Heart Rate Training 101

By Rick Morris

Heart rate training 101 give you the basics you need to know. Technology is a great thing. It makes everyday performing everyday tasks simpler and more efficient – usually! There are times when over reliance on the latest technological advances can get in the way more than it lends a hand. The relationship between heart rate training and running performance is a good example of that. If used properly heart rate training can pay huge benefits for your running performance level,  but if you blindly rely on your heart rate monitor to dictate your training pace or duration it can become more of a hindrance.

The key to properly using heart rate training is knowing its strengths and weaknesses. Heart rate training can be a valuable training tool that will improve your running performance if you take advantage of its strong suits but stay aware of its downfalls.

Heart Rate Training Strengths

Avoiding Over Training – One of the greatest benefits of heart rate training is in helping you avoid over reaching or full blown over training syndrome.  Many runners, including myself, love to run fast and long Those high intensity runs and long runs do a great job of conditioning and improving running performance, but you can have too much of a good thing. You need sufficient recovery time between hard workout sessions. Many runners tend to run too fast on easy or recovery run days. Using a heart rate monitor to keep your training heart rate at or below the recommended 75% of maximum heart rate will help you keep your easy run pace at the level that will allow sufficient recovery.

  • Injury Rehabilitation – Injuries are a part of running that’s hard to avoid. When recovering from an injury it’s important to very gradually ease your way back into full speed running. Using a heart rate monitor is a very effective way to keep yourself from running too hard during the early stages of recovery.
  • Estimating Your Running Paces – Many workouts require running at specific paces associated with your VO2 max. For example when doing a vVO2 max workout (velocity @ VO2 max) you should be running right at 100% of your VO2 max. The problem lies in determining your VO2 max pace. There are a several ways to estimate your VO2 max running pace. The most accurate is through a laboratory test which is expensive and a bit inconvenient. You can also estimate your VO2 max pace by your most current race paces. For most runners their current 3K pace is very close to their VO2 max pace. The third and for many runners the easiest method is by using a heart rate monitor. When you reach your maximum heart rate you are running at very close to your vVO2 max.
  • Maintaining Your Planned Training Pace – As you become fatigued during both high intensity interval training and longer tempo runs you will tend to slow down. This is due to both voluntary response to the discomfort of the pace and an involuntary reaction from your central nervous system as it tries to maintain a level of homeostasis or balance in your body chemistry. Using a heart rate monitor can help you maintain a quality pace when you become fatigued.

Some Problems With Heart Rate Training

  • Cardiac Drift – One of the problems with heart rate training is associated with moderate to long distance runs. Your heart rate tends to increase over time even when you are maintaining an even pace. The time required for cardiac drift to become a factor varies but most studies have shown that workout or run durations of more than 20 minutes begin to show signs of increased heart rate.
  • Weather Conditions – Running in hot weather conditions has been proven to cause an increase in heart rate.  Data from the studies vary slightly on the specific  effect of hot weather on heart rate. During my research I found that data varied from a 15 beats per minute to nearly 30 beats per minute increase in heart rate over moderate or cool weather condition. A runner using heart rate training during hot weather conditions will almost certainly under estimate their training intensity. Running in cold weather can cause a slight decrease in both resting and training heart rate which could cause on over estimation of training intensity.
  • Altitude – Running at high altitude is a great training technique not especially accurate for heart rate training.  It has been estimated that your sub maximal heart rate may increase by as much as 50% in the early stages of high altitude acclimation. If you live and train at high altitude or are already acclimated to high altitude training the effect on heart rate is probably not significant.
  • Supplements/Drugs/Medicines – Some runners like to include performance enhancing supplements such as caffeine in their training diet. Many of these supplements will artificially raise your heart rate and make heart rate training inaccurate. Many prescription drugs and over the counter medicines will also affect your heart rate which will make heart rate training a less effective training technique.
  • Sleep Patterns/Fatigue – Getting too little sleep, too much stress or too little rest is also a cause in both increase resting heart rate and an increased exercise heart rate.  Anything that causes an increase in your basal heart rate will have an adverse affect on the reliability of heart rate training.
  • Estimating Your Maximum Heart Rate – Heart rate training all begins with an accurate maximum heart rate. Most runners will use the standard 220-your age equation. That equation is very easy but also very inaccurate. That simple equation was developed using an average of the entire population. The problem is that you aren’t average – you are unique. Using that equation can result in an error of up to 20 beats per minute. That much of an error can result in estimated training paces that are much slower or faster than they should be.

