So while I was getting certified as a triathlon coach, I obtained a Polar RS800CX Heart Rate Monitor. It's like a training computer that does all sorts of things (um, too many things??) and I am still in the process of learning all that it does... but thought I'd share a bit about one of the features I think has been the most helpful to me so far.
One of the things you can ask this HR monitor to do is test... it estimates your max HR, your VO2 max, and it tells you if if your training intensities have been appropriate. Um, can I just tell you how nice it is to be able to test my max HR without going to the track and killing myself for 20 minutes? Lol. The fact that I can test my max HR (and therefore determine my training zones) while laying on my bed almost makes the $$$ price tag of this thing worth it.
So the Max HR test is done like this: Set the watch to the 'test' mode, lay on your bed, and relax for 3 minutes. Oh... you've tested your max differently? You went to the track and ran as fast as you could until your felt like you were going to puke? Suckers.
Just kidding. That is an excellent way to figure it out. But this is much easier. :) I found out that my max is in the realm of 190 (without feeling like I might puke). It also estimates your VO2 max during the same relaxing 3 minutes. Apparently it does this by measuring the variability between heart beats... the more variability, the better. Or something like that.
Anyway, I had my VO2 Max measured in a lab about 7 years ago. There was a guy who was testing the whole team of runners I was training with... so I got on the treadmill and had that mask over my face and ran and ran and ran faster faster faster until I thought I was going to die. I do not remember what my score was, but I do remember thinking the guy was full of it b/c he told me that my VO2 Max was 'off the charts'. What? He said it was the highest of anyone in the running group. Which, um, begs the question, "Why am I the slowest one in the group?" I don't remember what his answer was to that, but I did walk out of there with heart rate training zones so at least I had some useful information to work with, even if that VO2 Max score was clearly a bunch of BS.
Fast forward to the present... now I can test my VO2 Max without being hooked up to any face masks and I still find that my score is 'off the charts'. The chart given in the User Manual for this Polar product says that for a woman my age, an 'elite' VO2 max would be <44. Mine repeatedly comes in at 58. A little google searching about what this means and I came up with the fact that my 10K pace should be 5:51. Um, who comes up with this stuff? I have never run a 5:51 mile in my life.
So I'm still calling BS on this VO2 Max stuff.
BUT what I have found helpful is another test this Polar computer does, and that is the Optimizer test. Essentially what this is is a way to evaluate your training intensities and how your body is responding to them. The test tells you to lay down for 3 minutes, during which time the HR monitor measures your resting HR, then it beeps at you and tells you to stand up, where it measures your peak upon standing, then you stand quietly for 3 more minutes and it measures how much and how quickly your HR comes back down. In a 'normal' or 'recovered' state your standing HR would come down and get pretty close to your resting HR. In a 'Training effect' or 'Hard Training' state your resting HR is higher, then it spikes pretty good when you stand, and then only recovers some in the remaining 3 minutes.
OK, so for those of us who like to train and like to train hard (and don't have coaches ourselves to keep us in check!), this test is extremely helpful. For the first 2 weeks you're supposed to test 3-4 times/week so the computer can 'get to know you'. You test after easy days and after hard days and it remembers how your heart responds and what your personal patterns are.
I found it interesting that I was regularly coming in with a score of '2', which meant 'normal state' and that I was not even on the brink of overtraining. Even during that big Bike Week I did where I rode and rode and rode... Polar told me I was still in 'normal state'. I began to wonder what the heck I needed to do to get into a 'Training Effect' state?? Well, after that wicked fast ride we did last weekend, where I was 90%+ of my max for almost an hour straight, I figured surely I must not be in a normal state now... so I did the test and sure enough... My score was 3. "Training Effect" achieved! My resting HR was like 70 and then peaked at 111 when standing and only came back down to 84. Ok, that's not normal. Clearly my heart experienced something traumatic during that ride and needed a little break. Good info to know!
The manual tells you that when you see a 3 you have two choices- you can take your recovery now, or you can continue to train hard for another day or two and then take really good recovery after your hard block is over. If you continually test and come in with elevated heart rates, it'll give you a score of '6' which is 'Hard Training'. This is ok if you are training hard on purpose and trying to get into an 'overloading' state. It suggests very easy training or rest for several days until you get back to a normal state. A score of '7' tells you that you are 'overreaching' and that seriously indicates that you need a full recovery period. '8' indicates 'Sympathetic Overtraining' and '9' indicates 'Parasympathetic Overtraining' where you can't even get your HR up anymore because of a long history of overtraining.
By the way, scores of 4 or 5 indicate that "Your HR has been at a normal level for a long time now. Effective training requires both heavy training and good recovery and this should cause variation in your heart rate results..." Or in other words, Hey lazy one... get off the couch and go out and train, would ya? I can't imagine that I'll ever see a score of 4 or 5. Lol.
Anyway, the great thing for me about having this testing tool is that it has given me new purpose to my recovery days. Those of us who love training hard tend to hate recovery days/weeks. But when there is a tangible goal with the recovery, like make this HR monitor tell me that I am 'normal', recovery days have a whole new purpose. It's also good in other circumstances, like where you might think that you should be tired but the test indicates that you're normal state so it's like a green light to go harder than you might have otherwise in your next training session.
So if your goals are to train as hard as possible while still within your recovery limits, this testing tool is extremely valuable. I'm looking forward to continuing to use it regularly and getting to know myself even better this season. There's a big part of me that wishes I would have had this while training for Ironman last summer/fall. Just to have the information from that period would be awesome- because thanks to a good coach I think I did it right- but I am curious now about how long I actually stayed in a 'hard training' state during those big weeks... Interesting stuff.