There are two variables you need to find to start using a monitor, and then you're off!
First is resting heart rate. To do this, strap on your monitor while still in bed in the morning, and lounge around for a few minutes. The lowest your heart rate goes is your resting rate. This number is super cool because as you get fitter, this number is going to go dooooooooown. That's because your heart gets large and strong with training and is able to swoosh more blood around with a single pump than a less fit person.
Average resting heart rate is from about 60-90 beats per minute, with well-trained athletes closer to 40 BPM. (Source)
Second is maximum heart rate. There are a ton of formulas out there to calculate this, but when I was in school, it was 220 minus your age. The newer formulas are gender specific, but they're only accurate for a portion of the population, so your own max rate should be found by doing a fitness test, (as long as you've been cleared by a doctor, blah blah blah.)
There are are lot of different suggested workouts to bring out your max heart rate, but what I've gathered is that you should have a good warm-up, run as hard as you can for 400m or so, rest, repeat a few times. The highest number you see is your max heart rate.
Something interesting about that number - it's genetically predetermined and is not an indicator of fitness.
I haven't been able to do this test yet because I'm not cleared for hard running, but I can't wait to get out there and try it. Soon....
Oh! And my fellow twin mama Amy over at Mommy Isn't Here Right Now posed this question:
I have a heart rate monitor that pairs with my Garmin (a 405CX), and I've worn it once or twice. I usually do it just to get an accurate calorie count. What I've discovered? In my first mile, my HR is 180ish. Then it falls to 160, where it remains for the remainder of my run, then returns to baseline within 5 minutes of stopping.
OK, this is exciting stuff guys. Amy's heart rate (and mine on my run yesterday) is higher at the onset of the run, and then settles into a more normal range. Two possible explanations: numero uno - tech issues. The electrodes aren't making good sustained contact and it's causing goofy HR readings until we get sweaty enough to make good contact. I don't buy this reason. Reason numero dos - because we haven't really warmed up well enough. When we run, we need more blood pumping action, and before the heart is fully warmed up to pump the most blood with each pump, it compensates by increasing the heartrate.
Amy, up for a little experimentation? I wonder if you did a good solid warmup - brisk walking, jumping jacks... whatever floats your boat if your heartrate would always be in the 160s during your run.
Second part of the question is about Recovery Heart Rate (RHR). Recovery Heart Rate is an excellent indicator of cardiovascular health. The healthier your heart is, the more quickly it returns to normal after exercise. In the information I found, there is a lot of variability regarding exactly how to measure the recovery heart rate, but this is what I'm going by:
Measure your heart rate while exercising, then walk slowly (but don't stop), and measure it again in two minutes. Folks who see a decrease of less than 12 BPM should see a doctor, as this is abnormal. 12-25 BPM decrease is considered in the normal range, and over 25 BPM is excellent.
Stay tuned for Part III...
Anyone still with me? :)