The Real Way to Use Heart Rate Monitors to Improve Your Cardio

Heart rate monitors are a funny thing – they can be completely useless or extremely valuable depending on how you use them. First, let’s get the wrong way to use one off the table. With rare exceptions you don’t need to worry about “heart rate zones” and spending your training time worrying about keeping your heart rate in one.

Despite what those little books that come with most heart rate monitors tell you, heart rate zones are the wrong way to use a heart rate monitor because of one simple fact – that little formula of (220-Your Age= Max Heart Rate) is wrong for most people and was never intended to be used on a wide spread basis by the guys who invented it. In yet another example of “fitness science gone wild” someone got a hold of something and completely misused it, resulting in a lot of people trying to keep their heart rate at a certain percentage of the wrong number.

Unless you do a true Max Hear t Rate test you don’t really know what that number is, which makes training based on zones derived from it worthless. However, there are 3 uses for a heart rate (HR) monitor that still makes it a “must have” tool in your toolbox.

1) To record your Max HR and Recovery HR during intervals. Here is the funny thing about intervals – they will always suck. You will never get to the point where they feel “easy” and so without some sort of objective feedback as to how your body is responding you may feel like you are not improving. I have all of my clients record the highest heart rate they achieve and what their heart rate is dropping back down to during the recovery periods when doing intervals with a pre-set work and rest period, giving you insight into how your body is responding to the training.

If you see that your HR is not maxing out as high and/ or that your recovery HR is dropping down lower then you know that you are improving your cardio fitness no matter how you feel physically. Add in some way to determine how hard you are working (speed, power or RPMs) and you have even more useful data to look at – lower heart rates at the same intensity level or achieving a higher intensity at the same heart rates is another sign of progress.

2) To determine how long to rest between intervals. Some intervals have pre-set work and rest periods which require you to go again no matter how much you have recovered. However, this method usually results in you resting too long during the first few intervals and then not recovering enough to give a max effort on the last few intervals. Sometimes you want to let your HR drop back down a certain amount before going again, resulting in a workout that is more specific to your physiology and is tailor made for you.

The two numbers that are usually used when doing this are letting your HR drop back down by 50 beats per minute or letting it drop back down to 120 beats per minute. I’ll be honest and let you know up front that I don’t know the exact “science” behind these numbers but I do know from both research into what other coaches do and my own experience that these numbers seem to do the trick. If your HR is getting over 175 bpm then use the “drop by 50 bpm” method works well, otherwise use the “drop back down to 120 bpm” method.

3) To make sure that your recovery workout is really a recovery workout. Recovery does not happen by sitting on the couch playing video games – your body will recover faster with light activity than with no activity at all. One of the best ways to help your body recover is to go on a recovery ride or run. However, for it to be “recovery” and not a “workout” you need to keep your HR under 120 bpm for 15-30 minutes, otherwise you are stressing the cardiovascular system too much and not allowing it to recover.

One last thing to note – you don’t need a super fancy and expensive HR monitor to take advantage of these things. All you need is for the thing to tell you what your HR is at the moment and the least expensive Polar monitors (the brand I use and recommend) do a fine job of that without all the bells and whistles that drive the price up and usually just confuse the user.

So there you have it, 3 way to use your HR monitor that will actually result in improved cardio for mountain biking. Riding faster and longer on trails requires the ability to push hard, recover and then do it again and again and using your HR monitor in theses ways will help you do just that.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Wild-Bill says:

    You are spot on with this advice

    Reply • March 19 at 5:45 am
  2. Jasko says:

    Good article James but I find hard to agree with something in 3rd use of a HR monitor. Like you said formula 220-AGE is NOT accurate, beacuse every person is different, so the number 120 in recovery part “stucked in my eye”. Unless person dont calculate their accurate heart zones they cant know what is their “recovery zone”. What I wanna say is that you cant know that under 120 will be ok for them. Some older bikers find 120 pretty high zone.

