Is Heart Rate important in Swimming Well
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 11th, 2009

This question, on the TI Discussion Forum, is one that likely occurs to many who swim for fitness and health.

I swim for exercise and weight control (and a few other reasons) but I’m wondering if my heart rate is where it should be. I did a vigorous swim the other day and could only get to 108. On the elliptical trainer, I can get over 130 with effort. According to one online heart rate calculator, I should be between 115 and 149. I want to keep swimming but I also want the benefits of exercise.

Your “aquatic heart rate” will be 13% (or 15 to 17 beats) lower than your land HR at a similar level of exercise intensity — mainly because swimming’s horizontal position, and the reduced effect of gravity, makes it easier for blood to circulate out to the working muscles and return to the heart. Thus an aquatic HR of 108 would equate to a land HR of 123 to 125, which is both health-enhancing and sustainable.
Your max and working HR can also be influenced by age, though the “220-minus-age” equation traditionally used to estimate a person’s maximum heart rate is no longer considered accurate.

The larger question is to be clear on your swimming goals. In TI, the first goal is always to improve your swimming. Healthfulness is a beneficial byproduct of spending three or more hours each week practicing for improvement. If you think of HR as a key factor in the fitness side of your training, then you might be curious to learn how various kinds of training affect  it.
Speaking personally, I haven’t checked my HR during a swim practice in nearly two decades – yet still get high marks on my regular physicals, and my resting HR (which I check – along with blood pressure — upon rising every couple of days) is an admirable 42. When you adopt as your goal to improve your swimming, then you’ll practice guided by two key principles. I’ll also explain how to get information about your HR in this kind of practice.

Principle #1 Reduce Energy Waste to swim better.
The traditional approach is to swim better by pushing yourself harder. This creates a priority of raising HR to maximal levels during certain sets. Indeed, the core purpose of such sets is a higher HR. The set is considered a success if HR approaches its predicted maximum. How efficiently you swim is often besides the point. In fact churning heedlessly and inefficiently could be considered beneficial, since it’s more likely to increase HR.

Improvement-minded swimmers have the opposite objective. We understand that human swimmers waste energy massively and therefore focus intently on saving energy. This translates into mindfully seeking the easiest way to complete any task — whether swimming a well-paced and relaxed mile or a fast 200m. Thus we focus on minimizing HR while training. As I noted above, I haven’t checked my HR in years. Instead I use a well-honed “perception of effort” to gauge it.

Principle #2 Improve by Building Neural Circuits (not the Aerobic System)
Improvement comes from energy savings, which come from efficiency. This gives TI swimmers two clear priorities for their training: (1) Strengthen your focus; and (2) Build “neural circuits” for effective movement. In that approach, aerobic system training becomes something that happens while you train your neuromuscular system.

With these priorities, a logical way to get information about HR response while swimming would be to check HR while using a Tempo Trainer. E.G. On a series of 200s, start with a slower tempo and progress in steps to a fairly brisk tempo. Check your HR prior to beginning the set, and recheck it immediately after completing your fastest-tempo swim. That would give you the most useful and functional info – i.e. your HR relative to speed and tempo.

If I were to do this set I’d be most interested in correlating time to tempo. It’s possible I might also be curious – purely for informational purposes – how HR correlates to time and tempo. But in keeping with my first training principle of saving energy, I’d consider the set a success if I maximized improvement in time, relative to tempo, while minimizing increase in HR relative to time and tempo.

Note: While I don’t base any of my training on HR,  if you do plan to include HR level among your exercise goals, consider having your personal MaxHR calculated by an exercise physiologist or sports doctor with a stress test and ask how the results should be adjusted for swimming.

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2 Responses to “Is Heart Rate important in Swimming Well”

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  2. Andrew Pelt says:

    I’ve been reading a few posts and really and enjoy your writing. I’m just starting up my own blog and only hope that I can write as well and give the reader so much insight.

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