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Heart rate training

How does it work? Is it for everyone? Will it make you a more efficient, faster runner?

The age of STRAVA and the rapid development of wearable fitness tech has turned our training in to something similar to Instagram posts. When my dad was an avid distance runner, he had a physical booklet with penciled in training programmes, goals and a rough analysis of each run. He wore a basic Casio wristwatch to time his total training run, and he measured routes using his car’s odometer. Trail distances were a guess using printed maps of the area. His kudos were cards from my sister and I, or welcome home banners because we were pretty convinced that every medal earned must have been a win. The only time any of his contemporaries, competitors or club mates really knew how his training was going, would have been at the finish line of a race or the public, published results of one in a newspaper.

Today, too many runners fall into the trap of believing their training should warrant a plethora of kudos and comments, and STRAVA or similar apps become an ego trap, rather than a viable training tool and excellent logbook. I know runners who back out of group runs because their watches aren’t charged and the effort cannot be publicly loaded.

As a result of the kudos-pursuit, and a tendency to throw down at speed for almost every session, or hit maximum vert, or clock a STRAVA segment, the concept of heart-rate training has not captured the imagination of many. In essence, you will need to slow down to get faster, and the degree to which the training method will put your brakes on might shock you. But, for those who have stuck with it, results do seem worthwhile.

What Is Heart-Rate Training?

Using your heart rate, measured in beats per minute (bpm) or as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR), as a guide for intensity, you are guided to train in specific zones, rather than by pace. You train your aerobic system without overstressing your skeletal and muscular systems. This prevents a competitive throw-down at each session, as you’re held back for many. A key benefit is reduced over-training. Your maximum HR is unique to you, so your training becomes a lot more personalised.

Know your Zones

An article by Runner's World describes the process by which you can identify your personal HR Zones. Everyone has a resting heart rate, which is best measured when you first wake up, and a maximum heart rate, or the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity. Between these two values are different zones that mark your effort. The most accurate methods to find your MHR are in a lab test, which is conducted by professionals with fancy equipment, or in a field test, which is often supervised by a certified trainer in a gym setting with a treadmill or indoor bike.

The DIY test. You’ve probably seen one longstanding formula for this: 220 minus your age, but the best equation currently available for the general population is [208 – (0.7 x age)]. There are various models of heart-rate training zones (all with their own labels), but most nonelite runners follow five zones established by heart-rate monitor company Polar, based on research from the 1970s. There are five zones: very light, light, moderate, hard, and very hard.

Here’s how the numbers stack up:

  • Zone 1: Very light, 50 percent to 60 percent of MHR
  • Zone 2: Light, 60 percent to 70 percent of MHR
  • Zone 3: Moderate, 70 percent to 80 percent of MHR
  • Zone 4: Hard, 80 percent to 90 percent of MHR
  • Zone 5: Very hard, 90 percent to 100 percent of MHR

To calculate your personal zones, there’s some easy math involved: Just multiply your max by the minimum and maximum percentages indicated by each zone.

And now you know why you needed math at school!

Each HR zone will serve a purpose, with the overall goal to be varied, calculated training that builds your aerobic base. 5 is the only one that should take you to the red zone – high intensity intervals where you know you’re breaking through to a new level of performance. As with anything in life, a strong base is the best starting point, and this method is a slower process than some others, but effective.

Words: Kim Stephens