    Reply • March 19 at 7:07 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      While I understand where you are coming from I have two points. One, the 120 bpm is not based on any formula and so I am not sure what the 220- your age has to do with it. Second, it is a general recommendation and some people will fall outside of that recommendation. I never said to achieve and maintain a HR of 120 bpm, I said to keep it under that so a HR of 100 bpm would also qualify. Older and deconditioned riders will find 120 bpm to be relatively high and would need to stay lower but in general for most of the riders who read my blog the recommendation of 120 bpm is a good one. The idea is to give riders who tend to push hard on everything some gauge to keep from pushing too hard.

      I would also have to counter with what do you recommend? It is easy to poke holes in other people’s advice but unless you have a better method or recommendation then all you are doing is criticizing, not adding to the discussion.

      Reply • March 19 at 8:57 am
  3. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    Ever since I listened to your last podcast I have been interested in and researching Bioforce-HRV, and Training Effect stuff on Garmin and Suunto web sites. This is all very interesting, but I think maybe your basic approaches described here would better suit me right now (given my current (lack of) conditioning).

    One question (I actually have many) is whether mountain biking can ever really be used to train with heart rate. Lately I’ve begun to realize all my ride are probably “over-training” and that I don’t do any “active” recovery. Which could explain why I don’t ever feel like I am making progress. It seems to me that HR training is best suited to controlled workouts, and I’m not sure biking works for that. (although maybe I could do intervals where I ride hard then back off until my HR has recovered 50 beats, then repeat?)

    Reply • March 19 at 8:34 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You answered your own question – mountain biking does not lend itself to the “controlled environment” approach that other endurance sports can use and so you need to train like you ride, which is hard efforts alternating with easier efforts to recover.

      Reply • March 19 at 8:51 am
  4. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    I found this very interesting. Have you seen this, and if so, what are your thoughts?

    Reply • March 19 at 10:40 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      A little unusable for our purposes since, as you pointed out in your previous reply, mountain bike riding does not lend itself to pacing like triathlons do. Try keeping your heart rate below your aerobic/ anaerobic threshold on the trail and you’ll find it impossible. We don’t want to train the aerobic system to simply fuel our efforts, we want to train it to support and replenish the anaerobic energy systems which is a different goal than a roadie or triathlete has.

      Reply • March 19 at 10:51 am
  5. Markus says:

    For mountain bikers it should be quite easy to determine Max HR: Just check your HR monitor after a big crash or similar “traumatic” experience. During a ride I once came across a group of very large wild dogs blocking my way. I nevertheless continued riding and was chased by one of the dogs for about 50m. When I got home I couldn’t first figure out the abnormal reading of my Max HR but then I remembered the incident. Now I know my “scared shitless” HR is 220. :-))

    Reply • March 19 at 10:58 am
  6. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    Okay, so I guess I’m starting to see how HR training could help me build my fitness compared to years of just riding my bike. So I guess my question is IF or HOW is this applicable to riding on the trail?

    P.S. Thanks for all the discussion, it is really helpful.

    P.S.S. When are you going to finish the next Kettlebell course?

    Reply • March 19 at 2:15 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Trail riding is a series of hard efforts (sprint climbs, grind climbs, technical sections, etc.) alternating with easier efforts when the trail levels out and/ or smooths out where you can recover. Using the HR monitor might not be directly applicable to trail riding except to see what you HR is doing and how it is improving. Trail riding is not “training” and trying to use a HR monitor to “train” on the trail is not the best way to use it – it is a tool to gain insight into how your HR is responding, for the most part it is not a tool to base your training on.

      I have a whole series of new kettlebell workout at my Inner Circle site at that you can access right now, I’ll be updating the stand alone KB Workout Program in the next few months.

      Reply • March 19 at 3:53 pm
  7. ED BIRCH says:


    Reply • March 20 at 1:30 am
  8. Ignacio Alfaro says:

    Thanks so much for the info James, I am so glad that we thought alike in this topic.

    I actually went ahead and just bought my first HRM, and though the same exact thing, why buy an expensive one with all the bells and whistles, when I just needed one that could accurately tell me my heart rate…

    But your insight on how to determine the correct rest periods between intervals will surely help me out in maximizing my workouts…

    Reply • March 20 at 7:32 am
  9. EJensen says:


    Very interesting post. In an earlier version of your workout materials you said the following:

    You should use a Recovery Target Heart Rate (TRHR) to determine the heart rate
    you want to come back down to before starting the next interval. Use the
    following formula to determine your personal RTHR:
    (Max HR – Resting HR) x 60% + Resting HR = RTHR
    Example: (200 – 60) X 60% + 60 = 144 bpm

    Have you moved away from that calculation, or am I misinterpreting it?

