How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor: A Definitive Guide

Last week I received an important question from Chris Lipp, who blogs at Waddling Tuxedo:

I know you have mentioned heart rate monitors in passing during several entries, but have you ever considered a post on the importance/unimportance of monitoring heart rate during training and racing?

I would appreciate your opinion on this matter due to the obvious difference of opinions on the internet regarding this point. I recently read that the number one thing for new/returning runners (i.e. – me) is to monitor heart rate as you build your aerobic base. I too am trying to keep my gear to a minimum, can’t some of this be done by feel?

Thanks as always for all your help.

Heart rate is important in a lot of phases of training and various workouts; unfortunately, I haven’t given it enough consideration here on Strength Running. This post is my definitive guide on how to use a heart rate monitor to run the right pace and keep your effort where it should be during training.

Previously, I’ve discussed the many benefits of ditching the gear, running by feel, and the joys of minimalist running. I don’t own a Garmin GPS watch or a fuel belt, rarely run with an iPod (but admittedly enjoy some tunes on a few easy runs), and I think most runners don’t need a heart rate monitor.

Running by feel can replace heart rate training in almost every scenario – if it feels easy and you can run a particular pace for the prescribed distance, then that’s easy! It’s a simple way of training and fosters an understanding of your body that too many runners don’t have. I learned how to run certain paces by feeling them and that’s how I believe most runners should learn.

However, I used to own a heart rate monitor several years ago so I understand that they can be quite beneficial. Many professional runners use them for specific workouts where heart rate is important. The two workouts that are most important are tempo or aerobic threshold runs and easy recovery runs. For these workouts, it’s important to understand how to use a heart rate monitor so you can get the most benefit from both the device and the run itself.

Why is Heart Rate Important?

Tempo workouts are often called aerobic threshold runs and are based on the pace at which your body can run aerobically, or with oxygen. Once you start running faster than this pace, your body works anaerobically and you start to feel the familiar burn of acidic muscles. When this happens, your legs are producing the byproducts of  anaerobic metabolism.

Tempo runs are done at the fine line of aerobic metabolism and their objective is to increase the pace at which you can run aerobically. It’s sometimes very hard for a coach to suggest a pace for these workouts; you can base them on recent race performances, a “comfortably hard” perceived effort, or a heart rate of 85-90% of your maximum.  Your threshold pace is also considered the pace that you can hold for about an hour. For some runners this is their 10k pace while others it’s closer to their 10 mile race pace. My tempo pace is the mid-point between my 10 mile race pace and my half-marathon pace – or about 5:34 per mile.

Determining your maximum heart rate is difficult: the standard “220 minus your age” rule can be wildly inaccurate. Performing a stress test (or a VO2 Max test as I’ve done) is one way to get your maximum heart rate. A better, and more practical, way to determine your max heart rate is to wear your heart rate monitor during a race or very hard workout. Whatever it registers as the maximum will be the figure to use.

Tempo workouts are done at 85-90% of your maximum and it’s very important to not go above this level. When you start producing lactate and enter into anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism, you defeat the purpose of the workout. It’s better to go a little slower than a little faster.

One of the reasons why I’m a big proponent of running by feel is that your heart rate will vary based on numerous factors: sleep, stress, temperature, humidity, training volume, how recovered you are from your last workout, and hydration. Trying to stick to a hard number on your heart rate monitor may mean that you over exert yourself and blow the workout. Running by feel may mean that you run slower, but in the long run it’s better for your aerobic development.

Heart rate is also equally important in easy runs. Too many runners run their recovery runs too fast and miss the point of these short, low effort runs: recovery! You should not try to “get in a good workout” or hit a prescribed pace in a recovery run. The point of these workouts is to add easy volume to your mileage, help flush out byproducts of a hard workout or race, and just to stretch the legs.

Monitoring your heart rate is a good way to ensure you’re running slow enough on an easy run. Typically you’ll want to stay within 60-75% of your maximum heart rate during a recovery run. You might go higher than this on an uphill, but generally speaking you should try your hardest to run slow and just enjoy the scenery. Time on your feet is important; the pace is not.

How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Now we know the general range where you want your heart rate to be during the two workouts where heart rate is most important: a tempo workout and an easy recovery run. So how do you use a heart rate monitor?

