Some runners train with pace, speed, or perceived exertion. But you’ve probably also heard about heart rate training. How does it work? Should you try it? We uncover its secrets on today’s blog.
What is it about?
Heart rate training uses your heart rate (or beats per minute - bpm) to measure your effort and exertion while running. You can then target intensity and effort, whether it relates to hard or easy paces.
To be able to properly measure your heart rate while running, we’d recommend you start using your running watch - most of them have built-in monitors. If you’d like to progress into it or want to get more precise results, think about purchasing a specific heart rate monitor that you’ll strap to your chest, and which you’ll be able to connect to your watch.
How do I do it then?
To start training with your heart rate, you’ll then need to identify your heart rate training zones, as you would do with pacing zones (easy, aerobic, threshold…). Start pinning your max heart rate. To estimate it, subtract your age by 220. For example, if you’re 40, your HR max might likely be:
220 - 40 years = 180 bpm
From there, you can calculate your approximate heart rate zones:
- Zone 1: 50-60% of HR max
This is a very low-intensity zone, usually used to improve your recovery and get ready to go again. You probably won’t reach it while running, however, you can usually reach it in sports where you can easily control your heart rate and avoid it raising: try out walking or easy cycling.
- Zone 2: 60-70% of HR max
This is a low-intensity zone. It should still feel light and easy, and you should be able to maintain it for a long time. Zone 2 is known to improve general endurance: as you train, your muscular fitness increases along with capillary density.
- Zone 3: 70-80% of HR max
If you train in zone 3, it should feel like a moderate effort. You shouldn’t feel out of breath but equally should feel that you’re starting to work. It will improve the efficiency of blood circulation in the heart and skeletal muscles but also is when lactic acid starts building up in your blood.
- Zone 4: 80-90% of HR max
This is when things start spicing up! You’re probably struggling more to breathe now and you are starting to work aerobically. Training at this intensity, you improve your speed endurance. It means your body gets better at using carbs for energy and you can withstand lactic acid in your blood for longer.
- Zone 5: 90-100% of HR max
This is maximal effort and calls for a tough workout. You’re now definitely working at your maximal capacity and you probably feel like your lungs are burning, you find it harder to breathe and your legs increasingly feel exhausted. Whatever your HR max is, it will be difficult to continue for long at this intensity.
Now you know what your different heart rate zones are, you can build your intervals. You can try with a progression run (starting on zone 1 to reach zone 5 at the end of a 5k/10k run), classic intervals (alternating between zone 4 and zone 2), etc. You can be as creative as you’d like, but ideally, you’ll want to analyse results at the end of each run. It will help you measure the efficiency of your workout and adapt your next sessions accordingly.
One thing you need to be aware of is that heart rate can however be influenced by several factors. For example, if you have completed a tough workout less than 24 hours before your next run, your heart rate can spike up quicker and higher as your body hasn’t properly recovered yet. If you’re tired or had a long day on your feet, you might feel the same.
Among other factors, you can also find caffeine intake, lack of sleep, high stress and anxiety levels, dehydration, running route elevation, or ambient temperature.
The bottom line
If you’re looking to get some structure in your training, experience heart rate training and see how you feel about it! You’ll get the same results as training with pacing zones. If you’re a new runner, maybe try out training with perceived effort first before trying out heartrate training. It might feel easier, to begin with, to learn to pace yourself and how you can switch between different speeds.