All our coaches are all really enthusiastic about Heart Rate Training. This all started because Keith Anderson (the founder of Full Potential) successfully used heart rate and lactate threshold testing as part of his training.
Why do we like to train to heart rate?
The best thing about using heart rate for training is that the training becomes specific to you. Everyone’s heart is slightly different (something we’ll come onto later) and by training to your heart rate zones, we are making the training sessions specific for you.
There are so many outside influences on a given day that will affect your running; from the fatigue levels from a previous days training, to how well hydrated and fed you are, the surface you are running on and the weather conditions you are dealing with. By monitoring your heart rate, you are controlling the training intensity by taking those outside influences out of the equation. Running uphill, you are going to have to slow down in order to maintain the right heart rate zone. Running into a headwind, you are going to have to slow down. Got a tailwind behind you, you’ll probably start running faster than usual for that same heart rate zone - it isn’t all bad news!
If you do this for each training session, you are going to be doing the right intensity of training each day. As long as the plan is the right frequency, intensity and volume for you, you can avoid over-training and reduce some common frustrations runners get when analysing their training.
We regularly hear from runners, who after uploading their runs onto Garmin (or another site), look at the data and decide they are getting worse at running, their fitness is declining and that it’s worthless. They come to this conclusion all because they were two seconds a mile slower than last time. If this sounds a bit like you, don't worry you aren't alone. If you do this, then not only are you not taking into account external factors that might have ‘slowed’ down, you're going to make yourself frustrated and demotivated, often going out the next day to prove you are still fit by running way too hard.
Instead, if the session was run at a heart rate value of 140 - 150, you could come back from a run, make sure you were between 140 and 150, know you've ticked the box for that day and move on. You may be a little annoyed that the pace isn’t quicker, but that isn’t the way we want you to look at the session. We want to analyse the session by which heart rate zone you were in!
Training sessions aren’t designed to show you how fit you are, they are there to stress a specific physiological system. Start to look at the bigger picture of your training and remember each session is just one part of everything you are doing.
When you have been training with heart rate for a few weeks, it then becomes a great way of tracking progress. You'll start to run faster for the same heart rate zone and feel yourself improve. As a coach, it’s a great way of getting feedback, seeing how well athletes are handling training load, recovering from training and looking at whether it is time to push on or not.
It can also provide key insights into whether an athlete is overtraining (often seen by a failure to get the heart rate up to previous levels) or picking up an illness (again, slightly lower heart rate values than usual or elevated heart rates for a slower pace)
Heart Rate training only works if the information you have is correct. We have covered how to work out your heart rate training zones extensively in another article. You don’t want to use any generic calculations to workout your Heart Rate zones, this image of max Heart Rates from a set of athletes shows the wild variation of Max HR’s at various ages. If you don’t have accurate data, you won’t be working at the right heart rate zone, and getting the right physiological benefits from your training sessions.
Heart Rate Training Requires a few things to get right.
To get started you’ll need a training plan to follow and have total belief in that plan. One has to commit to heart rate training, not pick and choose when to follow it (apart from a few instances as we’ll discuss in the limitations of heart rate training below). Just because you don’t like the numbers you are getting on a particular day, doesn’t mean you can throw them away. Each session in your plan will be designed to interact with the others, and you need to do them at the right intensity.
You’ll need to have plenty of patience. Physiological change takes time and is not an app you buy on your phone for instant help / success. Be dedicated / consistent over a long period of time and you will enjoy the results. If you aren’t patient and let the training take affect, you aren’t going to see results. To improve your fitness requires consistency. Heart rate training really helps with that.
The plan you have, has to have progression in it otherwise you aren’t going to move forwards!
Heart Rate Training isn’t perfect. The way that the heart works means that you won’t see instant changes in your heart rate when you increase or decrease the effort. On shorter repetitions, you might not reach the right heart rate zone until near the end of the first few reps. As you progress through the workout, this will change and you’ll be spending more time in the right zone. When you are working upper heart rate zones (10km effort +), it might be a case of using some pace values to complement the training.
Using myself as an example, if my session was 1km reps at 10km pace, I’d take my 10km time (ideally my PB and a bit below it, but it does depend on what shape I am in) and work out how long each kilometre would take, and aim to run that for the reps. I’d then use Heart Rate after a few reps to make sure I wasn’t running too hard for 10km effort, but also knowing that it will take a few reps to get into the right zone.
On a longer threshold session, I won’t look to be in the right Heart Rate zone until at least a few minutes into the first rep. If I tried to get to the right number over the first 30 seconds I’d be running way too fast!
You don’t need to train to heart rate, and some of the best runners in the world don’t. Hopefully we have made a good case for why it might work for you though.