    Thanks for all the great info.


    Reply • March 20 at 8:04 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      That formula requires you to know your max HR. If you know it then it works fine but the 50 bpm or 120 bpm recommendation gets you in the ballpark without a lot of testing and calculations.

      Reply • March 20 at 10:26 am
  10. Joe says:

    Good points, James. A number of years ago I did extensive testing with a HR monitoring when I was running and doing martial arts. Specifically, I would have the HR monitor record my entire workout, then would download it to the computer to chart. What I discovered is that the LONGER the workout the LONGER it took for your HR to return to your RHR (even if he workout was low intensity). For example, hard shorter runs had my RHR returning quicker than much longer medium to lower intensity runs. In almost all cases the profile would be your HR would go up rather quickly, stabilize to a certain degree… when you stopped, it would drop quickly a certain amount.. then gradually taper off for much longer to get back to RHR. Why would longer low intensity workouts require longer times to reach RHR as compared to shorter but higher intensity ?

    BTW.. I no longer use HR monitors. Continued use turns into a slave to the numbers… then it just ceases to be fun !

    Reply • March 20 at 9:20 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I have no idea on that, I’d have to see that it was the case with several people before I could read too much into it. Good point on not letting the number rule you, you have to be careful what numbers you give power to.

      Reply • March 20 at 10:27 am
    • carlos says:

      Hi there, to answer your question, this is mainly from a physiological stand point of how your muscles and body work. When you do longer low intensity workouts (LLIW) you are probably working in the aerobic/anaerobic zone, like switching into one or the other while in the LLIW. As you continue pushing during the interval some cells are doing aerobic and others are not. The reason for this is that when oxygenated blood is not reaching the cells and oxygen becomes low the cell switches into anaerobic respiration. As you may know anaerobic respiration is less efficient producing less ATP per molecule of glucose burned. About 1/3 of the ATP is produced during this type of respiration when compared to aerobic which makes about 36ATP per molecule of glucose. During anaerobic respiration lactic acid is produced which is also a source of fuel, but that is another history.
      This process is happening constantly on and off simultaneously. The higher the level of effort the more chances to go into anaerobic. In LLIW your cells could be in this area of both aerobic and anaerobic respiration at the same time and the current vasculature could be able to irrigate the muscle to maintain this for a longer period of time. This will go on until glycogen or glucose is depleted, you cannot repair fast enough which leads to bunk!
      Now when you start resting you will switch to aerobic and the body will try to replenish the glycogen that you just burned (glycogen is stored only in muscle and this is what is burned during anaerobic exercise). In addition, the body will continue repairing and burning glucose to fuel the resting period, because you are still riding. The point of intensity interval is to destroy more than what you can replenish. In other words tip the balance intentionally. What you accomplish with this is that your body will rebuild (resting periods) a stronger more sustainable muscle. This means your body by default, is programmed to make repairs and make the affected areas stronger. Cool right!? This is the way biological systems or living beings are made and programmed.
      Now the body is very smart but he certainly does not know what is going to happen next. So he prepares for the worst. This is purely how it works and how it has been programmed by millennia of evolution. Now the bodies as you keep on exercising, starts to repair the damaged muscle, to store glycogen and to keep aerobic respiration. For this the body needs to pump blood with nutrients, water and amino acids. Some of the energy to do this is moved from fat storages, the meal you just got before the ride, the glycogen you have stored in muscle and lactic acid among other sources of energy. The number 1 priority for the body will be to restore glycogen. The reason for this is that this is the main source of energy in muscle during anaerobic respiration. Now since you did not burn as much because you were doing both aerobic and anaerobic the body will try to attend to the other matters that I described above while at the same time replenishes glycogen.
      As you keep doing this for more intervals you are tipping the scales to the destruction side, but not quite as aggressive as if you would do with “Shorter higher intensity” (SHI) workouts. In (LLIW) you are doing this gradually and not pushing the limits. The body can do all these functions at the same time and he is cool with it.
      When you do the SHI you are going almost completely into anaerobic respiration. All the glycogen is being used fast and very inefficiently; yielding only 12 ATP for molecule of glucose burn. Here the body still has to do all those things that I described before and restore the glycogen as well, which is being burned harder and faster, BUT HE CANT KEEP UP!! So now he concentrates on the glycogen first. This is purely how we are programmed at a cellular level. The adaptation comes from thousands of years of survival. You need to keep running to live and for this you need glycogen because you are running for your life. Repairing is not important at this point (this is why you get hurt when you push the limits and don’t take resting periods of time). In addition, he does not know what is next so he prepares for the worst, always. Your heart rate comes down faster because you might need to run again hard and fast. If you are maxed out you will die if your HR is not at an acceptable level for another burst. Your body cells simply do not know that you are having fun in the bicycle.
      After this I hope you can see the reason as to why your body is keeping a higher resting HR in LLIW vs SHI. Good luck buddy I hope this helps.

