Welcome to part 2 of my Ultimate Guide to Heart Rate Training series. Part one introduced the heart rate monitor and covered how to use one. This article covers how to TEST and track your conditioning.
How Do You Know Your Conditioning (Fitness) Is Actually Getting Better
The answer is this: unless you are constantly testing and measuring it with quantifiable tests, you don’t.
Tracking Your Conditioning is Extremely Important because it gives you the certainty that all the time and effort you are putting into improving your conditioning is actually working.
Most people never bother to track their conditioning and likely have no real way to gauge if what they are doing is making a real difference or not.
You see, it’s easy enough for someone who’s never done ANY training to see improvements by doing pretty much anything. Run a bit, lift some weights, do a few pad rounds and fitness improves.
The bar is low and the improvements are easy to see.
But if you are an hard-training athlete, it’s not so easy to gauge this.
The good news is that using a heart rate monitor, some easy-to-do tests, and the willingness to track the data over time, anyone competently calculate their conditioning and determine if what they are doing is improving things or not.
Why Does It Matter?
Because to see continual improvements in your conditioning when you are already training hard, you are going to have to track your conditioning so you know exactly what’s going on.
That is, you need to with certitude answer the question ‘Are you getting fitter or not?’
If the data says you are not, then you can use that information to make key changes to your program, then test your conditioning again after a bit of time to see where your stand.
This means you can dynamically tweak your conditioning program until its effective, without wasting time doing things that are not improving your results.
No more guesswork.
No more doing random training exercises and hoping that you won’t gas out during a fight, or sparring, or pad rounds.
Now you can track, test, and optimize until you see real improvements.
Let’s do this.
Calculating Conditioning: The Tests
To help track conditionint, you’ll need to use of a heart rate monitor. See read my post on How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor for the basics on how to use one for conditioning.
I’ve given 6 different types of conditioning tests you can use to determine your level of conditioning. It’s important to use several different tests on a regular basis to give you a good indication whether your conditioning is improving, remaining the same, or decreasing.
There may be normal variations in heart rate feedback (for the same tests you perform) from week to week.
This is why you don’t just want to use ONE single type of test to gauge your conditioning (such as a Resting Heart Rate Test).
But if multiple tests ALL show improvements, you can be sure your conditioning is actually improving.
Resting Heart Rate Test
Resting Heart Rate can tell you a lot about your overall cardiovascular fitness level…and can indicate the level of fatigue building up in your body.
Your RHR can change depending on a number of things, such as your sleep, caffeine, the time of day, and other factors, so it’s best used in conjunction with other tests as a guide, rather than ONLY relying on RHR to measure your conditioning, which may give you inaccurate data.
To reliably use your resting heart rate as a fatigue metric, you need to have some long-term data available to compare your current resting heart rate against.
This means you should track your resting heart rate every day (in the morning when you wake up, preferably).
Over the period of weeks…and months you’ll begin to see some trends emerge which you can use.
Resting Heart Rate Drops (every few weeks or month) = decreased aerobic conditioning
As you become more fit, your RHR should decrease. If you train aerobically, often, your RHR should drop even faster.
The lower your RHR is (provided you are training), the more indication that your stroke volume has improved.
Resting Heart Rate Spikes = fatigued or getting sick
If your resting heart rate suddenly jumps 4-7 bpm higher than normal, it’s a sign your body is fatigued.
I notice that after 3-4 days of hard training, my resting heart rate tends to spike by 3-5 beats — both during my sleep and in the morning. With a day of good rest (no training), my heart rate usually returns to normal.
Your resting heart rate may indicate you are close to or getting sick: if your RHR spikes significantly, it may be a sign you are under the weather. It’s best to take a few days off if this is the case.
These spikes and what they mean will only become clear for you after you start tracking your resting heart rate and correspond the data with how you feel.
Trend: Resting Heart Rate Remains Stables (1-3 bpm variance)
This is a pretty good indication that your body is not stressed or within regular levels of fatigue. It’s a pretty good sign that you should be able to train as per normal.
