Start Heart-Rate Training Now: 8 Test You Can Do Yourself

Wind tunnel studies on Lance Armstrong are fascinating, but few of us can afford the luxuries of expensive performance testing. A VO2max Test (maximal aerobic capacity) can run you as high as $400. This information is only valuable when compared over a season of training and from year to year. Needless to say, the expenses add up. There are, however, many field tests you can make use of without sacrificing income.

Before implementing performance testing into your training, ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the test provide information that will improve the quality of my training or make me faster?
  • Am I training for fitness or for athletic competitions?

The overriding concept to answer these questions is ‘specificity of training and racing.’ The field tests you perform should provide information that directly contributes to making you a better athlete. Triathlon Coach, Joe Friel, asks his athletes this question: “Are you exercising or are you training?” Whether you’re an age grouper or Olympic contender, to race fast, athletes training for races require a systematic approach to the components of frequency, intensity, exercise type, and duration (time) – the FITT principal, with attention to weekly/monthly/annual volume (hours or mileage). By varying these training elements, you’ll be able to progressively overload your body and enhance your performance.

Heart rate training is fundamental to success. Purchase a Polar Heart Rate Monitor (or similar brand). Depending upon your training, you may want to get a water resistant model so that you can swim with it. Many have storage/memory capacity as well. This feature will allow you techies to download heart rate data onto your computer and graph it. Heart rate training provides invaluable feedback on how your body is adapting and, importantly, also allows you to know when to back off. By making use of the protocols below, you’ll be able to design a training program that’s right for you (see Training Program side bar).

Intensity can be roughly determined by determining your maximal heart rate (HRmax) – for men, (220-Age), and for women (225-Age). Better yet, go to the gym and crank out the following protocol on a treadmill-do an easy jog for three minutes at 0% grade (no hill) two-minutes at a pace where you can still talk (moderate intensity), and gradually increase the percent grade or hill by 2% until you’re spent (be sure to have a training buddy next to you to slow the treadmill down and bring it back to a flat grade). Immediately take a 10-second pulse and multiply it by 6 to determine your HRmax. You can then calculate your relative training intensities by multiplying this value by .65 and .85 to give you your HR training zone (e.g. HRmax is 180 x .65=117; 180 x .85=153).

A more accurate determination of your training zone uses the Karvonen method. For this, you need to determine your resting heart rate (RHR); that’s best done immediately upon awakening. Use the formula: HRmax – RHR x %HRmax  + RHR. For example, using HRmax of 180 and RHR of 50: 180 – 50 = 130 x .75 = 97 +50 = 147 bpm for a relative training intensity of 75%.

Yet another method of training intensity makes use of the Borg Scale of Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This subjective scale of exercise fatigue was designed in the 1960s by a Swedish exercise physiologist who correlated subjective feelings of exercise fatigue with actual physiological stress indicators such as heart rate and oxygen consumption (see Borg Scale side bar).

To get started with your periodic performance testing, a diary or log of information/data gathered is essential. I’d recommend using an MS Excel spreadsheet as it enables you to input variables, such as mileage/volume of training, race times and pace, as well as physiological data such as VO2max and your Anaerobic Threshold (AT see below). If you travel a lot, even without a laptop computer, you can store all of you Excel sports performance data in your email and access it remotely at Internet Cafes. For low-tech hard copy versions of diaries or training logs, purchase a hardcover laboratory notebook with graph paper to construct graphs of all you important data.

Following is a summary of low-tech training options.




1.5-Mile Track Run: Locate a 400-meter track, get in a good warm-up and have a training buddy time you for six laps. For an adult, ‘very poor’ results would be 19:09 minutes (VO2max = 23 ml-O2/kg/min) and “superior’ results would be 9:07 minutes (52 ml-O2/kg/min).

The Cooper 12-minute Running Test: This requires you to run as far as you can on a 400-meter track. Place a cone or marker at each 100-meter points on the track and round off to the nearest 100-meters when your 12-minutes is up. ‘Very poor’ results for men and women would be 0.96-miles (12:30 minutes per mile) and ‘superior’ results 1.75-miles (6:51 minutes per mile).

You can access these normative values for the 1.5-mile and 12-minute track running tests at The Cooper Institute of Dallas, Texas. Available at:

Velocity at VO2max (vVO2max) Test: Warm up on a treadmill for 10 – 15 minutes, then increase your treadmill speed/velocity to a point which you can sustain for 5 – 6 minutes. This is referred to as your maximal aerobic speed (MAS), the speed at which you reach your VO2max. You should take a 10-count pulse, as well as record your RPE at the end of the test. As you adapt to the stress of training, your MAS should increase, i.e., your velocity at VO2max will improve.




Lance Armstrong and his coaches, Chris Carmichael and Johan Bruyneel, popularized the importance of leg power (wattage output) in cycling performance. Two of the key strength factors are peak power output (PPO), which is the highest power in watts you can generate within a six to 30-second time period. Lance’s PPO was well over 1000-watts, but what’s really amazing was his ability to sustain high wattage out, referred to as mean power output (MPO), of over 400 watts at 83% of his VO2max. In relative terms, Lance’s strength to weight ratio improved significantly over the course of his seven Tour championships. This translated into an 18% improvement in efficiency and power output.

