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Ask The Experts: Is My Heart Rate Too High?

The short answer is: probably not!



I am using one of your online plans to train for my first 10K. Today I ran a 5k to determine what my training pace zones should be. My time was 28:45 but my average heart rate was 175, which seems high. Once I have completed this training plan will I be able to run this pace (or faster) without my heart rate being so high?

I’m assuming that being able to run long distances faster and at a lower heart rate is the whole point behind this type of training, right?




Thanks for your question. Let me see if I can clear this up for you. I will start by saying that I am not a big fan of heart rate-based training. That’s why the training plans I design, including the one you are following, are pace based. I think heart rate is fine as a secondary metric for monitoring and controlling workout intensity and for tracking changes in fitness, but it is dispensable, whereas the monitoring of pace is indispensable. After all, you race on the clock, so it only makes sense to train on the clock.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the popularity of heart rate-based training is this widespread notion that high heart rates are bad. High heart rates are not bad. Here’s why: You are currently training for a 10K race. I can almost guarantee that whoever wins that race will have the highest average heart rate in the entire field, or something very close to the highest. The winner of every race has the highest heart rate, or nearly the highest. That’s because a relatively high average heart rate in a race is simply an indication of a greater work capacity, and a greater work capacity is what gets a runner to the finish line first.

The point in racing a 10K is to finish it in the shortest time possible. Thus, the point of training for a 10K is to reduce the amount of time required to complete a 10K. Or, put another way, the point of training for a 10K is to increase the speed that you can sustain through the full race distance. Heart rate is closely tied to speed. The faster you run, the more oxygen your muscles demand, and the faster your heart has to pump to supply adequate oxygen. Also, the stronger your heart becomes through training, the faster it can beat in powering your legs through any duration or distance of exercise. Thus, there is no way to attain the goal of lowering your 10K finish time without increasing the heart rate that you sustain in covering that distance.

So where does this idea that high heart rates are bad come from? Well, in addition to increasing work capacity, training also increases movement economy. In terms of heart rate, what this means is that, at any given pace, your heart rate decreases, and at any given heart rate, your speed increases. For example, in your 5K test your average heart rate was 175 bpm at a pace of 9:15 per mile. By the time you complete your training program, your heart rate at 9:15 per mile might be only 165 bpm, and you might be able to run 8:30 per mile at a heart rate of 175.

That evidence of progress is nice to see. But it’s not the point. What I’d like to see is your 5K time trial coming down from 28:45 to, say, 25:24 after 12 weeks. Supposing this happened, you’d probably find that your average heart rate during that 25:24 time trial was higher than 175 bpm—maybe 180 bpm. But that’s beside the point, too. Race directors don’t hand out medals for the best heart rate!


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Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start: A 4-Week Plan for Endurance Athletes.