Gone are the days of activity trackers keeping a tab on our step count and little else. Nowadays, devices like the Fitbit Ionic are packed with cutting-edge sensors and smarter algorithms, which means they can collect more data about you and your fitness than ever before.
I'm Becca Caddy, and I'm on a mission to get fitter using heart rate - with the help of the Fitbit Ionic.
One of the things that the Fitbit Ionic does particularly well is track heart rate – and that's what this new fitness challenge diary is all about.
I'm going to be testing out the Ionic, especially its heart rate tracking smarts, and will use it to track my progress through a series of fitness challenges and classes. As someone who struggles to find the time to work out in a busy schedule, I'm looking to discover how heart rate data can help me get more from my sessions.
Checking in with the experts
To do this, I first spoke to Fitbit ambassador and former Olympian Greg Whyte, who runs a high performance centre for athletes in London. I wanted to understand how my heart rate impacts my fitness and how I can use the Ionic to my advantage.
My two biggest fitness hurdles are staying motivated and worrying too much about further injuring a problematic knee. I asked Greg how to use my Fitbit Ionic to help me break through those barriers.
"Working too hard in multiple sessions, or back-to-back sessions, is what leads to fatigue and that's when the potential for injury rises," said Greg.
But the answer is simple – planning. "Every session you do, you should have an outcome," Greg explained. "And you should know what that outcome is before the session begins."
In the past my goals and outcomes have been impractical and based on emotion rather than data. Greg explained that from now on I'd be using the Fitbit Ionic to train in specific heart rate zones, giving me structure, a heavy dose of motivation and the least chance of injury.
How to run with heart rate
Greg explained that I can use the Fitbit Ionic to create a much better structure for my running sessions. "You need lots of variety and training. You shouldn't always be running a long, slow distance. That's fine, it serves a purpose. But the key is different training zones – and heart rate can help us do that," said Greg.
"You need to start by understanding that heart rate is a wonderful thing to track because it's a single global measure of exercise intensity – so the harder you work the higher your heart rate is," he explained.
"In order to [get] the most out of your running, you can target different intensities with your heart rate to ensure you're actually hitting those targets. What you're doing is improving each of those original different determinants of performance, so overall your running (and general fitness) will improve," Greg continued.
You need to start by understanding that heart rate is a wonderful thing to track because it's a single global measure of exercise intensity
Depending on the literature you read, heart rate zones are defined in different ways. When you use a Fitbit Ionic, they're calculated using your estimated maximum heart rate, which the device figures out based on a common formula of 220 minus your age.
In Peak zone, your heart rate is greater than 85% of this maximum. This is the high-intensity exercise zone and is ideal for short workouts to improve performance and speed.
The Cardio zone is working at 70% to 84% of your maximum and is good for medium-to-high intensity exercises. It's when you're pushing yourself, but not straining, and is a good zone for most people to target.
The Fat Burn zone is when your heart rate is 50% to 69% of the maximum and is for low-to-medium intensity exercises. As you'd expect, it's a great zone to aim for if you want to burn calories and lose weight.
Greg explained that you can choose to run in each of these different zones for different reasons. But for me he recommended we use the Fitbit Ionic to focus on the Cardio zone, at least for my first few heart rate tracked runs.
Run one: "Have a play, go for a run"
"When you first get the Ionic have a play, go for a run and don't be governed by the heart rate. Just allow yourself to be monitored," Greg told me. "But try and keep to a pace and speed that's sustainable for you – sustainability is key here. Then when you're done, take a look at that heart rate. That average heart rate will tend to be somewhere around your anaerobic threshold," says Greg.
"You want to find a pace and intensity in which you can talk, but you can't hold an extensive conversation. Or think of it as the pace you can talk at, but you can't sing," he said.
So I went on my first run around Alexandra Palace and decided to run for only 30 minutes (on recommendation from my physio). Remember, this isn't about great distances or times for me – it's about running consistently and not hurting myself.
My heart rate average was 159bpm, so I used that number to indicate my threshold and aim for that average next time too. I could also use the Fitbit Ionic to track my route with GPS. The Ionic boasts built-in GPS, so you can get accurate running stats without taking your phone out as well – and once I'd loaded it with tunes and paired some running headphones, my smartphone could safely stay back at home.
Run two: Staying in the zone
After the Ionic had connected to GPS, I embarked on my second run. I'd customised the Ionic's watch face settings so now heart rate was front and centre. I could run, and try and stay at the right intensity by talking, but this time monitor my heart rate every step of the way.
This became really fascinating. I knew my running style was erratic at best, but watching in real-time how my heart rate responded to my desire to slow down or sprint was great. It made me catch myself and bring my pace back to the desired level. This meant I could run for longer, breathe easier and my knee didn't hurt at all – a real achievement. In short, it was easier to get the benefits I needed.
As you can see from the data below, my heart rate moved up and down, but it was much more consistent. And I achieved a slightly better pace and covered a little more ground too.
The average truth: Finding out how fit I really am
Greg recommended I work in my Cardio zone for a few more weeks, and then we could discuss different targets, which was fine by me.
But to ensure I ran a few times every week, I needed a bit more motivation. I asked Greg how I could use the Fitbit Ionic to help me out and monitor my progress over the next stages of the challenges.
"You can use it to set goals, whether they're short, medium and long term and then, critically, you can monitor them," Greg told me. "For example, you can look at resting heart rate, specific cardio score, number of steps a day, number of hours, all of those can form the basis of goal setting. And trying to achieve all or one of those can act as a motivator. The best bit is you don't have to work hard in terms of monitoring – the Fitbit monitors for you."
On Greg's advice, I used the Fitbit Ionic to keep an eye on my resting heart rate (RHR). Your RHR is the rate at which your heart beats when you're sat down, and experts believe it can be a good indicator of the health of your heart. The American Heart Association states that "the average resting heart is 60-80 beats per minute, but is lower for physically fit people." That's because the more active someone is, the more likely their heart muscle will be in a good condition and doesn't need to work as hard.
As you can see from the screenshot below, mine is 56bpm. That's a good rate for a 30-year-old woman and I found it pleasantly surprising.
A cardio fitness surprise
Next up, I went to find my Cardio Fitness score in the Fitbit app. This is Fitbit's estimate of your VO2 Max and can be used as an indicator of your overall fitness and how well you're likely to perform in endurance-based activities, like cycling and swimming. Unlike my RHR, my Cardio Fitness score was a low average 34. That's not necessarily a bad score, but it was disappointing as someone who considered themselves really physically fit just a few years ago.
Over the next few weeks I'll be closely monitoring both my RHR and Cardio Fitness score. I'm crossing my fingers the Cardio Fitness score increases a little as I get fitter and improve my performance during endurance-based activities, and my RHR might decrease a little as my heart gets more efficient.
I'll be running at around 159bpm in the Cardio zone for the next six weeks to track my improvement and see whether I can get a little faster in that zone, keep my knee injury in check and maybe improve my Cardio Fitness score while I'm at it.
Next week I'll be trying out yoga with my Fitbit Ionic and exploring how that affects my heart rate, as well as delving into breathing, stress and mindfulness techniques with Greg.
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