Making Training Fun: HR Monitors and Junior Endurance Athletes

“There is no quicker way to take the joy out of a sport than to have kids fixating on a heart rate monitor.” I hear versions of this refrain whenever I bring up the topic of heart rate monitor training with other junior coaches. The standard fear of giving heart rate monitors to junior athletes is that athletes will obsess over their data, lose track of the joy of being in the out of doors, and burn out from the constant pressure and scrutiny they experience from their coaches, parents and peers. With our school’s Endurance Team, a group of high school mountain bikers, runners, cross country skiers and rowers, we have actually found these fears completely unwarranted. Since embracing heart rate training we have found that both our elite and novice endurance athletes are training in higher volumes, having more fun, and are getting faster with each new season.

When I was a junior endurance athlete growing up in Concord, Massachusetts I distinctly remember trying to motivate myself to run in the summer to train for the upcoming rowing and cross country ski seasons. Sometime in July I would finally muster up the motivation, lace up my new Nike’s and head out for a four mile run. While it was hard to start running again, I ran hard and convinced myself that I was going to train like a mad man all summer. Within a week I was back on the couch, discouraged by my soreness and slow pace times. I could barely run a couple of miles before walking and gave up training until I returned to the structure of a team and regular practices.

Today, as a coach, I now tell our athletes to go for a run, row, ride or roller ski at 60-70% of their maximum heart rate and then call me in a few weeks. When they eventually check in after starting their summer program I am always pleasantly surprised by their comments. “Okay coach, I have been running every day, when can I start going harder?” Rather than quitting after a week like I used to do, they are evolving into self motivated athletes.

I believe that shifting the conversation with our athletes away from a focus on distance and pace and encouraging a new mindset that emphasizes duration and heart rate helps motivate athletes to keep up with a training program, builds their confidence in themselves, and leads to better trained athletes. In our endurance program we give some athletes very specific heart rate targets for their training. I have one cross country skier who we want training high volumes at or around a heart rate target of 150 beats per minute (bpm). The beauty of using heart rate as a target rather than pace is that heart rate takes into account how the athlete’s body is feeling on any particular day. If they are not feeling fast they will tend not to get discouraged because it is easier to stick to a low heart rate goal than a pace goal. They have been taught that they will still be building efficiency in their bodies by hitting the desired target. Where an athlete might have quit a run or never have gotten off the couch, they are now getting a quality training session and learning about stress and recovery.

Students in a Physiology course using heart rate and lactate data to determine training zones.

Our cross country running coach, Rodrigo Villaamil, was the first one to embrace heart rate training at our school. A strong runner himself, he tried out different strategies himself before introducing them to the team. We purchased a dozen Polar blue tooth monitors and used an iPad to access Polar’s coaching application. Rodrigo has his team do laps on a grass track while one of his athletes calls out the heart rates for each runner as they circle the field. The team is instructed to run at a specific percentage of their maximum heart rate. By observation I have found that the athletes are much more relaxed in this environment. They are not competing with one another and are just focusing on their own workout while experiencing the workout as a team. Now, whenever I see a big group of junior athletes out running I lament that only a few are most likely in the desired heart rate zone, while the others are either going too slowly or struggling to keep up with their heart rates in a more elevated state.

We found the blue tooth monitors to work very well during the preseason period for rowing. Rowing coaches often encourage their athletes to row at different pressures. They will tell a group of athletes on rowing machines, for instance, to row for thirty minutes at ¾ pressure. But what does ¾ pressure mean to a novice, let alone an experienced rower? Doubt produces anxiety, and rowers typically go out too hard and finish weakly. Now we tell our rowers to do the same workout, but to do it at a specific heart rate. The coaches and coxswains walk around the room checking heart rates and power output at those heart rates. Every athlete is getting the appropriate individual workout, and again, they are not trying to out-pull one another to show off.

The more we learned about heart rate training and training in general, the more we learned how little we knew. I had heard from Rob Bradlee, the head coach of the Cambridge Sports Union’s ski team, about the work of the Galanes brothers and their use of the Firstbeat Software. I decided to set up a meeting to talk about how our Endurance Team might benefit from using their technology. Jim and Joe Galanes drove down to Dublin School and we had a great talk about the opportunities for improving training for junior athletes in this country. They set us up on their software, we purchased a few Suunto Ambit 3 watches and heart rate straps for our athletes to share, and got to work. Firstbeat and Suunto go a step further than traditional monitors and measure the variability of the heart’s rate. Heart rate variability gives clues to how the body is adapting to training, how it is recovering from stress on it systems, and through the use of Firstbeat’s proprietary algorithms can make predictions about an athletes VO2 max, EPOC, respiration rate, and the training effect of a given workout.

Now we use their graphs and data to check on our coaching. Are we hitting our desired balance of easy long duration workouts versus shorter intensity workouts? Which of our athletes are hitting the desired targets in intensity workouts and which ones are struggling to achieve their goals? Did all of our athletes get the desired training effect score of a given workout? Why do the athletes look so tired and appear like they are not having fun? Suunto watches have a three minute recovery test that we can use to see if an athlete has recovered appropriately or if we need to adjust their upcoming workout. We can see the data online and share it in reports as desired. Some athletes love to see the data and others just want to know what the next workout is; we can use our discretion on when and with whom to share the information.

Our school believes that high school student athletes should not specialize in one sport. I use the example of my college roommate Carl Swenson who went on to compete nationally and internationally as both a cross country skier and mountain biker. We never know what sports will provide a 16 year-old athlete the lifelong joy and benefits that come from endurance sports. We have athletes who come to our school for the rowing and leave as collegiate skiers, never having been in a ski race before high school.

Firstbeat and heart rate analysis allow our different endurance sport coaches to work together to create common language and year round planning for our emerging endurance athletes. The students benefit when they see we are all working together for their personal growth and not competing with one another for their valuable time. We are creating different tests that measure our athletes base levels of fitness and do so in a more relaxed way than having them go all out for a timed result. We find the athletes are more likely to repeat these heart rate tests on their own than they did when we were just measuring peak performance.

We are working with the Galanes brothers and following the work of Dr. Stephen Seiler, Scott Johnston and others to determine just how best to plan for training the big range of budding endurance athletes we have at our school. We are testing out different heart rates for our long easy duration workouts. We have moved away from calling these long slow distance (LSD) workouts since our athletes are learning that they can actually go really fast and really long at low heart rates once they build up their muscle efficiency. We are also experimenting with different types of interval workouts and seeing how they impact our athletes in different sports. We are not scientists, but we are learning that are many different ways to build endurance, strength and speed in our athletes. The software is not perfect and we make sure never to abandon our use of intuition and observation in our coaching.

Surprisingly, I have found that technology has brought me closer to our athletes rather than distancing us as one might think. We communicate more during the offseason and have more information to discuss once we get beyond how an athlete is feeling. Faster, happier, and more engaged athletes--not a bad outcome!

Brad Bates