      Reply • June 16 at 6:17 pm
  11. Randy says:

    Well. Lots of good stuff here as usual. First off, gotta love James. I buy as much stuff of his that I can – I don’t use it all as much as I would like too – but I’ll continue to support James as much as I can as 98.5% of the time, he simply makes sense and gets great results. Period.

    Here comes the IMO part.

    HR “on the trail” is USUALLY nothing more than interesting data – something to chat about during the apres-ride beverage. Same as total accent, max speed, etc. Just interesting stuff.

    HR data for TRAINING is very different. First, we’re really just using HR as a delayed proxy for effort or work – which is what we REALLY want to measure and see if we can improve. At the end of the day, the guy (or gal) that can get the most work translated into motion along the course wins. So, in controlled conditions, what we really want to know are things like how much power can we produce and how long can we sustain a given power output. HR is just something much cheaper to measure. The problem is that HR lags RPE – so it’s not exactly ideal. When you start an interval, you’re RPE will go up instantly – as will the power you produce. You’re HR will gradually rise, lagging the effort your putting into the work interval. The back side of the work interval is the converse – when you enter your recovery, RPE and work go down instantly, but your HR will remain high for some time and gradually subside. Also, as your conditioning improves, you’re HR will DECREASE for a given RPE – which is kind of a hard pill to swallow as everyone likes seeing things go up and not down. That’s why power meters (in controlled conditions) are so cool – it is SOO easy to see that you are producing more power at a lower HR as your conditioning improves.

    However, basic HR monitors are the best piece of quantifiable data for the money that you can get. IMO, routine interval sessions on an indoor trainer should be more about sustaining a target RPE while wearing a HR monitor (i.e. don’t look at it). Also, press the lap button at the start and end of each work interval. Look at the data AFTER your workout against your RPE. What was your average HR for a given work RPE? What did the HR recover to during the recovery? Every once in a while, record a real test. Same interval targets (time, RPE) – but look at how much distance you covered (on the trainer of course) and what your HR data looks like. If the work/recovery periods and RPE remain constant, then you will see greater distance covered for the ‘test’ at similar if not lower average HR.

    IMO, the single biggest thing that looking at the HR data can tell you for controlled, ‘on the trainer’ interval sessions is when you need to reduce the recovery period. For me anyway, the thing that changes the quickest when getting back on the bike is a reduction in how long it takes for HR to drop after a work interval. While research is not conclusive on this matter, one school of interval training says that the amount of time at a “recovery” HR during the rest interval should be pretty much zero between the 2 last work intervals (i.e. rest time constant, ample HR recovery during first ‘rest’ interval, but tapering to almost zero on the last – these are really hard).

    I really can’t figure out how/why that 220-age thing has stuck as long as it has. It simply makes no sense. EVERYONE should do a basic threshold test at home on a trainer – it’s easy and I actually believe that knowing YOUR personal target HR zones are important – not so much inside on a trainer, but rather outdoors on TRAINING rides.