Following are a few field tests to quantify your fitness and performance status:

INdoor Bike: There are numerous user-friendly aerobic bikes that can provide you with valuable data on your cycling performance, as they’re common in most fitness centers. These include: Lifespan, Schwinn, Lifecycle, Star Trac, Nautilus, and to a lesser extent more sophisticated ergometers such as Tunturi and Monark. All of them have digital computers that quantify cadence, speed, resistance (workloads from 1 – 16, etc.), and peak and average power output. For PPO try this test: get a good 15-minute warm-up in and then set your resistance as high as it can go while still maintaining a high rpm (>85 rpm). Your resistance on indoor bikes can range from 1 level to level 20. So, let’s pick level 15 and go for 10-seconds of all-out effort! Your PPO score was 400-watts! Do an easy 3-minute spin at a much lower level and in another seven minutes try the same test again. Repeat PPO test two to three times for an average PPO.

Now for an average power output (APO) over time do the following test: Get a 10-15 minute warm-up in, then establish your resistance level and cadence for a 10-mile indoor time trial (TT10-indoor). At the end of the TT10 press the button that displays APO. If you increase your cadence, but keep everything the same, then your APO will improve over time. Record your post TT10 pulse (10-second count) and your RPE and keep track of these numbers as your training proceeds.

10-Mile Time Trial (TT-10): Choose a 10-mile cycling course that’s relatively flat under the same climate conditions at an established time of day. Repeat the standardized TT-10 every three to four weeks. Select a gear ratio so that you can maintain your normal cadence/revolutions per minute (rpm). If you’re cadence slows down, then adjust to a lower (easier) gear ratio (e.g. a triathlete might select a high gear of 52-inch front chain ring and a rear cog of 18-inches; if their cadence slows, they’d switch to a lower gearing of a 52-inch front chain ring and a 20-inch rear cog). If, for example, you can maintain 90 rpms using a 52/18-inch for TT-10, then you should gradually be able to produce more power over time by maintaining your front chain ring at 52-inch and lowering your rear cog to 16-inch. What this translates into is more power output (wattage), as well as more ground covered per pedal revolution [(go to Click on Information on the right-hand side bar then click on gear calculator. Click on the variables cadence, gear/inches, speed (mph), and rollout (feet). With a gear ratio of 52/18-inch on 26-inch wheels, your roll-out would be 19.7-feet at 20.1 mph. Now, let’s see what happens when you increase just the cadence/rpms: Your speed increases to 21.2 mph without the added stress of mashing heavier or lower gears!)]. Take your 10-second pulse immediately after the time trail, as well as your RPE score (another great website to calculate cycling performance is This webpage enables you calculate your average/mean power output (watts) over a 10-mile time trial)]. Graph these data over a period of months to observe trends in physiological adaptation.




The Concept II Rowing Ergometer will display 500-meter splits, as well as average/mean (APO) and peak power output (PPO). Follow the same instructions as in the indoor bike (get a good warm-up and perform two to three 10 second sprints to acquire your PPO). The standard test for competitive rowers is either a 2000-meter (2K) or 10,000-meter (10K) erg test. For the 2K Erg test get in a good 15 minute warm-up, set your damper/resistance setting between 3 – 5, then from the start, hold your stroke rate for the first 30 seconds at 45 strokes per minute (spm) and then back off and hold at 35 spm. When you’ve got about 500 meters to go, pick up your spm for a power surge on home! Record post-exercise pulse, RPE, 500 splits, total 2000-meter time, and APO. Don’t forget to record data in your training logbook [(an excellent online resource for comparing your numbers with the U.S. National Team oarsmen (men and women) is at Dr. Stephen Seilers’ website, Masters Athlete Physiology and Performance (MAPP). Available at:].




Your goal is to increase your speed over time. Speed in swimming is a function of endurance adaptation, efficient stroke mechanics and power output. In endurance events, such as open water swimming and triathlons, cardiovascular endurance, as well as stroke efficiency are key. Power output, on the other hand, becomes more of an important factor in pool competitions than in open water events. To improve efficiency try 3 X 300 meter/yard swims at 65%, 75% and 85% of your HRmax. Your heart rate intensities in the water, however, may be a bit lower than while running or cycling. Count your strokes per length (sps or stroke frequency) and divide by either meters or yards to obtain your distance per stroke (dps). If you can maintain the same dps, but still swim faster, this means that your APO has increased. For example, if you can hold a sps of 14 at 65% HRmax (equivalent to a 4:30 minute 300 yard swim), then your dps = 1.78-yards per stroke. Dropping your sps down to 12 would give you a dps of 2.08 yards per stroke. Push your distance up to 3 X 500 yard/meter intervals and see what stroke frequency and dps are most comfortable for you (an informative website on the science of swimming can be found at United States Masters Swimming. Available at:




