Heart Rate Monitors and Swimming

Talk to the swimmer in the lane next to you sometime and ask them what their heart rate is when they’re swimming. Chances are, they have no idea. Why? The next time your coach says to swim the following set of 50’s hard, do you ask, “How hard?”. The next time the coach says to swim the next set of 100’s at 80% effort, exactly how hard is that? What is 80%, 90%, or even 100% effort for that matter?

These are all excellent questions to ask both yourself and your coach next time you hop in the pool. Heart rate monitoring has been a very successful measure of effort or exertion for a very long time. Why,then, aren’t swimmers using their heart rate monitors? Let's look at the following reasons:

  • Myth: Heart rate monitors are too expensive
  • Truth: Heart rate monitors can be purchased for as little as $40
  • Myth: Heart rate monitors are not waterproof
  • Truth: Almost all heart rate monitors are waterproof, with the following recommendation: Do not press the buttons underwater as this may break the waterproof seal.
  • Myth: Heart rate monitors are too hard to program and understand
  • Truth: The Polar FT1 is a perfect example of 'simple to operate'. One button - you are up and running almost immediately.
  • Myth: Heart rate monitors won't work or give inaccurate information in the water
  • Truth: A lot of heart rate monitors will not transmit data to the wrist unit in water. This is do to the frequency of the transmitter and the transmission of the signal through water. 
  • Myth: Heart rate monitors are too expensive
  • Truth: Heart rate monitors can be purchased for as little as $40
  • One's training can be taken to an elite level using the following principles and using a heart rate monitor to measure workouts.

    All of the above principles of training should be applied seasonally as well to provide for maximum benefits. For instance, the early season might consist 100% of aerobic work, building an endurance base.As the base is built, anaerobic threshold work can be added. These workouts are done at 80-90% of maximum heart rate. The purpose of these workouts is to adapt the body to increasingly more difficult workouts. Eventually, time in the anaerobic zone will become a comfortable place to be as the anaerobic threshold moves closer to one’s maximum heart rate. Because of the difficulty sustaining 90-100% maximum heart rate, time spent that zone is limited to just a few minutes with a longer recovery period required. Have you encountered the swimmer who always swims at the same speed? Perhaps you know the swimmer who does everything hard everyday? Maybe you know the opposite swimmer, one who swims everything too easy. Actually, most athletes fit into one of these two categories: they either train too hard all the time or too slow all the time. Proper scheduling of workouts can further increase the athlete's benefit. For instance, it is an inefficient use of time to do a max hr workout when fatigued by the previous day’s workout. Proper recovery is essential so an easy aerobic workout should follow a max workout. This not only aids in improving performance in the max HR zone, but also allows for proper recovery and helps prevent unnecessary injury and/or illness from over training.


    No problem! But, you need to do a test or two knowing the following:

      1. For maximum accuracy, perform a swim max test, which will take you to complete exhaustion (you will feel like puking, if you’ve done it right - but don't overdue it - ask your doctor if you are not sure).
      2. Your maximum heart rate on land (either running or cycling) is the point at which increased effort does not result in an increase in heart rate for one minute.
      3. Only as a last resort, use this common formula: 210 - (.5 x age) – (.05 x body weight) + 4 (men only) = maximum heart rate. This formula assumes that fitness declines with age (not necessarily true).
      4. Your maximum heart rate in the water may be 10-15 beats lower than your heart rate on land due to the cooling effect of the water, buoyancy, gravity, etc.

    Some individuals should consult a doctor before taking a maximum heart rate test. There are a few good “sub-maximum” tests available. Good luck in your training!

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