I usually check my resting heart rate in the morning. If it looks normal (1-3 bpm of what it is normally) AND I don’t feel abnormally sore or tired, I’ll put in a hard day of training. If, the RHR spikes by say 4-7 bpm, it’s a sign I’m overtrained and I’ll usually take a day off or only do some active recovery training.
Recovery Heart Rate Test
Your Heart Rate Recovery (also called Recovery Heart Rate) refers to your heart’s ability to return to a normal heart rate after some level of physical activity and is one of the more useful real-world tests you can use to gauge your conditioning, as it applies to your sports activity.
How to Measure Your Recovery Heart Rate
There are two standard tests: the two-minute test and the 1-minute test. More important is the one minute test since your body has less time to recover.
- Perform an activity at max intensity for 60 seconds and take your heart rate. Rest completely for 60 seconds and take your heart rate again.
- Subtract the heart rate after one minute of rest from the heart rate at the end of the 60-second high-intensity effort to determine your recovery heart rate. For example, if working levels were 175 beats per minute and the one-minute recovery rate was 130, then 45 is the recovery heart rate.
- Repeat this test every 4-6 weeks to track your improvement (higher number means your heart is becoming more efficient).
This is a powerful metric you can use to track your overall fitness and recovery level. Together with your Resting Heart Rate, your Recovery Heart Rate is a valuable tool to track just how ‘fit’ you are.
Conditioning Tip: If you keep a log of your Recovery Heart Rate figures over the course of say a training camp for a fight / or big event, it’s a power tool to tell you exactly how far..or close you are to reaching your level of fighting fitness (if you compare this data to previous Recovery Heart Rate times you have in the past).
Testing Fight Conditioning with Recovery Heart Rate
You can take advantage of the heart rate recovery test to gauge your real world, skill specific conditioning. This works very well as a once a week test when tested against the same activity each week. You should see significant improvements over time.
For fight athletes, tracking your Recovery Heart Rate between rounds is a great way to gauge your fight conditioning for a fight.
For example, you can test your Recovery Heart Rate after every round of sparring or pad work. If your conditioning is on point, you should see your heart rate drop below 140 bpm after each round (sparring, bag, fight round, etc).
A well-conditioning fight athlete’s Recovery Heart Rate should drop at least 40 bmp after 1 minute of rest, even the maximum heart rate is maintained for extended periods of time beforehand.
If your heart rate is far south of 140 beats per minute after 1 minute of rest, it’s a sign that your cardiovascular conditioning needs improvements.
Constant Power Output @ Heart Rate Test
Another gauge is to test your power output at a given heart rate.
Power output simply the amount of work done over an interval of time. The exact measurement depends on the type work activity you are measuring.
For running, power output would be expressed as the distance run over an interval period. For biking, it would be the distance you peddle in a given time. For something like Muay Thai or Boxing, it may how many punches or kicks (at a certain intensity) you can throw per round.
As your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient, your heart rate will decrease given a steady power output. For example, you can run at a steady pace (power output) with a lower heart rate.
What is Your Constant Power Output
This is a gauge that calculates how much real world work you can do for a specific activity WHILE at a specific heart rate (usually 70-80 percent of your max).
You need to perform a power output test on something that can measure your work done.
What This Test Means For Your Conditioning
By tracking your average heart rate over an interval time for a heart rate at a given power output, you can track increases (or decreases) in your body’s energy utilization by comparing how hard your heart is working to produce that same power output over an interval.
A decrease in your heart rate when comparing the same power output means your body is becoming more efficient at producing, transporting, and utilization ATP.
Your heart is working less hard to produce the same amount of work, meaning it’s become more efficient.
This directly translates into more potential ‘power’ or work done over a duration of time.
For example, if you can run a 1.5 mile in 8 minutes at say 170 bpm instead of the same distance at 179bpm, your power ability (work done over time) has increased; your heart works less hard to achieve the same performance.
At a biological level, this means your body has become more efficient at energy utilization — more metabolic energy is produced and utilized by your working muscles.
You can compare this to a car engine: the more efficient a car engine is, the more mileage that car can achieve on a single tank of gas.
In practical terms of your sports performance, this means you increase your work ability over an interval, increasing the upper limit of your maximum sustainable work rate.
The ability to go harder for longer without fatiguing is the key.
