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Running 101: Training With A Heart Rate Monitor

Heart rate monitors are useful, but hardly essential.

Heart rate monitors are useful, but hardly essential.

Many runners wear heart rate monitors while they run. Should you?

Heart rate monitors are not the essential training tools that some advocates make them out to be. When used properly, they can be valuable training aids. But even when used properly, they are subject to certain limitations and should not be relied on too heavily.

The basic rationale for wearing a heart rate monitor while running is that heart rate is an indicator of exercise intensity. A heart rate monitor, therefore, allows you to monitor and precisely control the intensity of your running. Beginning runners often make the mistake of not sufficiently varying the intensity of their running. A heart rate monitor can help you.

To do this, you first need to determine your individual heart rate response to running intensity. Step one is to determine what’s called your lactate threshold heart rate. Lactate threshold is a moderately high running intensity — the highest intensity that can be sustained without significant discomfort. At exercise intensities below the lactate threshold, your breathing is controlled. When you exceed lactate threshold intensity, there is a sudden increase in breathing rate.

RELATED: The Pros Of Heart Rate Training

Put on your heart rate monitor and jog for two to three minutes at a very comfortable pace. Now increase your pace moderately and sustain the new pace for two to three minutes. Continue this pattern, noting your heart rate at each pace, until you reach a pace at which your breathing rate spikes. You are now above your lactate threshold. Your lactate threshold heart rate is the heart rate you noted at the preceding pace.

Heart rate-based training involves targeting different heart rate zones in different workouts. The most popular zone system is the following.

Zone 1 Active Recovery <80% lactate threshold heart rate (LT HR)
Zone 2 Aerobic Threshold 81-89% LT HR
Zone 3 Tempo 90-95% LT HR
Zone 4 Sublactate Threshold 96-99% LT HR
Zone 5a Lactate Threshold 100-101% LT HR
Zone 5b Aerobic Capacity 102-105% LT HR
Zone 5c Anaerobic Capacity >106% LT HR

Each zone carries its own benefits and is appropriate for different types of workouts. Zone 1 is so light it barely qualifies as exercise, and is appropriate on days when you are especially fatigued from prior days’ running and for “active recoveries” between high-intensity intervals. Zone 2 is very comfortable and quite useful for building aerobic fitness, fat-burning capacity, and endurance. You should run in Zone 2 more than in any other zone.

Zone 3 is just a bit faster than your natural jogging pace — that is, the pace you automatically adopt when you go out for a run without even thinking about the intensity. It is useful for extending the benefits of training in Zone 2. Zone 4 is a running intensity that requires a conscious effort to go fast but is still comfortable. It’s close to the intensity that is associated with longer running races, and should be incorporated into your training in moderate amounts to get your body used to that intensity.

Zone 5a is your lactate threshold intensity. It’s more stressful than the lower zones, so you can’t do a lot of running in this zone, but it’s a powerful fitness booster, so you’ll want to do some Zone 5a running each week. The typical Zone 5a workout contains one or more sustained blocks of Zone 5a running sandwiched between a warm-up and a cool down. For example: 10 minutes Zone 2 (warm-up), 20 minutes Zone 5a, 10 minutes Zone 2 (cool-down).

RELATED: Common Heart Rate Monitor Mistakes

Zone 5b is very intense and stressful, but when incorporated into your training in small amounts it will elevate your running performance significantly. Zone 5b is too intense to be done in sustained blocks, so instead it is incorporated into interval workouts featuring multiple short segments of fast running separated by active recoveries. For example, you might run 5 x 3 minutes @ Zone 5b with 3 minutes @ Zone 1 after each Zone 5B interval.

Zone 5c covers everything between the fastest pace you could sustain for a mile or so and a full sprint. It is incorporated into very short intervals and should be used very sparingly in your training because it’s so stressful. You won’t want to make the mistake of avoiding it, though, as it’s a great way to boost speed and running economy.

So there you have some basic guidelines for using heart rate to monitor and control the intensity of your running. The chief limitation of heart rate-based training is that, while heart rate is a good indicator of running intensity, it’s not a perfect indicator. Heart rate is affected by a number of other factors, including fatigue level, sleep patterns, psychological state, hydration status, and diet, which make it somewhat unreliable in certain circumstances.

For example, while heart rate tends to be lower at any given pace on a treadmill than it is outdoors, running at any given pace actually feels easier outdoors, and one can also sustain higher heart rates outdoors, possibly for psychological reasons. The relationship between heart rate and running intensity also changes continuously as your fitness level changes, so you need to repeat the lactate threshold test frequently to keep your target zones accurate.

A majority of experienced runners, including most elite runners, train without heart rate monitors, instead relying on a combination of perceived exertion and pace to monitor and control the intensity of their workouts. The success of these athletes is all the proof we need that a heart rate monitor is not needed to realize your full potential as a runner.

Ultimately, the most comprehensive indicator of running intensity is perceived exertion, or how hard running feels. Perceived exertion accounts for not only heart rate but also all of the other physiological and psychological factors that influence exercise intensity. So you’ll always want to pay more attention to how hard running feels than you do to your heart rate when running.

A heart rate monitor can be a useful tool; just don’t let yourself become a slave to it.


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit