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When Training, Don't Be Tempted
to Compare Your Heart Rate with Other Athletes

By Wes Hobson -

If you train with other triathletes, I am sure you have had the occasional conversation about what each other's heart rate is while running or biking together.

Your heart rate may be 160 and theirs may be 142. Does this mean the other person is more fit than you? It is hard to tell, as we are not created equal. You shouldn't judge your fitness based on other people's heart rate.

Occasional testing, whether by science or a self-test, is important when on the road to peak performance. Although testing is beneficial, even a lab test to determine your lactate threshold isn't 100 percent accurate.

A person's lactate threshold can change several beats per minute daily, depending on the stresses dealt to your body. [Check out this story for an explanation of lactate threshold]. This can be both physical stress such as lack of sleep and training fatigue or mental stress, such as pressure at work or your child being a rebellious teenager.

The old adage that your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age is as indicative of the adage itself: old. I have a 21-year-old client who walks up stairs and gets his heart rate up to 212. What I am trying to stress here is, don't be concerned about how your heart rate compares to others.

If you try to compete with someone on maintaining the same heart rate as they do, then you could either overtrain your body into a state of severe fatigue or under-train yourself and not reach peak performance.

I can give a good case in point about comparing heart rates. In 1996, I spent a month living and training with five-time World Triathlon Champion Simon Lessing in Salon d Province, France. Simon had a tendency of always training hard. I eventually learned, as he won five world championships, that the guy is both physically and mentally talented.

We trained in all three sports every day. The swim usually lasted an hour. Simon and I were comparable in the water. He could swim faster than I in the pool, but I was always able to draft off him in races and we would exit the water together. We didn't check our heart rates during the group sessions, as we never had time between intervals and sets.

My bike rides with Simon were never long by my standards. For Simon, a two-hour ride was "long," but it was always a good effort. During our good efforts, our heart rates were consistently three beats within each other.

Our swim was about equal for energy expended, and our bike showed that with our comparative heart rates and rate of perceived effort, we had similar fitness.

The run was a different story. Every run was hard for me. Although the runs only lasted 45 minutes to an hour, my heart rate was redlining five minutes into the run. His heart rate was 142 to 145. Meanwhile, my heart rate was 170 to 175, and this was a moderate effort run for him.

What this unscientific approach indicates is that I was as efficient as Simon on the bike, but not nearly as efficient on the run — given the same pace. Simon substantiated my theory by consistently out-splitting me 1 1/2 to two minutes for a 10K triathlon run.

If I were to base my triathlon training for all three disciplines with the same heart rate training zones as Simon, or anyone else, then I might be overstressing one of the disciplines while under-stressing another discipline during training.

So how does one wear out the world champion? After the first few days that I was at Simon's abode, Mike Pigg and Jimmy Riccitello joined us at Salon d Province for a couple weeks of quality training. We were all on the same team and preparing for the France Iron Tour, eight triathlons in nine days.

After a few days of training with Simon, we realized we were getting pummeled "racing" him every day. We devised a plan to dismantle this seemingly invincible athlete.

One thing Simon has is an ego, and we used that to our advantage. We decided that instead of us all trying to hang with Simon and prove our manhood daily, we would each take a discipline of the day and do the workout with him.

For instance, if I knew I had to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Simon for the run session that day, I would go as hard as I could because I knew I was taking the other two workouts easy. For three days Pigg, Riccitello and myself went toe-to-toe with Simon, as a team!

Finally, on the fourth day of the team tactics, Simon was wasted and he took the day off. The three of us chided him a bit, celebrated for three minutes and then went back to bed.

Ideally, you want to know your lactate threshold for each discipline. This allows you to train sport-specific to improving your weaknesses of a discipline much more rapidly than having the same heart rate zones for all three disciplines.

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