Heart Rate Monitor Training Basics For Runners

Garmin Forerunner 305
All the Heart Rate Monitor Basics for runners explained.

Maximum heart rate, heart rate zones for running, heart rate monitor features.... Sit back and relax with a cup of your favourite hot drink, because I am going to tell you all about it!

A heart rate monitor is a nice tool for runners of all sorts. In this section I explain how to use it in your training.

Finnish triathletes were among the first to experiment with heart rate monitors in their training about a hundred years ago. In the beginning their competitors complained about unfair competition. However, as with many innovations, soon more people started using it and seeing the benefits. And before you knew it, the heart rate monitor was widely accepted as a (running) training tool.

Why Use a Heart Rate Monitor in Your Training?

Polar FS1
Your heart rate monitor is a really good tool to ensure you keep your running training at the right intensity. Especially when you are a beginning runner and you haven't yet developed a feel for the right pace, heart rate monitor training is very useful.

A heart rate monitor can help to tell you whether you go too fast. Or too slow. Using a heart rate monitor can make your exercise safer and healthier.

Most heart rate monitors have manually adjustable or automatically calculated heart rate zones. If you go over or under the limits of your heart rate zone, an alarm goes off telling you to go faster or slower.

This can be very helpful as you are developing your sense of pace and effort. Sure, you can learn this skill (it is a skill), without a heart rate monitor. But from working with and observing beginner runners, I have witnessed the benefits a heart rate monitor can provide. Suddenly, I see runners slow down more. Accepting that easy pace is really... that easy.

There are many different heart rate monitors available on the market and except for heart rate, being able to measure your distance and pace with help of GPS are definitely the key features I'd be looking for in a heart rate monitor. I will be talking about features a bit later as well, but I first want to focus on how to do heart rate monitor training.

Heart Rate Monitor Training - For beginners and experienced runners

As I have mentioned before, for beginners a heart rate monitor is a really useful tool to have. Many beginning runners do their training too fast. A heart rate monitor can help you in finding your balance! Therefore I highly recommend all beginning runners to get a heart rate monitor.

heart rate monitor training
But also the more experienced runners can benefit from using a heart rate monitor. More experienced runners want to do their running training at different intensities. The balanced training schedule of an experienced runner contains:

  • easy runs

  • tempo runs / cruise intervals

  • steady state runs

  • repeats

  • long slow runs

  • etcetera!

  • A heart rate monitor can also help the more experienced runner to gauge intensity. It just helps at times to keep your ego in check and go "OK, this pace is really making my heart race today. Let's take it down a notch or two." When you are training loads, the way you do your recovery runs becomes more important. And your heart rate is a pretty good gauge on telling you whether you need to take it easier.

    Heart rate monitor in racing...?

    In theory your heart rate monitor would be the perfect tool for races. Many runners go out too fast and use up their fuel long before the finish line. This makes the last part of the race painful and destroys overall performance. The best way to run a race is in even splits. So as steadily as possible.
    Wouldn't it be great to wear your heart rate monitor during a race? Just stick to the correct heart rate and you are fine...

    And I know people who swear by it, especially for longer distances (half marathon and marathon). I myself have found it less useful. The excitement of the race itself can influence your heart beat by quite a few beats!
    So it is hard to establish in which heart rate range you have to race.

    For me, using heart rate during my races has not been helpful. I really rely on having a really good understanding of what I think I am capable of using my running pace calculators. I use the pace function on my watch instead. The running pace calculators I am referring to are:

    Race Conversion Calculator - Predict your goal race time based on the results of another race.

    Running Pace Calculator - This calculator relates a race time to running training paces.

    If you do want to use your heart rate monitor while racing you need to race a lot so you can see how you react to races and what is the best heart rate range to use while racing. So, it is a bit of trial and error. And it may work better for some than for others.

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - Fitness Measurement

    Your heart rate monitor can help to gauge improvements as well. The better trained you get, the less work your heart needs to do. You can test this in several ways. For example:

  • Every six weeks do an easy run on a certain route wearing your heart rate monitor and run in the same heart rate zone. See how much time it takes. If you have been consistently training, the time to do the same run at the same intensity will certainly go down.

  • Alternatively, you can choose to run at the same intensity (=same heart rate zone) for a set amount of time and find out that you get further and further every time you do the test.

  • Clearly it is very exciting to get this type of feedback. It is great to see yourself getting faster over time as you put in consistent training. But I find it incredibly exciting when I can actually see data that shows that physiologically I am getting fitter.

