Running is one of the simplest activities a person can engage in. It is a primal human instinct and we are all capable of running to some extent. However, while running itself is so basic, training to run a race is just the opposite. Even with a coach it is difficult to figure out what pace to run whether you are running an easy run, a tempo, or some hard intervals. You can attempt to estimate the proper pace for each of these designated workouts however each runners body adapts differently to workouts and therefore, training needs to be individualized as such. Furthermore, your current fitness is likely different from your fitness when you ran that mark and thus the paces dictated by that time may no longer be appropriate. So if we can’t judge our training paces from our races, how do we determine how fast to run in practice? The nice thing is that while our body is high matenance when it comes to what paces it demands, it also gives off signals telling you how it is reacting. It does so through your heart rate. Thus if you wear a heart rate monitor during your workout and keep your heart rate in your designated range for the workout you are trying to accomplish, you will be able to get the desired benefit for the day regardless of terrain, weather, or altitude.
Easy Aerobic Runs
Lets first establish what each run is meant to accomplish and when it is appropriate. Lets start with your easy aerobic or recovery runs. If you are training for a marathon this will be the majority of your days and can range from a post workout day to a long run day. The goal of these runs is to maintain and improve on aerobic fitness while allowing your body to recover from your last hard workout or prepare for the next one. Since a marathon is almost entirely based on aerobic fitness, these workouts are the greatest aid in improving your strength and preparing you for the race. They also help to facilitate fat metabolism which is not only a key aspect to staying energized thorughout the long marathon, but is also sought after for pure body composition benefits.
The issue is that the vast majority of people run these runs too quickly. There is no need to run even close to marathon pace in order to gain the benefits from these types of runs. In fact, running at or near marathon pace will not grant you as much benefit as well as increasing your risk of injury. You will not make the aerobic adaptations or increase your fat metabolism if you are not in the correct range. Therefore, you should listen to what your body is saying through heart rate and keep your pulse in the appropriate zone. For aerobic runs that zone is a absoulte max of 80% of your max heart rate and 60-70% is just as good to attain those benefits. Harder is not always better in this case. Therefore, find a pace between 60 and 80 percent of your max heart rate that feels comfortable. For those who do not know their max heart rate, a good rule of thumb is to take 220 minus your age, and that is your max heart rate. Thus if you are 40 years old, your max heart rate is 180 and the range for your aerobic runs is between 108 and 144.
But easy runs alone are not going to get you to run to the peak of your potential. You will not be able to run your best without the base they provide, but you also need a bit of quicker, race pace type work to prepare your body. These are tempo runs. They are usually run about at marathon pace or slightly faster for a shorter distance. While you can run any distance standard tempo runs range from 4 miles to 10 miles. The point of these training runs is to train the body to deal with the lactic acid that builds up in your legs during a hard effort. The more tempo runs you do, the better your body will be able to clear that lactate that is trying to weigh you down. However, if there runs are done too slow then you will not produce any lactate, and if they are too fast, your legs will be overrun with too much lactate. Either way you will not gain the intended benefits of these types of run, and so again, we look to our favorite tool–the heart rate monitor. The range for these workouts is 80 to 90 percent of your max. Again, if you are 40 your range will be between 144 and 162. For other aged runners, you need to do the math yourself.
The last type of workout where we can use heart rate to monitor our execution is an interval workout. An interval workout is one where we run a certain distance at a pace probably faster than marathon race pace (more like 5k race pace) and take a jogging or standing recovery before repeating it several more times. The length of the interval may vary but if you are training for a marathon, it should be no shorter than a kilometer and can be up to 2 miles. The training benefit we hope to attain here is an improvement in our efficiency and our VO2 max. That refers to how efficient our stride is when running fast as well as how efficient our body is at taking in oxygen and delivering that precious substance to our hard working muscles. VO2 max is one of the largest determinants of ultimate running potential, therefore it is necessary to make this as high as possible to maximize performance. Since these are meant to be almost all out workouts, we can really let our heart rate go here. The goal range should be between 90 and 95 of our max heart rate. I’ll do the math for you 40 year olds again– between 162 and 171 beats per minute.
These are by no means the only applications where your heart rate monitor can be helpful to your training. If you like to cross train you can use your heart rate monitor to make sure you are attaining the right benefits, probably aerobic, from that activity. Of you can put it on in the morning to test your resting heart rate to make sure you are not pushing your body harder than you should– a significant rise in resting heart rate over days or weeks indicates overtraining. I don’t think you should be a slave to your heart rate monitor, but you should use it as a tool just as you may use your GPS or maybe your scale. If used correctly heart rate can enhance your training by making sure you are running at the right pace during your workouts and achieving the goal for each session.