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Heart Rate Training

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We had a good discussion about Junk Miles on this forum a few weeks ago. Afterwards, StephenK posted about using heart rate to guide his training. That got me to wondering: How many of us follow heart rate training? What methods do we use to determine and measure appropriate training HRs? Do we use heart rate to guide our races?

I thought this subject might make a good basis for sharing our thoughts on training and racing from a perspective different than we usually discuss. Who knows what might come out of it? :-) I'll kick it off with a few thoughts and queries. Jump in if you are so inclined.

Most of the training gurus tend to agree that training and development of running "systems" should be focused around heart rate (HR.) They almost all define training levels in terms of % maximum heart rate (HRmax.) However, most also recognize that it isn't possible or palatable for many runners to use a heart rate monitor (HRM) regularly, but we all run with a watch. So, they define running paces that should result in approximate HRs which are appropriate for desired training benefits. "Gurus" might vary slightly in their recommended HR for specific training purposes, but they are all in the same ballpark. Primarily, they all agree that:

1) The largest percentage of training mileage should be "easy", which is defined as 60-80% of maximum heart rate (HRmax), which is approximately equivalent to 1-2 minutes/mile slower than 10k race pace.

2) Threshold training (tempo runs and cruise intervals) should be done at 80-90% of HRmax or 10-20 sec/mile slower than 10k race pace.

3) Aerobic capacity training (VO2max intervals) is best done at 95-100% of HRmax, which occurs at 3-5k race pace.

4) Anaerobic capacity training (repetitions) at 100% HRmax and faster than 3-5k race pace.

5) MP runs at 80-85% HRmax or about 40-50 sec/mile slower than 10k race pace.

These HR guidelines are absolute and constant, regardless of conditions. However, problems can arise in trying to follow the pacing guidelines when running conditions change.

Unless you use a HRM, it's easier and more convenient for most of us to simply use our most recent race paces to guide our training than it is to monitor our HR's. However, race pace can vary with several variables, such as terrain, weather, where we are in our training cycle, how rested we are, how much stress we are under, etc. We might have run a 10k race on a hilly course under great weather conditions at an average pace of 8:00/mile, and be faced with doing a tempo run 3 weeks later over flat terrain, under hot, humid conditions, after being up half the night before with a sick kid, and under the stress of a crisis at work. So, what is "tempo pace" on that day? It should be 10-20 sec/mile slower than what our 10k pace would be under the same conditions. Thus, for an optimum training run, it becomes necessary to adjust training pace. Possessing the ability to read your body and "know" what each training pace should feel like is a tremendous help, but it takes a lot of experience to develop that skill. Using the watch becomes a SWAG, at best, in less than ideal conditions. But, short of a HRM, it's the best guidance many of us have. Thus, it's what many of us wind up resorting to....and we then feel either happy or disappointed at the end of the workout, depending on how we performed against the unwavering clock.

HR training is another way to go. For instance, AT level is a constant.....85-90% HRmax.....although actual AT running pace will vary with conditions. It might be 7:30 pace one day and 7:45 another. The same with easy and aerobic capacity runs. Even the pace of MP runs should be adjusted for varying conditions.....at least until the last couple of MP runs before a marathon, which are important to "program" a specific pace into your mind and muscles. Anaerobic capacity (running economy) training is the exception. These short, fast intervals are run at a specific pace and 100% HRmax.

So, do you use HR training? I don't, per se. But, neither am I a slave to the watch. I pace my runs based on how they feel. I have learned how each of my training paces should feel. And, I can tell what my HR is within a few beats/minute without using a monitor. I do run, including speedwork, on treadmills that have HR measuring ability fairly frequently.....at least, every time I go to the gym and sometimes at home. I check my HR occasionally on the 'mills as verification of my "built-in" monitor. I do expect my HRs to fall within the recommended ranges and they usually do.

HR training is all based on HRmax. So, how do you determine your max? Do you use the 220-age formula? 214-eight tenths of age? 205-half your age formula? Or do you measure it? I have always used 220-age. Finally, I measured it for the first time on 8/12/98 using Jack Daniels' treadmill test. I was 59 years old at the time, so the 220-age formula yielded 161, the 214-.8xage formula yielded 167 and the 205-half age formula yielded 175. It measured 163 on the treadmill test. Although mine measured close to the "most popular" 220-age formula, I have heard tales of significant deviations from that formula. And, the spread between "cookbook" methods demonstrates the value of measuring it.

Now that you know your HRmax, how do you determine your appropriate HR training ranges? Do you simply multiply your HRmax by the appropriate percentage? Or do you use the Karvonen formula of (HRmax-HRrest)x%effort+HRrest? I use the Karvonen method. I find that straight % of HRmax yields moderately easy training levels.....and I'm not looking for "moderately easy" for optimum improvement rate. Although, those who are injury-prone might want to opt for the more conservative approach, which will still yield training benefit.

The Karvonen method yields significantly different training guidelines for easy, AT and MP runs. For instance, my resting HR (HRrest) this morning was 44. (OK, so I'm not in top condition. When I am, my HRrest is 36-40.) Thus, assuming my HRmax has dropped to 161 since I last measured it almost two years ago, my AT (90% level) using the "straight" calculation (90%xHRmax) is 145. However, the Karvonen method yields 149....that's a detectable difference in AT pace. The AT workout I ran on a treadmill last week (a 2x2 mile cruise interval session) was at a HR of 148. And I find that the faster pace of the Karvonen method is generally closer to 10-15 sec/mile slower than 10k race pace, which is appropriate for AT training. The difference in the two methods is even more significant with my "easy" training level of 75% where straight calculation yields 121 bpm and the Karvonen method yields 132 bpm.....a big difference. The slower "standard" method leaves me feeling like I'm jogging.

OK. Enough of my rambling. How about you? Are you addicted to HR training? Do you not think about it? What are your thoughts/opinions?