The Benefits of Training By Heart Rate

training by heart rate

It’s becoming more and more common for runners to train by heart rate. Whether it’s reading articles like this that inspired them, or working with a coach, the amount of heart rate runners is certainly on the rise. Why is this? What benefits does heart rate training have over training by feel? We’re going to tackle these questions in this article.

First off, lets clarify what we mean by ‘training by heart rate’. This means that a runner measures their heart rate throughout their run, and sets off with clear intention to sticking to a particular heart rate zone. Heart rate zones (e.g. 70%-80% of maximum heart rate) represent different intensity levels of a training run. Different intensity levels yield different benefits for a runner. We have covered easy running, tempo running and even different workouts before, but never dove deep into how heart rate helps determine these different intensities.

Classifying heart rate zones

To train by heart rate, first we must determine the heart rate zones. There are a lot of difference sources out there to get this information. For this article, I used the heart rate zones presented by Coachmag. First off, we need to determine your maximum heart rate. This is simply 220-your age (for example for a 30 year old, this would be 220-30 which is 190). I think it’s important to note that this is just a general rule, and some factors can influence this number. High levels of fitness, for example, can give someone a higher maximum heart rate than this rule would deem possible.

Now we have your maximum heart rate, it’s time to determine your heart rate zones. 60-70% of your maximum heart rate is your fat burning zone. This is a light intensity where fat is your main fuel source (instead of glycogen), and it should be easy to maintain for a long period of time. This is were your easy runs should lie most of the time. 70-80% of your maximum heart rate is your aerobic zone. This is the most effective zone for improving overall fitness and stamina. You’ll end up in this zone on steady runs and in less intense workouts.

80-90% of your maximum heart rate is your anaerobic zone. You have to work in this zone in order to improve your anaerobic capacity and lactic threshold. When you complete tempo runs, lactate threshold runs and intervals of medium intensity you’ll end up in this zone. The final zone, 90-100% of your heart rate, is your V02 max. This is when you are going all out, perhaps doing high intensity workouts. Here you are breathing heavy, drowning in lactic acid and really pushing yourself. Training and developing your V02 max can have great benefits, which we’ll cover in a future article.

Improve your running…

Here at Running Faster we incorporate heart rate zones in our training plans and coaching. This helps us set target intensities for runners to help them develop their fitness the right way. If you are interested in getting coached by us, visit our online coaching page. If you are looking for a plan to provide structure to your workouts, head over to our personalised training plan page.

Using heart rate zones to structure your training

One of the benefits of trianing by heart rate is that you can help structure your running according to your personal goals. For example, if your goal is to burn fat, you may spend more time in the 60-70% of maximum heart rate zone. If one of your main weaknesses is a lack of resistance to lactic acid, you might add more workouts in the 80-90% heart rate zone.

According to the 80/20 principle, 80% of your weekly training should be low intensity. This is deemed to be below 75% of your maximum heart rate according to coaches such as Matt Fitzgerald and Arthur Lydiard. The other 20% of your week should be shared out for running of higher intensity (75% and above). This is obviously an estimate, and this figure changes from person to person. However, the 80/20 principle, as a whole, has shown to lead to the greatest fitness gains. This is because the low intensity running gives your heart and body time to adapt to the harder training stimulus.

This in mind, you can plan out your training weeks pretty simply. If you account for 80% of your mileage being easy, with the other 20% being dedicated to workouts and tempo runs, then you are setting yourself up for progressive success. By progressive success, I mean a progression in fitness without over doing it or under cooking it, leading to more sustainable running success (whatever that may be for you).

An example…

Let’s say I am running 60miles (or 100km, roughly), during a week. 48 of these miles will be done at a low intensity (under 75% of maximum heart rate), through easy running and bottom end steady running. The other 12miles will be dedicated to higher intensity workouts. For example, I might include a 5mile tempo run one day, 5miles of aerobic intervals another day and 2miles of V02 max intervals on another day. I would separate these workouts so they have at least a day of low intensity in between them.

The drawback of heart rate training

If you are training for a particular time in your preferred event, this is where the heart rate training is flawed. I do believe that on your easy days you should try and keep the heart rate low no matter what you’re training for. However, heart rate doesn’t take into account pace, which can (and should) be an important training focus. We have previously written an article about the multi-pace approach to workouts.

When you’re training for a particular time, you want to be able to focus on hitting certain paces in your workouts. This is to get you used to racing effort. Targeting paces under and over your race pace can have great effects too. It becomes very difficult to take this approach to training, however, when you are worrying about heart rate. Two runners with the same marathon personal best could have completely different heart rate zones and be very naturally different from each other. In this case, it would benefit both runners equally to train at the same pace (as their race paces are the same). Training by heart rate would tell you that one of these runners will be training correctly, whilst the other may not.

It’s important to take into account personal differences and focuses when it comes to your training. Heart rate training will certainly help you keep your easy days easy and your hard days hard, as we like to say here at Running Faster. You will also know exactly what effect you’ll be getting from a run because of the heart rate you monitored throughout.

What’s best for you?

Trying out a couple of training methods, and seeing what works best for you, is the best idea. It’s easy to forget that running is an extremely personal sport, even though we are all completing the same action. You can be successful training by pace or simply training by feel. Training by heart rate isn’t the key to success when it comes to developing your fitness – consistency, smart training and hard work is.

If you want help from a running coach who has personally tried countless training methods, head over to our online coaching page. For a plan tailored to you, incorporating both the heart rate and multi-pace training system, head over to our personalised training program page.

Check out some of our other articles…

The 5 Essential Training Components
Training to improve your running can be a complicated thing when there …
How To Become a Consistent Runner
Becoming a consistent runner is paramount to becoming a successful runner, there's …
The Multi-Pace Running System
One of the key issues with planning your own training is determining …
The Benefits of Easy Running
Not every run has to be fast for you to become a …


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