Heart Rate Training For Runners
Heart rate training (HRT) is a training approach that uses a heart rate monitor or running watch to monitor your heart rate with the goal to guide the intensity level of your workouts. Instead of focusing solely on training paces and perceived level of effort, heart rate training helps you more accurately stay within the specific heart rate zones that target specific fitness benefits.
And when used in conjunction with Heart Rate Variability(HRV), can measure your level of recovery and readiness to train again after previous workouts. Depending on workout intensity, you may need 24-72 hours to recover. A standard training plan, may only give you a day. After a rest day, how do you really know that you have recovered adequately?
By using heart rate training zones, heart rate training can help you define what a recovery run, easy run, tempo run, or lactate threshold run means for you. Without heart rate training, how do you really know? Perceived effort can be the next best thing, but in my experience coaching hundreds of runners, most people overreach on days when they are supposed to run easy.
Other factors, like illness, temperature, hydration levels, etc. can also impact your training.
These are all elements that can influence your training, but can be mitigated by using heart rate training as a guide.
Below is my Guide to Heart Rate Training. It is a work in progress as I work to reorganize this site. The goal of this page is to pull together my collection of coaching tips, experience, and resources for runners interested in heart rate training.
- Is heart rate training right for you?
- Are you a good fit for heart rate training?
- Personal health and medical considerations
- Dealing with external factors that affect heart rate
- Comparing heart rate training with other training methodologies
- Psychological aspects
- Common misconceptions and misunderstandings of heart rate training
- Benefits of heart rate training for runners
- The basics of heart rate training
- Heart rate monitors, running watches, apps, and other tools
- How to set up your heart rate training program
- Advanced Heart Rate Training Techniques
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and recovery
- What is heart rate variability (HRV)
- Case Study: How I personally use HRV to measure my need for recovery.
- How to measure heart rate variability
- How to interpret your HRV score
- How to incorporate heart rate variability into your recovery strategy
- How to improve your HRV scores
- Common misconceptions, pitfalls, and limitations of HRV
- Special considerations
- Case studies and real world examples
- Future trends and research
- Sources and citations
Is heart rate training right for you?
Heart rate training is one, if not the most optimal ways to train, but it isn’t for everyone. And it isn’t the “end-all, be-all” modality of training. Especially if you do it wrong. It can be a little more labor intensive, especially at first, and a little too data driven for most.
So, before jumping into heart rate training, I recommend that you take some time to evaluate how it may fit into your lifestyle and fitness goals.
Are you a good fit for heart rate training?
Regardless of whether or not you choose to use a heart rate training approach, it is important to identify your real goals and intentions with your training before considering heart rate training.
Surprise! Heart rate training is not for everyone!
For example, what do you expect to get out of running? Are you more about self-competition and performance, or are you more of a “performance doesn’t matter and I just enjoy running” type of runner? Are you more of a “I hate tracking runs” type of runner, or are you more of a data-driven runner who spends time analyzing metrics type of runner?
While either can use heart rate training, it is important to be aware that heart rate training involves a little extra preparation and work to set up heart rate zones, get them dialed in correctly, and make adjustments over time.
In most cases, you will need a longer runway in terms of time to see results. Because in many ways, it forces you to step back a bit before moving forward. Mainly, due to the fact that you were probably running too hard, too soon to begin with. But if you stick with it long term, in my experience, runners will eventually pass up runners who do not use heart rate training.
However, as a running coach, I have also had several clients who struggle with their need for immediate gratification of hitting a certain pace or race goal versus patience and weighing the long term benefits of stepping back and doing things correctly.
I had one client, James, who ran a 12 minute mile. His primary goals was to run injury free and get faster. He struggled with peroneal tendonitits. For the first 3 months, his pace barely came down, but his injury cleared up within 3-4 weeks. Still, he questioned heart rate training and almost quit HRT. He asked if he could go back to just a regular plan. I suggested he give it a few more months and if he did not notice improved performance, I would oblige.
By the 18 month mark, he was running a low 8-minute pace for his easy pace. His biggest jumps came at 9-16 months in.
HRT for most people, simply takes time. If you have a race coming up within 6 months, you may not see a major time improvement, however, you will most likely feel a lot better, and stronger.
If you stick to heart rate training, the payoff is worth it.
HRT sets the foundation for success and drives training results further the more consistent and steadily you use it.
