Running
July 3, 2019

The Heart Of The Matter

Coach Ben checking his heart rate

This post was originally written for The Straits Times as part of a 16-week column preparing runners for The Straits Times Run 2019.

As a runner who wants to improve, it’s essential that you understand training intensity.

Training intensity refers to how hard you’re running, and it’s the most critical thing to get right in your training.

Unfortunately, most runners I come across in my work, don’t pay much attention to how hard they’re running and certainly don’t pay it the respect it deserves. They just set a goal pace and try and hold that pace as long as possible, hoping for the best.

The reason how hard you’re running is so important is because it’s what determines whether you’re running aerobically or anaerobically — burning fat or sugar — learning to clear or accumulate lactate.

It also significantly impacts recovery time.

Essentially, your training intensity determines how much mileage you can tolerate and the benefits you get from your training.

It’s super important.

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Measure Training Intensity

There are three primary ways you can measure training intensity, each with their pros and cons.

  1. RPE
  2. Pace
  3. Heart rate

RPE is a subjective measure that stands for rate of perceived exertion (how you feel). In my experience, most runners are not very good at gauging how hard they’re working and often associate slow and easy and hard and fast.

The problem is, you can be running slow and working hard because you’re unfit. Likewise, someone who is aerobically strong like Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, can be running fast while running at an easy effort.

Pace is a measure of output and a popular metric in today’s running world. It’s great because, like the accelerator in your car, once you make a surge, you see that reflected instantly as an increase in pace. The downside to pace is that it doesn’t take factors like fatigue, dehydration, climate or terrain into account and as a result, it is easy to overdo things and end up hurt, sick or lacking motivation.

Heart rate, like pace, is an objective measure of training intensity. The downside to heart rate is that changes in heart rate take longer to show on your monitor. The benefit to heart rate (and this is a BIG benefit) is that it takes into account variable forms of stress.

From training and life. Increases and decreases in heart rate reflect factors like fatigue from yesterday’s run, dehydration, a miserable night’s sleep, work stress, climate, terrain and pretty much all other external stressors. Both at rest and during training.

As a coach, I have to preference one of these to prescribe training. Because the majority of the athletes I coach are beginner and intermediate level and balancing training with work, family and social commitments, I choose to preference heart rate.

Coaching athletes by heart rate helps me to optimise for consistency (the ultimate performance enhancer) and offers me a platform for teaching the skill of self-control.

That said, it would be ignorant of me to ignore the benefits of RPE and pace, and I teach our athletes how to use these with heart rate to become a more intuitive runner and to track fitness.

Calculate Your Training Zones

We use five heart rate zones to train our athletes at Coached. Easy, Steady, Mod Hard, Hard and Very Hard.

Runners should do roughly 80% of their training in zones 1 and 2. The remaining time should be spent doing tempo running in zone 3 and shorter, harder intervals in zones 4 and 5.

To get you started with heart rate training, you can use the formula below to calculate your training zones. From there, you can use them with the training plan I created for you to personalise and optimise your preparation.

Don’t be surprised if you have to run very slowly to stay within your zone. That’s a short term thing. Over time, you’ll begin to see your pace significantly increasing at the same heart rate, a sign of improved aerobic function and efficiency. This is the goal!

Step 1: Subtract your age from 180.
Example: 180 – 38 (years) = 142
Easy Zone 1: <142 bpm

Step 2: Add 15 to this number to determine your zone 2 ceiling.
Example: 142 + 15 = 157
Steady Zone 2: 142 – 157 bpm

Step 3: Add 10 to this number to determine your zone 3 ceiling.
Example: 158 + 10 = 168
Mod Hard Zone 3: 158 – 168 bpm

Step 4: Add 5 to this number to determine your zone 4 ceiling.
Example: 169 + 5 = 174
Hard Zone 4: 169 – 174 bpm

Step 5: Anything above this number can be considered zone 5.
Very Hard Zone 5: >174 bpm

Coached RunningBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.