Our Best Practical Heart Rate Sessions


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Fern Oliner had been a runner for more than 25 years when she experienced a breakthrough in her performance during a half-marathon.

"For the very first time, I felt like a true runner,' she recalls. "There I was, running uphill, passing people and feeling totally in control. I loved it."

What was her secret? Oliner was wearing a heart rate monitor.

"I was breathing heavily as I went up the hills, but the monitor told me that I was okay, so I sped up," she says. "If it hadn't been for the monitor, I would have kept going at the slower pace, as I'd always done."

Oliner's experience is a classic example of how runners can benefit from advances in technology. Once considered something that only hard-core professional athletes would use, heart rate monitors have now gone mainstream, their tell-tale chest straps peeking out from beneath the T-shirts of both fitness runners and Veteran marathoners.

These people are all wearing heart rate monitors for the same reason, though. They provide an objective gauge of your exertion that is often more exact than your own perceptions.

"While it's important to be aware of your effort so you're in touch with your body's subtle clues, your personal feeling isn't always a very accurate feedback system," says Dr George Parrott. "Heart rate monitors, however, are far more precise."

So, no matter what type of runner you are – beginner, intermediate or advanced – a heart rate monitor will help you train more effectively.


Tips for Beginners

Novice runners are some of the biggest fans of heart rate monitors, for two main reasons. Keeping track of your heart rate ensures that you're working hard enough to reap fitness benefits. But setting a maximum heart rate zone on the monitor can also keep overzealous newcomers from overdoing it.

Beginners should choose a target zone of between 60 and 70 per cent of their working heart rate (WHR) and stay within it for most of their running. Runners who haven't yet developed a sense of their speed and effort can learn from their monitor. "I love being able to keep a consistent pace without having to look at my watch all the time,' says Kerrie Hardman, 37, who started running two years ago. "Nothing has helped my training more than monitoring my heart rate."

Suggested session
This one comes from running coach Roy Benson, a long-time advocate of heart-rate training. To do it, you'll need to determine your WHR. Take 70 per cent as your upper limit, and 60 per cent as your lower limit. Plan to run 20 minutes in total (head out for 10 minutes, then turn around). Start running until you hit your upper limit heart rate, then walk until it's back down to your lower limit. Run again up to 70 per cent, and then walk until you hit 60 per cent. Continue this way for the entire 20 minutes. "As you progress through the weeks, you'll spend more time running than walking, because you'll take longer to hit your upper limit," says Benson. Extend the length of the run as your fitness progresses.

Fun twist to try
To keep your motivation high, use the monitor to track your fitness, suggests Dr Edmund Burke, professor of exercise science at the University of Colorado. Chose a running speed that's realistic for you, and run a timed mile. "Repeat that mile at the same speed a month later, and your heart rate should be lower," he says. Run the same timed mile two months later, three months later and so on. Each time, record your heart rate figures in your training log so that you can track your progress.


Tips for Intermediates

If you've run regularly for a year or more, you'll find that a heart rate monitor is a great help as your training gets more challenging. One of the best ways to use a monitor is to pre-set a target heart rate for a tempo run (see Training And Racing With A Heart Rate Monitor). This will keep you from going too fast (a frequent mistake with tempo running). Another great way to use it is on long runs, which should be neither too fast nor too slow (aim for 60-70 per cent of WHR, depending on your fitness).

Intermediate and advanced runners are renowned for running too hard on their recovery days. A heart rate monitor can remedy this. "I actually found it harder to stay below 60 per cent of my WHR on my easy days than I did running at 95 per cent of my WHR on hard days," says Laverne Sheppard.

Suggested session
This ladder session progresses through a range of heart-rate zones. After 10 minutes of jogging, run four minutes at 70-80 per cent of your WHR, three minutes at 80-90 per cent, two minutes at 90-95 per cent, and finally one minute flat out. Finish with 10 minutes of easy jogging. For a less challenging run, decrease the amount of time spent in each zone by a minute. For a more challenging session, do the ladder two or even three times.

Fun twist to try
Even runners who swear by heart rate monitors in training will tend to leave them at home during races. But Benson says they're perfect for learning to race at the proper pace. "The monitor will show you if you're starting out too fast or too slow," he says. "Within a mile or so, you should be in your desired zone. A heart rate monitor will enable you to keep it there." Click here for optimal heart rates for various race distances.


Tips for Advanced Runners

Even the best runners can benefit from heart-rate feedback. South African coach Bobby McGee, who oversees some of the fastest runners in the world, relies on heart rate monitors to train his athletes.

When distance runner Colleen De Reuck joined his group, McGee suggested she start wearing a monitor. "She knew how to run easy and how to run hard, but nothing in between," he says. "Being at altitude, I knew she'd need something other than pace-per-mile to determine her efforts." De Reuck, who now wears a monitor for easy and intermediate sessions, was a quick convert. "I stopped burning myself out," she says.

Many advanced runners also use the monitor to track recovery during speedwork. Instead of waiting a predetermined number of minutes or jogging a certain distance between repetitions, you can check for your heart rate to drop before beginning the next repetition. Your recovery target should be less than 80 per cent of your WHR.

Suggested session
Jog for 10 minutes, then run three repetitions of 1.5 miles at about 85-90 per cent of WHR. Rest three minutes between each repetition. Note the time for each repetition in your log. "You'll see your times decrease as your season progresses," McGee says. "You're not working any harder, but you should be running much faster at the same heart rate.'

Fun twist to try
A rise in resting heart rate (best taken in the morning right after you wake up) often indicates that you're overtraining. A heart rate monitor can help make this diagnosis. For this you'll need a monitor that stores information for later recall. "My elite runners sleep with their monitors on," McGee says. "The resulting information is an important indicator, telling me if they're overtraining." According to McGee, an erratic heart rate with lots of variation throughout the night is typical when an athlete is training hard. When tapering and resting for a race, the heart rate should be steadier and more consistent. If yours is still erratic leading up to a big race, consider a longer taper, or cut your mileage and intensity during your taper.

Alternatively, test your fitness periodically with this track-based game: warm up well; then accelerate until your heart rate hits 90 per cent of WHR. Then jog very slowly until you recover to 70 per cent. See how many times you can go from 70 per cent to 90 per cent and back again in 10 minutes of running. You can increase the challenge by raising the upper limit to 95 per cent of WHR.