A Seven Nation Army Couldn’t Hold Me Back…and All About Heart Rate Training

I’m giving a big thank you today to those blog readers who took the time to comment on my previous post.  One of the great things about starting this blog last December has been the discovery of other running bloggers and the online community that I’ve found.  I love following other bloggers and reading their running stories, and the support that these runners offer each other is fabulous!  I appreciated the comments (and the respectful tone!) and want to address the issue further in a more detailed post next week…

But first…I’m off to Wichita.  Yes, the boys and I are piling in the car and heading to the middle of Kansas this afternoon (ooh la la!) to see my Swiss bestie Pam and her family once more before they fly back across the pond to Geneva.  We will celebrate Pam’s birthday today and her son’s birthday tomorrow.

Swiss expats come back to the U.S. for the summer (or any short visit) and drop boatloads of money on clothes, etc.–all the things that cost a fortune in Switzerland or just  aren’t available.  You stock up, rip the tags off and cram that stuff in your luggage for the trip back overseas.  Pam has approximately 200 pounds of clothing, shoes, and athletic apparel that she needs to fit into a few small suitcases, so I’m thinking that I should get her a necklace as her present.

As for running, I am three runs into my half marathon training.  I ran 3 easy miles on Monday and averaged a 9:47 pace.  On Tuesday, I ran my first speedwork session since ‘Nam…5 x 400m repeats.  My splits averaged from 1:50-1:56, which I was very happy with.  Yesterday I ran another easy 3 miles at an average 9:52 pace.

I got on a lark and decided to dig out my heart rate monitor for the runs this week.  Do any readers use HRT (Heart Rate Training?)  I tried it once when I trained for my first race (the 2007 Hospital Hill half marathon), but I basically ignored it for several reasons:

  • My heart rate always seemed to be higher than the ranges I’d calculated using the basic 220 minus age formula, yet I always felt like I was right where I should have been based on level of exertion.
  • I always experienced Cardiac Creep but didn’t know what it was at that point so didn’t know to ignore it.  Cardiac Creep is just the fact that your heart rate will gradually creep up during a long run as you get tired and if you get dehydrated.  I saw my heart rate go up, even though I was giving the same effort, and I didn’t know whether to slow down dramatically (which seemed silly based on my level of exertion) or to ignore it.
  • My heart rate would spike during hills, and once it spiked it tended to stay elevated.  It was like Cardiac Creep, but more than that (I’ll describe more below.)

Basically, I called it phooey and moved on.

After six more years of running, I now have a better understanding of HRT and my heart rate zone numbers, I dismiss Cardiac Creep as long as my perceived effort remains the same, and most importantly, I have a much more accurate and finely-tuned FEEL for what the numbers mean.  I am no expert (funny how often I offer opinions on this blog with that caveat!), but here are some thoughts…

The key is not to just go with the online formulas and their estimates based on your age (most articles state this upfront, but it’s really important.)  You have to know your personal resting heart rate (RHR) and maximum heart rate (MHR) for those zones to be anywhere close to accurate.

Your RHR is easy enough to calculate.  Put on the old monitor strap and measure first thing in the morning before getting out of bed.  Do this for several mornings and take the average.  If you don’t like to strap things on in bed (sorry, couldn’t resist–ha!), get that free heart rate app by Azumio (I have it and love it) and do the same thing with your phone (just be aware that keeping your phone near your bed can lead to trouble when your spouse wants to get romantic and you are stalling so you can fit in one more level of Candy Crush–hypothetically speaking, of course!)

My RHR is 40-41, which my doctor verified last fall when he did an EKG during my physical.  Many websites will assume that your RHR is around 60.  Now, I’m no mathematician, but those numbers are way different and would throw off any calculations in my view.  Calculate your own.

The MHR is an entirely different kind of flying altogether (any Airplane fans out there?).

This is where the feel part of it comes in.  I’ve exercised enough and at enough levels of intensity to have a good sense that my MHR is probably around 185-190.  I can get into the upper 170s and sustain it with some good sprinting, and we’re not talking the kind of sprinting that’s godawful painful and forces me to stop within seconds.  We’re talking sprinting where I could still give plenty more.

I can get it up there, people!  So I assume that my max is actually in the upper 180s somewhere, and I’m not really interested in dying on the sidewalk to test its exact limit.

Over time, I’ve experimented off and on with checking my heart rate for runs but not actually training with it.  I prefer to go by feel, which is an actual method…the Borg method.  This, of course, makes me want to include this…

Must stop laughing…making important points here…

Ok, back to feeling it…I know what easy runs feel like to me by now.  I can sing under my breath, take a deep cleansing breath when I need to (you know, those stretchy lung breaths) and generally keep it together.  Think of it like a victory lap run…you could wave to the throngs and talk to your friends.  Depending on the article/training program/expert, easy runs should be about 60-75% of your MHR.  For me, 155 is pretty much the exact point where I leave my happy place and start working too much, but I haven’t tested it lately.

