Whenever thinking about heart rate training or training by pace, it is important to consider training by perceived exertion and running naked. “Running Naked” — with no equipment — and “streaking” — running at least one mile a day every day for extended periods of time — are terms being used lately as headlines for getting snickers, but there is an actual point.
As runners, we tend to be a little obsessive compulsive and data driven. Using perceived exertion can put us back in touch with ourselves and our workouts without sacrificing the value. In fact, many would argue that it is extremely healthy. After all, when you are in a race, a GPS watch will not dial a win in for you. You have to go with how you feel and the circumstances. Plus, consider what Tim (Lucho) Wagoneer of the excellent Endurance Planet Ask the Coaches and Ask the Ultrarunner Podcasts often says, “the winner of the race isn’t determined by the lowest heart rate.”
There comes a time that it is down to you and the runners next to you. How do you feel, how much further do you have, and can you do it?
This is where perceived exertion in training comes in. This is something that elite runners and Kenyans practice (yes, they seem to be synonymous). Perceived exertion is exercising at a level that feels like a certain intensity measured by the Borg RPE Scale. One easy method to check a run intensity is what as known as the “Talk Test.”
If you are able to have a conversation, for that matter can quote extended passages (in my case babble incessantly) for many paragraphs without any heavy breathing, you are likely in Zone 1, or a recovery zone.
If you are able to speak in full clear sentences and are not experiencing too much strain, you are likely in Zone 2. This is an ideal base building zone where you will likely run the majority of your mileage.
If you are only able to speak in short phrases of a few words at a time, you are likely in Zone 3. This is your marathon or tempo pace. You will be working in this zone a lot more as you get closer to a marathon or maybe a 50K (if that is your goal race, otherwise, you might want to avoid the zone).
If you are only able to get a couple words out at a time and it is stressful, that is Zone 4. This is above your threshold and used for speed work.
If you can’t even imagine talking at all, you are in Zone 5 or VO2 Max. Don’t talk, just run. You have very limited energy. This is interval territory.
Heart Rate training. What is it? This is one of the ultimate decisions a runner may make when starting a training plan or training cycle.
There are two basic methods of training for runners who track their data, training by heart rate and training by pace. The heart rate training method uses biofeedback to determine effort and the runner trains accordingly.
As a result, runners using this method completely ignore pace. By ignoring pace and going by heart rate, they will be running by a set effort. This offers the ability to train at a set effort level consistently, but the results will fluctuate based on how a runner feels that day. It helps take in consideration factors like lack of sleep, diet, weather conditions, stress and more. So a runner who gets a full night sleep and is feeling well may run a pace of 8 minutes per mile on a run. The next day, they may be short on sleep, and it is warm out. They may run an average of 8:20 minutes per mile at the exact same heart rate.
On the surface, this seems to be a simple principle, but application is fragmented. At a basic level, runners will train using their heart rate as a guide. They will determine a range of beats per minute is a guide during a workout or sections of a workout. These are often called zones.
When looking at the heart rate structure, there are two overall categories – Aerobic and Anaerobic. Aerobic exercise means that there is enough oxygen for the muscles to clear lactic acid and the body is able to perform at the rate for extended periods of time. Aerobic training also increases both mitochondria and capillary density over time — the wider the path, the fewer beats needed for the heart to drive the system. This increased efficiency of the heart is shown in studies including Effects of low intensity aerobic training on skeletal muscle capillary and blood lipoprotein profiles. The article Mitochondria: The Aerobic Engines by Kirk Willett adds more information about the role of mitochondria in aerobic fitness. Aerobic exercise also uses fat as its primary fuel. This is important because the body typically has fat stores that can sustain hours of activity. More intense exercise burn up glycogen stores in the liver. These stores are limited and when depleted, the athlete will suffer a condition known as “bonking” if they have been unable to consume nutrition. There is a limit to the nutrition a body can handle during exercise making bonking inevitable over a extended period of time. If an athlete is able to run within an aerobic zone, the fat will sustain them.
Aerobic and anaerobic training are typically separated by the Lactate or Anaerobic Threshold.
At the highest level, lactate or lactic acid is a chemical generated in the muscles during bouts of strenuous exercise. The body is naturally able to clear this chemical at lower levels of intensity. But as the intensity increases, the chemical begins to build up and athletes feel a burning sensation and their limbs feel stressed. There is a detailed explanation of why the buildup occurs in Scientific American – Why does lactic acid build up in muscles? And why does it cause soreness?
The highest point that the body is able to clear lactate without accumulation is known as the Lactate Threshold. This threshold is determined via a blood test where an athlete continues to have blood taken (typically a pin prick) while steadily increasing effort in exercise. A close proximity can also be achieved via a field test. One of the most highly regarded was created by Joe Friel found on his blog in Determining your LTHR.
Once the lactate threshold is determined, a runner can use it combined with the maximum heart rate and resting heart rate to determine heart rate zones.
This opens another can of worms. What are zones? Let’s start with an overall definition that most can probably agree with — “A heart rate training zone is a range that defines the upper and lower limits of training intensities” — from the article Heart Rate Training Zone on medicine net.com. An athlete’s heart rate training range is broken into multiple zones derived a combination of some or all of the following data points: their age, max heart rate, resting heart rate, lactate threshold, 220, or 180.
The confusion comes from the different formulas and factors. One of these is the maximum heart rate. This can be derived by different formulas that are shown in this article on Digifit – Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate. This article can be used to demonstrate why formulas are not always helpful. My age is 43 for example and that gives me a maximum heart rate of 168-188. That is a 20 beat disparity alone, but it gets worse when I consider my actual max heart rate determined by races – 200. So, we are looking at a 32 beat range. That in of itself is multiple zones.
