The Beginner’s Guide to Heart Rate Monitor Training

Do you even know the best ways to use your fancy heart rate monitor?

Heart Rate Monitor Training

Every runner knows how to turn it on and watch their heart rate climb during a workout. That’s easy!

But do you know how to use a heart rate monitor to get the most out of your workouts?

Look around at any road race and you’ll see runners outfitted with all the new gear: compression socks, technical shirts, iPods, Garmins, and yes – heart rate monitors (or HRM’s).

But unfortunately, most runners don’t know how to use them as effectively as possible. But fear not! This is your crash course on heart rate monitor training: how to use that weird chest strap to run better workouts, recover like a pro, and ensure you’re getting the most from your workouts.

It’s not rocket science but there are a few simple guidelines to follow.

What’s the Point of Heart Rate Monitor Training?

Good question. And before I even start on their benefits, let’s admit the truth:

  • After a decade, I just started using one again and I don’t use it too often
  • They don’t make you faster (you’re better served by improving your training)
  • They’re expensive, sometimes hard to use, and imperfect
  • You don’t need one

But despite all that, heart rate monitors are incredibly helpful for one major reason: they can ensure you recover properly.

Most runners overdo their easy runs (and fail to run hard enough on their fast workout days), undercutting their recovery and going into important workouts or races with too much fatigue in their legs.

The right heart rate monitor training can help you avoid this – enabling smarter training, better recovery, and ultimately faster racing. More importantly, since you won’t be pushing yourself too hard when you should be prioritizing recovery, you’re less likely to get an overuse injury from demanding too much of your body.

It’s win-win in my book! Now let’s look at the best workouts to use with your HRM.

Three Perfect Workouts for Heart Rate Monitors

Not every run lends itself to heart rate monitor training. It wouldn’t make sense to wear a HRM for a 5k specific track workout.

You have to choose your workouts wisely; fortunately, three types of workouts are perfect.

Tempo Runs. This is the obvious one – almost every runner does a tempo run with some regularity (or should!) and can easily incorporate a heart rate monitor. Tempo runs are done at about 85-90% of your maximum heart rate. After determining your max HR (more on that soon), so you can program your HRM to beep whenever your HR creeps over or under the range that corresponds to 85-90% of your max.

It doesn’t help you to run faster than your target heart range during a tempo so make sure you stay within your personal limits. When you run faster, you exceed your lactate threshold (nerd alert! This is the point at which your body goes from aerobic running to anaerobic running – or without oxygen) and the workout isn’t as effective. Don’t turn tempo runs into races.

So what’s your maximum heart rate? That’s a tough question and you’ll find a lot of answers if you search online. The traditional formula of “220 minus your age” is outdated and can often yield numbers that are far off from your actual max.

A better way to determine your max HR is to wear your heart rate monitor for a very hard workout and note the highest Beats Per Minute (BPM) that it records. Make sure that your workout is tough because you need to really challenge yourself to get an accurate maximum recording.

Here’s a workout that will work:

  • Warm-up with 2-3 miles of easy running
  • Then run a 2-3 mile tempo run to pre-fatigue your body followed by 1-2 minutes of easy running
  • Next, run 4 x 90″ hills at 5k pace with a jog down recovery. Run the last hill rep the hardest you can.

Your heart rate monitor should record the highest BPM during your workout. That will be your maximum heart rate.

Heart Rate Recovery Workouts. A constant question among runners is, “how much time do I take as recovery in between intervals?” It’s a great question and it depends on when you are in the training cycle.

If you want to prioritize your performance on each interval and start each one fully rested, you can use heart rate to guide the recovery time. Here’s what to do:

  • Wear your heart rate monitor for the entire workout
  • When you finish an interval, keep jogging easy (or walk) until your heart rate reaches about 65-70% of your maximum HR
  • Start the next interval only when your heart rate has recovered to an easy effort level

This type of workout ensures you’re not starting the next interval too soon. Your heart rate won’t lie – it tells you exactly how hard your body is working to deliver oxygen to your muscles.

Need extra recovery from that last tough interval? Just glance at your heart rate and you’ll know when to start your next repetition.

Recovery Runs. Your shortest run per week – typically the day before or after your long run or a race – isn’t meant to gain fitness. Instead these strategic runs help you maintain your weekly mileage while being a form of active recovery. So running too fast is counter-productive but unfortunately, something almost all of us do.

Prioritizing recovery is one of the best forms of heart rate monitor training and especially useful for a recovery run. Put on the chest strap and program your HRM to beep if your heart rate exceeds 70-75% of your maximum. This simple strategy reigns in your enthusiasm when you might overdo your recovery runs.

Not only are you allowing your body (heart, muscles, connective tissue) to recover, but also your brain. Most of us only think about the physical side of recovery, but the brain needs time to rest as well. Easy runs keep your motivation high and your enthusiasm refreshed for training hard on the days that matter.

My Timex Ironman Road Trainer Package

Heart Rate Monitor Training

Tracking Resting Heart Rate Over Time

Heart rate monitors can also be used to detect the early warning signs of over training and excessive fatigue. If you’re running too much, too soon, too fast then your body will start breaking down. At first you’ll feel fatigued from runs that should be easy.

