Heart Rate Training – One Year Later

About a year ago I got my VO2 Max Test done and entered the world of heart rate training. I wasn’t positive I would stick with it during marathon training, but I ended up committing and am glad that I did. Before I started running by heart rate, I trained around a 9:15 pace. Going into marathon training I knew this didn’t make sense since that was likely to be closer to my race pace, but had no idea what pace I should be training at or racing at for the full. I was finally injury-free and wanted to stay that way so this seemed like a good option. Now that it’s a year later, I wanted to revisit this and share my experience and the things I’ve learned. The problem is my thoughts are kind of all over the place and I’ve been having trouble getting it down in a way that makes sense.

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Starting heart rate training was tough. I knew I was going to have to slow down a lot, but it was like starting to run all over again. I went from a 9:15 pace to a 11:30 pace. I had to walk at the top of hills to get my heart rate to go back down. I stuck with it and within a few weeks I was able to run without walking again. I started truly building my aerobic fitness and improving my endurance. After a few weeks I had gone from a 11:30 pace to a 10:30 pace at the same average heart rate. By the end of my marathon training cycle I was hitting sub-10 minute paces at the same average heart rate. Watching those mile splits decrease was just as rewarding as the first time running 5, 6, 10 miles.

I learned what it truly felt like to run easy. I realized that my perception of what was easy was actually “comfortable” and not easy. Once I started actually running easy, I recovered quicker and was able to run more miles per week and more days per week. This past Christmas my sister joined me for the second half of my long run. She’s been running since high school and is a very talented athlete, but usually sticks to alternative cardio in the winter that she can do indoors because of her asthma. She was a little concerned since she hadn’t been running much, but I reminded her that we’d be going slower than she’s used to going. After our run, she commented that the pace really did feel easy and she felt like she could’ve kept running.

Before my sister's first half marathon a few years ago
Before my sister’s first half marathon a few years ago

Running by heart rate has taught me to be more patient with my body. Physical gains don’t come quickly or without work. There’s no magic diet, exercise, fueling strategy, shoes, pure will power, etc., that will make someone a faster runner. Running by heart rate made me a stronger runner and has allowed me to get faster by making my speed workouts more valuable, but it wasn’t itself what made me faster. I’ve read a lot of opinions on how running by heart rate doesn’t make sense because factors such as the weather, stress, sleep quality, etc. can cause an increase in heart rate and force a runner to run slower than usual. These may be reason not to race by heart rate, but if  I’m out for a training run and I feel great, but my heart rate is telling me my body is working too hard because it’s trying to cool me down, warm me up, recover from stress, etc., why would I ignore that? I can tell when I’m getting sick days before I have symptoms simply because my heart rate is higher than normal. A year later I sometimes still have to take breaks after a climb – sometimes not even a big climb. The heat or extreme cold slow me down. Some days I’m just downright stuck at a 11:00 pace. It is what it is and I listen to my body. So far it hasn’t steered me wrong. Some days it can be frustrating, but I’ve also come to enjoy running so much more since the actual act of running isn’t physically challenging since I’m moving at the right pace.

Learning about my different heart rate zones has helped me to be a smarter runner and set reasonable goals. I knew going into my first marathon that a 9 minute pace was a reasonable goal based on my heart rate and that what my body did beyond that would determine if I could maintain that for all 26.2 miles. It’s also how I determined that I was not ready to go after a 1:45 in this spring’s half marathon. It’s crazy that 5-10 seconds per mile can make a difference, but it really can!

Heart rate training also helped me with cross training. The stationary bike is a great recovery tool, but unless I’m getting my heart rate into zone 2 then it won’t do much in terms of helping me build my fitness. I now know that what used to feel like hard work on the bike actually wasn’t hard enough and I need to spend more time working hard on the bike for it to be really worth it.

When I started heart rate training I ditched pace references on my blog. I realized that sharing those paces meant nothing in relation to the people reading the posts and that it just contributed to pace comparison. Comparing paces is silly. I train around a 10:30 pace and that’s the right pace for me, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right pace for anyone else. That being said, I understand it can be intimidating to back off of a pace when it already seems like that pace is slow and I really try to encourage other runners to slow down to make some gains. So here’s a quick snapshot of my training pace v. a few of my recent race paces since I started heart rate training:

Easy Run Pace – 10:00-11:00, 10:30 average
10K Pace – 7:44 (unofficial, course was long)
Half Marathon Pace – 8:12
Marathon Pace – 9:01

There are runners that train faster than me and have similar race paces and there are runners that train at the same pace as me and have slower race paces. It really depends on the runner in terms of their training and natural abilities. Slowing down makes speed work more crucial, but I feel I get more out of my speed work now that I’m not running in an anaerobic state all the time.