I’m going to assume you have a classic HRM like the Timex Ironman Road Trainer. It has a classic chest strap to monitor your heart rate and communicates with a normal looking watch. Some monitors have enormous watch faces and are quite unwieldy. If you’re in the market for a heart rate monitor, I wouldn’t recommend a watch with such a big watch component.

The features you’re looking for include:

  • The ability to set a heart rate range (it will beep when you go out of this range – perfect for a tempo run)
  • Average heart rate functionality: during an easy run, you may go a bit higher than your target easy run heart rate if you are running a hilly loop. That’s fine if your average is still within the range; just keep it reasonable.
  • The ability for the watch to determine your peak heart rate. This function is crucial if you want to know what your heart rate climbed up to during a tempo run.
  • Recovery heart rate is an interesting feature, but not necessary for most runners. This function will allow you to view your heart rate between intervals in a workout and see how long it takes for you to recover. Some workouts can be run using a target recovery heart rate, like this track workout by Lukas Verzbicas, HS National 5k record holder.

Heart Rate Monitor Tips and Tricks

Before a tempo run, determine your maximum heart rate via the methods described above. Figure out your tempo heart rate range; this will be 85-90% of your maximum. Program that into the watch and start the workout.

Don’t be surprised if your heart rate is low at the beginning of your tempo – it will take your heart a few minutes to reach your goal HR and stabilize. Don’t make the mistake of trying to run faster to reach your range faster; you’ll pay for it later. Stay relaxed and make sure to slow your pace if you start to exceed the high end of your tempo heart rate range.

During an easy run, one option is to program a range based on the 60-75% of your maximum heart rate figure. Instead, I prefer to set a maximum heart rate for this run. I like to do this because it’s perfectly fine if your heart rate is lower than 60% during a very easy run. This function will sound an alarm if your effort goes higher than the prescribed HR, a great reminder to slow down.

One of the drawbacks of programming these functions into your heart rate monitor is that it will often sound an annoying alarm if you are outside of the prescribed heart rate range. So when you are starting your tempo, an alarm will likely sound for the first few minutes. During an easy run, you’ll hear an obnoxious beeping when you climb a hill and your heart rate increases. I consider it a small price to pay for knowing when you’re working too hard.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Owning a Heart Rate Monitor

When I used to own a HRM, I admittedly became fascinated with the technology and wore it all the time. I wore it during every interval workout to see what my highest heart rate would be. I wore it to bed (I’m weird) to see what my lowest heart rate was while sleeping (it was 39). I wore it during tempo workouts and recovery runs and every run in between.

It became a nuisance. One part of me loved the data and couldn’t wait to see how steady I could keep my heart rate during a tempo on the track. Another part of me hated the damn thing and just wanted to enjoy running again without the prescriptive nature of wearing a heart rate monitor every day. Alas, I was a slave.

After a few months, it broke (probably from overuse!) and I never replaced it. I’d like to get another HRM watch sometime soon but I’m weary that it can present as many training obstacles as it solves.

Prudent use of a heart rate monitor is crucial if you own one or are considering a purchase. They have definitive benefits, but so does running by feel. Realize the best times to use your new toy and when to leave it at home.

If you haven’t yet bought a heart rate monitor and are getting by just fine without one then I wouldn’t recommend buying one. They’re not very expensive, but why add technology if you don’t need it? If you must buy one, I recommend well-known brands like Polar or Timex. Both have great features and are very well reviewed by runners and triathletes.

The model I own is the Timex Ironman Triathlon Race Trainer.

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  1. I used a heart rate monitor extensively for training my first 3-4 years. I credit my switch to training by pace for my 15 minute PR at the Georgia Half marathon. Now, when I peak at my heart rate, I’m running 1.5-2 minutes faster per mile in the same zone as my old self 🙂

    The best way to determine your zones without doing a VO2 Max test is the 30 minute test. You go all out at your fastest sustainable pace for thirty minutes. Hit lap at 10 minutes, then your average HR for the last 20 minutes is the bottom of Zone 5. You can use a handy dandy tool like a free account at Trainings Peak to extrapolate your zones for you.

    I still plan to use HR for my cycling, as I lack a power meter, but I plan to stick with pace while running. I swear my body would just quit working in training and races when it saw a certain heart rate. Now, my body works at the pace I demand of it, with no distractions.

