You run, you sweat, you breathe heavily, you eventually stop and recover. Simple... unless you want to know what's really happening to your body, and use that knowledge to control your fitness.
That's when you start to think about using a heart rate monitor (HRM). And when you've read the manuals and seen the brochures, and fiddled with all the buttons – that's when you want to know how others have fared when they've actually used the things.
The RW forum positively bristles with HRM fans. However it seems there are just as many who are a little more circumspect in their praise. The Evil Pixie decided to get the low-down:
"I've been running for four years, I'm slow and always have been," she said. "I have toyed with HR training before and gave up. I was bored, because I was running at crawling pace and walking. Why should I try again? Is walking fast better than plodding stupidly slow/shuffling? Should I 'run' daily, and if so how long?"
Why should I try again?
Responses differ. From the statisticians (Pixie appears to be one herself!) to the cynics, from the HRM fans to the former basetrainers who have modified their use of the monitor, everyone has their view.
Sam Panther was, like Pixie, at the slower end of the spectrum. But as many others have, he found that using a heart rate monitor steadied his efforts so that he slowed down even further – but then he found that his times improved.
"It involved running slowly and taking lots of walk breaks. And I mean lots. But as time went on, the speed increased for the same HR, and the walk breaks reduced. When I started my heart rate training I was doing 17-minute miles when running, and got down to 13-minute miles. My first run home from work took over two hours, and as time went on I reduced this to sub-1:45. I only ran one, maybe two and sometimes three times a week. If I did as the basetrainers suggest, I believe my progress would have been even greater."
Muttley, an experienced runner, agreed that HRM users find their speed increases at the same HR if they stick to the regime of running consistently to a 70-75 per cent heart rate – but "it takes time". He passed on tips gleaned from his own experience. "Start HRM running in autumn. HR goes up in hot weather, so in current (hot) conditions you'll be even slower. By next summer you will hopefully be up to speed.
"Don't restrict yourself to just slow running. I find that a couple of good blasts a week 're-set the clock', like rebooting a computer to clear the clag out. If I don't do this, I get HR drift until I can't run at all at a decent HR. Heresy to the hardcore basetrainers, but hey!"
Muttley also made the point that a HRM can be a useful health tool: "Very useful if you give blood, so you can gauge when it's safe to run afterwards. Ditto if you're getting over a bug."
Legionella urged Pixie to try HRM training again, and also pointed out that it's a good tool for speed training, too. "Working to HR makes a lot of sense, especially in this hot weather. When you are ill or fatigued your HR will elevate, so if you try to maintain a pace you will be overtraining. Who says HR training is just for basetrainers? Try to incorporate speed work within specific HR bands as well."
Sodahead agreed: "Complete your easy runs at 70 to 75 per cent Max HR with at least one session a week (intervals, fartlek, tempo run) at 80 to 85 per cent Max HR."
The debate continues, and the issue of racing with a HRM has just been introduced. "If your goal is to race or compete at a specific heart rate then your training should be focused on heart rate," says VO2 Max. "But honestly how many people do you hear lined up for an event saying 'I want to run this at 150 bpm'? None. Those of us who train for races/events train to run at certain speed (eg 'I want to do the 10K in 40:30') so why not use speed as the ultimate indicator for your training?"
It's a fact that many endurance athletes use their HRM during long races to keep their heart rate down. John L Parker Jr, author of Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot, is one – will any forum marathon or ultra runners join the discussion and say the same?