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Why Do Runners Need to Monitor Heart Rates

by Claudia Piepenburg - Run Today Newsletter from Road Runner Sports

Why do runners need to monitor heart rates?
Find out why ignoring your heart rate during training could be setting you up for injury and why manually taking your pulse just doesn't cut it. Read more…

"I don't want a heart rate monitor to interfere with my run!"
Who does? Here's advice on how to properly use a heart rate monitor to get the maximum benefits of heart rate training without distracting from your run.
Read more…

By the numbers…The easiest ways to figure out your heart rates.
Learn how to find your resting heart rate (Hint: Go to the bathroom first!) and your maximum heart rate before you start heart rate training. Read more…

Heart Rate Training schedules.
Once you know your Maximum Heart Rate, learn how to use this number in your running, regardless if you're a novice runner or an experienced racer!
Read more…

Testimonial:
How heart rate training helped me run better - and feel better. Read more…


Heart Rate Monitor Training:
Maybe you've heard the sound in a race: a high-pitched beep, beep, beep. Or maybe you've wondered about those straps that you've seen wrapped around runners' chests (usually shirtless males!) Whether you've heard them, seen them or just wondered about them, it's time you tried one yourself. What are we talking about? Heart rate monitors; other than a good pair of running shoes, they're the single most valuable training tool of this centuryor the last!

What will a Heart Rate Monitor do for Me?
Simply put, using a heart rate monitor will make you a better runner. Here's how it works: The monitor accurately measures the number of times your heart beats in one minute. Knowing that figure helps you gauge how your body's responding to training. And knowing how your body responds helps you plan your workouts to reflect your increasing fitness level.

"Yeah, but I've seen runners at the track stopping to take their pulse during a workout. Isn't that good enough?" you might ask. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Once you stop your heart rate starts to slow down. For instance, let's say you run a 400m interval, then you stop to take your pulse before you run an easy 400m recovery jog. As soon as you stop, your heart rate will begin to drop. By the time you've caught your breath, felt for your pulse in your neck and started counting, it might have dropped two beats or more from what it was in the last 200m of the interval. And coming to a complete stop after a hard interval can cause dizziness and even nausea, so you shouldn't forgo the recovery lap in favor of taking your pulse. Wearing a monitor is the only way to get a true reading of how hard your heart is working.
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How do I Use a Heart Rate Monitor?
A heart rate monitor consists of two pieces:
1. The watch/chronograph/display, which you wear on your wrist.
2. The strap you wear around your chest. Monitors vary considerably in both price and features. If you're running or jogging solely for fitness and possibly to lose weight, you'll probably want the most basic model, one that simply displays your heart rate and nothing else. If you're planning on running intervals on the track, choose a model that not only displays your heart rate, but stores lap and split times as well as your heart rate during each interval. All the models above the two most basic designs feature alarms to signal you when you're in the correct target training zone (more about target zones later.)

Tip: Initially you may have to experiment with the tension on the chest strap. Although you may think it feels too tight, you'll be more uncomfortable and insecure if it starts to slip down while you're working out. Don't be afraid to tighten it, you'll grow accustomed to the feel very soon. It's important to remember that the plastic piece must fit against your chest, if it doesn't the beats will be sporadic or you won't pick them up at all.

Women should wear a sports bra designed so the strap slips through it, particularly if they're small-breasted and have a small rib cage. (Most women around here use the Polar Heart Monitor bra ). No one, male or female, should wear the chest strap over cloth, as transmitter can't transmit through a shirt or singlet. If you have trouble picking up the beats, try a little saline solution on the back of the plastic transmitter. Never use any other substance on the transmitter (like petroleum jelly or a sports cream.) You may also need an Electrode cream to get an accurate reading.

Tip: Don't be concerned if your heart rate starts suddenly jumps up during a run, say from 125 to 170, then back down again. Check out your surroundings. Sometimes when you run under high tension wires the transmitter will go a little "haywire" for a few seconds. You might also notice that if you're running next to someone who's also wearing a monitor, your monitor might start beating in time with theirs (or vice versa)! Run a little further apart, or move to the other runner's opposite side.
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What do the Numbers Mean?
To understand what the numbers displayed on the watch mean, you need to know:

  1. Your resting heart rate (referred to as RHR)
  2. Your maximum HR (referred to as MHR or sometimes Max HR)

How do you determine your RHR?
It's easy! Measure your pulse when you wake up in the morning. Tip: Relieve your bladder first. Once you've used the restroom, lay back down in bed and rest quietly for a minute or so. Then place your index finger and middle finger of one hand against the wrist of your opposite hand. Tip: Always use two fingers to take your pulse, never your thumb! Measure the number of beats for 10 seconds and multiply that figure by 6. Voila! You now know your RHR.

My RHR is 70. What does that mean?
An average RHR for men is between 60-80 beats per minute (BPM). Women average slightly higher RHRs. A RHR of 100 isn't unusual for someone who's sedentary. On the other hand, world-class runners can have RHRs as low as 40 and even under 30 is not uncommon. It's important to remember that the more fit you are, the lower your RHR will be.

