Heart Rate Based Training: How and Why

Part One

Most people are familiar with checking their heart rate; when you do a spin class or road bike hill ascent training. Almost everyone knows how to check their pulse at the neck or wrist to determine their pulse rate and as a rule that a lower resting heart rate is better than a higher one. Perhaps you have heard that you should have a 30 beat recovery within a minute of cessation of exercise as a marker of heart health.
But did you know that being able to raise your heart rate nearly 100 beats a minute within one minute of onset of exercise makes your risk of sudden cardiac death less than 15% of those unable to do so? Simply having a resting heart rate of less than 75 cuts your annualized risk of sudden cardiac death by roughly 75% compared to those with a higher resting heart rate. This is just the beginning of the predictive power of heart rate information.

Properly done Heart Rate Based Training (HRBT) can help you diagnose and fix problems as diverse as hardening of the heart arteries, to poor thyroid function to an imbalance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems; that is between the ‘flight or fight’ system and the ‘relax now’ system. Pretty cool. Lots more information here than your last ‘executive physical’ by far.

To get into the real power of heart rate information you need to know a little bit about what determines your heart rate at rest and at work and play. There are three levels of things that effect heart rate:

  1. Local; this is at the nanometer scale. Down at the molecular level. How well do the mitochondria of the heart muscle cells do their job? How many locally toxic or helpful chemicals, nitric oxide for example, are released or prevented from being released at the level of the arteries and veins of the heart muscle itself?
  2. Regional; this is the slightly larger scale of the structure of the whole heart, its wall thickness, wall mobility, contractile capacity of the heart muscle, the diameter of the aorta, the blood pressure in the lung blood flow, etc.
  3. Systemic; this is the scale of the whole body and reflects the wash of hormones in the blood like adrenaline, cortisol, thyroid, the tone in the nerves to, in and around the heart like the vagus nerve and the proprioceptive- what position you leg is in for example- information of body movement.

All 3 scales of effect show up in the heart rate response to rest, meditation, prayer, exercise, grief, anger and joy. Learning to manipulate and improve the heart rate response to physiological and psychological stress is the secret to not only a great 100 meter sprint time but to a long, heart-disease-free life.

Now I could go on and on about balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems; both at the nerve and hormonal level. We could discuss the effect of shear forces on the lining of the arteries and that effect on blood vessel wall health. But, it turns out you don’t really need to become a physiologist, biochemist, endocrinologist and mystic monk to fix all three levels of biological importance at ‘one swell foop.’ Nope, you only have to be really, really good at heart HRBT. All three levels- local, regional and systemic- of health, disease, biochemistry, endocrinology, and adaptive response show up in the Heart Rate Profile (HRP).

You will need some type of recording heart rate monitor. Ideally it will take a 1 second sample rather than the older generation of 5 second sampling. The newer Polar, terrible software support and unreadable handbooks, or Garmin, much easier but less intricate software for some kinds of analysis, are fine. I am sure there are others and have used some but this is not brand dependent. I use and for some of my sicker patients exclusively use the high end Polar watches with true r-to-r heart rate recording rather than even 1 second sampling. For certain kinds of heart disease I do full ambulatory heart rate monitoring with very precise heart beat to heart beat analytical software; we’re talking millisecond variance now. I mention this later stuff just to remind you that intense HRBT must only be done after a very thorough doc based clearance for intense training. Look, even 35 year olds can just drop dead from ballistic increases in heart rate.

OK, so now back to the nitty gritty; how to fix everything from endothelial dysfunction-sick lining of the arteries- to an out of whack sympathetic nervous/endocrine system with just a fancy watch and lots of determination.

Besides those two items, the watch and determination, you will need some basic concepts:

  • The main goal is to get the heart rate response profile to tightly map onto the actual amount and type of metabolic work the heart performs. In simple terms you want to train the heart to speed up and slow down in real time with the demand or absence of metabolic demand. Very subtly, very tightly, very quickly: up and down with alacrity. I will illustrate by contrast: if you are ever above about 14,000 feet and try to ‘sprint’ even a few feet and then stop you will have finished War and Peace before your heart rate and breathing even realize you did anything and then when the heart starts pounding and the lungs start screaming for air it will seem like you just created such a huge metabolic debt that you will never get it paid back. Things are out of sync.

End Of Part One

Go To Part Two

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