Friday, March 6, 2015

Heart Rate Training - A History & Guide

I've had some people ask about my training, in particular the heart rate guided training I've been doing, so I figured I'd put together a little tutorial of sorts.  Hopefully this will answer some questions and get you started if you're interested and ready to go.  By no means is this meant to be a Gospel of heart rate training, but I'd like to share some things I've learned and been through with all of you.  Warning, this is long and wordy.

First off, why train off your heart rate instead of pace?  Well, where do you get your pace numbers from?  Most of us use a pace calculator or chart found on the internet or in a book that gives us a listing of training paces based on either a recent race time or our goal time for an upcoming race.  This isn't a bad thing, or even wrong, however it does have its drawbacks.  If you're basing your pace off a previous race, is that an accurate representation of your fitness now?  And when I'm talking NOW, I mean today.  For your workout you have on the plan this very day.  If you're basing a marathon training pace time off a 5K you did 3 months ago, that might not be where you need to be for today's 5 mile general aerobic run, for example.  Your fitness might have improved, you might be having a great day, you might be a little under the weather, the season is different so you have elements to contend with, you may have taken some time off of running due to injury or personal preference and need to rebuild a bit.  If you're pacing yourself based on a specific goal time, are you sure that's the goal you should be going for?

Training by heart rate takes into account your individuality.  The problem with "one size fits all" training plans and pacing guides is they assume that everyone is able to go through the motions from day 1 to race day.. each mile, each second of pace.  In most cases, that's really unrealistic.  You're going to have great days where you can (and should!) push yourself.  You're also going to have days where you just don't have it - your body is tired, maybe you have an underlying sickness, stresses, an injury creeping up, whatever - and in this case you need to back off even if you think that 8 mile run just has to be ran at 7:30.  Keeping your body healthy and recovered lets you train efficiently and makes you stronger overall.

I do not recommend you attempt to start training by heart rate in the middle of a training plan.  It will just stress you out, give you something else to worry about, and at this point in the game (if you're training for a Spring marathon like me and you're on the downhill of training anyway) it probably won't provide you with the benefits you're hoping for.  Wait until the end of your season and you're in rebuilding/maintenance phase.  Heart rate training is not easy.  Well, ok, it is easy on the body however it is not easy on the mind.  It takes determination and dedication and blind trust.  And it most certainly takes you chucking whatever runners ego you have out the back door.  Your speedy legs are going to slow down.  You're going to get pissed off and frustrated.  You might even say "screw this" and put the monitor away and go on with your bad self after giving it a whirl.  I did that once.  Start heart rate training when you have the ability to dedicate yourself to it.  Bookmark this page and come back to it when you are.

My heart rate journey started 2 summers ago.  I was listening to podcasts about running and doing a lot of reading about running (ok, who am I kidding, this is still a daily thing for me!) and hearing people talk about heart rate training really got my interest.  People were having great results running what seemed to be lots of miles at an easy pace.  After a while their fitness would improve and that pace kept getting a little faster and a little faster... They stayed injury free too!  So I gathered all the info I could - I read articles and books.  Learned the names Lydiard, Maffetone, Karvonen, Hadd, etc.  And I was fascinated and of course, wanted to give it a try.  After investing in a heart rate monitor that hooked up to my GPS watch I started what I thought would be a "plug & go" easy thing.  My plan was to run within my easy aerobic zone, where most runs are supposed to be.  Simple, right?  NO.  I had been running between 8-9 minute miles for my "easy" runs.  I would learn that pace was most certainly (especially during the humid summer) not easy.  I knew my max heart rate for the aerobic zone and I would hit that during the first quarter mile.  To keep my heart rate in the appropriate zone, I'd have to take walk breaks - and a lot of them.  I was struggling to keep a 12 minute mile at times and on longer runs I was doing more walking than I ever wanted to.  I grew more and more frustrated with the method and threw in the towel - this couldn't be right.  I was "fast", I was "fit", running slow and taking walk breaks was for the birds.  So I quit.

