Heart rate-based training for Judo

In my recent Judo competition I found myself continually out of breathe. This happens to competitors of all stripes naturally but it got me thinking about what can be done to improve my fitness levels. Short of hiring a Judo-specific personal trainer I’ve looked into the latest wearable health technology and my findings are summarised here.

There’s been a discernible evolution in fitness tracking gadgetry from counting steps/distance to heart rate tracking. The reasoning is that your heart doesn’t lie – it provides an accurate picture of your overall fitness and how challenging individual training sessions actually are.

Heart rate training takes out the guesswork and subjectivity of how well your body is responding and improving.

Your heart provides useful information about:
a) how effectively you can tolerate various levels of activity
b) how optimally you recover
c) how you’re improving/regressing over time.
This article will go into all the above.

Where to start?

Resting heart rate.

Image showing how to check your pulse

You need to know what your resting heart rate is. For an adult it’s usually between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM).2 Over time if you’re improving this should be get lower.

You figure out your resting heart rate by putting your finger on your pulse (your wrist or your neck are obvious places, but a heart-rate tracker will tell you too).

Max predicted heart rate
You then want to look at your Max predicted heart rate. The general rule of thumb is: Subtract your age from 220; so, for a 30-year-old woman, that would be 190 BPM or (beats per minute).
This is more of an average for the general population, so it won’t be completely accurate. Your heart rate monitor may use this algorithm too, but it’s imperfect like using BMI.
If you want to be more precise about your Max heart rate:

To work out your max heart rate wear a heart rate monitor and push yourself to the limit. Obviously you should be confident this isn’t something that will make you keel over – checking with a doctor first is wise if you’re older. On a treadmill, start with a steady five- to ten-minute warm-up, then run for three minutes at your maximum pace. Then take a three-minute rest and run another three minutes at your max. Use the heart rate peak in the second sprint as your max. Your fitness tracker may allow you to manually set your max heart rate if it’s significantly different to the “220 minus age” formula.1

Heart Rate Zones

Once you have your max you can work out your heart rate zones as a simple percentage of this – 60-70%, 70-80%, 80-90% and 90-100%.

Different intensity levels have different benefits.

Heart Rate ZoneWhat it is
60-70%Typically this is where you burn the most fat. It’s good for building endurance through long workouts.
70-80%The aerobic zone. This is the most effective zone for improving your cardiovascular fitness (stamina). If you’re on a steady run or in a resistance workout this is where you’ll typically be at.
80-90%The anaerobic zone. You’re breathing hard here. This zone improves your anaerobic capacity and increases your lactate threshold (how long you can sustain th is level for. You want to be in this zone for HIIT workouts or threshold training.
90-100%The VO2 Max zone. This is where you’re pushing yourself to the limit for short periods. You do not want to be constantly at this point if you’ve just started working out!!! You also don’t want to be here for too long if you have a heart condition as you’re then pumping adrenaline about and this isn’t good for the heart generally so moderation here is key.

What kind of training plan should I be aiming for?

The research I’ve found promotes diversity in your workouts; train smarter not harder by changing things around regularly. To give you an example: you might think to work on your speed by doing timed sprints outside of your Judo sessions. While there are short-term benefits to this you will eventually find yourself with larger leg musculature and sluggish movement.

Another benefit of diversity in your workouts is you have less likelihood of injury. The older we’re getting the more likely we are to damage something, particularly if we’re going harder just because the heart rate gadget says we can!

Obviously it depends on the training and the person’s fitness level, but typically if you do a hard training session in the high heart rate zones it requires two or three days to recover.

I have limited free time outside of Judo and occassional BJJ sessions so my gym time is limited. For this reason I’ve started incorporating different focal points in sessions that I just mix up as I go. e.g. I’m currently working on my footwork entry so I’m doing one leg day a week which contains strength based activity but then I’ll change it if I get bored and focus on more plyometric stuff like jumping lunges and similar

I’m not a fitness expert or qualified medical professional, I’ve just undertaken some research online so don’t go crazy; do your own research too! Other than my club coach I am repeatedly going back to Aurelien Broussal Derval’s book on Training and Conditioning for Judo for workout ideas as it’s been an indispensible reference.

Personal experience

For the past couple of weeks I’ve worn a smart watch with a heart rate tracker (Polar Vantage M) and during workouts I’ve worn a more precise chest mounted heart rate tracker (Polar H10).

The chest-mounted trackers are very accurate (they closely resemble the results found in an electrocardiograph (ECG) compared to an optical version that a writst-based one uses. You can’t wear a chest tracker every day like you can a watch. Equally, you can’t wear a wrist watch during grappling because reasons (!!).

I’ve worn them for both Judo and Brazilian JiuJitsu sessions as well as the odd cycle ride.

My findings are:

  • For BJJ my heart rate has been predominantly in the 2nd heart rate zone (for 40%) of the time which is the aerobic zone.
  • For Judo my heart rate was in the top 3 zones equally (aerobic, anaerobic, VO2 max zones) for the majority of the time (90%).
  • I needed more time to recover from Judo afterward. I also felt more of a sense of accomplishment (from an effort standpoint) with Judo.
  • The most calories were burned with BJJ (averaging 1,300 calories) rather than Judo (averaging 850 calories). They were both what I consider to be ‘hard sessions’. Bear in mind this wasn’t completely like-for-like in that I had an additional 30 mins in the BJJ session.

These are still early days of my playing around here so you shouldn’t draw any conclusions . Everyone is different and their body behaves differently too. One thing I want to start doing is tracking my recovery time but that’s for a future blog post.

Your heart rate is affected by a range of factors, including dehydration, altitude and even how much you’ve been working out in the days preceding your session. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard if the numbers don’t seem to match up to your effort on a given day.

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