Seems everybody is talking about heart rate monitors and training with gadgets (or not, as the case may be) these days... everybody has their own opinions I know... but I thought I'd throw my 2 cents out there as well. I've actually been contemplating a post like this for a while and now I'm finally getting to it. :)
I've been around this sport for a long time and I've seen the pendulum swing a couple times. And I'll be honest, I swing with it sometimes.
I started as a newbie triathlete when I was 20 years old (YES! I wasn't even old enough to legally drink a beer after my first race). Those were the good old days, I tell ya. When we knew nothing about training or fueling or technology... none of it. I would eat a banana and then just go as hard as I could for as long as I could without worrying about pace or bonking or having fear of working too hard or going too easy. And you know what? I wasn't that slow back then. I did a lot of races without any real plans, had a ton of fun, and usually felt rather satisfied with myself afterward.
It's good sometimes to be completely naive.
A few years later I got a heart rate monitor and a running coach... I read some books on training and decided to get more 'serious'. I had to slow my training runs way the heck down to stay in the right 'zone'. I had to choose between riding with my friends and riding in my zone, because let's face it, you can rarely do both when you're with a group of competitive athletes. I can say that I did improve during those years- eventually I didn't have to walk on my long runs anymore to keep my HR down, and my pace at HR 170 got a lot faster (yes, I have a hummingbird heart that beats very fast), so clearly I was becoming more efficient. The HR training was working.
But you know what? I hated it.
I felt like a slave to this machine all the time and I swear it took all the joy out of my training when I had to let myself get dropped from a group ride so my heart rate wouldn't hit the roof. Training alone all the time so I could stay in my zones was the pits. I remember specifically making a decision that even if it meant I wouldn't reach my full potential, I wasn't going to use that damn HR monitor anymore because I just wanted to train with my friends and have fun and not worry about all the data.
So I threw away my heart rate monitor. I trained however I felt, went hard when I felt like it and easy when I felt like it. And I still had decent races.
I've gone through that swing a couple times and have now settled in a pretty comfortable place where I see the usefulness of the data tools but I am not a slave to them. I think now I've got more maturity as an athlete than I've ever had before, so I can look at data (pace, HR, and power- coming soon!) and understand it for its usefulness but not get so wrapped up in it that it ruins the rest of my day if I don't hit xx pace or xx bpm. I know that there are some days where I just feel great and other days where I just feel bad and that's the nature of our sport. I understand that my HR responds differently when I am well rested vs when I am at the end of a hard block of training.
Currently, I do use a HR monitor a lot of the time while running and riding. (And when I get my power meter I'll use that a lot too!) But honestly, the purpose of it for me now is mostly to keep myself in check. As I get older (and wiser?) I understand and appreciate the need to let my body recover and just go easy sometimes. So mostly I use the tool to make sure I'm not going too hard on my easy days, which allows me to recover and go really hard on my hard days. Sometimes I wear the monitor on my hard days just because I get a kick out of seeing what my HR is when I'm going that hard. That said, I typically leave my HR monitor at home when I go to the track- because at the track, I don't care what my heart rate is. I care what my pace is. And I work as hard as I need to to hit that pace. Additionally, I will not race with a heart rate monitor. Shoot, I don't even race with a watch! I race completely by feel, so it's important for me sometimes in training to go by feel as well so I don't feel lost while I'm racing.
I know that different athletes are different and some are gadget geeks and couldn't imagine for a second going for a training run without their garmin or a race without their watch. And others want nothing to do with that and always train by feel. Personally, I think that most newbie athletes would benefit from using a heart rate monitor for at least a year because it's a tool that really helps you get to know and understand yourself and your training. Zone 1 is really really easy. But that can also be very subjective. I have training partners who think they're going 'easy' but I swear that if we strapped a heart rate monitor on them we'd find out for sure that their sense of 'easy' is way off. Data can really be useful in these situations. That said, once you really truly know yourself, training by feel is great. It's liberating. But I think you have to have a good bit of experience and maturity to train appropriately when it's all by feel.
I'll leave you with this last example. I'm a swimmer by background. I think maybe once I strapped on a HR monitor while swimming just because I was curious about what it was, but that is certainly not the norm. But of course I time everything I do in the pool, and after years and years of swimming and paying attention to effort level and pace, I've got it pretty much nailed down now. This morning was a hard workout in the water. By the time we got around to the last set of 5 x 100's descend 1-5, I was feeling like I might puke from the effort on the 200's and my toes had been numb since the last 300. But nonetheless, it was time to descend these 5 x 100's. I felt thrashed. But I know pace by feel and descended all 5 of those 100's by a second or two each time. That is something I've been working on with my athletes as well- descending pace- which forces them to pay attention to pace and effort. Most find this incredibly frustrating at first because if you've never paid attention before, it's nearly impossible to do. But once you start paying attention, you get the feel.
So start paying attention. And if you're using pace or power or heart rate to learn that, great! If you've been there, done that, and can differentiate easy from moderate from hard by feel, and can feel the difference between 7:00 pace and 7:20 pace, awesome! But the trick, data tools or not, is to pay attention.