Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Monitoring For Maximum Performance

Coaches of team sports understand that their athletes need a foundation of conditioning to play at the highest possible levels. That’s why football players suffer through conditioning sessions in the summer heat and humidity. As in endurance sports, the fitness challenges in team sports vary tremendously among sports and positions within sports.

For example, the soccer player may run upward of 6 miles during a 90-minute game, whereas the offensive tackle in American football may cover only a few hundred meters in a game. Regardless, all team sport athletes need an element of aerobic conditioning, because that is what governs recovery from anaerobic activity.

Clearly, getting in shape helps team sport athletes play well. Coaches who understand this universal principle also believe in the value of breaking down the game’s movements and overall abilities into sets of microskills that players can practice repeatedly. For our purposes, let’s consider physical fitness a skill that can be broken into parts that can be practiced separately, just like running passing routes.

But before we go much further, we’d like to address briefly the issue of using heart rate monitoring while weightlifting.

Weightlifting is an integral part of the conditioning routine of most athletes, and as such needs to be monitored like any other fitness routine. However, monitoring heart rate while weight training for strength or power is not reliable. Lifting weights causes large increases in blood pressure, reduces breathing frequency, and requires large slow or static muscle contractions. The result is a blunted heart rate response to an immediate bout of exercise. For this reason, we do not advocate the use of heart rate monitoring to guide intensity while doing heavy resistance training. Now back to team sports monitoring.

Heart Rate Monitoring In Team Sport Athletes

Monitoring an athlete’s response to stress is crucial to ensuring optimal adaptation and developing logical and intelligent training and recovery programming. We know that the heart rate response at rest and during exercise is an excellent way to gauge not only the state of aerobic fitness and stress level of an exercise bout, but also the stress on the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, heart rate can provide an excellent means to gauge external stressors (heat, exercise, hydration, intensity) and internal stressors (state of recovery, injury, disease). From the internal stressor perspective, resting heart rate and heart rate variability provide our best resource. From an external stressor perspective, exercise heart rate or recovery heart rate provide our best resource. In either case, consistency in measurement is paramount for collecting accurate, reliable data.

Team sports are more complex than individual endurance sports in many ways because of their multidimensional demands of speed, agility, rest, individual athlete variation, and constant reaction to opponents. Furthermore, football coaches face the challenge of guiding dozens of athletes at a time.

Heart rate monitoring is a simple, cost-effective, and reliable tool for gauging an athlete’s overall response to training. The availability of multi-athlete systems for heart rate monitoring makes it possible for a coach to individualize the training and conditioning program for multiple athletes, who are at different levels of fitness and skill, on a team that trains and competes together.

Collecting resting data 5-10 minutes before a training session provides feedback on athlete readiness. The research suggests that data collected when the athlete is in a resting, supine position is the most reliable. Once the athletes move into the training session, the coach can switch to the heart rate recovery data to gauge the external stress on the athlete and begin individualization during the session.

Once the session is complete for the day, the athlete may then be able to report data over the next 12-24 hours to provide information on heart rate variability (HRV) and even sleep. The bottom line is that team sports monitoring will allow individualization in the group setting.

Fitness Components In Team Sports

Physiologists know that physical fitness is made up of components that can be practiced as separate skills. Applying this idea to football, which involves intermittent but intense running, we can see that athletes need the following fitness skills:

  • The ability to stay fast for the entire game (endurance)
  • The ability to sprint back and forth for several plays in row (stamina)
  • The leg speed to be the first to get to the ball or ball carrier (speed)
  • The ability to recover between exercise bouts and then repeat them (aerobic recovery)
  • The strength to maintain position and resist opposition (power)

In other words, football players need to develop speed, endurance, and stamina, and they need to recover so they can reproduce those movements effectively for the duration of a game.

Endurance is the foundation for all other levels of fitness. The greater your degree of endurance, the longer you can perform at a high level of effort, hopefully right up to the end of the game. To develop endurance, you need to lower the intensity to the surprisingly easy effort zone of 60 to 75 percent maximum heart rate (MHR). For most football athletes, 30 minutes duration, twice weekly, will suffice.

