If you’ve never tried training with a heart rate monitor, I can’t really blame you.
First you’ve got to do some math to figure out your training zones. Then you’ve got to memorize a complicated workout where you’re in Zone 2 for 10 minutes, District 3 for 5, and Area 51 for another 15 minutes before it’s time to cool down back in Zone 1. Then before you can get out the door, you have to strap a device to your chest (okay, first you have to lick it, then strap it on your chest).
When the alternative is “lace up your shoes and hit the trail for an hour,” I totally get why you don’t want to bother with a heart rate monitor.
But here’s why you should consider giving it a shot
Minimalism is a big trend in running, and a heart rate monitor is anything but minimalist. But here’s the thing — you don’t need to wear a heart rate monitor forever.
You can learn so much about your body in just a few weeks with a heart monitor that even when you’re not wearing it, you’ll know whether you’re running too slow, too fast, or just right for a particular workout. It’s especially helpful if you’re new to running, or even if you’re just bored with your running routine and want to try something new.
A few other reasons I like breaking out the old HRM every once in a while:
- It’s fun to watch your resting heart rate drop as you gain fitness — I got mine down to 39 beats-per-minute once and considered changing my name to Lance
- It gives you something to focus on during workouts
- You can wear it during a race to make sure you’re keeping a sustainable pace, even when hills or wind make it hard to gauge the proper speed
- If you’ve never measured your heart rate while you run, I can almost guarantee that your “Easy” pace isn’t easy enough
This last point is so important. When most people go out for what they think is an easy run between hard workout days, they’re actually working way harder than they should be. The result is a workout that’s not slow enough for recovery but not fast enough to accomplish anything (hence the nice name, “junk mileage”). Learning to distinguish junk from the rest might be the single best reason to try heart monitor training.
3 keys to minimalist heart rate training
Given that the likely objection is that it’s complicated, I’ve made it really simple for you here. This is the bare-bones approach that I used for several months during the training for my first successful marathon, and it’s really all you need to get started.
The idea here is that you’ll just have two types of workouts: Easy and Hard. The intensities for each are given by percentages of your maximum heart rate, and you’ll alternate between the two types of workouts.
1. Figure out your max heart rate.
I said we’re going to keep this simple — the easiest, most common approach to estimating your max is “220 minus your age.” So if you’re 30, your theoretical max is 190. This method isn’t very accurate, but it’s a start.
Better is to use an online calculator to compute your max using the Karvonen formula. For this, you’ll need to know your resting heart rate, which you can determine by taking your pulse before you get out of bed in the morning and counting the number of beats in a minute.
And if you really get into this whole thing, there are workouts designed to take your heart rate to its max. But that’s beyond what we’re trying to do here.
2. Your “Easy” intensity is 65 to 70 percent of your max heart rate.
The Easy zone is where you’ll want to stay on the days between hard workouts, and during any rests you take during those harder workouts.
As I said above, if you’ve never tried this before, you’ll probably find that you have to go really slow (like, embarrassingly so) to keep your heart rate below 70 percent of your max. To compute that threshold, just multiply your theoretical max by .7.
On the days between your hard workouts, run at Easy pace for a while. What’s a while? 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour… whatever time and fitness will allow. Remember, you shouldn’t be exerting much effort on Easy days. The point is to build your aerobic base while letting your body recover for your next hard workout.
3. Shoot for a “Hard” intensity of 80-90 percent of your max.
On workout days, you’ll want to run faster than Easy pace. Two to three hard workouts per week is what I find works best.
Truthfully, in serious HRM training, there are different “Hard” training zones. And 80-90 is a pretty wide range. But having just one Easy zone and one Hard zone helps to simplify the whole thing, and this two-zone approach worked well for me during the training for my first successful marathon.
If you stay at the lower end of this range, at around 80 percent of max heart rate, you’ll probably be able to sustain that pace for a few miles or even an entire workout. And if you’re a beginner, that might be all you’re looking for in terms of difficulty.
If you prefer higher intensity, aim for the top of this range. There, you’ll undoubtedly need to throw in Easy rest intervals, as it’s hard to maintain a 90 percent intensity for more than a few minutes, if that.
That’s all you need to get started
I’ve intentionally left the workouts vague. The point is to make it so that you can still feel like you’re just “lacing up your shoes and hitting the trail.”
On easy days, stay below 70 percent. On hard days, run in the 80-90 percent zone for a few minutes, then take a break and run easy for a bit. Or take a favorite interval workout and do that with your heart monitor, noting where your heart rate is throughout the workout and making sure you can fully recover to less than 70% intensity between each set.
If you want to go further with it, there are plenty of resources on the web. Mark Allen has an interesting article where he relates heart rate training to teaching your body to burn fat for fuel. And Blaine has an interesting post about another method of calculating training zones at Run to Win.
For more detail, a really simple (but good) book on the subject is John L. Parker’s Heart Monitor Training for the Compleat Idiot. That’s the first book I read about heart rate training, and it’s still the simple approach I like best.
And finally, the giveaway!
This giveaway is now closed
Your reward for making it this far into a really long post (ironic, considering it’s supposed to be “minimalist”): a chance to win a Polar heart rate monitor!
Heart Rate Monitors USA is giving away a Polar FS1 heart rate monitor to a lucky NMA reader! Heart Rate Monitors USA is a site that sells monitors from Polar, Garmin, Timex, and more, as well as other sports and wellness equipment.
Based on the reviews, it looks like the FS1 is a basic heart monitor without a bunch of confusing features…which makes it all the more suited to the minimalist runner. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this post by Tuesday, March 15, and I’ll announce the winner later in the week.
Have a favorite heart rate monitor workout? Share it in the comments below!
This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong. Go check out the rest!
The Kickstart Plan includes:
- A 7-day meal plan, built around the foods worth eating every single day
- 14 of our favorite recipes that pack in the nutrition, taste great, and are easy to make
- Focused on simplicity and speed, to minimize stress and time commitment