Today, I kick off a 4 part series on heart rate training.
We will be starting completely from scratch, beginning with heart rate training fundamentals and breaking the details down into easily consumable chunks over the next 4 episodes. We’ll go over terminology, key training principles, and heart rate zones and how to calculate them. I’ll also cover the ways in which you can apply your new-found heart rate information to your training.
If you have struggled with heart rate training in the past, carefully listen to the next 4 shows or read the full articles and show notes that accompany each episode. I’ll try to break it down into simplistic parts with the hope that you’ll come out the other side with a greater appreciation of heart rate training and the knowledge of whether or not it is right for you.
Even if you don’t formally train or desire to train using a heart rate monitor, this series will still be helpful. At its fundamental level, heart rate training is really just about measuring intensity and applying the right level of intensity to your training regimen. Whether you choose to measure your heart rate or not, the knowledge gained here will benefit you greatly, even if you end up using a different approach to training.
So let’s chat heart rate training!
Just as a light mental stretch before we jump in, here are a few interesting facts about your heart. Just wait until your next game night of trivial pursuit when you wow your in-laws with your impressive knowledge of that blood-pumping organ. You can thank me later.
Although it’s no bigger than your fist, your heart has the incredible job of keeping your blood flowing through over 60,000 miles of blood vessels.
Heart rate training, to many, comes off as a technical and complex topic. But, at its core, heart rate training really isn’t all that difficult
The reason that, as runners, we make a topic like heart rate training so intimidating is that we tend over think every little thing we do. Often, we’re looking for that flawless, quick-fix solution that will solve all our running problems.
While it can be a valuable tool, you should know that heart rate training, in and of itself, will not solve all your running problems. It may solve some, but certainly not every single issue. And that’s where the dissatisfaction comes in.
Fitness expert Ben Greenfield makes a great point in his book, Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health & Life,(#amazon link) that we humans are messy. Not messy in the traditional sense of the word (like my teenagers’ rooms), but messy in the way that our bodies are complex. Because of this physiological complexity, what training method works for one does not work for all. This includes heart rate training.
Yet many of us continue to strive for a perfect answer to all our training troubles. To solve our issues, we tend to focus on common trends that appear in our running, latching onto these aspects and then using them to structure our own individual methods of training.
If you have ever heard someone ask (or asked someone yourself) what is the best way to *insert your favorite running topic here*, only to be met with a (seemingly) clear-cut one-size fits all type of answer, you know what I’m referring to. The problem is what is best for me, probably isn’t best for you. We are messy.
Now, that doesn’t mean we ignore our running troubles or stop asking questions to solve them – no, not at all. We simply need to approach training issues from the perspective that, while a lot of what we hear may be based on truth, it has also been muddled with over generalizing.
Keep this in mind as we go through this series.
As a coach, I have to help athletes cut the nonsense out of running advice, or at least reduce the amount of overwhelming material there is out there and get down to what is measurable and applicable to an individual athlete. Whether it’s heart rate training, what shoes they’re wearing, or how many times a week to work out, runners want to know, and there’s a wealth of information out there with all sorts of different recommendations and advice to sift through. Like I said – messy.
Now I have here a great example of these overgeneralized pieces of running advice as well as a homework assignment for you: Go out right now and find the “origin”, the original person or study that says the 10% rule is fundamentally the rule.
For those who have not heard of the 10% rule, it’s a guideline that says you should not add more than 10% to your mileage each week or increase the distance of a single run by more than 10%.
By the way – which is it?
Is it no more than 10% to your total weekly distance? Or no more than 10% to a single run? And then there’s the research that argues 10% vs. say 8% or 12%. Now where did that come from?
Guess what – no one seems to know. If you find out, please let me know.
Now, is the 10% rule, bad advice? Absolutely not. Is 10% easier to remember than 8% or 12%? Probably so. But, when it comes down to it, the 10% rule is more running lore than anything else, passed on by runner to runner to runner until it becomes accepted fact.
Now what does the 10% rule have to do with heart rate training? Well, heart rate training follows the same general idea.
Although heart rate training has been researched and analyzed in hundreds, maybe thousands of studies, you will find dozens and dozens of variations on the topic.
For example, there are some experts that say you should train in only 3 zones. Other suggest 4 zones, 5 zones and even 6 zones! Some say running in zone 3 is essentially running “junk miles” – a term that classifies miles ran at a moderate pace as inferior, even wasteful, compared to mileage ran during higher intensity activities (like tempo runs or hill repeats). Yet others argue that there is a purpose for training in zone 3.
Why the discrepancy?
We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming episode.
Fundamentally, the advice is sound in all notions. But does the fact that someone proposes 6 zones vs. 3 zones really mean one is better than the other?