    This probably goes to how much of a data nerd I am... But the satisfaction I get from seeing a lower heart rate than before on a simple easy run... It's something else... :)

    Establishing Your Heart Rate Zones for Running

    heart rate monitor training
    So, how do we get to using a heart rate monitor to our full advantage? First, we have to do a little bit of homework and establish our running max heart rate. You then plug this into the Zoladz Method Calculator for Heart Rate Zones and you are done.

    NOTE: There is an alternative way to calculating your running heart rate zones, which is a bit more popular and well-known. It relies on your rest heart rate as well and is called the Karvonen Method of establishing your running heart rate zones.

    In practice they end up pretty close to each other for pretty much everybody, reason I follow the simpler Zoladz Method, but feel free to use either!

    Heart Rate Monitor Training Pitfalls

    Before you start training in your heart rate zones and rely on your heart rate monitor readings too much, you might want to take note of these pointers.

    Without these your knowledge of heart rate monitor running training is not complete!

    Especially if you use this beautiful electronic device as the main guideline for your running training.

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - Influence of External Factors on Your Heart Rate

    Your heart rate is not only influenced by how fast you are running. A few external factors to consider are temperature, humidity and wind.

    When the conditions are a little more extreme, i.e. very warm, very cold, very humid, etc then understand that this will have an effect on your heart rate.

    E.g. when it gets very warm, your heart rate will be higher and will rise more quickly.T

    So, try to listen to your body as well as to your heart rate monitor.

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - Influence of Internal Factors on Your Heart Rate

    There are also internal factors that influence your heart rate. Stress, fatigue and health can have their effects.

    When you have had a bad night sleep, when you are not feeling your usual self, when you are stressed.... all these things can influence your heart rate.

    So, when you are settling in to an easy run and your heart rate is unusually high, keep this in mind. Assess what is going on and slow down a bit more than usual to keep your health in check.

    In the end, try to learn how it feels to do an easy run or a tempo run instead of trying to stick rigidly to a heart rate monitor training zone.

    This requires patience and practice, but it is however a very empowering feeling when you "just know" that you are running at the right pace for your workout that day!

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - It's An Indicator Only

    The heart rate displayed on your heart rate monitor is only a gauge of your training intensity.

    So don't focus on a specific figure (e.g. 155 beats per minute).

    It is much better to focus on a zone (e.g. in between 150 and 160 beats per minute).

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - It Takes Time to Adjust

    heart rate monitor training
    Your heart rate takes some time to adjust when you change the intensity at which you run.

    When you are doing an interval session or tempo run you need to give your heart rate a bit of time to climb up and settle.

    Suppose you are doing a tempo / cruise interval of 10 minutes.

    It usually takes a couple of minutes for your heart rate to get into the right zone. So, don't overly focus on it the first minute or two and just try to run at tempo pace. Don't give in to the temptation to check your heart rate every ten seconds! It is likely all over the place, so it is a bit useless anyways. After a couple of minutes, check it. Then, if your heart rate is too low or too high for your zone, then push the pace up or down a bit. Not earlier.

    Heart Rate Monitor Training - Of Little Use in Speedwork

    When you go faster than tempo pace, your heart rate monitor loses its value. Well, that's my opinion.

    Your speedsessions are normally only for a shorter period of time. The time for your heart rate to adjust is too long (see previous section).

    By the way, proper speedwork usually takes so much out of me, that I don't really have the time nor the energy to check my heart rate in between!

    What I do like about wearing my GPS watch during my intervals is that I can see the speed I am running at. This helps, especially during the first few intervals, when there is always a tendency to go too fast.

    I hope these considerations helps give you a more balanced view of heart rate monitor training. Your heart rate monitor is a great tool to have. However it is not completely perfect, nor can you expect it to be.

    Now, are you still with me.... Let's get on to some key heart rate monitor features if you are in the market for a heart rate monitor....

    GPS, integration with maps, heart rate, speed, elevation and distance measures, kilometer/mile splits / interval splits / lap splits, it's all possible.

    So, what do you look for. Well, of course, this is somewhat personal. Some of us want all the bells and whistles and are happy to fork out a lot of money. If that's you, go for a top of the range heart rate monitor. I am not going to stop you.

    But if I were to narrow it down, what do I think is important in a running watch?