Having a lower heart rate at a constant power output is important for fight athletes because this means you can do more ‘work’ during a round without gassing out.
How To Test Your Constant Power Output
- Perform an activity that brings your heart rate to about 75-80 percent of your Max Heart Rate for 3 to 5 minutes at a specific power output. This may or may not be your anaerobic threshold heart rate. For example, run on the treadmill at a set treadmill running speed setting that gets your heart rate to about 75 percent of your max.
- Record your average heart rate for that power output level
- Repeat the same test the next week at the SAME power output as the last week
- Your overall conditioning is improving if your average heart rate over each interval session decreases over the sessions you track.
Here’s a Real Example of How to Do This Test
Set treadmill for running speed of 7.5 miles per hour (or whatever setting puts your heart rate at about 75 to 80 percent of max)
Run for 3 to 5 minutes at that speed while recording your heart rate the entire time (use a heart rate monitor that can track your heart rate for a set duration). Record your average heart rate for the session.
Repeat the exact same test the next week and record your average heart rate over the interval.
Your average heart rate between sessions each week (or whenever you make the comparison) should decrease if conditioning improvements have been made. This means your heart is working less hard for the power output and that’s a sign of better energy utilization by your body.
Running Distance @ Lactic Threshold Rate
Another test, albeit brutal one, is to perform the Lactic Threshold Test (see my previous post on how to do it) on a treadmill and record your distance for the 30-minute duration.
Don’t know what Lactic Threshold (also called Anaerobic Threshold) is? Read about it here.
This test is similar to the Constant Power Output test above, but instead of looking at your average heart rate trend for a given power output setting over multiple sessions, you are instead directly measuring and comparing your running distance at your lactic threshold.
So your measuring actual work done (in this case how much distance you can run) for 30 minutes with some means of measuring that work. To do so, you need some means of recording your power output expressed as distance.
To do so, you need some means of recording your power output expressed as a distance.
- The easiest way is to do this on a treadmill so you can record the exact distance.
- You can also do this on an exercise bike (as long as it can record distance peddled)
- You can also use a GPS running watch which should be able to give you the exact distance you run for that duration (while also giving you your heart rate so you can keep it in the lactic threshold zone).
What This Test Means for Your Conditioning
As your aerobic conditioning improves, your running/riding pace should increase (and therefore the total distance covered during the running period).
How to Do Your Distance at Threshold Test
To make this test work, you’ll already need to know your Lactic Threshold so you can run/ride with your lactic threshold heart rate. You are essentially doing the very same lactic threshold test you originally used to figure out your Lactic Threshold. The only difference being you are keeping track of / recording your distance as well to compare sessions against.
- Run (on a treadmill for best results) or Ride (use an exercise bike with a power meter) for 30 minutes at your lactic threshold heart rate (within 3-5 over/under).
- Wear your heart rate monitor (with a paired chest strap for better accuracy) and keep your heart rate within a +/- 5bpm range of your Lactic Threshold
- When the run/ride is finished, record the total distance achieved during the 30-minute work interval
- Repeat this test every 4 to 6 weeks, comparing your 30-minute distance achieved during the test. As your conditioning/fitness improves, your total distance achieved during the interval should increase because your pace @ the lactic threshold should be increasing
- Note that, depending on your training, your lactic threshold may also increase. So you’ll want to retest your lactic threshold once every 6 weeks and use the new threshold for your test.
- As your fitness improves, your lactic threshold will increase meaning you’ll be able to run/ride at higher intensities for the interval.
- This test is brutal, so we recommend not overdoing it. Once a month or once every 6 weeks should suffice. You can perform this test AS you retest for your Lactic threshold — it’s the same ‘test’ except that you are looking and recording your distance and not just looking at your heart rate.
Conditioning Tip: You can also use your Lactic Threshold Rate Test as a constant power output test IF you perform it on say at treadmill or bike where you can set the power output the same (i.e. the same treadmill running speed) as the previous test. If your Lactic Threshold improves, running at the same heart rate as the previous test for the same time duration should see a DECREASE in your heart rate.
