Heart rate monitors have become very popular running aides in recent years, but do we know how to get the best out of them? You can buy them in all sorts of configurations, from fairly cheap ones (I got mine for about $35) to ones costing several hundred dollars, which claim do everything bar the actual running for you.
The easiest way is to buy a book (or read a Web site) that covers the topic of heart-rate training. These invariably contain a table of target heart rate zones, which should be easy enough to follow. One problem with using percent heart rates to set efforts is that they can be too dictating. You don’t always feel the same, sometimes a run of 145 bmp (beats per minute) feels easy, and sometimes it feels hard. Slavishly following set numbers is not always a good idea.
Plenty of runners, especially experienced ones, admit that heart rate monitors can give you one big benefit, namely to stop you from running too hard on your easy days. It can be very tempting to push just that little bit too hard, and before you know it your recovery run has morphed into something completely different. As any coach worth his salt will keep telling you, it’s vital to have your proper recovery days, or you will end up injured or constantly tired, neither of which will do much good for your running.
One coach I know swears by the method of doing an evaluation workout at least once every three weeks. A typical example would be to run 2 or 3 miles at about 45 seconds per mile slower than your 5k race pace. After the run you stop and check how quickly your heart rate goes down to 120 and 110 bpm. As you get fitter you will notice a steady improvement in these numbers, i.e. it will take less time for your heart rate to drop down to these levels. If you do not see an improvement, you are not training properly (either too hard or not hard enough), and should alter your program.
One thing I do not agree with is to wear your HRM during a race and let it dictate your race pace. This ignores the fact that on race day your heart rate will be elevated because of your increased adrenaline levels. The same pace that might require 150 bpm during a training run can easily take over 160 bpm during a race. It is important to realise that this is not a sign that you’re having a bad day; it is simply your body’s way to handle the increased stress of a race. If you try to stay within set parameters, you are most likely to run too slow and won’t produce the results you are capable of.
Always remember: those tools are helpful for measuring. They are supposed to guide you, not dictate. Use your own judgement, and trust your instincts.
Read these related CompleteRunning articles:
You Gotta Have Heart, Miles & Miles & Miles of Heart!
Use the Karvonen Method to Determine Your Heart Rate Training Targets;