What you need to know about Heart Rate Monitors

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Suunto Ambit3The big news in the triathlon tech world this fall will be the Suunto Ambit3, which is rethinking the sports watch industry.

One of the coolest features is a heart rate (HR) monitor that works while swimming. Until now there has not been an accurate swim heart rate watch on the market. There are a few out there but their accuracy and dependability is questionable.

The Ambit3 works by collecting and storing HR data in the strap then bulk pushing the data over once you stop or can connect to the watch. You then can see a graph of your heart rate over the course of the interval.

This is a pretty nifty bit of technology, but unlike the watch, I do not think (or at least hope) it is going to completely change the way we train for the swim.

The point of using HR to set perimeters on efforts is to become more efficient in the aerobic zone and therefore burn fat more efficiently and effectively and paradoxically become faster at lower efforts. For long distance swimmers and endurance triathletes this is incredibly important because you do not want to get out of this zone to spare glycogen for later parts of the race.

Unlike biking and running, where you can easily monitor your HR and slow down when it begins to creep up, it is hard to do this while swimming without taking periodic breaks or hanging on to the wall to take your pulse the old fashion way.

The problem there arises with the moment you stop, your HR also drops, making it hard to get an accurate measurement. This watch supposedly fixes that. While it will not give you live data, you can see after your workout what your HR supposedly really was and pair it to your rate of perceived exertion.

My fear with this new technology though is that people will “forget” to listen to their bodies and become entrapped in the numbers. Too many athletes will censor what their body is telling them and go strictly off the numbers on their watch. They could be feeling amazing yet will still hold back because their watch tells them their HR is too high. On the flip side, they could be feeling horrendous with a low HR, but continue to push themselves to the point of injury and frustration to get their HR up.

What I love about swimming is that it has remained “pure” and unspoiled by numbers until now. While I am a fan of numbers and love to track and measure, it can strip away the pleasure of training; swimming is different and does not have all of that (yet). You have to give 100% focus to your body, how it is feeling in the moment, and your form.

You have to gauge your effort and slow down or speed up not because a watch told you too but because you saw that you were breathing too hard or because your form was falling apart.

My hope is that swimming, even with these new found technologies, will continue to allow us to listen and connect with your bodies.