Then my stress fracture happened, I had to relearn everything, and since my injury stemmed from blatant ego and overuse I got an attitude adjustment.  After last year's Pittsburgh Half I strapped the monitor on again.  I trained all last summer at low heart rate allowing myself random days "naked" while building up for my MCM plan.  Yes, running those 11+ minute miles I turned my nose up at the year before.  And I loved it.  I learned to pace myself better on effort and eventually I wasn't having to take walk breaks every run.  My easy runs got easier too!

I did not use my monitor for all of my MCM training runs.  I would put it on here and there for my easy runs and recovery runs and some long runs, but I was not 100% with it.  In hindsight I would love to have done what I'm doing now, but hey, it worked out.  After I recovered from MCM I put the monitor back on full time and rebuilt my mileage and now... well here we are and you can read back through my training blogs to see what's been happening.  :-)

So you want to give it a go?  Great!  First - get a heart rate monitor.  I'm currently using the one that goes with my Garmin 210 when I run outdoors.  When I'm in the gym, I use a Polar FT4 (which I actually prefer over the Garmin - it seems to not jump around as much and not be so sensitive to random things like what shirt I'm wearing, etc like the Garmin is).  The FT4 is great because it works with the treadmills at pretty much every gym in town and I rarely if ever need to look at my wrist - my heart rate is displayed right there in front of me.

You've got a HRM.  I'll assume you know how to set it up and enter your personal info and whatnot.  Now what?  Well, you could just take off on a run and come back and wonder what all the numbers mean.  Or you could do a bit of prep work and be thankful you did.

First things first.  To train accurately you need to know your max heart rate.  Here's where things can get tricky.  There are several calculators to figure it out.  They are based on different studies.  Here is a link with a few methods.  You also will want to figure out your resting heart rate, particularly for finding out your heart rate reserve and utilizing the Karvonen method (which is probably the most accurate calculator in my opinion).  Figuring out your resting heart rate is easy - when you open your eyes first thing in the morning, grab your iPhone (or watch or anything with a timer on it), place your fingers on your carotid/pulse point to the side of your throat and count for a minute!  Easy peasy.

Now after that I'm going to tell you that those calculators are ok, but.... they are still not absolutely accurate.  I'm sure you can see why - most assume that everyone your age has the same fitness!  That's certainly not true... I can tell you for a fact that I am more fit than a lot of 36 year old women and there a lot of 36 year old women more fit than I am.  So what do you do?  Well, you could get a bunch of extremely expensive tests done at a hospital or sports clinic that your insurance will never ok and most people will look at you silly for wanting or you could just put yourself to the test.  Just be careful, and be prepared to want to puke.

Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning has pretty much been my bible of running for the past weeks.  In this book he recommends finding your maximal heart rate my running 3 sets of hill repeats (around 600m) all out.  If you truly run them at 100% you should see a number that's within 2 beats of your actual MHR.

Other methods include:  After a warmup, run hard for 3 minutes, then recover for 2 minutes.  Repeat this process 3 times and you should be at MHR during the third repeat.
Run 10x100m all out sprints.  Your highest heart rate recorded is approximately your MHR.
Wear your heart rate monitor during an all out 5K.  Again, your highest heart rate recorded is your MHR.  There are more, but those are what come to mind and fingers at this moment.

Now you have a HRM and you know your maximal heart rate and your resting heart rate.  You've survived either the physical test and/or the math test.  Hooray!  The next step is to make a plan!  If you're just building base or maintaining fitness, you can stay in the easy and recovery zones, maybe taking a day a week to do a tempo or some intervals.  When I did that, I used the chart here.  If you're training for a race, this is another spot where things get personal.  You base your zones on your training plan.  And I can't tell you what that is.  For me personally, I'm basing mine off my plan's book - also found here.  You can see that my plan differs from most in that my long runs are paced just a bit faster than my general/easy runs.  Most plans call for the long run to be as slow as possible.  Like I said, go with YOUR plan.

