Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Heart-rate training (HRT) might seem confusing, but once you have your data, understanding what to do with those numbers can take your performance to the next level. All you need is a little know-how!
“The biggest benefit of heart-rate training for newer runners is to develop an intuitive feel for what different intensities entail,” says Tawnee Prazak, 31, a coach, athlete and host of the “Endurance Planet” podcast. “Athletes need to learn what true recovery feels like, aerobic zones, tempo, threshold and max effort.”
Choosing an Approach
In most training plans, you’ll see tempo runs, long slow distance and speed days. Going by feel is certainly one way to execute these workouts. Another is using your heart rate to tailor the runs to your ability. Not only does this make for more efficient training, it explains why your ideal tempo run may be different from a training partner’s—because your heart rate, current fitness and effort perception make you and your pace unique.
“I recommend using a heart-rate monitor (HRM) to develop and finetune efficient aerobic fitness in which you adhere to training at your aerobic threshold,” says Prazak, who is a proponent of using lower heart-rate zones to improve metabolic efficiency and fat-burning capabilities. “Using an HRM is the best way to keep in this range, keep you honest and prevent you from training too hard or too easy.”
Prazak also stresses the importance of athletes listening to their bodies. “I will use zones to help an athlete understand the feel for different intensities,” says the runner and triathlete. “From there, I like an athlete to develop a more intuitive feel and not rely on the watch.”
Chest straps used to be the norm for measurement, but now wrist-based sensors make it easier than ever to monitor your beats. They’ve become so common, your activity tracker of choice may already be an HRM or the brand may have an option for it.
You can also check your heart rate the old-school way—by taking your pulse. Place your index and middle fingers on your neck to the side of your windpipe. When you feel your pulse, look at your watch and count the number of beats in 10 seconds. Multiply this number by 6 to get your heart rate per minute.
In the Zone
To be able to connect certain runs with different heart rates, start by figuring out your maximum heart rate (MHR). A coach or training center can help, or you can use one of these formulas: MHR = 205 minus (0.5 x your age) or 220 minus your age. Test to see which equation makes the most sense for you, by paying attention to effort and how you feel at different levels.
Once you have your MHR, here’s how to use it to inform your workouts:
>Easy: 65–75 percent of MHR is where you do recovery and long runs. These slower runs are in your fat-burning zone and at a pace you can maintain while chatting with your running partner.
>Medium to hard: 80–85 percent of MHR is for speedy, aerobic efforts, such as fartleks, tempo runs and longer races. You’ll be breathing hard and cannot talk without effort.
>Hard: 90–95 percent of MHR is the zone for interval and speed workouts as well as short races like 5Ks. This speed is anaerobic, sweat-flying, I-might-throw-up fun!
As popular as high-intensity workouts are these days, there’s another school of thought that lower heart-rate training is a way to maintain and build endurance without causing systemic stress overload to your body.
Dr. Phil Maffetone created his healthy-living principles—build fat-burning capabilities, beat sugar addiction, reduce chronic inflammation, manage stress and work out below your MAF (max aerobic function)—more than 30 years ago. Prazak offers the following tips if you want to try the Maffetone Method…
1. Determine your aerobic threshold (the upper end of the spectrum for most effective aerobic training), also known as MAF heart rate, using the 180 Formula.
- 180 minus your age
- Minus 10 beats if you are recovering from illness
- Minus 5 beats if you are recovering from injury
- Plus 5 beats if you have been training consistently for two years and improving without injury
2. See what happens when you run at your MAF heart rate. Do you have to slow down considerably from your usual pace? If so, this is a sign you’ve been training too hard and your aerobic base has not been adequately developed and needs attention before moving into higher intensities or adding more zones. Once you see improvement in your aerobic base building (by being able to incrementally increase pace while maintaining your MAF heart rate), you can add intensity.
3. Always use a heart-rate monitor on MAF runs to stay true to the goal of the workout, to gauge your cumulative efforts over time and to keep your training program on track.
4. Don’t get frustrated if you’re “too slow” at your MAF heart rate—have patience and give it time. Improvements can take anywhere from two weeks to two months.
Choose from these styles of monitors to find what works for you.
Garmin Forerunner 235
A high-end watch like this one does it all: GPS, fitness tracking and strapless heartrate measurement via capillary activity in your wrist. $330, garmin.com
Wahoo Fitness Tickr
This simple band pairs with your phone or smartwatch to deliver data directly to your device. $50, wahoofitness.com
Sensoria Sports Bra
Monitor your beat without the extra strap, thanks to this combined chest support and HRM. $139, sensoriafitness.com