Most people understand the role a heart rate monitor plays in long course racing. It helps us maintain a steady pace and can let us know when we’re in need of nutrition. But many people think the heart rate monitor has no role in short course racing such as sprint and Olympic distance races.
In a sprint, you just go all out, right? But what if your perception of “going all out” doesn’t actually match with the effort you are capable of giving?
You just can’t sugarcoat a threshold effort. It hurts. A lot. And many athletes aren’t willing to stay there, let alone go there in the first place. But if you really want to race at threshold, a heart rate monitor can ensure you’re actually getting there.
For example, a sprint distance race is generally raced at or near lactate threshold, especially on the run. If a person perceives they are working at threshold on the run, and they know their lactate threshold occurs at 165 bpm, but they see 155 bpm on their monitor, they now know they still have 10 beats to give. This little piece of information might help them dig just that little bit deeper to finish a 5K as best they can.
The heart rate monitor can also provide useful data for post-race analysis. We often hear people say, “I didn’t do so well on the run,” or “I felt great on the bike. I don’t think I biked too hard.” But without real data, it’s impossible to know how well a person executed their race. If that same runner who has a threshold heart rate of 165 bpm analyzes their data after a race and notes an average heart rate in the mid 160’s, they can feel confident they gave their best effort on the day. If they see an average heart rate in the mid 150’s, they would know that perhaps what they perceived as “going all out,” wasn’t necessarily the case, or perhaps their run was affected by biking too hard.
“I had a great bike, but I don’t know what happened on the run.” If only we coaches had a for dollar every time we have heard this. I had a great bike, but . . . What does that really mean?
Often, it means the athlete has “overbiked.” If this athlete has had a less-than-stellar run and has worn a heart rate monitor, they can use heart rate data from the bike leg to determine if they spent too much energy on the bike course. For example, if a person has a lactate threshold heart rate of 165 bpm on the bike and cycles in an Olympic distance race—which is raced at slightly below threshold—and after the event, notes their average heart rate was above 165 bpm, and that the bike leg included several spikes into the 170’s, it’s safe to say they “overbiked” the course and didn’t leave enough for the run.
In summary, the heart rate monitor serves two valuable purposes in short course races. It gives us a piece of information during the race to ensure we are working as hard as we can, and it provides valuable data after the race to confirm how well or poorly we executed our race strategy.