Hal calls for 65-75% on my current plan.  Here is a copied page from one of my favorite links (here) for heart rate zones with my numbers plugged in…

Heart rate zones

My resting heart rate is:   My maximum heart rate is:

FAQ: Heart rate zones

Zone What it does % of Heart Rate
Heart rate
beats per minute
Long, slow runs, easy or recovery runs Training in this zone improves the ability of your heart to pump blood and improve the muscles’ ability to utilize oxygen.  The body becomes more efficient at feeding the working muscles, and learns to metabolise fat as a source of fuel. 60-70% 130 – 145
Aerobic zone or “target heart rate zone” Most effective for overall cardiovascular fitness. Increases your cardio-respitory capacity: that is, the your ability to transport oxygenated blood to the muscle cells and carbon dioxide away from the cells.  Also effective for increasing overall muscle strength. 70-80% 145 – 160
Anaerobic zone The point at which the body cannot remove lactic acid as quickly as it is produced is called the lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold. It generally occurs at about 80-88% of the Heart Rate Reserve. Training in this zone helps to increase the lactate threshold, which improves performance. Training in this zone is hard: your muscles are tired, your breathing is heavy. 80-90% 160 – 175
VO2 max
“Red line zone”
You should only train in this zone if you re very fit, and only for very short periods of time. Lactic acid develops quickly as you are operating in oxygen debt to the muscles   The value of training in this zone is you can increase your fast twitch muscle fibers which increase speed. 90-100% 175 – 190

Funny enough…the 75% mark would put me right around 155 for my top limit, which corresponds to how I feel.

I decided to check my numbers on my runs this week.  Lo and behold, the numbers held up, which makes me fee like I’m in the right place with my planned paces.  During my speed repeats, I never went over 168.  During my easy runs, I only spiked up over 155-156 on elevation changes, and then only briefly.  This brings me to another key point.

One of the most valuable parts of checking your heart rate (TO ME, the non-expert) is seeing not just how the numbers for the zones are, but how your heart rate changes as you become more fit.  Cardiac Creep is not as severe for me as it once was, and more importantly, my heart rate spikes less on hills and RECOVERS quickly, allowing me to get right back into my zone, physically and mentally.

Here is one of the most rewarding things about tracking your heart rate, even if you don’t train with it.  The time it takes for your heart rate to drop is a significant indicator of your fitness.  Recovery Heart Rate is a great thing to know!

Here is an excerpt from a great article (here) that describes it:

Recovery Heart Rate is the change in your heart rate after you stop working out. You compare your workout heart rate with your heart rate after you have recovered for 1 – 2 minutes. If you do not have much change in your heart rates, you are not very fit (your heart still has to beat rapidly, even though you have stopped working out. ) To calculate your Recovery HR, take your heart rate 1 or 2 minutes after completing a workout. When working out in an aerobic zone, a common recovery heart rate is 20-30 beats per minute. A person who is fit will have a higher Recovery Heart Rate than an unfit person.

For me, it doesn’t matter how hard I run…unless I’ve been out-and-out sprinting, my heart rate goes right back down into the 80s within two minutes, and I am back to normal lickety split.  Talk about feeling good about your running and what you’re doing for your health…it’s an amazing accomplishment to watch that number drop right back down.

So try it out!  Check it again in a few months and track your improvement.  Get up and get back down with your bad self!  When you see that number drop right back down into a happy place, pat yourself on the back.  Tell yourself, “This dance ain’t for everybody–just the sexy people!”  (Morris Day?  The Time?  Anyone?)

I’m interested in your thoughts.  Does anyone track their heart rate or train with it?  Do you think it’s all a bunch of junk?  Do you know your RHR?  More importantly, do you like the Time?

Some further links (there are tons more if you search, but these are my faves):

http://wserver.flc.losrios.edu/~willson/fitns304/handouts/heartRates.html (the link is referenced above, but I include it again because I like it and this is my blog.)

http://www.runningforfitness.org/calc/heart-rate-calculators/hrzone (again, this is the other link from above, but I include it again)





8 thoughts on “A Seven Nation Army Couldn’t Hold Me Back…and All About Heart Rate Training

  1. I swear by training with a heart rate monitor. For your max, wear it during a couple of 5Ks. For example, I can rarely hit 180 bpm during training runs (even HIIT sessions for that matter), but consistently hit the low 190s in the final sprint during a 5k.


  2. I stopped wearing my HRM during my runs because it had a tendency to freak me out. My hr gets pretty high and then I start feeling gross and pay more attention to it than I should. I’ve done much better without it and will keep doing this for a while until I am more comfortable listening to my body. Plus, my Garmin doesn’t track my hr so I had to wear two gadgets and that’s just too many for me.
    I really did like this post and there’s a ton of information here! I may go back to my HRM later, but for now, I have to learn on my own without the distraction. Running is hard for me, being overweight and I think my lungs are still clearing out from quitting smoking. So for now, I will just help the old ticker by pushing when I can and walking when I can’t 🙂


  3. Forget about HRT for a sec! I want you to know that I am the freaking zen master of Candy Crush – level 124. BTW, whenever I hear Wichita, Kansas, I think of Planes, Trains and Automobiles – one of my all-time favourite comedies.


  4. I also don’t fit the 220-age calculation – in sprint finishes at the end of 5k’s I have reached 205 a number of times and 200+ is normal at the end of this type of effort. However I know that I have reached this level as my head feels like it is about to fall off!

    The main problem I have is with the heart rate strap. The first strap I had rubbed me raw. The second I bought keeps riding up either under or over the bottom of my sports bra. This then gives dodgy figures – 286 average for a 30 minute easy run for example!

    I have given up with it for the moment. I like the stats but mainly used them after the run to gauge fitness improvements over the same routes. I love the idea of training to certain heart rate zones, but the strap is too much of a faff at the moment.


    • I’ve never had that kind of problem with the strap, but that sounds awful. I think they make sports bras with a sleeve/pocket thingie for the strap…but I don’t know who makes them. I definitely don’t train with it or wear mine for every run, but I agree with you that it’s nice to check periodically for measuring improvement, no matter what the specific zones are. And if I hit 205 in my next 5k, I’m sure my head will feel the exact same way! 😉


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