Training Tips: Training with a Heart Rate Monitor

by Karl Gruber
When it comes to running, it’s always nice to have some form of structure or training plan to follow. However, one thing I have always enjoyed most about running is that much of the time it is intuitive. In other words, without having a coach by your side or all kinds of fancy gadgets telling you how to run, you just simply know if you’re running too hard, too easy, not enough, or too much. That being said, there is one piece of gear that I have found to be indispensable when it comes to my training, especially when I up the ante and start training for a half or full marathon – a heart rate monitor (HRM). 

I almost always tend to run too hard because of my competitive spirit, and wearing a heart rate monitor is a great way to rein me in and teach me how to train smarter. If you happen to run too slow all of the time, a HRM can help you too to improve, too. A HRM is a wonderful tool for both beginners and experienced runners to learn how to utilize your heart’s effort to become a better runner and stay healthy.

Heart Rate as a Gauge
In his article "Heart Rate Training for Improved Running Performance”, exercise physiologist Jason R. Karp says that the contractions or beats of your heart are not only the easiest but the best way to tell the level of your running intensity. During your run, your heart rate rises and falls in a predictable manner, and because of this, you can use it as a gauge for different levels of running intensity.

For example, a couple years ago I went out for a seven mile run on a very hot summer day. By the time I started my run, it was already almost 90 degrees. I felt fine for the first couple miles and my pulse was reading normal for my usual training pace. By the time I reached the turnaround to head back, I couldn’t figure out why my usual training pace felt so darn hard – that is until I looked at my HRM. My eyes bugged out and indicated that my heart rate was what it usually is when I am racing at 90-95% of my aerobic capacity. My HRM made me realize that I needed to just walk for a while, and then jog at one to one and a half minutes slower per mile to get my heart rate back down to where it would be during my normal training pace. If I had not paid attention to my HRM, my run could have been a disaster.

Heart Rate Formulas
Karp states that there are two formulas to figure your heart rate while running. For the first, subtract your age from 220 to find your maximum heart rate. A 32-year-old's max heart rate would be 188 beats per minute. Karp does point out that the "220 minus age" formula is an estimate and can be off by 10 to 15 beats per minute.

The second formula, the Karvonen Method, determines your average running heart rate. This is determined by subtracting your resting heart rate from your max heart rate. If the 32-year-old runner's resting pulse is 60, subtract that from 188 to get a 128 average training heart rate.

Heart Rate Zones
If you want to improve your performance, you have to increase your effort above your average training heart rate. The aerobic zone represents a harder running effort at 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. For the 32-year-old, his aerobic heart rate zone would be 188 (max) x .70 = 132 and 188 x .80 = 150. This runner's average range aerobic heart rate zone should stay between 132 to 150 beats per minute. As you keep running with an HRM, you will most certainly come to find your natural heart rate zone.

Daily Running Zone
The American Heart Association's (AHA’s) heart rate chart for calculating your workout zone is much broader in scope. This is a good chart to use if you are not concerned with running in higher intensity zones but want to go for a daily jog instead. The AHA's chart still uses the 220 minus age formula, but has a wider zone of 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. This wider range of heart rate is still a zone that allows you to receive the benefits of a daily run.

Find What Works For You
As I stated earlier, the longer you run, the more you will come to understand your natural heart rate zone during training. The beautiful thing about using a HRM is that as the weeks and months of running go by – and your intensity and distance increase – the HRM will show you that your heart has grown stronger and does not need to work as hard as it used to. This is a beautiful confirmation that your training efforts are paying off fitness-wise. 

Don’t forget that your size, age, overall health and fitness, and even the weather conditions can affect your heart rate. As far as I am concerned, next to a water bottle and good running shoes, a heart rate monitor is one of the best things you can do for your running.

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