RW Complete Guide to Heart Rate Training

Learn to train with your heart rate, and it won't just be your pulse that races faster


Posted: 23 August 2006
by Rob Spedding

You might think that running very, very slowly to become much, much faster is right up there with eating more cake to lose weight. For the marathon runner Sue Gardener, though, slowing down has been the secret of her running success.

Before she started her slow-to-fast journey, though, Gardener needed to invest in some electronic gadgetry. "I bought a heart-rate monitor after my second marathon,"says the 44-year old from Hayling Island in Hampshire. "I found a thread on the www.runnersworld.co.uk forum about something called base training' and thought I'd give it a go."

Building an endurance base by slowly adding mileage to steady runs is a tried and tested technique, but base training using a heart-rate monitor (HRM) is an idea conceived by the American coach Phil Maffetone. Maffetone has coached world class triathletes including the legendary Ironman champion Mark Allen. He developed a formula - known as "180 minus" - to determine the highest heart rate you should reach during the first three months of a training year. Gardener was intrigued enough by this idea, and especially the positive feedback the technique was receiving from other runners, to give it a try.

"My target base-training heart rate seemed to be around 125bpm," she says. "So I started running to this heart rate every day. The pace was painfully slow at first, around two minutes slower per mile than my usual pace. Gradually though my pace improved and I became comfortable running at this low heart rate, but at a faster speed than I'd been running at before."

For beginners, Maffetone's method - see "Build It Slowly", below, for his formula - helps provide an excellent introduction to running. For experienced runners, used to speedwork and tempo runs, heart-rate base training can be very frustrating. You'll want to run faster, as you may find that your base rate pace feels barely quicker than walking. But, if Gardener is anything to go by, sticking it out for a few months before adding harder sessions is well worth trying. She completed her 2004 marathon, before she'd trained with an HRM, in 4:05. One year later she'd improved to 3:47, now boasts a best of 3:31 and is aiming to run under 3:15 at the Abingdon Marathon in Oxfordshire this October.

"I've graduated from base training and now know all the heart rates I need to train and race at," says Gardener. "For instance I know that if I run a marathon at 145bpm, I won't be slowing down at the end or that 156 will result in a decent 10K."

Julie-Anne Ryan is another runner who discovered that her running improved after she purchased a heart-rate monitor and slowed down. "I thought that it would be the perfect way to lose weight," she says, "but I found that I simply couldn't run for more than three or four minutes at a time." Ryan found her inability to keep going so frustrating that she frequently gave up, only to start running again - with the same disappointing results - a few weeks later. Then a friend suggested that she try using a heart-rate monitor during her runs. "The first time I wore it I ran three miles without stopping," she says. Five years later, the 46-year-old from Buckinghamshire is 19kg lighter and still running. "I can honestly say that buying a heart-rate monitor stopped me from giving up completely."

Ryan and Gardener are just two of thousands of runners who have found that using a heart-rate monitor is one of the most effective ways of achieving impressive results. They're also proof that this technology isn't just for fast runners or athletes with degrees in sports science.

"Regardless of your standard, it is good to know what impact any workout is having on your body," explains Joe Dunbar, an exercise physiologist and coach. "Unlike using the subjective marker of how you feel today, your heart rate is an objective measurement of what is going on inside your body."

Ryan's subjective view was that she felt dreadful and adding some objectivity was a massive breakthrough. "I was making the classic beginner's mistake of running far too fast," she explains. "Of course, I didn't realise this, but I bought the monitor, read up on how to use it and when I started training to heart rate, it all fell into place."

Build It Slowly

If you fancy trying heart-rate base training then here's the formula developed by Phil Maffetone:

Subtract your age from 180 (180 - age).
Modify this number by selecting one of the following categories:

    If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation, any hospital stay) or on any regular medication, subtract 10.
  • If you have not exercised before, you have exercised but have been injured or are regressing in your running, or you often suffer from colds or flu or have allergies, subtract 5.
  • If you have been exercising for up to two years with no real problems and have not had colds or flu more than once or twice a year, subtract nothing.
  • If you have been exercising for more than two years without any problems, making progress in competition without injury, add 5.
For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into the second category: 180 - 30 = 150, and 150 - 5 = 145. This is your maximum aerobic heart rate. Maffetone believes you should train at or below this level for at least three months before adding speedwork, threshold runs and races to your repertoire - making it an excellent plan for beginners.

According to Dunbar, Ryan's running improved instantly because she was experiencing the most basic benefit of using an HRM - awareness. "Your body will let you train harder than is physiologically beneficial," he explains. "This means that many people do most of their runs too hard and fall into a trap of running most sessions at the same pace regardless of duration." Working out at a variety of different intensities is fundamental if you want to improve as a runner and an HRM is one of the best tools around for achieving this.

One runner who has realised this is Ross Preston. "Three years ago, my training just didn't seem be helping my running progress," says the 33-year-old from Devon, a Major in the Royal Marines and 3:20 marathon runner. "I'm a man of habit and that extended to my running. I'd head out and run the same route, at the same pace every day, so my race times just didn't improve. I should have known better - I studied exercise science at university." Exasperated at his static race times, he did what many runners do - let alone qualified sports scientists - and bought an HRM. "I found that even if I ran the same route, I could use the monitor to do it at different intensities and within just a couple of months my race times started to improve."