For runners who truly stick with it, I see better long term adherence to workouts, better performance results and less injuries.
I promise you, you are less likely to overreach and become injured, and running won’t feel as strenuous because heart rate training forces you to slow down.
Running doesn’t suck as much when doing heart rate training.
Personal health and medical considerations
Low heart rate training is generally considered one of the safest way to develop your cardiovascular health. Still, you should be checked out by a qualified medical professional before starting any exercise program, especially if you are over the age of 40, or have any adverse family history of cardiovascular disease.
Dealing with external factors that affect heart rate
One of the beautiful things about heart rate training is that it can take into account external factors that may increase your heart rate. When your body is under more stress due to heat, altitude, or low hydration levels, heart rate increases and your monitor will detect the higher heart rate triggering the alarm to slow down.
While this may seem like a negative thing, your body IS working harder, even if you are running slow. This gives you the same cardiovascular workout you would have normally gotten at faster paces if the external factors did not exist.
- Temperature: Hot weather increases your heart rate as more blood is diverted to your skin to help with sweating. Cold has less impact, but extreme cold can divert blood away from your arms and legs in order to keep your body core warm.
- Altitude: Higher elevations stress the heart as lung. Less oxygen at higher elevations require the heart and lungs to work harder to get oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.
- Air quality: Pollution irritates your lungs, potentially raising your heart rate as you struggle to breathe properly.
- Noise: Loud environments activate the fight-or-flight response that could affect your heart rate due to adrenalin release.
- Dehydration: Decreases blood volume, forcing the heart to work harder to push blood to your muscles.
- Electrolyte imbalance: Electrolyte imbalances disrupts heart functions, potentially impacting heart rate.
- Caffeine: Stimulant effect increases heart rate, especially before exercise.
- Heavy meals: Digestion demands blood flow, potentially affecting your heart rate
- Stress: Emotional or mental burden can trigger heart rate fluctuations.
- Social interaction: Talking or running with others might influence heart rate.
- Pain or discomfort: Any physical discomfort can elevate your heart rate.
Comparing heart rate training with other training methodologies
Heart rate training is not the only way to train. Other common methodologies are pace-based and perceived effort-based training.
Pace-based training as an alternative to heart rate training
Pace-based training has training set up based off of various running paces. For example, race pace, tempo pace, easy pace, etc. For, example, if you set your watch to run an 8:00 minute pace for your tempo run, and 8:45 for your easy pace, or your pace for a specific run is dictated by a training plan or running coach, then this is a pace-driven or pace-based training methodology.
To be honest, unless you are running a time-trial, I am not a fan of pace-based training. It is one thing to use your watch to validate your pace, based on how you feel at that pace, but it is another thing to run based off an arbitrary number on your watch.
In this mode of training, you are basing your run off a time. Your watch dictates your level of effort and therefore you may over reach on training. Overreaching long term is more likely to cause running injuries.
Unfortunately, with the invention of running watches, this type of training has become the norm.
Perceived effort as an alternative to heart rate training
With perceived effort training, your adjust your training pace based off of how your “feel”. In other words, if you are supposed to run at your long run pace, then the pace should feel ‘easy’, almost too easy.
If you are supposed to run at Tempo pace, then your run should feel “comfortably hard”, or slightly pushed pace, but a pace you can sustain for up to an hour max.
Perceived effort running is the type of training I do most often myself.
This may seem odd since this is a guide on heart rate training.
However, over the years, I have learned what my levels of perceived effort should feel like, and I have cross-checked it with my heart rate zones and in most cases, I am pretty close in estimation to what I would get if I was strictly following heart rate zones.
Perceived effort is a great way to train in my opinion because it teaches you to be more observant to how you feel.
Our bodies are great at giving us the feedback we need, and when you learn how to perceive your effort properly, you can be just as effective as heart rate training. Close enough for those of us who are recreational runners anyways.
The downside, is that most people need some guidance and training on what an easy pace vs tempo pace vs some other pace should feel like.
The most common problem I see for people who follow perceived effort as well as pace-driven training is that they run the easy runs and tempo runs too hard. Runners tend to push harder in most cases than they need to, to get the ideal training stimulus.
One of the advantages of heart rate training, especially for those new to running is that is can make your workouts feel easier. The reason for this is that when training using a low heart rate approach, your body is working at a lower intensity, so you don’t feel as out of breath.