The 1.5 Mile Run Test
This is perhaps the most basic test you can do (called The Cooper’s Test), and it’s a standard, real-world measurement of an athlete’s cardiovascular fitness used by many coaches. The test is highly linked to VO2 max measurements.
How To Do the 1.5 Mile Test
The 1.5 Mile Test works like this: simply go outside and run a 1.5 mile as fast as you possibly can and track the time it takes to complete it.
A good 1.5 mile test time figure to aim for that indicates your overall fitness is on par is to do a mile in 8 or 9 minutes followed by a quick heart rate recovery within 1 minute.
The intense pace of an 8 or 9-minute mile indicates your overall conditioning is strong (good Vo2 max, good power @ lactic threshold) while the rapid recovery heart rate indicates your aerobic system is efficient.
Improved 1.5-mile running times AND improved recovery heart rate measurements are a sure sign that your conditioning is improving.
Here’s a chart for men and women that show how 1.5-mile times compare to fitness categories:
This chart helps put things into perspective for you.
Fight athletes, for example, have to have some of the best conditioning on earth.
This is why you want to make sure you can sustain a very high paced run. Even if you are NOT a runner, your aerobic system should be developed enough to sustain pace. Running a 8-9 minute 1.5 mile means your lactate threshold power output is very high and you can do a great deal of work for minutes on end. To do a 8-9 minute 1.5 mile means you are running at your V02 max and / or slightly past your lactate threshold with a very high, sustainable power output.
Conditioning Tip: You can also track your 1 minute Heart Rate Recovery right after the 1.5 mile run as a secondary conditioning test. Your heart rate should drop below 140 within 1 minute after the run.
Conditioning Tip: You can do this test every week when you are fresh and compare the results from week to week. A good 1.5-mile run is indicative of a strong VO2 max. If you don’t hit the target of 8 to 9 minutes, then VO2 Max training should be emphasized in your training program.
Heart Rate Variability (HVR)
This is one of the more exciting, cutting-edge frontiers of heart rate training. HRV is basically a single number that ties into many different aspects relating to conditioning:
- aerobic fitness
- the level of fatigue
- environmental factors
- the level of sleep
It’s a single number that ties into many elements and can be used to determine at a glance your current state of fitness and recovery — more so than say your Resting Heart Rate or other markers.
As such, used correctly, it’s a very powerful tool that can guide your training and recovery.
What is HRV
Heart Rate Variability is the variation (in time) between each heart beat.
While you can use a heart rate monitor to measure the raw beats per minute, it’s also possible to measure the minute time differences between each heart beat. This is the HRV or the variability between heart beats.
There’s a huge amount of research the past several decades that shows HRV is linked to fitness and the body’s current level of fatigue.
In simple terms, HRV is a single number value that you can use to tell your overal state of conditioning and your level of fatigue.
When it comes to your conditioning, higher HRV numbers are linked to better aerobic system development, better recovery ability, better VO2 max, and other conditioning measurements. SO by improving HRV, you can improve your overall conditioning.
How to Test Your HRV
Most heart rate monitor devices do NOT directly support HRV measurements, so you’ll have to buy a heart rate monitor that supports HRV or use a Heart Rate sensor and a special smartphone app
The popular method now is to use a Heart Rate Sensor, such as the Polar H6, H7, or H10 paired with your smartphone while running an HRV app (such as BioforceHRV or ithlete). You can then record your HRV with a simple 1-2 minute test using the app to read your HRV.
The challenge is to correctly interpret that HRV value in how it corresponds to your conditioning & recovery.
HRV is a one-off a number that’s incredibly useful, at a glance, at showing how fit you are because. But it does more than just this. It’s also useful for tracking your level of fatigue from day to day.
And by guiding your training days based on your HRV (both current and compared to your past week and month readings), you can ascertain how hard or soft you should train on that given day and thus avoid overtraining.
- A lower HRV (less variability of heart beats) indicates higher stress from exercise, psychological factors, or other internal or external factors.
- A higher HRV score means the body has a strong ability to tolerate and recover from stress. A lower HRV score indicates the opposite — the body is under stress and is less able to tolerate it.
The actual HRV number you get will depend a lot on the HRV app you use that gives the number — and each application derives their HRV number via a unique algorithm. So I can’t give you a specific general HRV number here to compare your own results against because it’s meaningless unless we are talking about the HRV scores given by a particular app.
