QT: The Good, Bad, and Ugly After 6+ Years of Heart Rate Training (Best Of-ish)

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My oh my!

Has it already been a year over six years that I’ve been doing this whole heart rate training thing?

Time sure flies when you’re running slow!

Time Flies False

Ok, so maybe time doesn’t fly.

But it is hard to believe that it’s been a full six years since I completely overhauled my diet and training philosophy for a year-long experiment.

The results? We will get to those in a moment.

Pre-Heart Rate Training Diz

If you’ve been following my exploits for more than the past year, feel free to skip ahead a bit.

But if you’re new to these parts, allow me to give you a bit of backstory so you’ll better be able to understand how we got to this point.

A few years ago, I read the book 80/20 Running, and that really turned what I thought I knew upside down.

Before reading that book, I operated under the (false) assumption that to race fast you have to train fast.

All. The. Time.

Turns out, that isn’t the case.

Reading 80/20 Running really opened me up to the idea that running easy most of the time is required to build a base, stay healthy, and race fast.

After reading that book, I committed to running 80/20 for a while.

But one thing led to another, namely my watch literally falling apart, and I started drifting away from monitoring my heart rate while I ran which led to me not running as easy I should have been most of the time.

Yes. My Garmin Literally Fell Apart on a Run!

When I got my Soleus watch, which didn’t have the functionality required to track heart rate, I started to drift into that “no man’s land” of running.

You know, not running easy but not running hard either.

Just kind of running meh.

Fast forward to 2017, and one of my athletes started to ask me what I thought about runners adopting a high-fat and low-carb diet.

I had heard that it was possible, but I didn’t have any experience in the practice.

I decided that as a running coach, it would behoove me to do some more research into the practice and, potentially, try it for myself.

So I jumped on Amazon, ordered a copy of Primal Endurance, and started reading.

Turns out, the first chapter of a book dedicated to reducing the endurance athlete’s need for carbs to fuel performance was all about heart rate training.

As I read the chapter, a couple of times, I decided that if I was going to get the most out of going low-carb I also had to slow down.

Slowing Down Helps Speed Up Recovery

So I decided, then and there, to commit to heart rate training for the next year.

No matter what.

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One Year Later…

I’m a fan.

The science behind heart rate training is pretty much undeniable, and my results support the science as well.

I know I’m not a one-size-fits-all kind of guy, but I can’t think of a scenario where heart rate training wouldn’t be helpful for any distance runner.

But instead of me just telling you why you should adopt the principles of heart rate training into your regimen (you should), I’ll break down my experience.

And while I’m 100% pro-heart rate training, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that are less than ideal with slowing down to get faster.

The Good:

Let’s start with the good.

Heart rate training will improve your aerobic fitness which will help you get faster at any distance that requires strong aerobic fitness.

And for the record, unless your race is less than a minute in duration aerobic fitness is required.

So if you’re running anything longer than about 400m, heart rate training will be beneficial for you.

What does that look like for me?

My first MAF test, on 11 December 2017, took me 41 minute and 50 seconds (10:22 pace) to run a 4.04 mile route through my neighborhood.

One year later, on 11 December 2018, the same 4.04 mile route took me 35 minutes and 42 seconds (8:52 pace).

In one year, I improved my pace by 1:30 PER MILE!

That’s huge!

I wish…

And from everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to, the real benefits of heart rate tend to compound over the years.

So, hopefully, I’m just scratching the surface when it comes to the benefits of heart rate training!

6+ Year Addendum to the Good:

Decrease Risk of Injury:

While there is no way to eliminate the risk of running-related injuries from the equation, heart rate training helps dial down the risk.

In an attempt to keep it simple, the more intense you are working the more stress and strain you subject your body to.

When you’re slowing down to keep your heart rate in check, you’re not stressing your muscles/tendons/bones quite as much.

Are there still stresses on your body when you run?


But a lighter load decreases the injury risk, pure and simple.

Decrease Need for Mid-Run Fueling:

This one is likely to be controversial, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a positive.

When you’re building your base with heart rate training, you are also improving your body’s ability to utilize stored body fat for fuel.

As you become more fat-adapted as a runner, your need for fuel is decreased.

