How to master Heart Rate Training for runners

Our resident running coach Nick Anderson explains how to use your heart as a powerful training aid.

How to master Heart Rate Training for runners

After 20 years of coaching I am still convinced that the heart is the best training tool we have. Measuring your heart rate can help you determine if you are getting fitter, tired, over-training, running too fast, running too slow or spot on the money for that particular session.

Heart rate can even predict if we are about to get ill or starting to show signs of dehydration.

Many of us have heart rate monitors built into our watches and GPS devices but never use the technology to its full potential.

There’s no need to measure every session and take the enjoyment out of running. But, if you want to be a better runner tomorrow than you are today, you need to look at a few performance gains. 

Heart rate and training in the right zone, checking you have recovered day to day and monitoring your health could be parts of the solution.

Check out our latest round up of the best running gadgets on the market.

Sweet science

The best way to understand your running training zones and effort levels is without doubt to use get a lab test. Your local sports science department at a University (we use St Mary’s High Performance Centre in Teddington) can put you on the treadmill with your monitor on and set up a fitness test.

Generally speaking, the speed of the treadmill will gradually increase every three minutes as will the gradient at the same time. Blood is taken from the ear periodically to check lactate levels whilst heart rate is measured. The test data produced will give you:

  • Easy recovery run pace and heart rate
  • Steady running pace and heart rate
  • Possible predicted race pace paces including marathon pace potential
  • Threshold heart rate (the key zone where you work at the top of your aerobic area improving running economy)
  • Your top zones for hard interval sessions or faster races such as 5k-10k

Other tests

Not everyone has such a facility at their disposal, but there are other ways to work out your heart rate zones for different sessions using your watch’s function. 

This will save you having to perform some long-winded calculations that you wouldn’t even have managed under the guidance of an A-Level maths tutor.

Here’s the simple route to using your heart rate as a training tool:

  1. Get well-rested, well-hydrated and well-warmed up.
  2. Run hard as fast as you can for two to three minutes and jog back to your starting point.
  3. Repeat this for two or three more times. On your second or third effort, run as fast as you can and check your heart rate on your watch during and immediately after. The highest number you will see is often close to your real maximum heart rate (MHR). This test hurts and requires real focus.
  4. Once you have established your maximum heart rate you can apply some percentages that will give you your rough training zones. The chart below will help you understand how these zones relate to various types of training seen in most training plans.

- Easy runs are classically around the 60-70% area

- Threshold running is often around the 80% mark

- Anything higher is hard interval training or faster racing. 

If you want to train smart you will listen to your body and how it feels day to day. If your heart rate is a little elevated you could be tired and it might be best to rest or have an easy day’s running before your next harder run or session.

If you are getting fitter your resting morning heart rate (usually taken when you wake up) will gradually offer a lower average reading. This is a sign your heart has become stronger and stroke volume has increased.

A similar way to check you are getting fitter might be to run at the same threshold heart rate over the same route every few weeks. If you religiously keep the same heart rate for this run but notice you are achieving faster average speeds, take less time or run further you must be fitter! You can read more about threshold training techniques here.

So a little bit of science can go along way and, if used correctly, will boost performance, boost confidence and protect you from over-training, fatigue and junk miles.

Good luck, train smart and as Roxette once warbled, listen to your heart!

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