Stamina is the capacity to race back and forth across the field for at least a few minutes of nonstop huffing and puffing. This should not be so difficult that you have to slow down or have to retreat to the bench for a breather. To develop stamina, you need to run several repeats of distances two or three times longer than the length of the field in
the heart rate zone of 75-85 percent maximum heart rate (MHR) with recovery intervals down to 70 percent before starting the next repeat.

Speed can be improved by performing classic wind sprints at maximal effort. In this situation, heart rate response is often delayed and therefore more reliable as a recovery tool than regulating effort. However, rather than the normal practice of running several of these in a row to improve mental toughness through exhaustive levels of fatigue, a full recovery interval should be used to reduce heart rate to less than 60 percent MHR so each repeat can be at full sprint speed. Sprinting all out from a running start over distances less than 50 yards (45.7 m) is ideal for this sort of fitness.

The best workouts to develop power are at a maximal effort that will elicit MHR, with some resistance. Going full speed up stadium steps or short hills for 10-15 seconds with wisely administered, complete, full recoveries to less than 60 percent MHR between efforts works well.

Determining Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

To collect the necessary heart rate data, use a basic running test for MHR.

  1. Put on your heart rate monitor. Find a running track or a small and gradual incline 400-600 meters long.
  2. Do a half-mile to one-mile easy jog as a warm-up.
  3. Perform one lap or one incline run as fast as you can. Check the number on your heart rate monitor at the end.
  4. Take a 2-minute recovery walk or run, and then repeat the run.
  5. Take a 2-minute recovery and repeat the run again. Your heart rate at the end of this third run will be a pretty good indicator of your MHR.

Heart Rate Monitoring And Training In Team Sports

Unfortunately, many coaches and athletes confuse workouts to improve fitness skills with those to improve mental toughness. An old adage of ours is: Anyone can make an athlete tired, but not just anyone can make an athlete better.

Endurance laps around the field often turn into races that athletes hope will impress their coaches. What is often missing in these workouts is individualization
or a specialized fitness focus that gives all athletes the opportunity to improve. The one-size-fits-all philosophy doesn’t work well because some athletes will work very hard while others go into cruise control and achieve little real adaptation.

Individualizing workouts by using heart rate data helps keep skill development sessions from turning into efforts that are much harder than necessary. For example, an off-season program for developing endurance is often implemented by a time trial that requires the athlete to run 2 miles in 16 minutes or less. This simply sabotages the purpose of the workouts in this phase — to build endurance — because this pace may require some athletes to work out at a heart rate much higher than the prescribed 60 to 75 percent MHR. Then either they fail, or they must generate efforts higher than the standards required for the development of endurance, and they don’t achieve the adaptations they need.

Using an individualized fitness test to assess endurance is the best way to classify your fitness level and develop workouts. Having to meet an arbitrary standard, such as running 2 miles in 16 minutes or less, may force you to prematurely work harder than necessary and, in the process, risk injury or burnout. Once you have established a good base of endurance, you can maintain it with just one long jog per week.

Next, you can do interval workouts at running paces designed to elevate your heart rate into a special stamina- development zone of 75 to 85 percent MHR. A workout of running half a lap around the track or field several times (200 meters, six to eight times) with a half-lap jog to recover, two or three times a week, develops the stamina needed to maintain speed after several quick trips back and forth across the field. This skill is what big, heavy football linemen need when they must run the length of the field to block or tackle an opponent.

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The objective of workouts that enhance natural leg speed is not punishment through continuous gassers to the point of nausea. Causing excessive fatigue usually means athletes just cut the session short or end up performing at a much slower level, which does not help accomplish this objective. That is not how speed and confidence are developed.

When you get tired, start to feel sorry for yourself, and then slow down, you have learned the wrong lesson. The point of any and every speed development workout is to run fast, not tired and slow.

The pattern for combining these special, complementary sets of running skills follows the classic hard/easy design. Of course, you must work them into your game schedule. Ideally, you can use easy jogging workouts at endurance maintenance levels of 60-65 percent MHR to fully rest for a game. The day after the game, easy jogging in the 65 to 70 percent MHR zone will aid recovery. The next day, stamina workouts at 75 to 85 percent MHR will fit.

This article was excerpted from Heart Rate Training, 2nd Edition, by Roy T. Benson and Declan Connolly, published by Human Kinetics. This book can be purchased at http://bit.ly/fbheartrate.

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