Running, Triathlon
October 19, 2017

The Pros And Cons Of Training By Heart Rate

A lady checks her heart rate during a run

If you’re a runner looking to improve your performance then you need to understand how hard your body is working in each training session.

It’s the intensity of training (how hard you run) that determines a lot of the benefits you get from each session and how long it will take you to recover.

Despite this, most runners pay more attention to how far they’re running than to the intensity they’re running at.

Up until relatively recently, running based on how you feel was the most common (and only) method for ‘measuring intensity’. With advancements in technology, pace and heart rate monitors have become more and more popular and are now the most preferred methods for many runners.

In my last two posts, I have spoken of the pros and cons of both feel and pace. In today’s post, I share what I believe to be the pros and cons of training by heart rate.

Sign up for Coached running or triathlon programmes.

The Good: The Pros Of Training By Heart Rate

Heart Rate Responds To Stress.
Performance results from finding a balance between stress and recovery. The body needs stress to adapt to and grow stronger, but too much stress and it will break down.

The problem is that the body cannot differentiate between stress produced through training and that produced from life (work, financial etc). As a result, many amateur runners who are under a high level of life stress, are training harder than they should be and compromise their ability to improve.

When the body is under stress, heart rate elevates and during these times, you often need to slow down to stay within your heart rate zone. While slowing down sounds like a bad thing, many times it is not. Heart rates correspond with various markers of metabolic activity, ensuring you work hard enough to elicit a positive response to the training, but not so hard that you place additional stress on the body and compromise your health and development.

Heart Rate Responds To Environment.
Because heart rate responds to stress, heart rate will increase and decrease based on environmental conditions like weather and terrain. When the weather is cool and you’re running on the flat, you’ll run faster. When it’s hot or hilly you’ll run slower. That’s ok!

Heart Rate Teaches Control.
The large majority of amateur runners we have tested in our lab are training too fast on a regular basis, compromising their development by living in an ‘intensity grey zone’.

Monitoring heart rate, while often frustrating to begin with, teaches you how to control your ego, your effort, and how your body is responding to the stress of training. Over time, your innate ability to judge intensity (feel) improves and you become less reliant on your monitor.

When done right, you’ll begin to understand how your body responds to various stressors and conditions and you will know the pace you are producing, how it feels and what your heart rate is at any given time. This ‘dialled in’ sense of self should be the goal for all athletes.

Heart Rate Shows You How Your Body Responds To Different Situations.
As you monitor your heart rate on a regular basis, you will begin to see what types of stress have the biggest effect on your heart rate. You’ll notice how caffeine, a hot day, a poor night’s sleep or a shitty day at work affects your heart rate and over time you’ll be able to make smarter decisions in relation to your training and recovery.

The Bad: The Cons Of Training By Heart Rate

Heart Rate Lags.
Unlike pace which responds immediately to changes in intensity just like the speedometer in your car, heart rate is often accompanied by a lag. When you increase the intensity suddenly, it takes some time for heart rate to climb to the level that it will ultimately plateau. This can make heart rate unreliable during short intense intervals.

Heart Rate Drifts.
Heart rate drift refers to the natural increase in heart rate despite little or no change in pace. This drift is connected with an increase in core temperature and body water losses, resulting in an elevation of heart rate. While this drift happens under most conditions, it is significantly worse in hot and humid climates like those that we face in Singapore. Pay close attention to your hydration to slow the rate at which your heart rate drifts.

Heart Rate Monitors Can Be Unreliable.
While the technology used in heart rate monitors continues to improve, there are still situations where monitors can display inaccurate readings and batteries can die. This becomes less of a problem the more you run with a heart rate monitor and the more you understand your body. If your monitor falters, your dialled in sense of feel will help to see you through.

You Need To Know Your Zones.
The best way to establish heart rate training zones is to do testing in a lab like what we offer here in Singapore. The downside of lab testing is that it is relatively expensive and not readily available for many people.

There are many heart rate formula’s around, most of which are terrible and many others that are complex. We use a modified version of Phil Maffetone’s 180 Formula as the foundation for our heart rate zones in our online training programme. We use this formula because when we tested many of the common heart rate formulas against our client lactate results, this one consistently came up as the most accurate.

In Closing

While there are a few important cons to training by heart rate, I believe the pros outweigh these cons. When you are balancing a job, family and social life with training, having a good understanding of how your body is responding to stress is crucial to making smart decisions that support your ability to improve and stay healthy.

When used in conjunction with pace, you get the best of both worlds and your ability to feel your training will also improve as a result.

Head CoachBen PulhamBen Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personal training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.