    For those who race enduro/marathon – including multi-day stage races – HR based training ON THE TRAIL is extremely important. You need to train to improve the average output that can be sustained over the course of the event – but more importantly, you need to establish what that is and get used to listening to your body. Average HR is the cheapest quantifiable proxy available. I strap on the HR monitor on every training ride – especially those where my target is to ride a similar course at ‘race pace’ (note the term TARGET, in training there is always a purpose – riding just for fun is… fun, but it’s not training). I look at my average HR. I have built experience enough to know that if my average HR goes above xx, then I won’t have enough in the tank to finish strong. I also look at instantaneous HR to make sure I’m focusing enough on recovery before a big climb. HOWEVER, in training rides this is more about using a tool to help me learn to listen to what my body is telling me – i.e. what does recovery before a big climb feel like?

    During the race, emotions and adrenaline are higher – especially for amateurs. ‘Normal’ signals from your body are masked. Without a glance or two at the HR monitor, it’s easy to go far too hard at the beginning of the event leaving yourself in all kinds of trouble later.

    I would argue that this kind of quantifiable feedback is MOST important for amateur racers or folks that are new to longer distance events. “Pros” have much more experience in listening to what they’re body is telling them and know far more precisely where the limits of their sport lay.

    Anyway, just my two cents. I live in the great white north and we mountain bike on studded tires all winter long but 100% of winter TRAINING effort is indoors – either with my mountain bike on a trainer or trying to mimic James’ perfect kettle bell technique. BTW, there are no better kettle bell training guidance and coaching queues ANYWHERE – no one I’ve seen cuts to the real focus of what’s important like James.

    Reply • March 20 at 5:15 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks a lot for the extra article on HR training, very informative. I would have to agree with you on all of your points – the longer the race the more important it is to keep an eye on your HR and not let it get too high. Appreciate the time you took to craft your ideas, great addition to the article.

      Reply • March 21 at 5:29 am
  12. cookie says:

    James, great points.
    A HR monitor is a great piece of kit, it has limitations such as lag, variability and sag but it definately helps highlight a major problem that people have when training for performance..
    doing hard workouts to easy and easy workouts to hard.
    As mentioned, it is great and I use it without fail in enduros, 100km – 24hours etc for pacing. Its to easy to get carried away in the excitement and forget the game-plan 🙂

    With the advent of “cheaper” powermeters they certainly are becoming more popular with those who are keen to take training further and have reach the limits of what HR training can offer.


    Reply • March 20 at 10:22 pm
  13. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    @ Randy: Can you elaborate on how this is done?

    “EVERYONE should do a basic threshold test at home on a trainer – it’s easy and I actually believe that knowing YOUR personal target HR zones are important – not so much inside on a trainer, but rather outdoors on TRAINING rides.”

    Reply • March 21 at 8:49 am
  14. Randy says:


    I’ll paraphrase Joe Friel – who gets all the cred. Like James, I simply rely on ideas from people much smarter than me and filter/distill to meet my own (more simplistic) needs.

    The easiest thing to measure accurately (and, it’s actually the “number” that you most care about as a mountain biker) is your lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) WHILE MOUNTAIN BIKING. HR targets are actually different for each sport – so don’t expect to get an accurate LTHR for mountain bike training if someone puts you a treadmill to measure it (BTW, I’ve seen this done by “fitness professionals”). Sparing the ugly details, above your LTHR, lactate is produced faster than the ability of the tissues to remove it – limiting how long this level of effort can be maintained.

    To find your LTHR do a 30-minute time trial all by yourself (no training partners and not in a race). Again, it should be done as if it was a race for the entire 30 minutes. But at 10 minutes into the test click the lap button on your heart rate monitor. When done look to see what your average heart rate was for the last 20 minutes. That number is an approximation of your LTHR.

    Go HARD for the entire 30 minutes. But be aware that most people doing this test go too hard the first few minutes and then gradually slow down for the remainder. That will give you inaccurate results. The more times you do this test the more accurate your LTHR is likely to become as you will learn to pace yourself better at the start.

    Now, all your HR zones (if you care about all of them) are based off this measured LTHR.

