Heart Rate Training: The Beginning

Recently I began to add some heart rate training into my schedule. Or, well, I tried. Its immensely frustrating and I am a total newbie. I welcome any advice or intervention- internet, help me!

So firstly, what's the dang point? Well, the body runs on Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This molecule basically transports chemical energy within cells, so it is (kinda) the basis of energy in the body. ATP is created by the mitochondria in cells; using glucose, fat, proteins, and oxygen. It can be created in a few different ways: 1) very quickly for fight or flight efforts, using stored ATP (anaerobic, doesn't need oxygen); 2) slowly using glucose and burning fats (using oxygen to burn, aerobic); and 3)  through anaerobic glycolosis using glucose from stored carbohydrate. Lactate is a byproduct of the third system and this lactate production will eventually force you to slow down. The fitter you are, the longer you can stay here before the level of lactate makes you need to stop.

Basically too many runners run their 'easy runs' in the third category, when you should be running these aerobically (category 2). Even if they aren't running near-threshold; runners tend speed a little to much and dominantly use glycolosis and let the fat burning settings slide. This also has impact on performance at longer distance events, especially the marathon and in ultra events. Most premium ultra runners are great at fat-burning for energy in category 2. The idea is therefore to run slow for the majority of runs, make sure you are using your aerobic system. I am very definitely guilty of this, as most of my runs hit 170-180 BPM (beats per minute) at some point. Using your aerobic system more will make your body rely more on fat, improve your heart's blood pumping ability, and improve the efficacy of oxygen in your system. Hopefully.

My Garmin devices have a pillow. Like the crown jewels

So, how do I get into these zones? Well, like many things I have written about recently, heart rate zone recommendations are chock-a-block with conflicting information. Depending on your source, your heart rate zone aims could vary a lot. Rough estimates can be made based on your fitness and your age and weight. For example, if you’re a complete beginner you can use the very approximate formula of 214-(0.8 x age) for men and 209-(0.9 x age) for women to estimate your maximum. However others suggest this is straight up BS. This figure is very definitely wrong for a percentage of the population and also varies if you are not in fact an exercise beginner. Its definitely wrong for me. I have seen my HR at the end of hills or sprints right up into the 190 BPM and above.

The most reliable way to calculate heart rate zones is to get a proper, physiological estimate of your absolute maximum heart rate. However that would be a) expensive and b) time consuming. You can also estimate this using a 3 min treadmill test. Essentially warm up then run all out for 3 minutes (even pace). Gently run for another 3, then do another 3 minute maximal run. If you use a HR monitor throughout, the maximum reading is your maximum. I have yet to do this because I hate the treadmill and because I am lazy. If I do it, I will let you know.

Personally, I don't know my maximum heart rate. I should note now that, in terms of resting beats per minute (62) and blood pressure and so on, I am perfectly healthy (to current knowledge). My estimated aerobic zone, using the Maffetone Method, is 180 BPM, minus my age of 25 = 155 BPM. So my target for aerobic exercises would therefore be 145 - 155 BPM.  A slightly different calculation from this Outside magazine article gives me a 196 BPM maximum (more believable); 117 recovery; 146 aerobic; 175 lactate; and between 175 - 196 as anerobic. The 145 BPM pace advised by both of these sources is exceptionally frighteningly slow and frustrating for me. The only note I had in the draft for this post regarding my first 5 miler at 145-155 BPM was:

"5 mile run at blah blah pace. Hated it, hates it. hates it.". 

in the manner of some pissed-off athletic Gollum. I found it was so slow it was ruining my form and really hurting my feet. My heart rate rises fast (and drops fast), so I think my aim states may be higher than this. I am going for 155-160 BPM as an aerobic target. No apologies. I cannot train at 145 BPM. I refuse.

So how exactly am I planning to implement HR training? Well, I'm going to run 3 runs a week under 160 BPM average. It may still be frustating as all hell, but I think I can do it. I may reconsider if I calculate my actual maximal heart rate. Its possible I'm letting myself off a little here, but it's an improvement on 180 BPM in 'easy' runs! I will monitor how the resulting pace drops (hopefully!) over time, and how my HR/pace varies on days that I otherwise feel shitty. If I want to do hill work, or races, or whatever, they are in addition to those 3 base aerobic rate runs. The 3 base runs cannot be skipped.

Wish me luck, give me advice!


Have you ever tried HR training? Did it help? Did it near kill you?


  1. I've been HR training for about 2 months now. I made the switch when I got a coach and yes it has been hella frustrating. BUT given that my A races are marathons and ultramarathons I can see the point. My speeds at lower HR zones have slowly crept up and at the end of a 2 hour run I don't feel puffed out at all. But there are times when trying to keep my HR below 153bpm is nigh on impossible.

    Stick with it. DO THE DAMN TEST! And have faith. I've had to use bucketloads of it.

    1. Thanks Vikki, have you noted improvements in your races?

      I will indeed DO THE DAMN TEST ;-)

  2. I need to locate my heart rate monitor again. I love playing with numbers, it feels like I'm properly 'training' and not just running for the heck of it. Although - there's nothing wrong with running just for the heck of it! :)

    1. Haha yeah the scientist in me loves the numbers! Nick (Palmer) gave me some great advice that HR training is great but to remember to play with running too!