Heart Rate Training

By RacingThePlanet Staff

Heart rate monitors are now standard with almost every running watch and running GPS device. These days it is also possible to use your smart phone or activity tracker, so the ability to utilise your own heart rate to gain the most from your training is open to the masses.

So with the option available to runners, how can heart rate be used in order to progress? The techniques are numerous, and can be broken down in broad terms:

  1. Dictating the type of run you perform (recovery, tempo, lactate threshold, etc.)
  2. Indicating when fully recovered or over-trained
  3. Controlling “in race” effort levels
  4. Utilising different energy systems

1. Type of Run

With any runner's training program/load, in order to progress optimally and utilise available time, a variety of training sessions are necessary. However beneficial an intense interval or Fartlek session may be, this type of session will become detrimental very quickly if performed too regularly. The type of run performed is not a simple case of defining it as slow, medium, and fast, or short, medium and long. We can take the guess work out of the equation when deciding what kind of impact a run has had.

We may intuitively utilise the heart rate in training but nothing can compare with having the exact numbers to ensure we hit exactly what we intended to. It's very easy to believe that we have nailed the perfect recovery run when in effect we have pushed it just a few percentage points too hard. In this case the desired effect is lost and instead of active recovery we may have delayed our complete recovery for another day or so. Using the heart rate as a guide we can stay very strictly between certain percentages of maximum heart rate to stay in the intended zone. Examples of these zones are as follows:

Zone % of Maximum Heart Rate Improves
Recovery Training Zone 60 – 70 Recovery & Endurance
Aerobic Training Zone 70 – 80 Aerobic fitness
Lactate Threshold Zone 75 – 85 Stamina and running economy
Anaerobic Training Zone 85-100 Speed


2. Recovered or Over-Trained

Just as we discussed above, we aren't always the best judges of how intense our sessions have actually been. Perceived effort is a very rough guide and although it's better than nothing, the field of cognitive psychology tells us just how notoriously poor judges we are. It only takes a distracting thought to occupy us during a training session and the perceived effort and time to failure are affected significantly. So gauging when we may have trained hard enough to warrant a rest day, or active recovery session, is perhaps not best left to ourselves to decide without further data.

In utilising our heart rate monitor we have the perfect opportunity to take the guess work out of knowing whether to rest or go again. Once we have an accurate reading for our well recovered, healthy, resting heart rate, we have a metric with which to compare. This initial reading would ideally be taken in the morning before getting out of bed. It would follow 48 hours without a training session, and an even greater time if you'd smashed a 100km race the previous weekend. We can now train and measure our resting heart rate on any given morning and witness any elevation in our heart rate. The rise will indicate stress and the need for further recovery. An elevation of a few beats per minute does not necessarily mean it's time to rest completely, but it may send the message to switch out the planned interval or tempo session to something more pedestrian. An elevation greater still will be a sure fire sign that the nervous system is in fight or flight mode. At this point a rest day is the perfect decision to allow the endocrine system to return to a state of equilibrium and not further increase cortisone and other stress hormones in the body.

3. In Race Effort/Pacing

Even if a runner is switched on and self-aware enough to get the first two ideas down and incorporated effectively, come race day that very often goes out of the window. However easy someone may find it to stay under control, stay calm, and pace things to perfection in training, race day is often full of excitement, adrenaline, and endorphins. Many more emotions swim through the head in a race situation. Whether that be in the form of a front runner who has trained specifically for this event and hence carries the weight of expectation on their shoulders, or a back marker who may carry the weight of potential failure and making cut-off times. Our brains can let us all down once again.

Many studies have shown that less than 10% of runners get their pacing right. Those that do tend to be the elite runners at the front. Perhaps they are endowed with innate instincts regarding speed and effort, or maybe more likely, they've learned from their mistakes from overcooking the early stages of many previous races. This problem seems slightly weighted (though not solely) towards male runners. Testosterone can be an aid as well as a hindrance it seems. Here again we see how our heart rate monitor can assist us in avoiding this common mistake. We again take the guess work out of the equation. No more “I wonder if I've gone off a bit fast, I'm sure I'll be ok”,and no more “I've gone off too hard but I'll ease off and recover and it's all good time in the locker for later on”. Instead we may set an audible or vibrating alert on our heart rate monitor which informs us when we are edging close to the wrong effort level. As long as our own brains don't override the function, we may progress through our race and experience the joy of finishing strongly and bagging that elusive “negative-split”.

4. Utilising Different Energy Systems

Finally, but by no means of any less significance, we look at the heart rate monitor as a tool to guide us in specific energy system utilisation. Primarily we have three different energy systems (although these can be further broken down). They can be listed as follows:

System Speed/Effort Time of utilisation Examples
ATP-CP High/Explosive 1 – 15 seconds Short sprints
Glycolytic Medium-Fast 15 – 90 seconds 200m, 400m sprints
Aerobic/Fat Burning Slow-Medium Greater than 90 seconds Longer runs


In a similar way (there is indeed much crossover) to our first point sub-topic “Type of run), we can govern our pace and effort to ensure that we stay in exactly the energy system that we are looking to tune. For ultra-distance runners there may be some benefit of strength and running economy which comes from performing the occasional sprint session but it is by honing this fat burning engine that the best results will be achieved. The heart rate monitor can assist in two quite similar ways for a runner looking to develop and make their fat burning engine as efficient as possible. Similarly to setting an alert to warn when we are running to fast and approaching the “red-zone' when racing, we can set similar parameters to ensure our specific fat burning training sessions do fall completely within that zone. Typically this zone is 60 – 70% of maximum heart rate.

A slightly different variation on this type of training/utilisation is by choosing a specific speed and specific heart rate value and tailoring training session exactly to that. An example might be someone looking to win a race in the 4 Deserts Race Series. In this example an athlete may consider that by running at 10km/h they can potentially win the race. They will also be acutely aware that they must rely heavily on their fat burning engine to get them through the race, and by pushing too hard on any given day, that they will not be recovered enough to sustain the effort over 6 stages. A speed has been chosen, and due to these other aspects the athlete may decide on a desirable heart rate of say 135 bpm as their target. Over the course of months of training the given athlete may develop their engine in such a way that they go from being able to run at their chosen pace, with desired heart rate, for 20 minutes before cardiac creep gets the better of them, to being able to sustain for a number of hours. By staying as close to their 'Goldilocks' effort level as possible and gradually making the fat burning engine as efficient as possible, they can advance their chances of producing a race winning sustained effort come race time.