Preston knew that he needed a mixed programme including long, steady runs, easy recovery runs, threshold sessions and track reps but before investing in an HRM he struggled to find the appropriate pace. All it required was a little bit of work, and maths.

"To ensure that you are training most effectively, you'll need some target heart rates for the sessions you want to do," says Dunbar, "but unless you have access to a physiology lab, it is difficult to find accurate target heart rates."

Difficult but not impossible. Firstly, and most importantly, you'll need a good idea of your maximum heart rate. If you're overweight or a complete beginner, it's best to use the very approximate formula of 214-(0.8 x age) for men and 209-(0.9 x age) for women to estimate your maximum. This, though, is far from perfect. "I tried a couple of different formulas to start with," says Ryan. "They gave me a maximum between 174 and 187bpm and didn't really seem to help. I subsequently found that my maximum was much higher at 203."

"The best way to determine your maximum heart rate is on a treadmill," say Dunbar. "After a thorough warm-up perform two flat-out, four-minute runs, separated by a two-minute recovery jog. The highest rate you hit near the end of the second four minutes will be your maximum heart rate." This is a tough test, so make sure that you're well rested before you do it and if you're in any doubt check with your GP.

Once you've hit your max you can calculate your working heart rate (WHR) - see "Work It Out", opposite - and then, from this, the different training intensities you need to achieve different results. If you want to burn off fat, for instance, you'd run at less than 60-70 per cent of your WHR, while a threshold run would typically be around the 85 per cent of your working heart rate.

"Using training zones works as well for a non-competitive runner interested in weight control as it does for a faster athlete looking to shave seconds off a 10K time," says Dunbar. "Once you know the optimal heart rate for the various workouts that you do, the monitor can help control your training. Programmable alarm limits can indicate when you are outside of your preferred training zone, so you can instantly adjust your pace and effort accordingly."

Day Rates

Your heart rate is for life, not just for running. We thought it'd be interesting to see how a reasonably fit 33-year-old man's heart copes with the humdrum.

Sleeping with a heart-rate monitor felt slightly kinky but my Polar RS200 was comfortable enough to not disturb my dozing. Seven-and-a-half hours of uninterrupted sleep resulted in an average of 55 and a high of 116. The latter, I'd imagine, came during a dream about popping next door in full ice-hockey goalkeeping kit. For a game of tennis.
"Your resting heart rate at night is quite normal," Joe Dunbar tells me. "Although resting heart rate tends to be lower in fitter people and higher in the less fit, this is far from a robust fitness test. The sedentary male is typically 60-80."

The school holidays meant that my 16-mile scooter commute into central London was surprisingly uneventful - my average heart rate was 76 and I peaked at 99, probably when my scooter hit a heady 40mph on the A4.
"Although you're sitting down, riding a scooter does take some effort," says Dunbar.

Once in the office I opted to walk up seven flights of stairs rather than take the lift. It was harder than I thought and I felt out of breath at the top - maximum 151, average 130.
"The heart rate you achieved climbing the stairs proves that the advice to take the stairs instead of the lift is actually a really good fitness tip," says Dunbar.

Finally an evening trip to Sainsbury's led to an average of 83 and a maximum of 111 - the two-for-one sausages offer was pretty exciting.
"I'm amazed by your shopping heart rates," says Dunbar. "I'd expect them to be higher, you must enjoy it more than most people."

—Rob Spedding

As well as keeping you in check when you're moving, your HRM is also an excellent tool for retrospective analysis. "Use a set route and run it an easy pace, say 60 per cent of your working heart rate," suggests Dunbar. "Then every month or so run it again at the same heart rate. Record your times and if you're becoming fitter you'll run the route faster without an increase in heart rate." If your HRM's information can be downloaded onto your computer than you can even overlay heart-rate curves from different runs around the same course for comparison and can build up a heart-rate training diary. "It's one of the best features of my HRM," says Preston. "I'm not very bright so having a graphical representation of how I am improving is really helpful."

Gardener has also discovered another facet of an HRM - it's useful for telling you that you shouldn't be running. "During one half-marathon I was running at my target heart rate but my pace was nowhere near where it should have been," says Gardener. "A couple of days later I came down with an awful chest infection. My heart rate had actually been telling me something was wrong."

Dunbar says that checking your heart rate straight after a session is an excellent means of assessing your state of health. "If after a regular run or interval it normally takes 30 seconds to get your heart rate back to, say 120 or 100 yet one day it takes much longer, say a minute or 90 seconds, this is often a warning sign that you've been overtraining or are about to come down with an illness. Whatever the cause the next day should be a recovery or rest day."

Gardener, Ryan and Preston all say that although how and how often they use their HRMs has changed over time, they now can't imagine training without one. As Gardener points out, her HRM has one important advantage over a coach, a training partner and even herself: "It's simple: a heart-rate monitor always tells the truth."

