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Heart Rate Data (lower or lagging HRs)

Posted By: KP
Date: Thursday, 21 February 2008, at 7:40 a.m.

Heart Rate Data

Q: In some writings, authors refer to training in the steady range as a key part of Ironman prep.
How does an IM athlete differentiate between increased fitness and HR lag?

KP: Differentiation comes with experience as well as charting data across time. Data included in your current and past experience might be power compared to HR and PE on the bike. Short of a power meter, experience (or a knowledgable advisor) can be very helpful. As your fitness increases, the ability to cross reference data becomes more important. HR measures cardiovascular strain, not work. Power measures work. When we develop good fatigue through weeks of quality work, HRs may lag. How do we know if HRs are lagging or we are fitter? Being able to compare benchmarks, charted data over time and personal experience. Logging data over time (weeks, months, years) gives us a clearer picture of an individual and his/her fitness. It all has meaning.

For instance Feb 19th I rode 3hrs on an identical course as the one I rode 3hrs on in early January. Yesterdays ride time was 2:56 // 6 weeks ago 2:57. Yesterday was 5w higher power (NP and AP). But my avg HR was 18 beats lower. Was my HR lagging from fatigue or was I more fit?

The answer is both. I just did a huge cycling week and have some lasting fatigue. I am also more fit and expected lower HRs at the same power. The purpose of is to get tired. Doing the right thing once the training stimulus has been accomplished facilitates assimilation and shows in increased fitness.

Knowing that I may not regularly see HRs as reactive as those I saw in December and early January, following months and weeks of detraining in 2007 (lower fitness, lower blood volume, very fresh), I have to consider variables that affect heart rate. This is where years of experience, personal knowledge and a power meter become important allies as we seek to avoid overworking by forcing up heart rates.

As we get more fit and do greater workloads, it is important to for us to be on the lookout for signs of lagging HRs mixed with cumulative fatigue. It is not uncommon and may even be normal (expected) after certain training cycles. When this occurs, it would be a mistake to force HRs up to some pre-determined figure. An athlete who is looking for clarity can you see how important the power meter can be in these situations. Power is power is work done -- instantly. Heart Rates lag in bigger gears, over short intervals and with fatigue. Power only goes down if you do less work. Going forward an athletes experience -- over years -- will be very helpful.

Q: If you are experiencing lag, what do you do?

KP: the HR lag (when everything else is in line // PE and Power) can be a sign of fatigue and/or good fitness (careful not assume it's all fitness). We are trying to get tired through training (in a good way). That's what training does for us. Lagging HRs are part of the equation an athlete often experiences when he is doing quality work, with solid volume. It can be a valid signal that the edge (deeper fatigue) is near but it is the edge we want to dance in specific cases when pursuing personal best fitness. We see it, we note it, we watch it. When an athlete is rolling consistently along, producing specific power on the bike, swimming well, running well, sleeping well, eating well, nailing all KEY sessions and HR is lagging a bit, maintain careful observance of data, altering training stimulus when it is called for.

A client, Jeff Caplan, recently wrote his observations to me as we discussed these topics:

I am starting to get a much better understanding of its (power meter) role. The difference between the way that I was considering it vs. what I am coming to understand is that it is not like a speedometer (which is how I was originally considering it). Instead, it is much closer to a highly responsive HRM that provides very immediate feedback on the efforts you are putting forth. By triangulating the power, HR and PE info, you can develop a much more robust model that guides appropriate pacing both during training and racing. Given time and a sufficient base of experience, you can develop models that provide more informative information for real time (i.e., during the ride) and strategic (i.e., "how is my training progressing") decision making.

Good stuff from Jeff! Some other general observations of mine that may be helpful:

If PE is low, HR is normal or high and watts are high, I may be emotionally fired up, in which case I back off. Examples:

(1) Exiting T1 and early in the bike leg of a race.
(2) In a group ride where excitement is high it is easy to overwork

If HR is low but PE feels correct and wattage corresponds to appropriate efforts: this is a clue that I may be a bit tired and need to watch my energy expenditure while scheduling planned recovery. I may need a couple days of careful training. I see this often in specific prep prior to a race and during big volume (lagging HRs). I witness athletes training without power attempting to hit HR targets that leave them overly fatigued come taper. They may spend three weeks of focused training using an effort that turns out to be close to a zone too high.

*If watts stay low but HR is normal/low and PE is normal to higher, I am likely close to being smashed and need some rest. The additional recovery may be two days or a week. When you have trouble hitting known target wattage it is a sure sign of fatigue and should not be ignored, no matter what HR and PE suggest.

coach KP

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