    Zone 1 Less than 81% of LTHR
    Zone 2 81% to 89% of LTHR
    Zone 3 90% to 93% of LTHR
    Zone 4 94% to 99% of LTHR
    Zone 5a 100% to 102% of LTHR
    Zone 5b 103% to 106% of LTHR
    Zone 5c More than 106% of LTHR

    IMO, the important ones are recovery – make sure recovery is REALLY recovery. Generally, stay out of zone 4 – it’s not hard enough for “work” intervals and too hard for almost everything else. Interval training works well – everyone by now is pretty much on-side with this. However, what TYPE of interval training is still hotly debated. The one thing that is consistent is that the work interval needs to be HARD – i.e. ranging from quite a bit above LTHR to way above LTHR.

    “I bought a brand new hammer but no matter how hard I hit my rear-d, I can’t seem to get it adjusted right”. Just because you have a new tool, it doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for every job. Or, sometimes you should just stick to James’ programs and leave the hammer (or HR monitor) at home.

    Reply • March 21 at 12:59 pm
  15. Randy says:

    BTW, some context. I’m a bikejames fanboy – not a fitness professional. 2-1/2 years ago I went trail riding with a “wednesday night” group. I met the group coming down the out & back trail after I had given up having done only 1/3 of the climb up. This “lesson” started me on a path. Through the guidance and wisdom of people like James and Joe Friel, I lost 40lbs and was in the top 1/3 of my group the following spring. I began racing XC – short course and marathon, and last year achieved a personal goal of finishing mid-pack in the TransRockies stage race. This year I turned 45 and my goal for this summer is more DH/Super-D racing.

    My point: James is the pro here – I’m just a guy who reads a lot, repeats what makes sense, and has had pretty darn good results.

    Reply • March 21 at 1:27 pm
  16. Jack says:

    hi James what’s your thoughts on using power instead of heart rate

    Reply • March 22 at 4:33 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Power is a great tool but not one I have a lot of experience with.

      Reply • March 23 at 6:27 pm
  17. Michael says:

    Hope I’m not too late to ask a question here. Following James’ review of Chris Carmichael’s Time Crunched Cyclist last year, I bought a copy and gave it a go. It was a bit of a hassle because I spent a lot of time on roads rather than local trails which I would have prefered, but I was interested in seeing if interval training would help me get quicker. I timed myself on a relatively short trail before the program and, to my dissappointment, on my first ride after the 12 weeks of following Carmichael’s program I took exactly the same time of 50mins 52seconds. Oh well..

    So, I’m looking for a more effective and simpler interval program that I can take out on the trail. James, what duration would you recommend for a high intensity interval, how many reps of these intervals would you recommend, and how many times a week would be required to do to get good results?


    Reply • March 31 at 2:10 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I would recommend getting either my Kettlebell or DB program, they contain good cardio workouts to help improve the type of cardio you need on the trail. I hope you did not get the impression that I thought Carmichael’s book was a good program for MTB, it does little to build what you really need on the trail.

      If you want to learn more about cardio programming check out Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamison, it does a great job of breaking down different types of intervals and how to fit them in a program.

      Reply • April 2 at 9:04 am
  18. Lowball says:


    I notice when doing short intervals, 30 min TT’s, and LTH type interval training in the garage on the road bike it just doesn’t seem to translate to the trail for me…I still feel out of shape regardless. On the trail I’m constantly avg. about 161-165 for the entire ride unless I’m totally not trying to put any effort in. Max is normally 174-176. But on road bike when doing a ride the avg is way less, it could be in the 128 to 156 avg…depending on effort of course…but the garage type training, again, on the road bike just doesn’t seem to help me maintain lower rates on the trail or put me in better condition…must need to put in more work on the trail instead of the garage…I’m sure it helps to some degree of course…but the disciplines are so different…sorry I’m rambling on and repeating myself as usual…

    Reply • May 24 at 6:16 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      What you are experiencing is the difference between the low tension cardio that road riding uses and the high tension cardio you need on the trail. Since a lot of mountain biking isn’t pedaling based, focusing on pedaling as your main form of cardio will leave some big holes in your mountain bike specific fitness. Trail time is best but this is also where strength training and stuff like kettlebell swings can be more effective than more time spent on the road bike or on a trainer.

      Reply • May 25 at 1:39 pm

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