On the other hand, many runners sometimes get frustrated with heart rate training in the beginning, because the heart rate monitor indicates that they need to slow down or walk. This is actually a good thing, because when it comes to building endurance, low intensity heart rate zones are best for making the appropriate adaptations.
Initial progress can be slow, so it is best to mentally prepare for that and accept that you will see progress eventually and in most cases, you will be better off for it in the long run.
Common misconceptions and misunderstandings of heart rate training
Benefits of heart rate training for runners
It’s important to highlight the various advantages and positive outcomes that you can expect from integrating heart rate training into your routines. Below, I show you how heart rate training can enhance your running performance, health, and improve your overall experience with running so you enjoy it more.
Improved cardiovascular efficiency
1. Stronger Heart Muscle: With regular heart rate training, your heart muscle gets a regular workout, just like any other muscle. This training strengthens the heart muscle, allowing it to pump more blood with each beat, which means it doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain your resting heart rate or deliver oxygen during exercise.
2. Increased Stroke Volume: Stroke volume refers to the amount of blood your heart pumps with each beat. During heart rate training, your body adapts to increase the stroke volume, meaning you can deliver more oxygen to your muscles with each beat, again, reducing the workload on your heart.
3. Improved Blood Flow: Heart rate training improves the efficiency of your circulatory system. Your blood vessels become more flexible and efficient at delivering oxygen-rich blood to your muscles and removing waste products. This improves overall cardiovascular health and performance.
4. Mitochondrial Adaptation: Heart rate training stimulates the growth and efficiency of mitochondria, the cell’s “powerhouses,” enhancing oxygen utilization and energy production within muscles. This improves your ability to sustain prolonged exercise, building endurance and stamina.
5. Lower Resting Heart Rate: As your cardiovascular efficiency improves, your resting heart rate decreases. This is because your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to maintain your basic bodily functions. A lower resting heart rate is a strong indicator of good cardiovascular health and is associated with a reduced risk of various chronic diseases.
Effective pace management
With heart rate training, you can adjust your pace based on factors like terrain, weather, and how you’re feeling on a particular day. This ensures you’re always training at an intensity that is productive but not overly taxing, leading to consistent progress and avoiding setbacks from pushing too hard on bad days.
During a race, emotions and adrenaline can lead to pacing errors. Heart rate training provides a data-driven way to stay on track and run at your optimal pace. By knowing your target heart rate zones for different race segments, you can avoid starting too fast and ensure you have enough energy to finish strong.
Learning to listen to your body and pace yourself based on your heart rate, rather than external factors like speed or distance, builds mental toughness. You develop the ability to push yourself when necessary while also knowing when to hold back, resulting in more confidence and control during training and competition.
Optimized training intensity
Heart rate training helps you control the intensity of your workout. For example, if you need to run an easy run, your heart rate monitor will help you stay in the proper training zone to maintain an easy pace.
The same can be said about higher intensity runs, like a Tempo run. A heart rate monitor can ensure that you run in a heart rate zone that is neither too easy or too hard.
And because your heart rate can be impacted by temperature, dehydration, caffeine, and other factors, you will feel confident knowing that your training as optimized as you can for your run, on any particular day.
More personalized training
1. Individualized Heart Rate Zones: This is the foundation of personalized training. By calculating your MHR and using percentages, you create specific heart rate zones that target different energy systems and training benefits. This ensures you’re training the right systems at the right intensities for your individual needs and goals.
2. Data-Driven Decisions: Unlike relying on vague perception of exertion, heart rate provides objective data to guide your training. You can track your response to workouts, monitor progress, and adjust intensity, duration, or recovery based on real-time data, making informed decisions for your unique physiology and response to training.
3. Customized Training Plans: With heart rate data, you can tailor your training plan to your fitness level, goals, and preferences. Want to improve race pace? Design workouts with specific target zones for race simulations. Aiming for fat burning? Prioritize lower intensity zones for more efficient fuel utilization. This customization leads to a training plan that’s truly yours.
4. Consideration of Factors: Heart rate data can be adjusted to reflect external factors like terrain, weather, and fatigue. This allows you to personalize your training on the fly and ensure you’re working at the right intensity even when external conditions change.
5. Monitoring Progress and Adapting: As your fitness improves, your heart rate response to the same workout will change. By tracking this data, you can identify progress and adjust your training zones and plan accordingly. This ensures you’re continuously challenged and progressing at your own pace.