    You mileage may vary 🙂

    • Good advice to not get distracted by a certain heart rate. Other toys can also have this effect, like iPods and GPS watches.

  2. Thanks for the awesome post Fitz. After reading through all the pros and cons, and imagining how my OCD self would respond to all that input, I have decided (at least for the immediate future) to follow your “If you haven’t yet bought a heart rate monitor and are getting by just fine without one then I wouldn’t recommend buying one” advice. I have often thought of dumping my watch too, but I do enjoy some feedback.


  3. Enjoyed reading this article. At first, based on the title I thought this would be an article that wouldn’t interest me since I’m rather minimalist. Glad to see you included a good amount of info about “feel” and listening to ones body. I run relatively slow, and my focus is about endurance and increasing the distance. Currently on a 18 week marathon training schedule.
    My over simplified formula is this: Short runs are faster. Long runs are slower. Hill work is somewhere in between, depending on amount of repetitions (fewer repetitions = faster pace; more repetitions = slower, but consistent pace both up and down the hill). So far, it seems that I’m building a good stamina/endurance base (regarding heart rate and respirations). What I do seem to have a problem with though is leg fatigue with increased distance. I’m guessing this is simply due to not yet used to the increased distance.

    • Hey Tina, thanks for the comment. I have mixed feelings about heart rate monitors as you can tell and can see them being used in a training program very successfully – just not for every run. Leg fatigue can certainly be from a lack of endurance and not being 100% used to the distance yet, but also be careful that your legs are strong enough to carry you the whole way. Strength exercises can help you in this regard. Thanks again.

      • Thanks for the reply, Fitz. Yes, I can see how HRM’s can be helpful in some situations, too. However, for me it just would detract from why I run in the first place. As I think I’ve mentioned to you in our correspondence, I’m strictly a trail runner (or at least off-road running). Also, as a meditator, I’m big into the whole body awareness thing. So, for me it’s a matter of preference.
        As for the leg strengthening exercises, I’m on it. 🙂
        Also, recently bought Vibram FiveFingers to help strengthen the lower leg muscles… wore them on a few tiny runs… my weaknesses are being pointed out to me. It’s humbling.
        Thanks for the feedback!

  4. As usual, I find myself in complete agreement with your conclusions regarding HRM’s. The sole value I found in using mine was in trying to mimic some tempo and interval-type training on an elliptical while injured, which was a fruitless effort anyway as the elliptical in no way can simulate the effort required to maintain a tempo- or interval-level pace in running; heart rate is only one variable in the equation.

    I believe it was Pfitzinger who advocates using your breathing rate to delineate between easy/aerobic, tempo/lactate threshold , and interval efforts. I find this works pretty well, and I use my GPS watch primary to tabulate results instead of dictate the effort.

    • Pfitzinger gives good advice because your tempo pace, or lactate threshold pace, is closely tied with your ventilatory threshold. You experience a rapid increase in breath rate when you start go to anaerobic so it’s a good body cue to monitor. It’s what I primarily use (and just overall body feeling/how fast I think I’m going) when I do tempo’s out on the trails.

  5. Good advice to not get distracted by a certain heart rate. Other toys can also have this effect, like iPods and GPS watches.

  6. Great article, and thanks for the tip on getting a more accurate maximum heart rate by checking the maximum value during a tough workout; I never thought of that and was thinking about getting it clinically measured.
    When I started using a HRM 6 months ago I couldn’t stop looking at it or analyzing the data I would get, which really became quite annoying. I once almost bumper into another runner as I was looking at my watch for too long. But I still like using it for running and cycling as it has really helped me be more focused.

  7. Brendan says:

    I Disagree with the recommendation. Only through the use of a HRM did I discover that what I THOUGHT was easy was truly not and that I was actually training at a steady state pace during my easy runs. Now, with the help of a HRM, I am able to keep my enthusiasm under control and benefit from the endurance zone. This is at the core of my injury prevention strategy. Running by feel requires definition – a HRM can provide you with critical biofeedback to help you understand what easy, lactate threshold, and anaerobic zones feel like in your lungs, your legs, your head, and your heart so you can do it later without a HRM – as suggested in the article.


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