Estimating Your Maximum Heart Rate

Before you even attempt heart rate training you should get an accurate measure of your maximum heart rate. The most accurate way is to have a lab test, but that is not a viable alternative for most of us. The easiest but least accurate method is using an equation. You can use the standard equation mentioned above or some others that many believe are more accurate including 206.9 – (0.67 x age ) which was touted in a Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise ( 2007, May;39(5):822-9) as being a more accurate equation. But keep in mind that any equation uses assumptions and generic data which makes them inherently inaccurate.

A more reliable way for a competitive runner to estimate their MHR is by current race times or a time trial. When you’re running at your 3K or 2 mile race pace your heart rate is very close your maximum heart rate. The next time you perform a 2 mile race wear your heart rate monitor and note your heart rate during the final mile of your race. That heart rate should be within a few beats of your MHR.  You could also perform a 3K or 2 mile time trial on a track but it’s sometimes very difficult to run at your true 2 mile race pace when you aren’t actually competing. You may get a more accurate reading by doing the following routine:

After a warm up, run 3 minutes at the fastest pace you can maintain for the full three minutes. Then jog easily for 2 minute for recovery. Then speed up again to your maximum pace for three minutes and recover with another 2 minute jog.  Now run another 3 minute repeat at your maximum pace. Note your heart rate during the last minute of this 3 minute repeat. That should be very close to your maximum heart rate.

When To Use Heart Rate Training

Now that you have a reasonably close estimate of your MHR, how do you use heart rate training for maximal performance benefits. In my opinion it’s a mistake to blindly follow your heart rate in determining your training paces. There are just too many possible inaccuracies. There will be many times that you are either under or over estimating your training paces. But there are times when using heart rate training can help you improve your training efficiency.

  • Monitor Your Easy Run Days – One of the most effective uses of heart rate training is to prevent you from running too hard on your easy days. Wear your heart rate gear on easy run day and recovery run days. Make sure you keep your heart rate at less than 75% of MHR to insure sufficient rest and recovery.
  • Determine Your Normal Training Heart Rates – Wear your heart rate monitor during your training runs in cool to moderate temperatures. Don’t  use the heart rate to determine your pace. Use either recent race paces or perceived exertion to judge your pace. Note your indicated heart rate between 10 and 15 minutes into your run. That heart rate will give you a baseline of your training heart rate at that pace. You can then use that heart rate baseline to help you monitor signs of over training.
  • Prevent Over Training – If you ever feel like you are more fatigued than you should be at any training pace, put on your heart rate monitor. Check both your resting heart rate and your training pace heart rate. If your heart rate is significantly higher than your baseline training heart rate at the same pace or if it’s higher than you estimated that it should be you could be over reaching which is the beginning sign of over training syndrome. Reduce your training volume until your resting and training heart rates return to normal baseline levels. At that point you can safely resume your normal training.
  • Provide a Training Check – Wearing a heart rate monitor can also provide you with a way to check the validity of your other training methods. If you are using current race pace as a training method and are feeling unsure of your immediate pace, a heart rate monitor can provide you with a way to confirm if your pace is reasonable. You can also use the heart rate monitor to make sure you are maintaining your training pace during longer runs. When you begin to feel fatigued frequently check your heart rate to make sure you are not subconsciously slowing down.

The Bottom Line

In my opinion, heart rate training should never be your primary or only method  of training. If you use only heart rate training you will be consistently under estimating your training intensity because of the problems mentioned above. You can successfully use heart rate training in preventing over training, determining base lines and as a way to support and place a check on other training methods using current race times and perceived exertion.