Tracking your bpm could take your training to the next level.
Becca Cotugno, 31, has always been a fast runner. In high school, she scored points for her track and cross country teams, and now as an adult, she regularly wins her age group or finishes in the top five of the women’s field. But unlike many amateur runners at Cotugno’s level, her training isn’t focused on speed. She would rather lace up and go out slow and steady for hours at a time.
So when Cotugno heard about heart rate-based training just over a year ago, she was intrigued. “When I found out heart-rate training was about ‘slowing down to speed up,’ I was pumped,” she says. “I love running leisurely, but I used to feel like I wasn’t putting the effort in if I just went out and ran comfortably without pushing the pace. Turns out, that’s what heart-rate training is all about.”
What Exactly Is Heart-Rate Training?
You’ll probably never hear another runner ask, “What zone are you in?” or “What beats per minute are you running?” It’s more common to ask, “What’s the pace?” as a way to gauge how intense a workout will be. But heart-rate training uses—you guessed it—your heart rate in beats per minute (bpm) or a percentage of your maximum heart rate as a guide for intensity. Instead of training at a specific pace, you use a heart-rate monitor to train your cardiorespiratory system to work at a specific effort for a set amount of time.
The idea behind heart rate-based training is to train your aerobic system without overstressing your skeletal and muscular systems, explains Erin Carr, certified personal trainer and cofounder of Union Running in Massachusetts. “[It] is a different way to be successful at running,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be ‘no pain, no gain,’ or going as hard as you possibly can, and it allows for continued improvements over time.”
Thanks to technology that’s more affordable and more accessible than ever, heart-rate training is becoming increasingly popular today, says Joel French, Ph.D., Senior Director of Science, Fitness, and Wellness for Orangetheory Fitness, a national group-fitness studio that offers heart rate-based interval workouts. “Monitors are cheap, and they’re very accurate,” he says. “Back in the ’70s and earlier, they were only used by elite athletes.” Now, anyone from recreational runners to pros can track their heart rate, but the monitors are only useful if your zones are accurate, too.
How to Find Your Zones
Your heart rate is one of the most accurate measurements of intensity and effort during a workout. We all have a resting heart rate, which is best measured when you first wake up, and a maximum heart rate, or the upper limit of what your cardiovascular system can handle during physical activity. Between these two values are different zones that mark your effort. RELATED STORYIs My Resting Heart Rate Too Low?
To find your zones, the first thing you’ll need to do is calculate your maximum heart rate, The most accurate methods to find your MHR are in a lab test, which is conducted by professionals with fancy equipment, or in a field test, which is often supervised by a certified trainer in a gym setting with a treadmill or indoor bike. You can, technically, perform a field test on your own, but this can be tricky and sometimes even dangerous (we’d recommend consulting with your physician before doing so) as you have to push yourself to the absolute limit to find your max, which is why many people use equations to estimate their MHR.
There are several different formulas you can use to calculate your max heart rate and find your personal zones. The easiest (and most common) way to calculate zones is by using an age-based equation. Age-based equations are straightforward and easy to use because they offer a very general guideline, and don’t require a max HR test. One you see commonly cited is 220 minus your age.
French, however, acknowledges that age-based equations may not be a good fit for everybody because there are too many factors that can affect their accuracy. Plus, max heart rate varies significantly among people of the same age. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests using age-based formulas with a lower standard deviation than 220 minus your age, for example, the Gelish equation: 207 – (0.7 x age) or Tanaka: 208 – (0.7 x age). Orangetheory currently uses the Tanaka equation, but soon, the company will introduce more accurate individualized testing, French says.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE ‘NO PAIN, NO GAIN,’ OR GOING AS HARD AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN.
For example, if you are a 30-year-old runner using the Tanaka equation: MHR = 208 – (0.7 x 30). Thus, MHR = 208 – 21; MHR = 187 bpm.
Once you’ve established your estimated max heart rate, you can find your training zones by multiplying your max by a percentage. For example, if your max is 187, multiply that by 0.60 and 0.70 to determine the range of zone 1. Repeat for zones 2 through 4 with the percentages below.
Here is a general guideline used by exercise physiologist and coach Janet Hamilton, owner of Atlanta-based Running Strong:
- Zone 1: 60% to 70%: This is a very comfortable effort used for warmup and cooldown.
- Zone 2: 71% to 80%: Used for the bulk of training, this relaxed effort allows you to hold a conversation.
- Zone 3: 81% to 93%: This is a comfortably hard effort during which you can only say short, broken sentences.
- Zone 4: 94% to 100%: Often a 5K pace, this is a very hard effort that’s sustainable, but only lets you speak a few words at a time.
Each zone serves a purpose, and how much time you spend in each depends on your training goals. The average marathoner, for example, will spend more than half the time training in zones 1 and 2 (longer, easier runs, often at marathon pace) and less than half in zones 3 and 4 (tempo and speed workouts). If you’re completely new to running or returning after a break or injury, French recommends spending six to 12 weeks training in zones 1 and 2 to acclimate before taking on intervals and harder efforts in zones 3 and 4. Experienced exercisers can often jump right into intervals. French reiterates that this all depends on your health, performance, race goals, and workout preferences. Consult with a professional if necessary.
How to Reap the Benefits of Heart Rate Training
The biggest hurdle with HR training for many, especially advanced runners, is holding back, Carr says. “People will often look at their pace and think if they’re running slowly, they’re doing something wrong, or they’ll get frustrated because they have to slow down,” she says. But Carr encourages runners to start with a beginner’s mindset and trust the process. “Eventually, if they train and stay consistent, their pace will automatically improve.”
Heart-rate training isn’t just about performance; it’s also extremely effective for recovery, adds John Honerkamp, coach, CEO, and founder of J.R. Honerkamp Consulting. “It’s tougher to measure the rest than the work,” he says. “If your resting HR is usually 60, but you wake up at 70, that could indicate fatigue or overtraining.” Although chest monitors are the most accurate, many popular watches can measure HR (or at least provide estimations) all day. RELATED STORYThe Best Affordable Watches for Runners
Either way, the change doesn’t happen overnight. “Heart-rate training isn’t a short game,” Cotugno says. “If people go into it and expect to improve their times within a few months, that might not happen, but if they’re willing to work on it over months and years, they can reap the benefits and feel really good about running.”
Once you’ve dedicated the time and slower miles like Cotugno, the results can be impressive. She consistently trains using heart rate at an 8:30- to 9:30-minute pace, but she can bust out a 6:20-minute pace in a 5K. “I’ve always trained at a pace that feels good for me, but running at a [slow] pace is actually helping me get stronger. It’s kind of awesome.”
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