Spartan Training: Get Spartan Fit With This One Simple Device

By: Jeff Godin Ph.D., CSCS, SGX

I know, I know.

Spartans are supposed to be minimalists, and one of the benefits of Spartan training is you can workout anywhere with little to no equipment. Still, I love my heart-rate monitor. Having used one consistently for almost 25 years, I feel naked when I go without it. At first, I just wanted to see how high I could get my heart rate during different exercises. But in time, it became more of a tool than a toy.

It is true that heart-rate training can help ensure you get the workout results you want. If you have selected an intensive endurance workout, for example, by tracking your heart rate, you can be sure you train at the appropriate pace to get the desired benefit. Other advantages of tracking and using this data: You can see whether or not your fitness level is improving over time and ensure you do not overtrain.

Here is how you can turn any workout into a heart-rate training workout, and ensure you are ready for your next obstacle race.

Tracking the Intensity of Your Spartan Training

Using a heart-rate monitor to track training intensity works in two exercise situations: (1) in constant-duration exercises such as running, cycling or snowshoeing, and (2) for circuit training, where there are short rest intervals interspersed between some type of body weight or resistance exercise.

Simply knowing your heart rate while exercising is not enough though. That is just a number. Your exercising heart rate depends on your age, fitness level, and even your genetics. A heart rate of 140 beats per minute (bpm) may be easy for one person but moderate for another.

To use your heart rate effectively, first you first need to find your maximum heart rate (MHR). A qualified exercise physiologist can test this for you in a lab with a graded exercise test. I have done a few hundred of these tests on athletes myself. No other test is more accurate or informative, but it can be expensive.

A cheaper option is to estimate your MHR using a standardized formula, such as 220 minus your age. Usually, this formula works okay, but for some individuals, it can be way off. A person’s true MHR can typically lie as far as 12 bpm above or below the estimate. This is important because exercising too high above the true MHR can lead to overtraining, and exercising too far below it can prevent a person from reaching his or her fitness goals.

For a better measurement, do the following:

  1. Find a track or a small hill that goes for at least a quarter-mile.
  2. Put on your heart-rate monitor.
  3. Warm up at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes, and gradually bring your heart rate up to 75 percent of your age-predicted maximum (from the above formula).
  4. Run one lap on the track as fast as possible. Record your heart rate just as you finish.
  5. Jog or walk easy for 3 minutes to recover.
  6. Run a second lap as fast as possible, and record your heart rate.
  7. Recover for 3 minutes.
  8. Run a third lap as fast as possible. By now you should have achieved your maximal heart rate.

The disadvantage of this test is that it requires maximal effort. This may not be safe for everyone, especially those who have a history of cardiovascular disease. Consult a doctor before trying it out.

Once you know your MHR, you can calculate your training zones. Below is a table that describes them, the energy systems they emphasize, and the benefit of training in each zone. Make a copy of this table and write your personal heart-rate ranges into the “Percent Max Heart Rate” column.

Beginners should focus their workouts in Zone 1. After training in that zone for about 4 weeks, move to higher-intensity workouts, such as those in Zones 3 and 4. Come race day, you can use this table to pace yourself, and avoid starting out like a bat out of hell only to crawl over the finish line gasping for air, what I call that the “fly and die” approach. Let your heart rate dictate your speed. The shorter the Spartan Race distance, the higher the tolerable heart rate. For a Spartan Beast, Zone 1 is best. For a Spartan Sprint, aim for Zone 3.

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Monitor Progress of Your Spartan Training

How do you know whether your fitness is improving over time? Monitor your heart rate while performing a standardized workout “before” and “after” training for a few months.

For example, I would know that my fitness had changed if I were able to run a 5K course at the same pace with a lower heart rate, or faster at the same heart rate. However, if I run faster with a higher heart rate, it just means I pushed harder—not necessarily a sign of physical improvement.

Monitor Recovery from Your Spartan Training

Using resting heart rate, you can also see for signs of overtraining or excessive stress.

The number of times the heart beats per minute at rest is termed Resting Heart Rate (RHR). Typically, RHR is measured first thing in the morning after waking up. A normal RHR may range from 60 to 100 bpm. Factors such as stress, illness, heat and body position all affect resting heart rate. People who regularly exercise typically have RHR values lower than those who are sedentary. It is not unusual for a well-trained endurance athlete to have a resting heart rate under 50 bpm. Add your RHR to your Spartan SGX Heart-rate Training data.

Monitoring your resting heart rate over time can tell you a lot about your state of recovery. For example, if your normal, stable resting heart rate is 50 bpm, and one morning your RHR is 57 bpm, if all other things are constant (temperature, altitude, time since last meal), then that elevated resting heart rate may be an indicator of increased stress. This may mean you should take a recovery day. Similarly, a suddenly low resting heart rate may be a sign of overtraining. The tricky part is knowing what is normal and knowing whether all other things were kept constant. My rule of thumb: If a wacky RHR correlates with feelings of fatigue, unusually high perceived exertion, and low performance, take a day off.

What Next?

Clearly, Spartan training with a heart-rate monitor can enhance your exercise efficiency. If you do not own a device, buy one. At a minimum, it should measure your heart rate, keep time, and provide an average heart rate at the end of the workout. Some watches, such as the TomTom Spark GPS Fitness Watch or TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio GPS Watch, include GPS features to track distance and speed data that can be downloaded for deeper analysis to support your workout regimen.

Need help with heart-rate training? Hire a Spartan SGX-certified coach.

Dr. Jeff Godin is Spartan’s Head of Fitness Education and an Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science, Fitchburg State University.