Maybe, maybe not.
Maybe these variations arise, because, in order to successfully publish a book or article on heart rate training, you have to stand apart from all the others. Or maybe one writer or researcher is targeting a slightly different group of people. Or perhaps a different researcher is coming at the training from an alternate angle. We may never know for sure.
Is your head spinning yet? Well, don’t fear.
The cool thing about heart rate training is that you don’t have to do it perfectly to generate results. The fact that you’re paying detailed attention to how hard your heart is working will help ensure that you don’t over train or run a specific workout too easy or too hard. It works even if we aren’t perfect, just like the 10% rule works even though it isn’t perfect.
At its core, heart rate training is really about making sure you are training in the right zone of intensity that best maximizes the specific type of training your body needs. It works by giving you the biological feedback necessary (by measuring your heart beats per minute), which tells you if you are either pushing yourself too hard or not hard enough.
Essentially, your heart’s main job is to pump and push oxygen out to the rest of your body. Oxygen is critical, not only to live, but for the body to thrive in your day to day activities. Especially when you run.
So, when your heart works harder or not as hard as usual, it has impacts.
Sometimes the impact is positive, like when you train in the right zone. Other times the impact is negative, like when you are over training, stressed, or it’s hot outside. Having this awareness of how hard your heart is working can help maximize your training.
In the next episode , we’ll dive into what’s really happening inside your body when you train. This information will be highly valuable to you, as a runner. Understanding how your body adapts to running is related to how your body uses fuel to propel your body further and faster. And what runner doesn’t want that?
And having that same understanding is not only a core principle for making you a better runner, but one that will likely sustain you’re running efforts during your next race. Yet, even if you do hit the wall early during your next half marathon or if you race your upcoming 5k so fast that you have to stop for fear of puking all over your favorite shoes, you’ll at least have a pretty good idea of why it happened.
The best part?
The knowledge you’ll gain throughout these podcasts is golden, even if you don’t want to run with a heart rate monitor.
Beyond that, we will also get into the key terminology that you should be aware of.
For example, we’ll cover basic terms like maximum heart rate, resting heart rate, and heart rate reserve, as well as some more complex ones you may not have heard of before.
We’ll also go over what lactate is versus lactic acid as well as what is VO2 max. These are all key things that runners should be aware of and are helpful in understanding where your fitness level lies. These terms also affect heart rate zones and can help you identify the types of training runs that will best help you reach your goals.
In episode 29 ,we learn how you can identify your training zones across your heart zone range. Here is where we’ll start putting everything we’ve learned into real practice.
This is where the rubber soles meet the road so to speak. At this level, you can rest assure that you know what you need to know as a layman runner. You will be well versed enough in heart rate training lingo to have a good starting point to begin using the method. And, if you decide to forego the heart rate monitor all together, you’ll at least have a great base of knowledge to apply to other training approaches.
Now, I want to be careful here, because I just threw out some fancy terms. This is an area where runners can easily get confused because of the complexity of some of these topics. This is also where most heart rate training books start turning into a college level physiology course and where most people start to give up on heart rate training altogether, feeling that it’s much too complicated to use. I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Having already outlined the other sessions, I hope I have accomplished taking a very complex subject and making it easy enough for all of us to wrap our head around without me having to go all Phd in exercise science on you.
Think about this for a minute: have you ever heard the saying that runners tend to run too fast during their long runs. Or maybe it’s that we run too slow during our speed workouts? What about the term VO2 max? What does that even mean? What is a recovery run and why does it matter? Have you ever hit training plateaus when you run? Have you ever been in a state of over training? How do you know? I mean, after all, shouldn’t you feel tired with all the miles you are running? And, when resting, is your body really at rest? Or is it still working hard to repair itself?
These are all elements that can be identified or influenced with heart rate training.
You’ll find that heart rate training accounts for a lot of things and can help you adjust your training to your physiological needs.
For example, next time it’s sweltering hot outside, realize that your heart has to work harder because your blood is being diverted to your skin to keep you cool. This means that you can run slower knowing that you are still making progress as if you were running faster in a cooler temperature. And, when your body seems extra tired, you don’t always need to run as fast to get the same physiological outcome.
Now, if, instead, you try to push yourself harder during these challenging days, you may end up doing more harm than good. In these instances, your zealous efforts aren’t targeting the correct change (like endurance) that you think they are. But, when used properly, heart rate training can help you prevent these types of mistakes.
While heart rate training has countless benefits, it can be difficult to be sure how close you’re getting to actual results when using a heart rate monitor. You can remedy this by comparing your own results to a lab test, but you would be skipping the later method if going the estimated route anyways.
