How heart rate training can help runners train smarter not harder

Heart rate training is especially great for runners who might not (yet!) have a way with listening to their bodies. If you’re someone who tends to take the all or nothing approach, if you tend to go all out, if you’ve ever done too much, or gotten injured while training, or if you have a hard time taking it easy or slowing yourself down, heart rate training could be a great way to go.

No matter how you approach your run training, if you’re interested in training smarter instead of harder, I highly recommend adding heart rate training to the mix.

Below I’ve outlined the who, what, why, where and how of heart rate training to help you get started or learn more about how to determine your training zones with our helpful tool.

If you have questions, I’m happy to answer in our House of Running Community Facebook group to help get you started.

What is heart rate training?

Training by heart rate means using a heart rate monitor and your heart rate to determine ideal heart-rate training zone for each workout, or for different parts within a workout.

Heart rate training can be more accurate than training by pace or by feel. Using a heart rate monitor while on the run, we’re able to see how hard our body is actually working at any given moment. While some workouts might feel easy, we could be working harder than we think, and vice versa.

What are the benefits?

Training by heart rate can help you:

  • Better adhere to a workout training goal (most run workouts have a training goal, such as to work on speed, strength, stamina, endurance, etc.)
  • Better manage training load (staying in the recommended zones can help keep you from overloading yourself)
  • Improve recovery time (workouts in zone 1 and 2 require less recovery time than other zones, and it’s usually better to start your next workout fully recovered)
  • Maximize training gains and progress (training zones are there to help us optimize our training)
  • Improve performance (training in the recommended zones consistently and you’ll see the results)

Who is it for?

If you’re someone who tends to overdo it, if you usually take the all-or-nothing approach, if you’re competitive by nature or have trouble slowing yourself down or going easy, starting with heart rate training could be a good way to go.

Anyone can train by heart rate, even beginners. For a few reasons, I usually only recommend heart rate training to runners who have some running experience.

It’s important to learn to listen to your body. The more we depend on technology to tell us what we should be doing, the less we are able to tune into our body’s cues. Depending on a watch or tool to tell us how to train weakens our own abilities to know by feel and to listen to our bodies.

Is it even possible to train by feeling?

Yes! Absolutely. That’s how I learned to run many moons ago — before fancy running technology became mainstream. It’s a valuable skill and one that’s unfortunately practiced less and less. If we too often depend on our tools, we lose confidence in our ability to know when it’s enough, too much, or not on target.

It’s good to get to know your own body and feel your way as a first step. Still, knowing your heart rate and keeping track of it on your runs can be a useful tool for helping you train smarter rather than harder.

How do you do it?

Many people use the generic formula of “220 minus your age” to figure out their maximum heart rate. This is one way, however, it may not be an accurate measure for most people.

I recommend determining your heart rate zones with these easy steps:

  1. Find your max heart rate with a 3K or 5K test while wearing your heart rate monitor*. After a 10 minute easy, breezy shuffle to warm up, run 3 to 5K at your best pace. Take your max HR from the last 10 minutes of your workout. (Not recommended for complete beginners or injured runners.)
  2. Find your average resting heart rate over 7 days. Take this immediately upon waking manually or with an app like this one.
  3. Determine your zones by plugging these figures into our House of Running Heart Rate Training Zone calculator.

You’ll immediately get your heart rate zones based on the Heart Rate Reserve formula and our recommendations.

The next step is to put on your heart rate monitor and test staying in your run’s recommended zone(s).

These zones will vary from run to run and if you’re following a hear rate training plan, it will specify the different zones for different workouts. If you don’t have one already and would like a plan for heart rate training, get in touch.  We can help.

I recommend retesting your zones about every 6 months, or between training seasons.

When is the best time to train by heart rate?

I don’t recommend training by heart rate all the time, at least not until you’ve developed the skill of listening to your body and “feeling” your zones.

When you’re starting out (or when you have no idea how to train by feel), try training by heart rate every other run, or try training by feel once a week.

TRY THIS: Wear your watch at every run to collect the data but instead of depending on it to put you in your zones, challenge yourself to feel it. Aim to run in a specific zone. Then go back and check the results to see how you did.

What else will help me get started?

There are a number of reasons that our heart rate can be elevated on any given day, some include: you’re stressed, tired, dehydrated, on medication, fighting an illness, injury or infection, or are still recovering from another workout.

When you notice that your heart rate is higher than usual for a given pace, slow down and get in the recommended zone. THIS is the benefit of heart rate training.

Saying to yourself: “My heart rate is elevated because of x,y,z” and then remaining in a higher zone for your run — instead of the recommended one — means that you’re overworking your body and as a result you’ll need more recovery. You’ll also likely be training a different energy system and you’ll be missing the training goal of that workout. This will likely impact consecutive workouts, keeping you from getting the most out of upcoming sessions and therefore, the most out of your training.

Overdoing it also puts us at an increased risk of injury and burnout.

House of Running’s Heart Rate Training Zone Calculator

Figure out your heart rate training zones based on the Heart Rate Reserve formula by plugging in your maximum heart rate and resting heart rate below.  (To determine this, see recommendations and tests above, under the heading “How to do it?”)

Hit “Get My Results” then scroll down to see your results.

Please note, this is a calculator I use when working with our one to one clients and is most accurate when the tests listed above are done correctly. Without our one to one guidance, we cannot confirm that your training zones will be accurate. However, we believe that this method is much more accurate than a formula based on your age only.

We’ve designed this calculator and results for the recreational runners in our community.

If you’re unsure about the accuracy of your tests or data, or if these zones are the best for you, please let us know by posting a message in our House of Running Community Facebook group and we can help you out.

Did you find this post helpful? Or do you have a question? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.