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Maybe you have a heart rate monitor (HRM) that you never use or use a heart rate monitor and get frustrated because you don’t fully understand how to go about using this training method.
In this post I want to cut through the clutter and tell you how to get started with heart rate training. You will learn:
- What to know before you start heart rate training
- Three ways to find your ideal training zones
- The limitations of heart rate training
Ready, set, go!
How Heart Rate Training Works
Although there have been dozens of books and countless web articles written about this subject we’ll try to get into the necessary details without causing your eyes to cross out of sheer boredom.
When I ran my first two marathons I had a simple stop watch from the Dollar Store- yes, it did cost $1. After that I upgraded to my Garmin 110 GPS device but I’ve only accessed the basic information on it until recently (I was happy with distance, pace and time).
The heart rate monitor I purchased had been mostly gathering dust for the last three years. However, since I’ve started coaching clients I’ve done more evaluation of various metrics. Lately I’ve been experimenting with myself to know my personal metrics.
Before You Start . . .
- Commit to the process of building a solid endurance base.
One reason many beginning runners get discouraged is that they try to run too fast at first. The best way to know the correct “easy” pace to train at is by monitoring how the body responds to the effort. You may have heard the advice to “run at a conversational pace.” This means you should be able to carry on a conversation, or speak naturally without becoming short of breath if you’re at the right pace.
- Gauge your effort using the Borg Scale.
The Borg Scale rates your effort from mild to maximal. According to the modified Borg Scale a rating of 0 would be no exercise at all, 1=very weak, 2=weak, 3=moderate, 4=somewhat strong, 5= strong (heavy), 7= very strong, 10= very, very strong (near maximal). You can use this scale during your training runs to record perceived effort in your running log.
- Invest in a heart rate monitor.
Heart rate training is a way to gauge your overall fitness and train at the appropriate effort. As you become fitter you’ll see your heart rate fall at all running speeds. Conversely, if you’re starting to over train you’ll see a rise in heart rate at all running speeds and this will be a sign to rest and not participate in hard exercise. By using a HRM you’ll gradually learn what heart rates you can sustain over time and this will help you plan pacing during races. If you’re interested in using heart rate training the first thing you need to do is buy a heart rate monitor which usually consists of a watch and chest strap with a sensor that tracks your pulse. Here’s a helpful article that reviews several top heart rate monitoring devices so you can decide which would be the best fit for you.
Three Ways to Find Your Heart Rate Training Zones
Heart rate training is all about “zones”. Perhaps you have seen zone charts on the internet – there are dozens and dozens which are all slightly different. Zones are key in determining the sweet spot in your heart rate training. The most accurate method to obtain your personal metrics is to visit an exercise laboratory and have an exercise physiologist perform a maximum exercise test (usually done on a treadmill). If you don’t want to spend the money on a professional assessment there are several tests you can do on your own. Here are three methods I recommend for finding zones:
- Maximum Heart Rate and Heart Rate Reserve Method
This method is very common but can be confusing. Most zone charts will require you to know certain personal metrics but beware, one of the biggest flaws of using heart rate training is not working from the right numbers! For example, the old formula 220- age=Maximum heart rate (MHR) has been found to be scientifically inaccurate.
Here’s how to establish your maximum heart rate (MHR) and another more accurate number called your heart rate reserve (HRR). *Word of caution! Unless your cardiac system has received a clean bill of heath this test should be done in a supervised setting. Anyone who has a known heart condition should always get clearance from their healthcare provider before undertaking any training program.
