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Getting Heart Rate Training Right

Running to heart rate is one of many tools available to runners in order to track progress, monitor effort levels and making sure you are training correctly. It isn’t for everyone, Elliud Kipchoge (part of Nike’s breaking2 team, and runner of a 2:00:25 marathon!) never used a heart rate monitor in his training before the breaking2 project, so it isn’t necessary! Heart Rate training allows you to train at the right effort level for you…as long as you have accurate data.

Using any generic calculations are just that, generic! They might give you the right zones to work in, but more than likely it’ll be wrong. Even if you know your max Heart Rate, there are various methods of working out your training zones, and each one gives you slightly different it can all be a bit confusing.

What can you do to get good Heart Rate information?

The best thing is to get a physiological test done. Either a Lactate Threshold Test or a Vo2 Max test will work here. The difference is that a Vo2 max test will tell you how big your engine (Vo2) is, and will give you a Max HR figure as it is a test to failure (so you’ll need to be harnessed in when having it done). The lactate threshold test will not be done to failure, but instead will give us your heart rate zone for Lactate Threshold, and we can give you the other training zones based on that. The costs of these tests can really vary, but can be very helpful if you want to get good information on you. At Full Potential, we do offer a Lactate Threshold Test which is well worth looking into getting if you are interested in this training.

Although less accurate, if you want to work out your heart rate zones without spending money on the test then here’s what you can do.

Max HR or Heart Rate Reserve?

The two common methods of working your Heart Rate zones out are using a %MaxHR figure or %HRR figure. I much prefer to use Heart Rate Reserve.

With both %HRR and %MaxHR you’ll need to know your Maximum Heart Rate and for the Heart Rate Reserve method you’ll also need your Resting Heart Rate.

Finding your resting Heart Rate is easy. Over a week, go to a quiet place and lie down, and take a note of your heart rate. Take an average of that over the week. This is something you can check periodically.

Finding your Max HR is a bit more interesting! You can’t do any 220 minus your age or similar calculations here, it isn’t good enough. You also can’t take that big number you hit at the end of a Park Run, because your legs won’t let you run hard enough to hit your max heart rate. The test needs to be short and sharp. Your Maximum Heart Rate is just the number of beats per minute that your heart can get to. It isn’t a sign of how fit you are, it is your number. Everyone’s heart is different, and works differently.

Doing a max test needs to be carefully structured into your training, you need to go into it well rested so you can perform at your optimum.

Test Option 1

For this test you need a good hill. The hill needs to take you about two minutes (maybe longer) to run up it and of sufficient gradient to ensure you are working flat out at the top.

Take an easy 10 - 15 minutes Warm Up.

Run at Threshold Effort for about 5 minutes, with you reaching the bottom of the hill after those 5 minutes. As you hit the hill, maintain (and try to increase) your speed by increasing the effort level. Your heart rate will increase as you get tired. We should hit your max HR by the top of the hill.

Test Option 2 (this is probably my preferred method)

A running track or flat piece of road is needed for this.

The aim is a quick 800m. For the first 400m, go to 95% max, and when you are in the last 400m you just go for it. You should hit your max somewhere in the second 400m.

You might need to take a 5 minutes and repeat the 800m if you didn’t get to your max in the first one.

With both tests, you’ll probably hit your max HR before the test ends, it’ll probably peak and then drop a little. Both these options sound a bit rough, and that is because they are! It isn’t something you’ll want to repeat too often!

Calculating Heart Rate Zones

Once we know both our Resting Heart Rate and Maximum Heart Rate we can start to work your heart rate zones out. Lets say we wanted to work your Threshold Zone out, which is 80 - 85% of HRR.

We’ll work with these figures:

Max HR: 180

Resting HR: 50

As you’ll see below, these two methods give really different results and it is very likely that one method is going to leave you training in zones that are a bit low.

Calculating your Threshold Zone using %MaxHR Method

1. To find the lower zone, calculate 80% of your Max HR = 144 bpm

2. To find your upper zone, calculate 85% of your Max HR = 153 bpm

Using %MaxHR, we would get a zone of 144 to 153 bpm

Calculating your Threshold Zone using %HRR Method

1. Work out your Heart Rate Reserve, which is got by subtracting your Resting HR from your Max HR

180 - 50 = 130

That would mean our Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) is 130

2. To find the lower zone, calculate 80% of you HRR (104)

3. Add that figure to your resting HR (50)

4. Our 80% zone is 154

5. Repeat steps 2 & 3 to find your upper 85% zone (160)

Using %HRR we would get 154 to 160 bpm for our Threshold Zone

I prefer the %HRR method because it allows for adaptations to occur when you make fitness gains, your resting HR is likely to drop, and your working zones will probably move as a result. It is also a bit more custom.

Heart Rate History

Whenever you start to use Heart Rate in your training, you should be always backing this up with thinking about your perceived effort level, and how hard the running feels. Using the Talk Test that we speak about is the best way of doing this. Threshold effort is 4 - 5 word answer pace. Using your heart rate zones you’ve got, if you are running at Threshold effort but can only speak 2 - 3 words then it is too hard.

If you wanted to use this method to find out your Heart Rate Zones, it is going to take a few weeks of data collection, and a few calculations to workout your heart rate zones. We have built an excel document that can help with this.

With this method is making sure your training all fits together. If you had 160 as your Threshold heart rate, but were running 150 as your easy running, it would suggest you are doing one too hard, or one too easy, or a combination of both. It certainly isn’t as accurate as getting a test done but it is a start.

Training with Heart Rate

We’ll follow this up with a more in depth article soon, but if you want to train to heart rate, you have to trust the numbers and buy into the process. Heart Rate training is great as it’ll control the intensity of training to make sure you are hitting the right effort levels for each session. What you can’t do is look down, see the pace is a bit low and decide to run faster and ignore the heart rate zones! Then it just becomes a waste of time!

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