Work It Out

Once you've found your maximum heart rate, you'll need to calculate your working heart rate. Here's how to do it:

Find your resting heart rate (lying still, soon after you wake up. Ideally take an average over a few days).

Subtract the resting rate from the maximum. So, if your maximum was 206 and your resting 56, then 206 - 56 = 150. Take whatever percentage of your working heart rate that you're aiming for (eg 60 per cent for an easy run would be 150 x 0.60 = 90), and add it to your resting heart rate: 90 + 56 = 146. The final figure is your working heart rate.

Sample Sessions:

60% Recovery run - this will feel slow, but it's supposed to.
60-70% Long, slow runs - when you run up to 65% of your working heart rate, your body is teaching itself to burn fat as fuel (useful for marathons). Anything from one to three hours.
70-85% Fartlek - speedplay (moderate-paced runs with random fast bursts). 30-60 minutes
85% Anaerobic threshold run (or tempo run) - this teaches your body to run hard for long periods. Approximately 10-mile to half-marathon race pace.
85-90% Approximately 5K-10K race pace. This is the peak heart rate you'd expect to achieve during sessions of 800m to one-mile reps.
95% Peak heart rate at 400m rep pace (not full-out race pace).

NB It's difficult to use a heart-rate monitor to pace short intervals below 1,000m. The figures above 85% are a guide to what you can expect to reach at the end of each repetition. You can use the monitor for recovery between reps, though. Pick a comfortable, lower heart rate - perhaps 120 - and don't start your next rep until you hit it.


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Discuss this article

I have a very low resting heart rate. It is normally 34 but has sunk as low as 28 and on one occasion it went down to 22. I have undergone tests and have an under active vagus nerve, combined with an enlarged heart from marathon running.
If, as I read somewhere, we all have a finite number of heart beats, ( Mice have fast ones and live a short time, elephants have slow ones and live for yonks), does this mean I can expect to be 140 before I croak it?
Posted: 28/10/2006 at 22:24

Definitely. I'm on course to be 125yrs old. Please use plenty of moisturiser because we don't want to be cluttering up the planet looking all wrinkly.
Posted: 28/10/2006 at 22:32

I've been using Aloe Vera gel after shaving for about ten years. Not only am I going to be as old as the hills, I am also going to look as fresh as a daisy! It'll just be the smell that puts people off!
Posted: 28/10/2006 at 22:38

"we all have a finite number of heart beats"

This is groundbreaking stuff! I'd always assumed i would live forever.
Posted: 28/10/2006 at 22:48

mm plod -my rhr has been as low as 25bpm -usually about 45 -yip we could have long long life. prob is with me is that the fags may reduce mine to about 110-tut:o-
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 06:32

By the time your 110 - cigarettes will be about £200 a packet and it'll be cheaper to smoke £5 notes!
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 10:32

asbo plod -shock enough to kill yer:O-
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 10:35

Does anyone know whether runners
actually gain more life expectancy
than the time they spend on running?

If I spend 4 hrs a week running
for the next 30 years, that'd be 6240 hours running,
I'd need to live for more than a year extra
to get that number of waking hours back


Posted: 29/10/2006 at 10:40

.... and 4 hours a week is not considered a lot
on this forum, is it?
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 10:41

the finite number of beats thing is complete bollocks though. did you read it in the daily mail, by any chance??
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 14:14


'Specially if you don't use the green cross code and get knocked down by a no. 9 bus! ;o)
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 14:18


LOK
but mikefrog

time spent running
is like double time

you're not "losing waking hours"

you're gaining an amazing experience :-P

of course
only injured runners realise this


Plod
don't want to alarm you but
i have a friend with a vagus nerve problem and he kept fainting
which wasn't good because he worked up ladders most of the time

prior to that he'd tried to change career, but
he also had to give up his life change plans as he was training to become a fitness coach and they said he had to stop that too with the vagus nerve thing

so according to his docs, you're probably already technically dead

(sorry)

let's just say, average life expectancy for a bloke is 76 years old in UK

i'd go with that if i were you :-)
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 22:55

I do get that, LOK:
actually I feel most alive when running.

And also, it raises the quality of life in between runs,
which isn't covered by a simple "expectancy" calculation


I was just mathematically curious as to
whether the gained expectancy is more
than the time spent....
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 23:06

Wouldn't even matter to me if you only gained the same time extra on the end as you spend running. As long as I am fit and healthy until just before I peg it, rather than fat, unfit and disabled through ill health which is what I'd be if I didn't run.

TT ;0)
Posted: 29/10/2006 at 23:17

Oh Candy beat me to it. Damn.
Posted: 30/10/2006 at 00:08

Thanks for the reassuring message about vagus nerve problems! When my Dr diagnosed this, he said I may need a pacemaker fitted when I was older.
That was 15 years ago and I've only fainted once, and that was nothing to do with this. (I had a hydrocortizone injection and it clinically lowered my blood pressure - won't be having one of those again!)
I agree with the sentiments about time spent running. I consider that it's like putting time in the bank. To be used later when I should have been pushing up the daisies.
Posted: 30/10/2006 at 11:40

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