Why Do Runners
Need to Monitor Heart Rates
Piepenburg - Run Today Newsletter from
Road Runner Sports
Why do runners need to monitor heart
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.
"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.
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
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!
How heart rate
training helped me run better - and feel better. Read
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
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.
What do the Numbers Mean?
To understand what
the numbers displayed on the watch mean, you need to know:
- Your resting heart rate
(referred to as RHR)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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 = RHR (Resting Heart Rate) + (Measured HR - RHR) divided by
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:
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
**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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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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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