There are sophisticated ways to calculate your AT. These include lactate testing, as well as assessment of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. However, you may be able to obtain your AT by running a 10-mile competition, or a 25-mile bike (40K) time trial. These distances are long enough to bring your pace (hence intensity) down around your AT. In shorter distances, such as a 5K or 10K run, or 10-mile TT, your physiology will surpass your AT zone quite frequently throughout the competition. You can correlate your pace with heart rate, RPE, as well as the sensation for breathing which reflects the transition from strictly aerobic to aerobic/anaerobic state. One of the signs of approaching or surpassing your AT, or what’s called the ventilatory threshold (Tvent), is a sensation of increased breathing frequency (fb), or breathes taken per minute. Try to count your breathing frequency during a race and see how it compares to a leisurely workout. If you know the running pace or cycling speed at which you begin to experience labored breathing, then you’re able to derive a rough estimate of what your AT or Tvent is at a given race pace (to figure out running pace go to and click on Resources at the top of the webpage and then click on Calculators to access the Pace Calculator).




One of the biggest concerns with exercise training is becoming “over-trained,” sometimes referred to as “burn-out.” If you’re always tired or lack your typical motivation for training, you may have pushed your system too hard and need to back off. The standard test has you taking your morning/resting pulse. A more sensitive measure, however, has you doing the following: upon awakening, lie in bed for 10 minutes and then take your 60-second pulse. Then immediately stand up and take your pulse (10-sec count or Heart Rate Monitor) at 15 seconds, 1.5 minutes and 2 minutes. Compare your immediate 15-second standing pulse with the average of the two 1.5 and 2 minute pulses. In a well-trained state, your resting pulse might be 50 bpm, at 15 seconds 85 bpm, and the average at 1.5 – 2 minutes drop down to 75 bpm. The over-trained athlete, however, would see an elevation of the standing pulse at 1.5 – 2 minutes of greater than 10 bpm over weeks to months.

Another way to see if you’re overtrained is to do a sub-max 1-mile track run at your 10K race pace. It’s not all-out, yet it isn’t real easy either. Perform this test on a 400-meter track and immediately record your 10-second pulse and RPE score. A rested athlete might have an exercise pulse of 150 bpm and an RPE of 13 (somewhat hard), and then three months later, after hard training or multiple competitions, become fatigued with a pulse of 165 bpm and RPE of 17 (very hard). Conversely, if over time their heart rate drops, this is a sign of positive or beneficial training adaptations; either the athlete is rested, or he/she is adapting quite well to the training. A similar test protocol can be executed on a stationary bike or rowing ergometer: a sub-maximal (moderate intensity) 5-mile bike time trail or a 2000-meter erg test obtaining immediate post-exercise pulse and RPE.

So you can see that you don’t have to spend big dollars to improve your performance. Pick up a heart rate monitor, take some time to get an idea of how your body’s responding to your training, and get out there and enjoy the feeling of knowing that your workouts are making a difference in your performance. //

Don Winant holds a Masters of Exercise Physiology from the Ball State University Human Performance Laboratory, Muncie, Indiana, and is trained by the United States Air Force as an Aerospace Physiologist. Don has trained and competed in swimming and triathlon in national/international competitions sine the age of 13.

Additional Info: Muscle Fiber Testing: (Dr. Hatfield) and (Dr. Poloquin).

General Health and Fitness Test Batteries: For off-season testing, or for general fitness purposes, I suggest the website, for a battery of fitness test calculators, including the 12-minute Cooper Run, 1.5-mile run and the YMCA Fitness Battery (push-ups, 1-repetition maximum (1RM), sit-ups, bench press, sit-n-reach, the Monark cycle ergometer aerobic capacity test, and body composition).

At the YMCA of the Inland Empire,, Phone: (509) 838-3577, you can purchase the fitness battery for dirt-cheap: $40 members/$55 nonmembers, body composition ($10 members/$15 nonmembers).

For kids of all ages, use to access a battery of tests including curl-ups (abdominal), 10-yard shuttle run, 1-mile walk or run, pull-ups, and the sit-n-reach for assessing range of motion.

If you’re exceptionally fit and motivated, or enjoy sustained periods of intense fatigue and pain, seek out the U.S. Air Forces’ special operations website (for Para-Rescue Teams and Combat Rescue Officers) at and click on the Physical Ability and Stamina Test (PAST) on the left-hand column of the webpage. You can spend a few hours testing yourself against Spec-Ops (Special Operations) personnel performing a battery of fitness feats.

Advanced Testing (Field and Laboratory): For more sophisticated sports performance testing visit the Metabolic Institute of Spokane at, Phone: 747-7066, as well as elite/national team cyclists (road/mountain bike) who offer physiological field-testing (i.e., on your own bike!) are Marla and Michael Emde:, Phone: (509) 326-6983. I endorse their coaching and testing abilities.

To calculate your body mass index (BMI), a rough indicator of healthful and unhealthful body weight, go to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia  ( and type BMI into the CDC search engine.

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