Examples of Personalization:
- Two runners with similar goals but different fitness levels would have different target heart rate zones for tempo runs.
- A runner recovering from an injury might use heart rate data to gradually increase intensity while avoiding overexertion.
- A runner training for a hilly race might adjust their target zones based on the specific demands of the course.
Injury prevention and recovery
- Reduced Overtraining: Monitoring heart rate zones helps avoid overtraining, a major risk factor for injuries. By staying within appropriate training zones, you prevent excessive stress on your body, reducing the likelihood of muscle strains, overuse injuries, and fatigue-related accidents.
- Personalized Intensity: Tailoring your training intensity based on heart rate data ensures you’re not pushing yourself too hard, especially during vulnerable periods, minimizing the risk of injury due to exceeding your limits.
Better performance tracking and progress monitoring
Increased motivation and enjoyment during training runs and races
Long term health benefits
The basics of heart rate training
Why is the science behind heart rate training and why is it effective?
Key terms and terminology
Understanding heart rate zones
Heart rate monitors, running watches, apps, and other tools
Running and fitness watches
Running and fitness apps that help you track your heart rate training
How to set up your heart rate training program
How to calculate your personal heart rate training zones
Beginners: How to select workouts for your heart rate zones
Intermediate runners: How to select workouts for your heart rate zones
Advanced runners: How to select workouts for your heart rate zones
How to interpret your heart rate training data
Advanced Heart Rate Training Techniques
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and recovery
Heart rate training IS NOT the same thing as heart rate variability.
What is heart rate variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability (HRV) measures the variations in time between heartbeats. HRV is measured and shared as an HRV score. Your HRV score is a numerical representation and can help provide insights into your autonomic nervous system and its ability to react to stress.
Your autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that regulates involuntary physiological processes. This includes activities like your heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and pupillary response. These are your bodily functions that operates subconsciously. It is made up of the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates your body’s “fight or flight” responses, as well as your parasympathetic nervous system, which activates your “rest and digest” functions.
For runners, HRV can be particularly beneficial as it allows you to have a deeper understanding of how your body responds to training stress as well as other stressors.
Upward trends in your HRV can show improvement in your overall fitness and health. Conversely, a downward trend can show that your body is in a stressed state due to overtraining, lack of quality sleep, and day to day stress.
By monitoring your HRV, you can gauge your recovery status and adjust your training intensity to optimize performance so you can avoid overtraining.
Case Study: How I personally use HRV to measure my need for recovery.
Heart rate variability also allows you to see what impacts other “life factors” has on your overall recovery. For example, I measure my heart rate variability using a Whoop band
As the Whoop band learns more about me (by collecting data various biometric data like heart rate, training intensity, heart rate variability, sleep, body temperature, respirations, resting heart rate just to name a few), it scores my recovery and training readiness.
Here is a graph that shows my 6 month HRV trend. I chose this one, because it specifically shows a downward trend. Obviously, this is not ideal. During the Spring, Summer and Fall, my HRV showed an upward trend. I was running regularly and was eating better.
Starting around mid-November and for the month of December, and first few days of January, my average HRV fell. Not everyday, but the downward trend clearly shows that “something” was going on.
During this time, I was eating holiday foods, lots of late night snacks, consuming alcohol, going to Christmas and New Years Eve parties.
I wasn’t completely off the rails, but it was a time of high stress.
As you can see from the graph, my HRV dropped considerable.
For example, if I drink alcohol, before I go to bed, I can see a direct impact to my recovery and HRV score, as my recovery score drops considerably for the next day.
Another factor is eating food before bed. When I eat within 2-3 hours of sleeping, my HRV goes down as well as my overall recovery score for the next day.
If I have a hard training day, my HRV drops, until I am fully recovered. This is actually good! We want to have a strong training stimulus. It just means I need to take it easy the next day.
If I have poor sleep, or not enough sleep, my recovery score and HRV score drops.
These things don’t mean that I can’t run the next day, but I may have to take it easier if I get a low HRV and recovery score.
The Whoop band is not exclusively using HRV as its only metric in my recovery score calculation, but once you have enough data collected and it establishes good baselines, you can clearly see the impacts that different lifestyle factors have on your HRV, your recovery and overall cardiovascular health.