The thing to look for is your HRV score increasing over time which is indicative of your body’s stress handling ability improving as well as various markers of conditioning (improved parasympathetic response, improved aerobic fitness, V02 max increase, etc).
HRV is a complex topic and will get a detailed guide in the future. By it’s my favorite method of testing and tracking my overall fitness right now.
Measuring Real Heart Rate Improvements
Measuring your heart rate will give slight variations from week to week.
Various factors will affect your heart rate measurements and may impact your test, such as:
- sleep quality
- fatigue levels
- caffeine / Alcohol
- training load
- stress levels
So if you are recording a heart rate, how many beats per minute increase or decrease are actually signs of improvements (or reductions) in your conditioning?
Resting Heart Rate Measurement: How to Tell What’s an Improvement
Typically, you’ll see normal variations of 3-4 beats per minute from week to week. Real (and not just normal variation) are +/- 4 beats per minute in your measurements.
This can of course change depending on the circumstance or person. It could be that for you, a 2 bpm change is a sign of improvements. But as a rule of thumb, I look for HR changes of 4bpm or more for a sign.
It’s easier to see big changes over larger chunks of time rather than from day to day or even week to week. That is, you may see a 4-5 bmp change from month to month if you compare results from a previous month. But it may be unlikely you see a 4-5 bmp change if you compare one week to the next.
That is, if you take a heart rate measurement for one of these tests, anything less than a 4 bpm in change from is likely not a sign of anything significant changing and 4 bpm or more in heart rate change between test times is a good indication something is happening.
Heart Rate Improvement Chart Rule of Thumb Guide
-4 bpm for Resting Heart Rate Test, Heart Rate Recovery Test, Constant Power Output Test = Conditioning Improvements
+4 bpm for Resting Heart Rate Test, Heart Rate Recovery Test, Constant Power Output Test = Conditionining Decline OR fatigue problems
-3 to + 3 bmp for Resting Heart Rate Test, Heart Rate Recovery Test, Constant Power Output Test = Normal Variation (maybe improvements or maybe none)
How To Make It All Work for Training
To use these test effectively, it’s important to do them on a regular basis and at the same time (and body position).
Best Time to Test
I recommend you do several tests when you are most recovered during the week. This is for most people, typically a Monday, assuming you’ve had a day or two off from training over the weekend.
You don’t need to do every one of these tests every week (especially the more fatiguing tests), however.
As such, I’ve broken down the tests into monthly, weekly, and daily.
Monthly Tests (every 4 to 6 weeks)
- Lactic Threshold Test
- Running Distance @ Lactic Threshold Rate
- Heart Rate Recovery Test
Weekly Tests (once a week)
- 1.5 Mile Test
- Heart Rate Recovery Test
- Constant Power Output @ Heart Rate Conditioning Test
Daily Tests (every morning on waking)
Best performed from the same position at the same time (when you wake up in the morning while lying in a prone position)
- Resting Heart Rate Test
Recording Your Conditioning Data
All the data in the world means nothing unless you record it so you can compare previous results against. This is why you should log all your data.
Tracking Resting Heart Rate & Conditioning
You’ll want to record your daily Resting Heart Rate, for example, so you can see how much it lowers over time.
There are a number of fitness apps that pair with a heart rate monitor that track your Resting Heart Rate for you, showing graphs (such as the Garmin Connect app which pairs with Garmin Heart Rate devices).
You can also just record the data into a spreadsheet if you want to do things manually.
Gauging Current Fitness with RHR
If you Resting Heart Rate is above a certain threshold, it’s also some good indication that your overall aerobic fitness, stamina, and recovery will improve significantly if you bring it under a certain level.
Typically, the more aerobic your sport is, the lower an RHR you’ll want to achieve to indicate a performance increase on your part. Long distance runners, for example, often have RHR’s between the thirties and forties.
Long distance runners, for example, often have RHR’s between the thirties and forties. Fighters typically want a Resting Heart Rate in the high 40’s to low 50’s. Power athletes may have RHR in the 60’s or 70’s.