Your heart rate is affected by other factors as well, such as your lactate threshold. Again, this is something that can be estimated but should be tested in a lab for best accuracy. Plus, remember – your lactate threshold changes as your fitness changes. In other words, unless you stay up to date on your heart rate training zones, your fitness level is a moving target.
In my opinion, and this is just the opinion of another so called “opinionated old fart”, estimating your rate zones is minimally better than just “perceiving” your effort of intensity.
However, heart rate training can help you with molding your perception around perceiving this effort in your training, especially if you’re just getting started with perceived effort based training. I have a pretty good feel for my effort, but that may not be the case for you.
Honestly, if I were going to actively involve myself in heart rate training, I would invest in getting lab tested. This costs a few hundred dollars, in most places. I’d probably get tested annually or every other year, but, to be frank, I’m just not that into it.
In addition to heart rate training, I have seen great success using the perceived effort approach. Research shows that both methods are very effective ways to train.
In fact, effort based training, when done properly, can be almost as effective as heart rate training – within a few percent, actually. For most recreational runners, that mere percentage is negligible in terms of overall performance. Now, for elite runners who make a living off of being competitive, that couple percent might be the difference between winning a race and coming in 2nd place. But I’m sure most of us have more modest training goals in mind.
Now, I have to confess something. To be brutally honest with you, I have not trained using the traditional heart rate training approach for some time.
I tried it, spent time learning about it, and discovered how it can work best for me. Yet, despite all of its numerous benefits, I choose to train using the perceived effort approach. Taking into account my personal preferences and goals, perceived effort is the right fit for me at the moment.
While I certainly praise the benefits of why one should use heart rate training, it’s also important to be aware of some of the negatives. Going back to my earlier points, there is no “best way” or “only way” to train, only a way that works for you.
The main reason I have not formally been using heart rate training is that I have found it to be a little more restricting than I personally care to train.
While using heart rate training, I was always having to tweak something. My zones, my watch alarms, my Garmin account where I uploaded my data – you get the idea. Maybe if I was in a steady state of fitness as opposed to making improvements it would not have been so bad.
I also did not like being tied to a heart rate device or being bogged down with linking my device to something like Garmin Connect to analyze my HR data. You can still do heart rate training without all the data analysis, but then you would be cutting yourself a bit short.
So while heart rate training is, essentially, the most accurate way to train, this extra tweaking is not something I personally choose to do.
Another reason I don’t personally train using measured heart rate is that, as you will learn in an upcoming episode, there are various ways to estimate your maximum heart rate. In and of itself that is fine, but it can be a pain in the butt deciphering which method is the right one to use.
I have also found that heart rate training requires a lot more work to get started and to maintain than other training approaches. So much that, when I coach athletes who prefer a heart rate training approach, I charge more. Why? Because it’s more work for me. We get great results, but it is more work.
I know some of you will disagree with my opinion…which is OK – it’s my opinion and my show – na na na na na na… get your own show. But, all joking aside, I believe healthy debate is good, and I am just providing an alternative view to help guide you in making your own decisions. There are actually a lot of people who agree with me out there (in addition to the many that disagree!).
To be clear, I am not trying to put down heart rate training because, like I mentioned earlier, it is just one tool in a whole arsenal of techniques to provide a level of running feedback.
As a coach, I have coached using Heart Rate and have had great success with it. It is brutally honest with you, given the real data that comes back from your device.
Keep in mind, though, that there is often a delay in the reporting of heart rate from when you start or stop an effort to when it actually reports back to you. There is also something known as cardiac drift, which impacts your heart rate as you progress through a workout.
Again, these are things that should not scare you from trying heart rate training but things you should be aware of during your training. We’ll talk more about these in upcoming episodes as well.
So this is where I want to leave off in this first episode.
Heart rate training (when done correctly) takes out the guess work and gives you real, honest, and measurable feedback. It’s a tool, but not only that – it’s also a choice that you as a runner can make. If you’re interested, give it a try. You might be surprised how well it works for you.
Don’t discount it because heart rate training seems like hard work. It does not have to be. And, if you can manage heart rate training, I highly recommend it. It works well. Very well.
You can put great amounts of effort into the method and get down to a tremendous amount of detail in terms of tracking and tweaking your training. Or you can follow it loosely as a guide. That is what makes running so easy, yet also so complex. We have choices. There is no right or wrong way, only your way.
With that, lets wrap up today’s show. The next episode, episode 27, will be out shortly. We’ll dig into the key principles and terminology of heart rate training, some of which I mentioned today but maybe did not explain in full detail.
Until next time, have a great week everybody and catch you soon.
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