Should You Train With a Heart Rate Monitor?

Triathletes typically have two very different approaches to training and racing. They tend to be either quantitative or qualitative in nature. Some are slaves to their power meters and have a permanent indentation on their upper-torso, from the strap of their heart rate (HR) monitor. Others live for the moment, and think only of how they feel right here and now. They wouldn't know where to find a pulsing artery. Each has its pros and cons.

The qualitative athlete trains and races purely by feel. Their season is typically set up as blocks of aerobic development, intensity building, strength, endurance and speed, depending upon the specific time of year. Weekly workouts are scheduled as a series of hard, easy, or moderate efforts. They may wear a heart rate monitor, or use a power meter, though not within any particular parameters.

Alternatively, the quantitative athlete will typically have a more structured periodization plan outlining their entire season of training and racing. While the periodization plan acts as a working document, it defines the basis and logic of the season. Training is done with a HR monitor, at a minimum, and a power meter, whenever possible. The athlete focuses on specific training and racing zones, initially defined through testing and adjusted throughout training.

Either approach can be successful in creating a healthy, well-tuned athlete who makes progress year after year. But, how should the success of either approach be measured?

I like to assess two primary qualities. I first look at the athlete's relative improvement from one season to the next; are they making progress every year in their race results. The other metric that's telling of an athlete's training program is consistency in race results. Do they have one amazing race, followed by a race where they are just way behind? These are two of the most difficult items to obtain and master. The success of these may be significantly more dependent upon your athlete's ability to execute the training program, than the program itself.

Regardless of how you slice it, the coach is the one who is ultimately judged by the athlete's performances. I call this the "one metric" assessment. It is what most outsiders use to judge coaches, and rightfully so.

There is a danger, especially among many self-coached athletes, in looking at the training programs of those who are currently winning or having high rates of success. These metrics can be greatly influenced by the successful athlete's genetics and therefore the result itself may act as a mask for an otherwise poorly developed training program. For this reason, I encourage athletes to look for long-term progress in year-to-year race results and consistency in race results over the short term, when evaluating the training program of a fellow racer. These aspects are good indicators of both a solid training program, and an athlete who executes it well. More importantly, these qualities can be found in both the 8:15 and 12:00 Ironman finishers, alike. The athlete's overall finish times, really do not act as a valid measure of their training program.

Are you, or should you be, a tracker of metrics? Below we will discuss the three biggest factors in the argument for or against metric tracking.

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