For a sport like Muay Thai, boxing, or MMA, a RHR above 60 and it’s a good indication that you’ll see significant conditioning improvements by lowering your RHR (a sign your aerobic base is weak) below this. Boxing with the heavy emphasis on long endurance (10-12 rounds) and strong aerobic component will probably want an RHR in the low 40’s.
Long Term RHR Trend
The important thing to note with Resting Heart Rate is the long-term trend; is your RHR going up or down, or staying the same? If your conditioning is improving, you should see 3-4 bpm drops every month.
Short Term RHR Trend
Any sudden increases can indicate you are fatigued or getting sick.
Heart Rate Recovery & Conditioning
You’ll want to keep track of your weekly HRR — it’s a good sign of how well functioning your aerobic system is operating.
A sign that your conditioning is on par is to have your Heart Rate Recover drop below 140 bpm within 60 seconds, regardless of how high your heart rate reaches during an activity. If it’s taking longer than 60 seconds for your Heart Rate to drop below 140 bpm, then your aerobic system needs more work.
You can also track, over many repeat intervals, exactly how long it takes your heart rate to drop. For example, in later rounds (say 12 rounds of sparring), your HRR will be slower compared to the early rounds. You can use this to test your conditioning and stamina over LONG periods. For example, preparing for a 10-12 round boxing fight.
You can use this to test your conditioning and stamina over LONG periods. For example, preparing for a 10-12 round boxing fight.
It’s important that you do record your Heart Rate recovery for the same activity to use as a benchmark you can use to compare against in the future. For example, if you have prepared for a Muay Thai fight and are in fight shape, then measure your heart rate recovery after each of a 5×3 minute pad round (or 5x 3 minutes of sparring). You can use these exact (or similar) HRR times to indicate when you have reached fight fitness in the future.
For example, if you have prepared for a Muay Thai fight and are in fight shape, then measure your heart rate recovery after each of a 5×3 minute pad round (or 5x 3 minutes of sparring). You can use these exact (or similar) HRR times to indicate when you have reached fight fitness in the future.
Lactic Threshold & Conditioning
This is one of my most hated tests — it’s brutal because of the relentless pace you have to run to keep your heart rate lactic threshold for long periods of time. However, it’s an excellent indication of your maximum sustainable power output over 5, 10, or 12 rounds of a fight.
Improving your lactic threshold (and being able to test it to make sure it IS improving) is a sure way to increase your work rate during a fight without fatiguing. But to get there, you have to put in the work, with the work requiring you to train at or near your lactic threshold for long periods of time.
Constant Power Output & Conditioning
This is a good test to gauge how efficient your heart is for a specific level of power. Unlike the lactic threshold test, you are not quite bringing your heart rate up to the limits of your lactic threshold (80-90 percent of max heart rate), but it’s a good way to see if your heart efficiency is improving.
I recommend recording the data every week. Your heart rate should decrease for the same power output between tests.
The Final Word
This article gives you the keys to testing and monitoring your conditioning. Without tracking your conditioning, you have no idea if you are actually really improving your fitness or not.
The Key to Making Heart Rate Training Effective: Tracking, Testing, and Optimizing
Heart Rate Monitors are just a tool for some guided feedback.
Just ‘using’ a heart rate monitor by itself won’t improve your conditioning. You need to track your performance data and actually USE that data to guide your training.
To see continual improvements in your conditioning you’ll need to:
- Track your heart rate data over time
- Utilize that heart rate data effectively to guide your training
- Regularly Test Your Conditioning and Modify Your Training based on the results
Using these simple but highly effective tests, you take the guesswork out of your conditioning.
It’s important that you don’t just use ONE test to calculate your fitness. You’ll want to use multiple test (Resting Heart Rate, Heart Rate Recovery, Constant Power Test, 1.5 Mile Test, etc) to gauge things. If you see heart rate improvements on the numbers given by different tests, it’s a very very good indication that your conditioning is going in the right direction.
If not, you at least know something has gone awry and can go back and modify it, then retest till you see improvements.
Now that you know how to use a heart rate monitor and how to track & test your conditioning, we’ll start covering the actual heart rate training protocols you can use to improve types of conditioning.