Determine your maximum heart rate (MHR) by doing a 2 mile time trial. Use a track or flat stretch of road. Wear your heart rate monitor and run 1 mile easy to warm up, then run 2 miles (or 8 laps of the track) at the fastest pace you can sustain- meaning that each lap should be roughly the same pace. Look at your monitor later and see the maximum heart rate that was hit. This will be a good estimate of your MHR. (mine is 184)
Determine your resting heart rate (RHR). Each morning before getting out of bed count your pulse for 60 seconds and record number (make sure you do this before having any coffee or tea as caffeine can skew the numbers). Do this for seven days and then average the numbers. This is your resting heart rate (my resting heart rate is low 40’s so we’ll say 45 for the sake of calculations). As you get fitter your resting heart rate will probably drop so you should recheck your resting heart rate approximately once a month. Your heart rate reserve (HRR) is your maximum heart rate minus your resting heart rate. (For example, this would be MHR 184- RHR 45= 139 HRR for me).
It’s very important to understand which numbers you need to use before you start calculating your training zones. Some charts like the Karvonen method use HRR to calculate your heart rate for each zone. Simply take your heart rate reserve times the percent you want to train at and then add your resting heart rate. (For example- 139 x 0.65 (65% of heart rate for an easy run) = 90 + 45 (Resting heart rate) = 135 bpm
Here’s a good article comparing various heart rate zone charts:
In general, most of your training should be done in zone 2 and 3 where your body is building endurance and burning primarily fat. Interestingly enough, Zone 3 is often the pace you revert to in training runs without really thinking about it. Zone 4 is usually the zone that you run races in. Zone 5 (or the red line zone- anaerobic) is only possible for short periods and is valuable to train fast twitch muscle fibers and develop speed.
- The Maffetone Method
Another heart rate training guide that you may come across was developed by a scientist, author, and coach Dr. Phil Maffetone. He developed a formula for establishing the peak heart rate you should achieve during the first three months of training. One of his mantras is, “Speed up by slowing down.” To calculate your ideal training heart zone for building your aerobic base do the following:
- Subtract your age from 180 (ex- 180-35= 145).
- Then subtract 10 if you’re recovering from a major illness or hospital visit or on regular medication for a chronic condition; subtract 5 if you have not exercised before or are just beginning to rebuild your running base; 0 if you’ve been exercising regularly without interruption. If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.
- This number would represent your maximum heart rate to use for aerobic training to promote fitness gains while staying mostly in the fat burning zone. A training range from this heart rate to 10 beats below would be used as the training range. (for example my range would be a heart rate of 135-145). This provides a conservative guideline for a 3 month period of base training.
- He also recommends doing a maximum aerobic fitness (MAF) test once per month to track your progress. After warming up with 10 minutes of easy walking or jogging, run 1 mile at your maximum heart rate in zone 2 (ex 145) and record the time, jog a 2nd mile at the MHR and record time, finally jog a 3rd mile at MHR and record. The times from each mile should progressively get a little slower. If you do this test regularly you will see how your aerobic endurance is increasing.
Some people get frustrated because they find that their normal pace is outside the training zone. But lacking a solid aerobic base could be the reason why they’re not experiencing fitness gains or struggling with overtraining syndrome. If you want more information on his training methods you can check out: “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” or go to his website
- The Lactate Threshold Method
The final method of heart rate training I will talk about is based on your lactate threshold. I have been using this method in my running. It was developed by endurance sports coach and Training Peaks founder, Joe Friel. Your running speed at lactate threshold (RSLT) is the best indicator of running fitness and endurance performance. RSLT is the velocity above which lactate begins to accumulate dramatically in the blood. Essentially the body gets backed up trying to remove lactate from the muscles. Lactate threshold is a moderately high running intensity, or the highest intensity that can be sustained without significant discomfort. For example, if you’re running below lactate threshold your breathing is controlled, however when you exceed the threshold there is a sudden increase in breathing rate.
One of the most important reasons to know your lactate threshold is because it is above this point that you will start developing lactic acid buildup in your system (also known as anaerobic threshold or point of deflection POD). Your LT is where your body is removing lactate as fast as it’s being produced. When you reach this certain heart rate the muscles switch from using fat as the primary source of energy to using stored muscle glycogen. A by-product of burning glycogen is lactic acid and there’s a point where your body can no longer remove the lactic acid from muscles quickly enough. This is your anaerobic threshold (AT) and you can train your body to increase its AT. Typically most people reach their anaerobic threshold in zone 4.
