Monday, December 10, 2012

Heart Rate Training

So you want to heart rate train? This post should hopefully be a good place to help you get started. But, let me warn you, there is some very fine technical details that can bog you down if you let them. Before going further, I should preface that the information in this post is oriented primarily at endurance runners. However, the applications of heart rate training can be far reaching into almost all areas of sports and is very popular with tri-athletes and cyclists in particular. I apologize for the length of this post, but there is lots to be said on this topic, entire books!

The first thing to know is that the applications of heart rate training are often dependent on your experience as a runner and your goals as a runner. I often interact with at least three levels of endurance runners:

  1. The first time or inexperienced marathon runner
  2. The advanced/experienced marathon runner
  3. Ultra marathon runners

My advice would be for runners #1 and possibly #3 above to keep it pretty simple. There are some pretty precise and valuable things that can be done when advanced marathon training, but those things should really be done by experienced runners with sound training plans and possibly even coaches.


Base Building

There are multiple "systems" in your body that ultimately determine how you will perform on race day. These systems are both specific to you and to your goals. As endurance athletes, one of the primary systems that we rely on is our aerobic system. Our aerobic system is what provides us with the steady state energy and helps us maintain a relatively long and constant ability to exercise. Inexperienced marathoners in particular should do lots and lots of aerobic training, possibly even their entire training cycle. This kind of training will help your body learn to burn fat as a fuel source. Even experienced marathon runners and ultra marathon runners will do many weeks (often 8 - 10 weeks) of primarily base building before they begin hard training. Another benefit of base building is that sets the foundation for your body to reap the rewards of hard training.

Avoid over training

Over training is a serious condition that usually results in a runner being worn out and unable to train properly. If you spend too much time training at high intensities you could go backwards in your training. Or you could wind up injured. All running requires at least some recovery, but high intensity runs in particular can take several days. Recovery time is dependent on the race length, your age, and other factors. In general, the less experience you have and the smaller base you have, the longer it takes you to recover from a hard workout. Most advanced training programs do not have more than two key/hard workouts in a week. For example, it is common for advanced runners to have a speed workout and a long run each week. That is two key workouts. Sometimes a third key workout is added during key weeks or peak weeks along the week. Using a HR monitor helps to ensure that you are actually going easy when you intend to. Reading your heart rate can also tell you if your body is over stressed.

Ensure proper physiological responses to training

You don't run every long run at race pace because that would not training your body properly. The purpose of the long run is to get used to running for a long time, learning to eat and drink on the run, and helping your body to learn to utilize fat (instead of sugar) as an energy source. Run too fast on your long runs and you are likely to neglect almost all of the benefits above. Your body will rely too much on glycogen (sugar) for energy and won't learn to burn fat as effectively. Once again, using a HR monitor to ensure that you are training within a proper zone is an advantage to knowing you aren't going too fast here. (Some advanced marathon plans have a couple of "quality" long runs that allow you to train near race pace for a few miles as a test/preparation, but no plan that I have seen has one every week.)  Conversely, if you are doing a key workout, then having a heart rate monitor will help you to ensure you have achieved the targeted heart rate zones.

Proper recovery

Recovery from hard workouts is important. However, recovery is different for all runners. Some, like myself, prefer to take days off or x-train in between hard workouts. Other runners like to run almost everyday and choose "recovery" runs to fill in the gaps. In either case, the idea is to keep these days very low in intensity and allow your body to recover (re-hydrate, rebuild muscle, replenish glycogen) from other hard workouts.

Good race strategy

A common mistake that first time marathoners and ultramarathoners make is going out too fast. They underestimate how hard of an effort they can maintain for the given length of race. This results in rapid depletion of their primary energy source (glycogen), inability to properly take in additional fuel, and too much strain on the body. This often results in a crash that is very painful, hard, and unpleasant. In extreme circumstances or really long races, it can results in dropping out of the race. If you are familiar with your HR, then you can use that data and feedback to develop a proper pacing plan to ensure you have the best possible chance of completing the distance without a crash.

Track your fitness

Over time you can see your fitness improvements through data. For example, new runners and runners early in training cycles should find that they become faster running in the same zones while they are base building.

Determining Your Zones

Determining your heart rate zones is somewhat technical and may require a little bit of trial and error (see my point about "observation only" below). I will not give you much detail here because it is a lot of math! You can read any of the sources below or Google the topic to find tons of information. Most of the zones are derived using formulas that are based off of deciding your max heart rate, which is an imperfect exercise. This process is worthwhile and necessary if you intend to do advanced training. If you'd prefer to keep it simple, I recommend the methods of Maffetone and Mittleman.

If you are an experienced runner looking to take your running to another level, then I recommend Peter Pfitzinger's book Advanced Marathoning.

Below is the table of workout zones outlined by Pfitzinger using my estimated maximum HR of 195.

HR Targets (% of max)Maximum HR 195
V02 Max92%95%179185
Lactate Threshold82%91%160177
Marathon Pace79%88%154172
Long Run74%84%144164

If you are a new runner, interested in building a bigger base, or just a runner runner that likes to keep things simple, then I recommend reading the work done by Philip Maffetone and later added on to by Stu Mittleman. Here are my zones based on Mittleman's book:
HR Targets
Speedy Aerobic Pace (SAP)155174
Most Efficient Pace (MEP)144154
Mostly Aerobic Pace (MAP)124153

How to Use It

Base Building

For base building, I recommend using Maffetone's work and keeping things simple. Run at your MAP or MEP for most of your miles, possibly even all your miles if you are an inexperienced runner. If you are using Pfitzinger's zones, then base building will be primarily done using Long Run, GA/Easy, and Recovery zones.

Observation Only

One way that I use HR data is just to observe it and store away the outcome for future use. For example, I will wear my HR monitor on a hard work or key run. After the run I will look at the data and compare it with what I think my HR zones (and maximum) are to compare. Sometimes they match. Sometimes I've trained too hard. Sometimes I decide I've gained fitness and might need to re-think my zones. Another good observation is wear it during a race. I wore my HR monitor during the GTIS half marathon in 2011. At the time, I thought my maximum HR was close to 185. However, my average HR for that race was 170 and my maximum was 181. This was a clear indication that my maximum was higher than I thought. If you look at the table above, I was clearly racing (in the LT zone) the entire time and starting to dip into V02 max at the end as I got tired and a bit dehydrated.

Executing a Key Workout

If you are following and advanced marathon plan, then the author of the plan will usually give you an specific goal for the workout.  These goals are sometimes pace zones and sometimes heart rate zones. If they are heart rate zones, that makes it easy.  If they are pace zones, then I will often revert to the point above ("observation only") and see where my heart rate landed after the workout is complete -- or even during the workout. Overtime, pace zones and heart rate zones begin to line up and you usually predict one from the other.

Planning a Race Strategy

Once you know your heart rate zones, using a heart rate monitor to race in those zones is a great way to ensure you are executing a good plan.

Closing Thoughts

Like almost everything I utilize in running, I don't see HR data as a silver bullet. I use it as a tool to help me get better and make good training and racing decisions. But the tools offered can be powerful in helping all levels of runner get better.

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