. If you were relying solely on HR then you might be restricting yourself in the same situation. Racing in the heat is another example of how RPE trumps HR. If you have raced in the heat, you know that there are times when your HRM is pretty much useless. It’s telling you that your HR is way higher than you have ever seen in training. The first thing you think is, ‘How can I get through this race at my goal times, if I back off the HR?? Well, the answer is to race by effort. For example if you are racing an Olympic distance race, you know that if you can bike at an 8/9 effort and you know that this is around where your Zone 4-5a is, you go with it. Sometimes you need to push the envelope just a bit. One day this week, go ahead; run without the HRM, I dare you. Run by ‘feel’ or RPE, go out there and run too hard or run too easy, you will know the next day when you get up if you went to far in one direction or the other. Your body won’t lie to you. You will learn how much to push and how much to back off.

In summary, I want to say that it’s important to know your HR numbers and how that correlates to RPE, for the reasons I mentioned in the above paragraph. So, I challenge you this off season and winter to go out there at least 1 time per week and run by RPE, just to see what’s like to break the chains and run free from that number on your wrist. I am willing to bet you will run harder than you think you can. The next time when push comes to shove on hot, humid day in August, you’ll have another tool in your toolbox that you can use to race your best, no matter what the conditions. Go get ‘em!

Michael Ricci is a USAT Level III certified coach. He can be reached for personal coaching at

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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