On the surface, the basics of heart rate training are pretty simple.
Keep your heart rate below a certain level, or within a certain zone, during your runs.
Understanding heart rate training, and especially wrapping your head around how running easier/slower most of the time is perhaps the best thing you can do to go faster on race day, is a bit less straightforward.
However you feel about heart rate training, understanding why it’s effective can help you move forward as a runner.
Run Slow, Race Fast
It feels like this is the place to start.
The big reason why runners are likely to dip their toes into heart rate training, or any effort-based training philosophy: they want to get faster.
The problem is, this idea couldn’t be more counterintuitive.
The idea of running easy, which often means slowing down your pace, resulting in a faster race time is ridiculous.
But here’s the thing, it works.
The Basics of Heart Rate Training
Let’s dig into the science, but first, it’s time for a disclaimer.
There are full books written on this topic, and I’m going to dig into it at a depth of a hundred and fifty words or so.
Needless to say, I’m going quite surface-level for a topic with ample depth.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
The primary goal of heart rate training is to build your aerobic fitness.
As runners, aerobic fitness is probably the biggest factor in our race day success.
Yet, if we aren’t careful, it can be easy to think we are building our aerobic fitness when, in fact, we are not.
Because as our intensity builds, our body starts to build anaerobic fitness more than aerobic fitness.
The best way to build your aerobic engine is to keep your intensity at a relatively easy level of effort.
Not what feels easy, but what is physiologically easy.
And the surest way to do that is by monitoring your heart rate.
Determining Aerobic Heart Rate
There are a few different formulas that you can use to help give you an idea of what your easy heart rate ranges/zones/limits might be.
In my view, the easiest option is typically the best option.
That’s why I’m more of a MAF guy than anything else.
That formula is simply 180-age.
So if you’re 40?
Anytime you’re running with a heart rate under 140, you’re building your aerobic base.
Start creeping above 140?
Time to slow down and/or walk.
Every formula I’ve ever seen/used has always resulted in a heart rate that is within a few beats, up or down, of this number.
So I say just use the simple formula and go from there.
But if you do decide to try some other formulas? I’d challenge you to use whatever number is lower.
Because better to err on the side of caution here, to make sure you’re getting the most aerobic bang for your training buck.
What About Zones?
Keep. It. Simple.
If you want to use heart rate zones instead of a singular line of demarcation between easy and hard? That’s fine.
It’s a bit more complicated way to get the same result, but whatever tickles your fancy.
Typically, zones 1&2 are your easy/aerobic zones, and everything else is varying degrees of hard.
So keep your heart rate in zone one or two, and you’ll be fine.
Is there a benefit to spending more time in zone two than one?
Probably, but it’s minimal.
Actual, Not Average
It’s your actual heart rate that matters, not your average heart rate throughout your run.
Because of how math works, your average HR over a run doesn’t always accurately tell you how intense your run was.
A hard interval workout? One that no one would classify as anything close to easy?
Well, by the time you factor in a mile or so of warm-up and cool-down, plus the recovery intervals between the pushes, your average heart rate could look rather pedestrian.
The average can be even more misleading for an easy run that starts to drift into not-easy territory.
In order to keep the focus on building your aerobic fitness, you’ll want to keep an eye on your heart rate during all easy runs.
If (when?) it starts ticking up towards the number you want to stay under?
Slow your pace. Walk for a few minutes.
Whatever it takes, don’t let your HR go much above the line and stay there for long.
Because once you push from primarily aerobic to primarily anaerobic, you’re not going to make much, if any, additional gains on aerobic fitness for the rest of your run.
Keep an eye on your heart rate. Set alerts on your watch.
Just keep your heart rate where you want it on your easy days.
Get a Heart Rate Strap
Nothing seems to turn people off about heart rate training quicker than telling them that they need to get a heart rate strap.
Stop trying to tell me that the reading on your watch is just as accurate as a heart rate strap, because it’s not.
The overwhelming evidence is that the accuracy of optical heart rate sensors varies wildly when exercising, and with heart rate training accuracy matters.
Look, I get that a heart rate strap isn’t the most comfortable thing.
And for the ladies, wearing a strap and a sports bra is a thing as well.
But it’s doable.
If building your aerobic engine up, and running stronger and faster races, is important to you, you’ll figure out how to make it happen.
Building aerobic fitness is a volume play, pure and simple.
The more time you spend running easy, the quicker you’ll build aerobic fitness.
Please don’t miss the point I’m trying to make here, ok?
I’m not saying that heart rate training won’t work if you aren’t running a certain amount each week.
What I’m saying is that the more you are able to run at an aerobic level, the more quickly you’ll see some progress.
(And, sadly, quickly here is a very relative term.)
Start where you are, and if you’re able to add in a few more miles in the future do so.
But if not?
Keep your easy runs easy, and let your aerobic fitness build naturally.
So No Speed Workouts, Then?
Speed workouts are absolutely a necessary piece of the fitness-building puzzle, even (especially?) for runners who are committed to heart rate training.
We will talk about this much more next week, I promise.
What Heart Rate Training Questions do You Have?
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