    OK... drumroll please... my selection of six most important features is :

  • Breast Strap

  • Adjustable Heart Rate Target Zones with Alarm

  • Light

  • Lap / Splits

  • Maps

  • Price

  • Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #1: Breast Strap

    You have got two choices here. There are heart rate monitors which are only on the wrist. The disadvantage of this is that accuracy drops. I see massive differences when I forget to put the breast strap on, the readings are all over the shop and often very clearly inaccurate.

    Most heart rate monitors however come with a velcro breast strap. Feels a bit weird at first, but after a while you don't feel the breast strap that much anymore. And it is way more accurate.

    Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #2: Adjustable Heart Rate Target Zones with Alarm

    What you especially want when you wear your heart rate monitor during a run is to keep your heart rate in the correct zone.

    Now many running watches come with automatically set zones. During set up they ask for your age and based on that your maximum and rest heart rate are inferred and heart rate monitor training zones are calculated. This is not the most accurate, so you will want to have the possibility to override the heart rate zones.

    Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #3: Light

    Whether you run in the mornings or at night, chances are that you run in the dark at least sometimes.

    I do quite a few of my runs in the dark.

    Not much to do about that when you have a full-time job.

    Having a light on your heart rate monitor certainly comes in useful then...

    Just to be able to tell the time, my speed or my heart rate, I really need that back light.

    Once again something that has changed over the years: when I got my first heart rate monitor, not many models had a back light.

    Now almost all come with one.

    Still good thing to check for though before you purchase!

    Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #4: Lap / Splits

    heart rate monitor training
    Especially when you mainly run shorter distances a good deal of your time is spent doing intervals on or off the track.

    Being able to time your splits is important then.

    And you will want to do that without much hassle like pushing many buttons and in the meanwhile doing the maths in your head.

    For most running watches this is now pretty standard, but it used to be a feature that came at a premium. Also, if you are into more advanced workouts, e.g. a Tempo-Interval-Tempo sesssion, then having the ability to properly program that in your running watch is pretty useful. Again, this makes life just that little bit easier.

    Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #5: Maps

    Now, this is, for me, a feature I need to have. I do quite a bit of trail running. The forest I run in has got endless trails. And they all look alike. I do all my runs in there with the run mapped in my watch. I know my sense of direction. I'd be one of those people you find three weeks later, two hundred metres away from home.... :) So, I go out with the map and have the comfort that it will help direct me home! Clearly, if you are running in an area you know very, very well, this might be one of those features you can live without. But for me it is pretty critical.

    Best Heart Rate Monitor Feature #6: Price

    Last, but not least, price.
    Know what you want from a heart rate monitor and what you want to spend, then make your choice.

    Although I have been in Australia for a long time, I am a Dutchman at heart. Some of the stereotypes apply to me, and it more or less physically hurts when I spend money... :) So, price is important and I definitely love it when I can pick up last year's model or can wait for a big sale to save myself hundreds of dollars!

    So, there you have it, my six features that help you pick up the right heart rate monitor or running watch.

    That was a bit of a long read on heart rate monitor training, but I hope it was useful. Also check out the other pages in this section to pick up more info about heart rate monitor training and check out the heart rate monitor training questions below as well!

    Other Heart Rate Monitor Training Pages on Offer

    zoladz method

    Zoladz Heart Rate Zones

    Learn more about the Zoladz method to establish your heart rate training zones and use the calculator to establish your own training zones according to Zoladz.

    karvonen method

    Karvonen Heart Rate Zones

    The Karvonen method is a bit more complicated than the Zoladz method, but more well-known. Learn more about how Karvonen calculates heart rate monitor training zones and work out your own zones with the calculator.

    max heart rate running

    Max Heart Rate When Running

    This page provides a number of different ways to establish your running max heart rate. Critical info to calculate your heart rate running zones.

    race conversion calculator

    Rest Heart Rate

    For the Karvonen Method to establish your heart rate running zones you do need your rest heart rate as well. Click the link to learn more about how to establish this.

    heart rate monitor running programs

    Heart Rate Monitor Running Programs

    Introduction page to some of the heart rate monitor based running programs on this site.

    10k running program

    10k Running Program for Beginners

    A heart rate monitor based training program. Suitable for you if you are able to run about 30 minutes and are aiming to complete your first 10k race.

    half marathon running program

    Half Marathon Running Program

    A heart rate monitor based training program for the half marathon. The right plan for you if you are able to run 10k and are now looking to gear up to half marathon training.

    Don't Forget to Check all the Questions & Answers about Heart Rate Monitor Running Below!!!

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