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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