From here, you're on your own.  Again, be prepared that to keep your heart rate as low as it is prescribed to be might get frustrating.  You very well may need to walk up hills.  I did for quite a while... Pittsburghers, you know that "hill" on the North Shore trail that puts you out by the Science Center?  I had to walk that so many times because that little thing would spike my heart rate!  Eventually, I didn't have to anymore. It comes around, you just have to be patient with this.  Some days your easy run pace with be blazing fast and other days it might be just a step above (or even under!)  a recovery run.  The point is to stay in zone and try your hardest not to spike out of it.  The longer you stay in your appropriate zone, the more that particular run is working for you - which is the point.  All runs have a purpose, even the "just running" ones. Something I found helpful in the beginning is only showing heart rate on my watch.  I had no idea what paces I was running until the run was over.  I knew if I saw those super slow miles tick off that I'd get tempted to speed up.  And by all means, don't get stressed over this.  It's supposed to be helpful and fun (well, fun for nerds I guess and I am one) and if it's not for you - then it's just not for you.  No harm no foul.

One more thing I want to mention before wrapping this up:  The weather.  Yes, "hot" topic around these parts these days, but it is very relevant when using your heart rate for training.  When the weather is hot and humid you may want to adjust your training zones.  Here's Pfitzinger's recommendation:

If the temps are in the 70s and the humidity is low - increase zones by 2-4 bpm
If the temps are in the 70s and the humidity is high - increase zones by 5-8 bpm
If the temps are in the 80s and the humidity is low - increase zones by 5-8 bpm
If the temps are in the 80s and the humidity is high - go as easy as you can!

I hope this has explained some things and helped at least one person!  Feel free to get in touch with me on here, email, Twitter, wherever you find me and ask questions if you have them.  Again, I don't claim to know it all, but I'll be happy to share what I do.  Get out there and enjoy running easy, running long, running injury free and just being able to do it!


  1. This post was very helpful! I wanted to try this but wanted to see some results from people. Maybe next training cycle I will give it a go.

  2. This is such a great and informative post! I've actually been curious about this method after reading your race recap. It seems like it's working for you, so I might try it once I save up for a HRM!

    1. Thanks! usually has great deals. They also ship really quickly and are awesome about returns and exchanges!

  3. This is so helpful! Thanks! I think, like you said, the hardest part is slowing down. At times, I've been embarrassed to be running that slowly, especially when lots of people are around. It sounds like it does get better over time, and that paces will drop. One thing I've learned from this is that it's okay to walk to stay in the zone. I think I've always thought, well I'm going up a hill, of course it's going to spike. Now I realize I should take walk breaks to keep it down. I think this is going to be really great for me this summer. I've cut short many runs because I thought my body just can't handle the heat & humidity. I think instead I just need to adjust, go slower, and take walk breaks. Thanks for all the info!

    1. You're welcome! Glad I can help! In Pfitzinger's theory on hills is that you can allow yourself a 5-8 bpm buffer going up the hill as long as you can immediately pull it back into range on the downhill. So if your max is 155, you're ok as long as you don't go over 160-163. Once that hit 163 it would be walking time.

  4. AWESOME post!!! Thank you so much! I am finally starting to understand training by heart rate and I really think I'm going to go for it.
    I've been wearing my heart rate monitor the last few weeks, just out of curiosity and have used it a few times to make sure my easy running is easy, and I definitely put the screen to just show heart rate so I don't get upset about slowing down.
    I think one of the reasons I have been hesitant to try it, is because I don't want to have to slow down (I'm slow enough as it is), but seeing that it truly does work and helps you speed up in the long run (tehehe, so punny) is enough for me!

    1. You're quite welcome! I hope it helps you. Yes, I would get upset initially having to slow down so not seeing those pace numbers helps so much. When I first tried out heart rate training (the time I quit on it) my breaking point came when I did an 8 mile run on the Butler Freeport Trail which is FLAT or downhill and I was having to walk. Of course back then I didn't take into consideration it was the middle of summer, in the middle of the afternoon, I didn't have hydration,etc. It's all a learning experience!