Tip: Keep a record of your RHR every morning. If it rises by even as little as two to three beats, you're probably over-training, you may be getting sick, or you're dehydrated.. Back off on your training, monitor your body for other signs of a cold or upper respiratory infection and cut back on your intake of coffee and tea. Also make sure you're drinking enough fluid during the day.
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OK, Now that I Know my RHR, How do I Find Out My MHR?
Figuring out this number isn't quite so easy. There are several ways to determine your MHR:

  1. Use the formula 220-(minus) your age. Unfortunately, this method can be off by as many as 30 beats per minute, depending on your sex and your fitness level.
  2. Use the formula 220-your age if you're a man and 226-your age if you're a woman. According to longtime running coach, Roy Benson, this formula makes more sense because women (usually) have slightly smaller hearts than men. Smaller hearts make up for their size by beating faster. But again, this formula can still be off by several beats, depending on how long you've been running.
  3. Use this formula: subtract ½ of your age from 205. According to Benson, this formula makes more sense than the previous two because of the "old physiological chestnut that states, if you use it, you don't lose it." In other words, if you've stayed fit most of your adult life you're younger biologically than chronologically. Still, even this formula might give you a number that's way off, depending on where you are on the bell shaped curve used to predict MHR.
  4. Take a treadmill test. Wired to an EKG in a medical laboratory setting, you'll get an accurate measurement of your MHR. Unfortunately, this kind of test is very expensive and unless you're willing to pay for it yourself, your insurance company will undoubtedly balk at the idea of paying several hundred dollars for you to find out how you can train most effectively!
  5. Wear a heart rate monitor in a 10K. Run as hard as you can the last .2 and check your HR as soon as you cross the finish line.
  6. Coach Benson suggests this sub-maximal, low stress test. Strap on your monitor and go out for a comfortable run of three to four miles. Tip: The course should be flat. Start out by jogging slowly for ten minutes, just long enough to work up a sweat. Note your HR during the warm-up. Once you're warmed-up begin to gradually increase your pace. Don't run too fast. Coach Benson suggests that you run at a pace where you can easily say out loud: "Great! I feel as if I could run at this pace forever!" Continue running for another two to three miles. Eventually you will reach the point where you'll be able to talk out loud only in short sentences. At this stage of the run you will be breathing harder. It's important that you don't run so fast that you can no longer talk. This particular test identifies 80% of your maximum HR; it's not as stressful as a treadmill test or running a hard 10K. (And it's fun to run at a comfortable pace!) Check out your HR once you reach the point where you can talk only in short sentences. Use that number in the following formula to determine your MHR:

    MHR = RHR (Resting Heart Rate) + (Measured HR - RHR) divided by .8
    For example, let's say your RHR is 70 and your HR reached 162 at the end of the test. Using the formula, your MHR would be 185. Here's the math:
    MHR = 70 + (162 - 70) divided by 0.8
    MHR = 70 + (92 divided by .8)
    MHR = 70 + 115
    MHR = 185

Training by the Numbers
Once you know your MHR you can base your training on that figure. It's important to understand that to benefit from HR training, you don't have to be an elite runner who races every other weekend. HR training is for anyone, from a fitness runner who runs three times a week to stay in shape to age-group aces who are looking to set PR's. Here's how you use your MHR to set up a training schedule.

If you're a new runner, or someone who runs two or three miles a few days a week, your target HR training zone is 60-75% of your MHR. In other words, if you've determined that your MHR is 185, you'll be running the majority of your runs with your heart rate between 111-139.

On the other hand, if you're hoping to get faster, or want to try a race for the first time you'll need to do some of your training runs in the 80-85% zone (148-157). Here's how the training zones breakdown:

Easy, recovery jogs (should be the majority of your training) @ 60-70% of MHR
Long, slow runs (once a week, or once every other week) @ 60-75% of MHR
Steady-state runs* (once a week, depending on your fitness) @ 75-80% of MHR
Tempo runs** (once a week, depending on your fitness) @ 80-85% of MHR
Speed-work***(once a week, depending on your fitness) @ 90-95% of MHR

*Steady-state run: Help you achieve a sense of pacing. Ideally you should run each mile at the same pace. They can be as short as 2 miles or as long as 14-15. These aren't fast workouts; if you're training for a half-marathon for instance, you might run 4 miles at your half-marathon race pace.
**Tempo runs: These are also known as lactate threshold runs. They are run at a controlled pace: if you're a new runner they should be 15-30 seconds per mile slower than your 10K race pace (which translates to 80-85% of your MHR). More advanced runners might run only 10-20 seconds slower than 10K pace. Tempo runs aren't long, they should be anywhere from 2-6 miles.
***Speed-work: Speed-work can consist of timed intervals on a track, 400 meters to a mile, or fast, short bursts of speed on the road or a trail. Many runners prefer to do their speed-work on the road since road workouts more accurately simulate racing conditions.
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A Real-life Testimonial!
Training with a heart rate monitor made a significant difference in my training, in fact I wish I would have started using one earlier in my running career. I tried a heart rate monitor for the first time in 1995, 14 years after I first started running and racing. I quickly learned that I was running way too hard on my so-called "easy" days. Because I had become comfortable running at a fairly quick pace everyday, I wasn't reaping the benefits of rest days. During most of my runs my HR was 75% of maximum, sometimes even 80%. I'm sure training at such a high HR everyday caused my immune system to weaken over the years. I was lucky, I never sustained a serious injury that prevented me from running, but I often had upper respiratory infections, colds and a slight fever. Once I discovered the joys of truly running "easy" most days, I was able to train much harder on my "hard" days, my racing times improved and I stopped feeling "under the weather" most of the time.
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Run Today contributor information: Claudia Piepenburg has been running for over 20 years and is the current editor of Peak Running Performance. She holds or has held state age-group records in Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. In 1990, she was ranked 18th fastest master's woman in the world and 8th fastest master's woman in the U.S. in 1990 and 1991. She competed in the 1988 Olympic Marathon trials, placed 20th woman overall in the 1987 Boston Marathon and women's winner of the 1986 Virginia Beach Marathon. Claudia is also the editor of Running for the Soul. She can be reached at cpiepe@roadrunnersports.com.
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***This is an exclusive newsletter from Road Runner Sports!

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