If you’re interested in heart rate training, here are a few tips:
1) Get your VO2 Max test done by a sports medicine doctor (some gyms do them, but if you wouldn’t have a stress test done by a personal trainer then why would you have your VO2 Max test done by one?) that will take the time to talk to you about your heart rate zones and prescribe those zones for you based on your max HR. The “220-age” formula is bullshit, especially if your max HR is higher than average (which can also make the Garmin zones inaccurate).
2) Be patient. You’re going to have to slow down, likely to what feels like a shuffle. You may have to walk up hills. It will take a few weeks before you start running in a way that feels more normal again. You may not get back to the pace you were originally training at that seemed so “easy” at the time.
3) Be consistent. Like I said, it will take a few weeks (we’re talking 4-8) before you’re running in a way that feels more normal again. Don’t set yourself back by ditching the guidelines so you can feel “fast”
4) Ignore other people’s paces. I know people still training faster than a 10 min pace that haven’t broken 4 hours on a marathon ever despite multiple attempts. I know people training at a 9:45 pace that haven’t broken 2 hours in a half marathon. Don’t compare yourself to the paces others are running. Set yourself on a mission to get yourself in the best shape possible and stick to it.

I plan to stick with heart rate training for my next training cycle. As I mentioned in this past week’s post, my coach has even prescribed some of my runs to be strictly based on my heart rate during my base building stage. There are always some days when I just want to run care-free so I ditch my HRM and run comfortable so I don’t expect that to change, but overall right now training by heart rate is the right thing for me.

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4 thoughts on “Heart Rate Training – One Year Later

  1. Love this post, lady! So true how HR training can be a game changer in our training. Training slow allows us to establish that aerobic base. You couple that with smart speed sessions and you will be surprised how easy race pace is. Plus, you are setting your body up to run for life, not just to hit the next PR. Too many runners are running themselves into burn out and adrenal fatigue, but you have the formula to run happy every day. Keep up the great work!

  2. This was a great post! I have made the gradual transition to training by perceived exertion, and while it’s not HR training, I felt like I could relate to a lot of this as well. During this past marathon training cycle, I slowed down my easy run paces by almost a minute, for a faster goal time (and I’m sure there are people who would argue I should have slowed down even more!). And yeah, it’s difficult. It was a little bit of a blow to the ego at first. It really messed with my head sometimes to do training runs that were almost two minutes slower than my goal race pace and wonder how it would ever be possible to run 26 miles at that pace. I also try to encourage people who read my blog about the benefits of slowing the eff down, but I’ve learned that most runners will push back against the idea. I have read blogs of runners who blaze through their easy and tempo runs, and then wonder why they have trouble improving their race times. But I understand. I used to be that way myself. Until you try it for yourself you just won’t get it.

    The big thing for me has been learning to rely less on data. By ditching my GPS, or just not paying attention to it mid-run, I’m forced to tune into my body more and listen for those signs – my breathing is heavy, I’m tense, whatever. Pay attention to your effort, vary your workouts, and the paces will come naturally.

    1. It can be pretty scary to be running so much slower than race pace, but you and I are both proof that slowing down your easy runs doesn’t take away from your top line fitness. If anything, it helps build endurance to compliment that speed.
      I have also read blogs of runners that consistently run too fast and then wonder why they keep getting injured. I always suggest slowing down, but there seems to be a misunderstanding on how correct pacing can help prevent injury. Oh well, to each their own! 😉

  3. I am certainly interested in HR training – ever since using my Fitbit and getting my new Garmin that has the optical HR sensor in the wrist. I am not ready to make the full jump but I do use my resting heart rate to determine when I need a rest, and I use my heart rate during workouts to determine if the pace is too hard or too easy. Like if it’s an easy day and I’m running my easy pace but my HR is high, I either back it off or shorten the run because I fear it’s doing more harm than good. One day I will get on board with the full blown training concept. Great overview of your program and how you use it to your advantage – you are awesome!

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