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Heart Rate Monitors: Do They Make a Difference?

Posted by Filed Under: Training

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;

About Thomas Bubendorfer

I started running in 2004 with the goal to complete the Dublin marathon. After finishing a few minutes above 4 hours I got ambitious and decided to break the 4 hours barrier, which took two more marathons and a few painful experiences. By then I was fully hooked to running and decided to see how good a runner I could become. In the meantime I have managed to lower my best marathon time to 3:09, and I'm aiming for the sub-3 hours target. I have also fallen in love with ultra running, and despite an egregious lack of ultras in Ireland have plans for a few longer adventures over the next couple of years.



8 Comments
  1. Huw on December 4th at 6:56 am

    Hi Thomas, like the post, as a coach myself (triathlon and running) I really agree that too many runners set too much store by a tool that they are not using correctly! And what you say about not racing with a HRM is spot on!
    Huw Davies
    huw@runflux.com
    http://www.runflux.com : your daily dose of running
    http://runflux.wordpress.com/

  2. Most Frequently Challenged Books » Blog Archive » Heart Rate Monitors: Do They Make a Difference? on December 4th at 6:59 am

    […] Heart Rate Monitors: Do They Make a Difference?By ThomasSlavishly 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. …Complete Running Network – http://completerunning.com […]

  3. Sports Books of All Time » Blog Archive » Heart Rate Monitors: Do They Make a Difference? on December 4th at 8:12 am

    […] Heart Rate Monitors: Do They Make a Difference?By ThomasYou 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 …Complete Running Network – http://completerunning.com […]

  4. Lee Miller on December 4th at 10:22 am

    Hi Thomas,good post. There is a great deal of inaccuracy in using pre made HR tables. In my opinion to get the best out of a monitor- get a VO2 max test where all the training and racing zones are determined (these usually cost less than $100). Then you CAN use a monitor in a race and get the most out of your body on a given day. It’s like setting cruise control in a car, and takes a lot of subjectivity out of the process of putting out an maximal effort.

  5. 21stCenturyMom on December 4th at 3:00 pm

    Good article!

    I’ve never done HR training but I know people who have and to a person they say it has given them a marathon PR. I do believe they all got tested or self-tested to determine their own HR zones, though. The standard tables are not accurate, particularly if you have been training for a while.

    I think they wore the HRM for the race but only to keep from blowing up in the 1st half. I am very interested in exploring HR training to see if it might help. I am notorious for going out too fast whether I’m training or racing. It doesn’t serve me well :-)

  6. Brian on December 5th at 3:26 pm

    I was most interested in the comment about not wearing HR monitors during races. I have both worn them during races and left them behind either by choice or accident. My best races, including two PRs came during races where I did not wear any HR monitor or have any speedometer on my bike. I have a marathon PR and half-iron PR sans technology and believe that it was the lack of the stuff that made it possible because 1) I would not have believed I could hold the pace I did for a marathon and so would have slowed down and 2) the extra data of HR and speed/pace tends to frustrate me when the real world of slight inclines and wind come into play.

    What has made all the difference is the use of these tools during training because they have allowed me to really understand how my body performs and match that to how I feel (RPE) while performing at various levels of excretion.

  7. juan on December 6th at 1:31 pm

    I use HR data to train and set limits for various types of runs. I also will wear one during racing .. not to check it during the race but for evaluation afterwards. Gives some good insights into actual vs. perceived effort and as a gauge for how my training is going (% of max HR at various paces and different stages of the race). I use a the Garmin 305 with HR which gives me pace, % grade, elevation profile info to help with evaluation.

  8. Fabian F. on December 12th at 11:04 am

    Good article, I am not the biggest of fans of HRM’s but they do help me keep the pace and also it keeps tabs of the time/amount I ran for the day. On the other hand they tend to distract me and slow me down …

    Fabian F.
    http://www.buttar.com
    support@buttar.com

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