Important note, in no way am I saying you do not need to fuel, especially on race day when you are really pushing your intensity.

By reducing your need to fuel during a run/race, you lower your risk of GI issues as the miles pile up.

Not for nothing, you also don’t need to choke down as many gels.

Feels like a win-win to me.

The Bad:

Heart rate training works.

The science is clear.

However, it’s a slow process.

Painfully slow. Frustratingly slow.

In order to start seeing real progress, you have to stay the course when it feels like you’re not making any progress at all.

It took me a solid three months to make any meaningful progress in my MAF testing.

I got a little slower, then a little faster, then a little slower again over the first four times running the test.

Then I had a nice jump forward, but more or less held steady for several months.

None of my results were troublesome nor unusual, which means that patience is required.

Running 80/20 Requires Patience

And, sadly, us runners aren’t exactly known for being the most patient of creatures.

When we try something new, we want instant results.

And heart rate training does not provide instant results.

Not even close.

6+ Year Addendum to the Bad:

Trust the Process:

Even with a regular MAF test, it can still feel like you’re making little to no progress with your training.

Logically, if you understand how heart rate training works you know that each run moves the needle a little bit.

But emotionally, when you just run easy all the time it often feels like you’re more or less going through the motions without making any progress.

Especially if you have a MAF test that holds steady or has a slight regression.

Trusting the process of heart rate training isn’t always easy, but it’s vital if you want to be successful.

The Ugly:

The thing that really sucks about heart rate training, from my perspective, is that it’s pretty much killed my running social life.

Prior to last year, I used to regularly train with a local group of runners known affectionately as The Pack.

Between a couple of good workouts a week and the weekend long run, I ran with friends the majority of the time.

But since I took up heart rate training, I’ve been running solo.

Occasionally I’ll see my running friends at the coffee shop after a long run, or I’ll join them for an occasional speed workout, but otherwise, it’s just me and Bailey running at a comfortable pace.

And as much as I love running with my dog, it’s not quite the same as running with friends.

Ultimately, the tradeoff is worth it.

I’m fitter than I’ve ever been and feel like I’ve made a huge leap as a runner this year, but I definitely miss running with my friends on a regular basis.

6+ Year Addendum to the Ugly:

External Factors:

Your heart rate is used to monitor how hard your body is working during your run, right?

The problem is there are external factors beyond just how hard you’re working that impact your heart rate.

Temperature. Digestion. Caffeine. Fatigue. Hydration level. Life.

All of these factors can, and often do, influence your heart rate.

If you are going to commit to heart rate training you may want to adjust some aspects of your routine to try and minimize the impact of external factors on your heart rate.

Otherwise, you’ll likely end up running even slower, if not walking a lot, to keep your heart rate in check.

Watch Feedback:

Few things irritate me more than my watch labeling my run as unproductive.

Garmin and Coros don’t exactly “love” heart rate training.

According to their algorithms, if you’re not working pretty hard you’re not making progress.

Typical “no pain, no gain” bullshit.

When you run for an hour or two, intentionally keeping your run easy, and your watch calls that a waste of time?

Hit to the Ego:

Hard to argue that heart rate training isn’t at least a little bit humbling.

Especially if you end up doing a fair bit of walking during your runs.

And if you share your stats on Strava or other similar sites?

You might be tempted to push a little more, even if your HR goes to high, to make your pace a bit faster.

Fight the urge.

Subject your ego, which is often easier said than done.

Should You Get on Board?

If it was up to me, there is no doubt.

But it’s not up to me.

You have to choose if you’re willing to slow down in order to get faster.

Can you get faster without slowing down?

Yeah. You definitely can.

You also run a much greater risk of wearing yourself down, beating up your body, and suffering more than the occasional fluke injury.

Now, don’t get it twisted.

I’m not saying that if you commit to heart rate training you’ll never feel worn down or sore or wind up injured.

All of those things are absolutely still possible.

But slowing down definitely reduces the risk of any of those maladies.

And couple that with the fact that it just works, and for me it’s a no-brainer.

Reflecting on 6+ years of heart rate training: some good, some bad, some ugly. #runchat Click To Tweet

What has Your Experience of Heart Rate Training Been?

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