Running LT test: On a day when you’re feeling great go to a track. Wear a heart monitor and warm up with an easy 10-15 minute jog. Then run a 30 minute time trial where you run at a tempo you can sustain for 30 minutes but not longer (8/10 intensity). At the 10 minute mark click the lap button on your watch so you can note when to begin calculating the average heart rate. When you’re finished with the 30 min time trial note the average heart rate you sustained during the last 20 minutes. This will be your LT heart rate for your run workouts and will correspond to your LT.
Another way of determining LT is to put on your HR monitor and jog slowly for 2-3 minutes at a very easy pace. Then increase your pace moderately and sustain the new pace for 2-3 minutes. Continue this pattern, noting your heart rate at each new pace until you reach a pace where your breathing spikes. This would be your lactate threshold. A popular zone system uses this method as detailed below. Again this is something that you should re-evaluate every 3 months or so because as you become fitter your metrics may change.
Limitations of Heart Rate Training?
Just using a heart rate monitor will not automatically make your training more effective. There are a few mistakes that people make and there are some factors why heart rates can vary on any given day. Things like dehydration can increase the heart rate by up to 7.5%, heat and humidity can also increase heart rate by 10 beats per minute and altitude can increase the heart rate by 10-20% even when a runner is acclimatized. Biological variations like stress and hormone levels can cause day to day changes from 2-4 beats per minute.
- Don’t use the 220-age formula. There are more accurate ways to determine maximum heart rate, resting heart rate, heart rate reserve and lactate threshold. After you figure out your lactate threshold most of your training should be performed below this zone and you should only go above lactate threshold in 1-2 speed sessions per week.
- Heart rate monitors can be fairly inaccurate during shorter speed workouts. When you suddenly increase your exercise intensity something called cardiac lag takes place. During fast intervals your heart rate may continue climbing even when you’re doing a recovery lap. It’s best to use pace and perceived effort to help regulate intensity in shorter speed sessions like strides and 400-800 meter repeats.
- Heart rate monitoring only provides one part of the total exercise intensity equation. For example, most runners have a lower heart rate when running on a treadmill than they do while running outdoors at the same pace. This doesn’t mean that running on the treadmill is easier. In fact the opposite is true. Studies have shown that runners feel better and can run faster outdoors even though their heart rates are higher. Also, things like dehydration, heat, humidity, stress level, allergies, illness, pain, and certain medications will skew the numbers you see on the monitor. If you over-analyze one day’s workout you may not get an accurate picture and instead you should look at the bigger picture of an entire week or month.
Remember that there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to becoming a successful runner. Your body is a complex organism, not simply a machine that always performs the same way. You may be able to estimate when your body is in the fat burning zone or when it’s starting to burn primarily glycogen. But your body may be burning some combination of lipids (fat), glycogen (carbohydrates), amino acids (protein) and phosphates during any given workout or day. Realize that you may respond differently from your running partner or someone you’re reading about.
Maybe the thought of all this stresses you out. You may never purchase a heart rate monitor or high tech watch and that’s fine. Realize that all these systems are simply guides to improve your endurance and enjoyment of running. If you find yourself stressing about zones during every second of your workout and boring random strangers about the details it may be time to unplug yourself and just listen to your body. Numbers and data are great when used in balance. But simple mathematics can’t tell the whole story. If your run is turning into the most stressful time of your day then something needs to change. Remember that running is what you make it. Choose to let running enrich your life as you learn to appreciate what your body is capable of accomplishing.
- Running Science by Owen Anderson, Phd; Human Kinetic Press
- Lore of Running -4th Edition by Tim Noakes, MD; Human Kinetic Press
- Heart rate monitor graphic created by Charlotte Vogel from Noun Project
Other Helpful Links