Then it becomes impossible to hit your goal times during workouts.

Soon every run is a struggle and your heart rate soars to tempo effort for easy recovery runs.

You can catch this vicious pattern before it progresses. If you don’t, you may need 2+ weeks of complete rest to get back to normal. Use your heart rate monitor to monitor your heart rate as you sleep to see what your true resting heart rate is. By doing this 2-3 times per week (especially after hard workouts or a long run), your fatigue level becomes clear.

If your heart rate is high when you sleep, you know you need to take it easy the next day or dial down the intensity in your next workout.

You’re probably asking yourself “Has Jason completely lost it? I’m not wearing that thing to bed!” Fair point!

But hear me out: you don’t have to do it all the time and it’s a great way to accurately measure your lowest possible heart rate. Ask your partner if he or she doesn’t mind – who knows, they may find it cute (or totally weird).

If that’s not your style, use a free app like Instant Heart Rate to measure your HR with your smart phone.

Don’t Become a Slave to Technology

Heart rate monitors are a useful tool to help you design smarter training. But with any good tool – like a Garmin GPS watch or a pair of compression sleeves – there lies the potential for abuse.

Sleeping with your HRM is borderline crazy. While I recommended it as a way to detect over training, it’s also on the edge of the slippery slope between “normal runner” and “wacko gear junkie.”

It’s a fine line to straddle but pick your battles and don’t wear your heart rate monitor for every run or workout. Running by feel is an important skill and one that takes time away from your precious chest strap to develop.

Learn how your body feels at different speeds. Monitor the sound of your foot steps, the feeling of your legs impacting the ground, the sound of your breathing, and even your heart rate.

Do you notice a difference at marathon pace and half marathon pace? What about 5k pace?

Learn those nuances  and you may never need a heart rate monitor.

But if you do, I recommend simple watches that don’t cost a fortune. You can get all the benefits of heart rate training with a simple watch like the Timex Ironman Road Trainer or the Timex 30 Lap Trainer. Both offer all the features you need.

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  1. That’s really interesting. Thanks for sharing! I’ve had my eye on HR monitors for a while now, but I still don’t have one.

  2. What about using HRMs as a tool to build endurance (ensuring that you stay in “zone 2”)?

  3. Tim Meier says:

    Really good little article Fitz. I started training with Caleb about 8 weeks ago and recently he asked for HR stuff just for accountability on recovery runs to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it since we jumped up into the 80’s per week for the first time (in my running career). I was a bit shocked that to be in the mid 130’s for HR (I have a max of 195) I needed to run a full 15 seconds slower per mile than what I was typically doing. Because we’re training pretty specifically pace wise on hard days, the HR monitor isn’t used on those days but I’m strapping it on 1-2x per week for recovery days and it’s helping to keep me honest. Great info as usual!

  4. Great Article! Any thoughts on what percentage heart rate for cross training? Never quite sure how hard or light I should be going…

    • Well it depends on the purpose of the cross training workout, just like with running. Stick to the same general guidelines and you should be fine. Good luck!

  5. Good and balanced post Fitz and, like Tim and Caleb, I really only see the full value of an HR monitor for recovery purposes. I am not a fan of the zone training approach either and think that experienced runners can execute their harder workouts pretty successfully by feel. Of course, maybe I’m trying to justify that fact that I carelessly misplaced my HR monitor and no longer have one.

    • Workouts by feel can be very valuable. Even for less experienced runners, running by a specific race pace (5k, 10k, marathon, etc.) accomplishes about the same thing.

      Don’t replace it – probably not worth it. I just wanted one so I could sleep with it because I’m a complete weirdo.

  6. Clicking on this — My Timex Ironman Road Trainer Package — does not connect anywhere. Was is supposed to?

  7. Thanks for an interesting and helpful article.

    I see in the graph at the top of your article that the heart rate leaps to about 210 at the beginning of whatever exercise that was before settling back. Mine does exactly that, no matter what speed I take off at or what gradient I begin running on. In the first half mile it always leaps above 100% mhr, sometimes as high as 130% before settling back. I don’t feel it; I only realised it when I started using an hrm.

    Would you expect this kind of leap to be normal? Do you have any idea what the reason for it may be? And finally, should I be concerned by it?

  8. There is so much in this article that I agree with and have experienced. I got my first heart rate monitor about 6 months ago and only wish I had got one years ago. My training is much more organized and I can really feel the improvements in my fitness levels.
    One thing I would recommend is getting your maximum heart rate clinically tested, as using the 220 – age ended up being about 10% off my actual max heart rate. Since I adjusted my target zones I feel much happier with my training.

  9. “You do not need a HR monitor” – AMEN! Nice post, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve warned runners about how far off the formulas can be and lead them down the wrong road, however under specific circumstances they can be helpful. I’m a cardiovascular physiologist and do not use a HR monitor myself and only recommend it under specific situations, some of which you cite above. I’ll be bookmarking this to send to folks.

  10. what’s your opinion about POLAR FT40 ? I used it while ago. Love it because of the low price


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