Perhaps the bright toes of barely unboxed running shoes peep from your closet or sit stationed at the ready next to the front door. Winter’s toxic air inversions and slick patches of blacktop that have keep runners sequestered on treadmills have all but disappeared. Cool morning air, mountain sunrises, and the reemergence of nature’s paint palette call us from our winter dens. Racing season is nearly upon us.
Whether you’re a newbie looking to run your first 5K, a weekend warrior with sights set on progressive PRs, or a seasoned pro gunning for podium finishes, the right training is what will get you there. With so many training method readily available today, it’s hard to know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting faster and stronger. But one method that’s stuck around through nearly every training fad—since the 1930s, in fact—is heart rate (HR) training.
We ask the question: does this training method really work?
At its most basic level, HR training is about determining a target HR, a desired range for aerobic exercise, then exercising within this range. The idea is that training within that range will maximize the benefits of your workout, leading to greater fitness—and faster race times. But is HR training really all it’s cracked up to be?
Maybe not, according to Lisa Menninger, a Salt Lake City coach and wellness consultant. “I am not a fan of heart rate training,” she says. “Due to the fact that heart rate can be so variable because of things unrelated to the training, I do not find it particularly useful.”
Training and heart rate are affected by nearly all aspects of life: sleep, stress, nutrition, emotional state, etc. So instead, Menninger encourages athletes to know their bodies and train based on how they feel rather than trying to meet prescribed metrics.
Athletes can come to know their bodies through a lens of self-care, she says. Observing how your workouts are affected by emotional stress, diet, and other aspects of life helps attune you to your body’s response to effort in light of these variables. “Training does not exist in a vacuum,” Menninger says. “It is best to know on a given day how you are feeling and then do your work based on effort.”
She believes that HR or GPS watches can be valuable training tools, but used too often, they remove you from the vital process of knowing your body and training according to how it feels.
Jason Miller, a physical therapist with the Runner’s Clinic at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center, agrees. “Running is one of those forms of exercise that’s so basic in that you don’t need a lot of stuff,” Miller says. “Add in the component of the HR monitor, and now you’ve got more to think about. It’s important to listen to your body and not just rely on technology.”
When to Use Heart Rate Training
In spite of that, both Menninger and Miller believe there is a place for HR training. Menninger encourages athletes to use it during recovery periods to prevent overtraining.
Miller believes two groups of athletes can benefit from it: overzealous new runners who might otherwise injure themselves by repeated all-out efforts, and experienced athletes who already know their bodies but are trying to get into target aerobic or performance enhancement zones to improve training for race performance.
When it comes to racing, Menninger says her athletes find greater PR success when they are focused on their bodies rather than metrics. “Many times an athlete I coach will run a race or workout based on effort and a strategy we discuss together,” she says. “Inevitably they run personal bests because they are not allowing the watch to limit their brains by constantly quantifying the effort.
How to Use Heart Rate Training
If you do plan to incorporate HR training into your workouts, remember that it is only a tool, not the only tool. To start you’ll need to figure your maximum HR. The best way to do this is by having a V02 Max Test performed by a physician. Short of that, Miller suggests this formula to calculate max HR: 2050–0.5(age). If I’m 38, then my max HR equals 2050–0.5(38), or 186. Target HR is about 60–80% of max HR, so the target for most of my runs should be 112–149.
Menninger suggests having a personal coach who can help you make the best decisions on how HR training should be incorporated and when to push yourself. Short of that, Menninger says, “it is best to know your body and use effort-based workouts.”
Similarly, Miller emphasizes that HR is only a tool, and athletes should go with what they feel and not just rely on the HR monitor. In fact, a monitor isn’t even necessary if runners use what he calls the Talk Test. If you can still talk when running with only occasional need to catch your breath, you’re doing it right. “It’s always more important to listen to your body,” he says.