Heart Rate Training

Heart rate training allows a runner to accurately monitor how hard they are training during their runs rather than how hard they think they are running.

Heart Rate Training

Maximum Heart Rate
Most of the watches that runners use, calculate the person’s maximum heart rate by using the formula; 220 minus your age. Herein lies the problem.

When talking about this formula in Gina Kolata’s book Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for the Truth about Exercise and Health¹, the creator; Dr William Haskell explains that their paper, published in 1970, was not really a scientific effort. Rather, it was a suggestion, based on a decidedly non-random and small sample of people, that the 220-minus age formula might best fit the data points of their study.

Dr Haskell goes on to say “It’s typical of Americans to take an idea and extend it way beyond what it was intended for.”

Studies² have suggested other methods for calculating your maximum heart rate, but just across these methods there is a variation of 11 beats per minute and that doesn’t account for the variation within each individual method.

For example, the 220 – Age formula has been shown to be inaccurate by up to plus or minus 12 beats per minute. That’s a possible difference of 24 beats per minute! In reality that’s the difference between running at a sustainable speed for a length of time or trying to maintain a close-to-maximal effort over that same distance.

So, bearing this in mind, if you want to take your heart rate training seriously then it’s worth carrying out a maximal heart rate test. It’s not for the fainthearted though, as the name suggests the focus is to discover what your maximum heart rate peaks at and subsequently the level of effort required is extreme. You need to ensure you are fit enough to carry out a maximal test, if you are unsure seek medical advice from your GP first.

There are a few different ways to test this, the most accurate method is to carry out a VO2 max test at a university. As well as finding your VO2 max score – your body’s ability to absorb oxygen – they will provide you with your heart rate data recorded throughout the test.

We are currently unable to carry out VO2 Max testing at Advance Performance so we pass the baton to Dr Dan Gordon PhD in the Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, at Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge, CB1 1PT. Tel: 0845 1962774 or e-mail: dan.gordon@anglia.ac.uk. Please contact him directly if you would like to arrange a VO2 max test.

If you want to find your maximum heart rate yourself you need to find a running track or an area large enough where you can run 800m. Following a thorough running specific warm-up – your heart rate should be elevated and you should be very warm and ready for action³;

Run the first 400m lap at 90% to 95% of your maximal effort
Run the second 400m lap flat out (maximal effort for 400m)
Immediately note your heart rate at the end of the second lap. Very fit athletes may have to repeat the test to get an accurate reading.

How to Use Your Max Heart Rate
Now that you’re armed with your heart rate maximum (HRM) you can apply it to your runs. The following table lists the different training zones available to you.

60% of HRM – Recovery or Energy Efficient Training Zone
70% to 80% of HRM – Aerobic Training Zone
80% to 90% of HRM – Anaerobic Training Zone
90% to 100% of HRM- Max Training Zone

The Recovery or Energy Efficient training zone allows you to exercise for extended periods, the body’s primary fuel source at this level of work is fat so it allows you to burn off fat and exercise while replenishing depleted glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. The longer the training session though the higher your heart rate will climb due to the onset of muscular fatigue. You have to be careful that a recovery run doesn’t then become another training run by running for so long that your heart rate creeps up into the next training zone. There is also some conjecture as to whether a ‘recovery’ run is actually a recovery run or just another training run that we do at a lower intensity.

The aerobic training zone is, as the name suggests, where you want your heart rate to be in order to gain fitness in your cardiovascular system. The changes in particular are to the body’s ability to transport oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from the muscles that are being worked.

The anaerobic training zone is a high intensity zone in which you will find your lactate threshold, the balance point at which your body is able to remove the lactic acid in your working muscles quickly enough so that it doesn’t impair performance and the opposite side where the body is not able to remove it fast enough, subsequently impairing your performance. On the easier, less intensive side your workout becomes very demanding, but sustainable, with the body relying on carbohydrate stores for it’s main source of fuel. The more intensive side of the line tips you into your ‘Max training zone’.

The max training zone cannot be maintained for any length of time, you predominantly use fast twitch muscle fibers that fatigue quickly, but it’s a great way to train for higher speed running.

By far the most useful aspect of heart rate training is monitoring how hard you are currently working. Let’s look at an example;

30 year old Sheila wakes up after a great night’s sleep and eats a hearty breakfast, her two month long training regime has included three yoga sessions a week and physically speaking she is in tip-top shape. She goes out for a morning 3 mile run on a beautiful calm day and returns home 21 minutes later satisfied with her work. Her heart rate averaged 150 beats per minute (79% HRM) the whole time she was exercising.

Sheila has been made redundant and money is tight. Her nights are filled with broken sleep and breakfast is no more than a single slice of butter-filled toast. The yoga classes have dried up in an effort to save the pennies but Sheila is determined to keep running, despite the battered pair of shoes she has to wear. She steps out her front door and is buffeted by high winds and rain lashing down diagonally, she begins her familiar three mile loop and struggles around. Sheila returns to the comfort of her cold house in a time of 25 minutes. She’s disappointed with the time but feels tired and can’t understand why as her time was slower, until she looks at her heart rate monitor, her heart rate averaged 170 beats per minute (90%HRM) the whole time she was exercising.

OK, so the second scenario paints a dismal picture, but it does highlight how real life events and difficult training conditions can influence your work rate on a run you know and love. A heart rate monitor can provide you with actual data in real time allowing you to adjust your running accordingly, the classic example we experience at Advance Performance is runners going out for a recovery run but working too hard and turning it into another training run. During Sheila’s second run she should have been noting her heart rate and slowed her running pace to return her heart rate to a normal cardiovascular training level. A heart rate monitor armed with your maximum heart rate could prevent this from happening.

An area that is beginning to be recognised and utilised by runners in their training is Heart Rate Variability (HRV).

HRV is the distance in time between the beats of a heart, it can be used as a tool to assess whether or not you are rested enough before you undertake your next training session. Because the beat of a heart is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, it’s not a conscious effort on our part to make our heart beat, it detects underlying stress in the body that other physical measurements, such as blood pressure, don’t pick up.

When you are stressed the heart will beat sooner than at a relaxed, recovered state. Nearly all professional sports teams are now using it to detect when it is safe for their professionals to train again as a way of staving off injury.

The good news is that most of the modern heart rate monitors use HRV in their software so the advice they give you regarding your rest periods can be utilised effectively.

Enjoy your running

Matt Jeffery

Synergy Physical Training @ Advance Performance

About the author; Matt Jeffery is Advance Performance’s strength and conditioning specialist, he’s a certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and runs a strength and conditioning company called Synergy Physical Training


¹ https://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Fitness-Quest-Exercise-Health/dp/1422358933 
² https://www.brianmac.co.uk/maxhr.htm
³ https://www.brianmac.co.uk/hrm2.htm