I am not a medical professional of any kind, this is simply an update based on my experience.
Back in May I had my VO2 Max test done so I could determine my correct heart rate zones to begin heart rate guided training. I had a couple of reasons I wanted to try heart rate guided training for my marathon training: 1) Since I’ve never trained for a marathon before, I wanted guidance on how slow to run my easy runs 2) I wanted to aid in avoiding injury by running a true easy pace 3) I didn’t want to feel any more exhausted than I should during marathon training by running too fast too often.
Before I switched to heart rate guided training I did some reading up on it and found mostly negative articles. Most commonly, the “negative” was that weather, outside stressors, sleep quality, etc., were all things that could have an impact on a person’s heart rate while they’re working out. I recall a few articles also saying that athletes risked holding themselves back. The few positive articles I found were actually blog posts that were personal experiences with heart rate guided training. I knew I wanted to try it out despite what the negative said and since I am training for my first marathon I didn’t feel I really had anything to lose by running “too” slowly.
When I first started, my paces felt super slow. I felt like my form was falling apart and that I was dragging my feet. Runs seemed to lag on forever and I didn’t feel like I was getting the stress-relief I usually craved from my runs. Often times I had to stop to walk at the top of a hill to get my heart rate to go back down. I pushed my frustration aside and kept at it. Over time I saw my paces improving while still remaining in my correct heart rate zone. I used the runs that felt super slow as a time to focus on my form. I began being able to recover from hills much quicker without slowing my pace.
It has become exciting to see progress being made and I know my overall fitness is improving. When I run alone on my easy runs, I always put my watch so it just shows my heart rate. It is rewarding when I’m running and feeling like I am dragging along, but then see a mile time pop up that is faster than I anticipated. I am on my 7th week of this training cycle and 10th-ish week of running by heart rate and I have looked forward to every single run so far. I am feeling much less stressed and found that I don’t need to “pound out” my stress on a run like I had previously thought. My energy levels are also much better than I believe they would be if I was trying to do my runs too fast. While my legs feel fatigued after 4 straight days of running, I’m not feeling like I need afternoon naps, copious amounts of caffeine, or extra rest days to recover.
Now for the negative aspects noted in the articles I read. For me personally, a poor night’s sleep here and there or a high-stress situation doesn’t have that great of an impact on my heart rate. If it slows my pace, it hasn’t been significant enough for me to notice. Weather does play a role, but there is enough out there to support that runners should be going slower in the heat anyway. Now that my body has adapted to the heat, my paces seem to be consistent which actually surprised me on a recent run where it was very warm and humid. I’ve seen and heard a lot of complaints about tough runs due to the heat, but allowing my body to run the pace that is right for it given the conditions has allowed me to enjoy my runs. My tempo runs have been tough, as they should be, and always make me thankful for an easy run! I think starting this during the summer was a good choice.
As for holding a runner back – I can see how this could occur if a runner chooses to do their race based on heart rate. This is not something I plan to do for a goal race. I have always been a big believer in tempo and progressive runs to work on speed and though I wear my heart rate monitor during these runs, I don’t pay attention to the heart rate numbers other than looking back out of curiosity after the run. I have a good idea now of what pace makes my heart start to creep out of the tempo zone and into the interval zone which will be valuable information if I decide to go for a big half marathon goal in the upcoming year.
Overall, I am currently a big cheerleader for heart rate guided training. I believe it has helped me grow as a runner and I think it is going to allow me to better reach my potential moving forward. While the marathon is still terrifying to me, I’m enjoying my training and I look forward to applying this training to my next big speed goal to see how it plays out.