Chrissie W on training philosophies

Four-time Ironman world champ shares her thoughts on whether it's better to train with heart-rate monitors or by cadence, and why she's a 'back to basics' person

Training by heart-rate monitor

Choosing a training philosophy and supporting gadgets is highly individual. I’m a ‘back to basics’ person: winning my first Ironman on a road bike with regular wheels, no aero helmet, HR monitor or power meter.


I used ‘pace’ to guide my training, especially for the swim and run (GPS watch), but my general motto is ‘keep it simple’. Others disagree and worship data deities. I think the answer lies in between being ‘technologically naked’ and being a slave to every gadget.

Let’s first consider heart rate (HR) and the limitations. On a rollercoaster your HR will climb near its max. Are you working flat-out? No, it’s just that your sympathetic nervous system is highly stimulated. And the same goes for a race. HR is affected by factors besides exercise intensity, such as diet, stress, clothing, hydration, external temp, wind direction… Monitors cannot perceive and internalise these factors.

Additionally, such monitors use formulas to calculate ‘zones’ – but they’re very generic and lack individual specificity. And it’s pointless using HR in sessions with dramatic increases/decreases in intensity (short intervals) due to the substantial cardiac lag, meaning the numbers may not reflect what your heart is actually doing.

Setting pre-determined HR targets could also hinder: encouraging either conservatism or over-exertion. This is because you’re a slave to the number, rather than being able to intuitively read your body and respond to its signals and external/internal conditions.

Trust the mind

I know what easy/steady/race pace/all-out feel like because those sensations are engrained into every fibre of my being. I don’t need a monitor to indicate that I’m on race pace or if I’m tired. I just know, because I’ve invested time training the best (and cheapest!) computer of all: the mind.

Training and racing is about coping with highs and lows: you against the elements, your ability to respond to the voices in your head and react to the unknown. No single gadget can do this. No lab tests or glitzy monitors can tell you to keep pushing when you just want to quit. Yes it takes practice and effort, but it’s also incredibly liberating to rely on this ‘perceived exertion’, to trust in that intuitive ‘brain-body’ connection and ability to self-regulate rather than blindly worship a gadget/number.

The pros of HR monitors are that they can help guide intensity. As a newcomer, it may be hard to differentiate between easy/steady/race pace and all-out, so different HR zones may help in exploring and exerting control over effort.  Such monitors can also provide positive reinforcement, as you know you’ve ticked the ‘intensity’ box. You can also set targets for how quickly your HR recovers and see if you can hit the same/faster times (also requires a measure of pace) but at a lower HR. Coaches also like such tools because they provide quantifiable feedback and can help hold you accountable.

Cadence (or RPM) can be measured as swim stroke rate, cycling revolutions per minute and run stride rate and length. No need for gadgets, just an ability to count. There are rough ranges to aim for, but ultimately our ‘natural cadence’ is very individual. As triathletes it’s no use copying what swimmers, cyclists or runners do: they don’t combine three disciplines.

For swimming, long strokes are not necessarily suitable in open water (given the disruption from waves/turbulence), so I’d aim for shorter strokes, with a strong, fast catch and a forceful finish at your hip. Aim for 80-90rpm for race-pace biking, although I’d do strength/hill work where your RPM is much lower. And increasing stride rate
and reducing stride length can improve your running efficiency and speed.

I don’t think it’s a question of HR versus cadence. If anything, I would explore the use of pace, using a swim clock, basic bike computer and perhaps a GPS watch. But ultimately, over-reliance on any data and gadgets can be physically and psychologically problematic, and nothing replaces the use of ‘feel’, of listening to the signals our bodies are sending us. It then becomes a matter of picking which tools help amplify these messages and avoiding those that may suppress them.

So, my suggestion would be to do at least one session of SBR per week without a computer/watch. And when you do use them, record how you feel in relation to different numbers; guess what pace you’re doing without looking at the computer and develop your intuitive perception of effort. That way you’ll train the most valuable, and free, gadget of all – your mind.

(Main image: Jonny Gawler)


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