This is where lactate threshold can be useful. It can be used as the line between aerobic and anaerobic training. The only thing left is to determine the zones.
Most heart rate training plans break up training into 4-5 Zones as follows:
Zone 1: Recovery Zone. Very easy pace. Zone 2: Base Building Zone. This zone is a moderate effort zone and is used to build endurance. Athletes can stay in this zone for extended periods of time. Zone 3: Tempo. Marathon pace zone. Sometimes called the gray zone – more to follow. Zone 4: First Anaerobic Zone. This is above the lactate threshold and is used to train the body to start burning handling lactate build-up. This is where threshold runs are typically run. Zone 5: This is the highest zone. It is sometimes broken into parts itself (by Joe Friel for one). Speed work is performed in this zone.
Note: Zones 4 and 5 are sometimes combined into a single zone for a 4 Zone model.
Earlier that I mentioned that Zone 3 is sometimes called the gray zone. There are many coaches who feel that it is a bad zone to train in because it is too hard for active recovery and too easy for physical or neuromuscular adaptation. Joe Friel refers to it as “Happy Hard.”
So is it a bad place to train? It depends. As Joe Friel writes in the post Should You Train in Zone 3? he explains that it is an effective zone for races that are longer than 2 hours and shorter than 6-7. This falls right in the marathon range (and possibly half depending on race pace) and may be where some of the confusion lies. If someone is training for a shorter race, they will likely need to be spending more time either running hard at zone 4 and higher for speed work, or easier for recovery and base building endurance.
By the same token, someone running a longer event like an Ultramarathon or Ironman triathlon event will likely be hurting themselves because they will need to sustain zone 2 throughout their race, or work on physical adaptations with zones 4 and higher.
Zone 3 is really the realm of the marathon runner and many argue that is where famed coach Renato Canova trains his Kenyan runners much of the time. The idea is to keep them just under their lactate threshold for as long as possible. It has also been speculated that zone 3 is the level of effort that is represented by “Steady State” credited to legendary coach Arthur Lydiard.
To add more to the confusion, there is the popular training method devised by Dr. Phil Maffetone, who worked with Ironman legend Mark Allen. The Maffetone Method is basically 180 bpm – age +/- 5 beats depending on the athlete’s experience and injury history. A variance is also added for older athletes of up to 10 bpm depending on their fitness. The result of the formula is known as the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF). Athletes are to train in the range of their MAF-10 to their MAF. For example, my MAF would be 137 (180-43) and my training range would be 127-137.
Over time, most athletes will improve and run at a greater pace within their MAF zone. This is determined by performing a MAF test periodically. This method is especially effective for ultra marathon, Ironman, and athletes recovering from injury.
The above is a small view into heart rate training. It actually only scratches the surface, but hopefully gives a general idea of what it is about. Another type of training that can be tied to heart rate training is perceived effort. I will be covering that in a follow up piece about pace-based training.
Heart rate training is what you make of it. It is a tool. And like many tools, there are different methods to its use. Not all of them are alike and most of them are effective. It is up to the athlete to decide what is the most effective.
Heart Rate Training Tools
If you are interested in Heart Rate training, you will need to have a method of obtaining data. This can be done very inexpensively with a basic heart rate watch like the following:
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If you have a modern smartphone like iPhone or Android that supports Bluetooth LE, you can get a strap to use in one of the many applications that track running like Runkeeper, Runtastic, MapMyRun, or Strava to name a few. This is a pretty widely compatible heart rate strap, but always check the application you are using to be certain:
It has been five years since the book Born to Run was released and sent a tidal wave through the running industry. While it is a great book with fascinating characters and engaging stories, it’s probably best know as the barefoot running book. Or the book that launched the minimalist movement into the limelight.
While minimalism has slowed down as of late, it is still a greatly discussed topic. The idea is that modern running shoes caused runners to be injured because there was too much too them. Minimalism is the backlash. It is being used as a method to assist runners to correct their form by fixing their stride.
This fix can really be seen as a couple of concepts rolled into one. The idea is that the majority of runners contact the ground first with their heel when they plant their foot. This is commonly known as heel-striking and is often seen with runners who over-stride.
Over striding is when the foot lands in front of the knee when contacting the ground. This causes a braking motion and increases impact that reverberates through the leg and higher.
This impact causes a slowing in pace and may lead to injuries like shin splints and Patellofemoral Syndrome aka. Runner’s Knee. The theory is that if runners land on the mid to fore front of their feet, they will not suffer as much as the foot and ankle is designed to dissipate the impact naturally. This is anecdotally born out when watching children run, especially barefoot.
The second part of the equation is cadence. Jack Daniels, the famous coach, noted in the eighties that elite runners were averaging a cadence of 180 steps per minute or higher. The higher the cadence, the more likely a runner is not over-striding.
How about cadence? We must be at 180 steps per minute, right? Well, again, maybe not. There is research exploring the fact that it may depend on the actual speed that individuals are running. Since most elite runners are running an extremely fast pace in the upper 4 to lower 5 minute range in a marathon, it stands to reason that they would be likely at or above a cadence of 180. But what about the rest of us mortals? Is it possible that we are running a slower cadence because we are at a slower pace? Maybe. Alex Hutchinson of the blog Sweat Science in Runner’s World writes about the subject in The problem with 180 strides per minute: some personal data. And for another source, how about Pete Larson again with the article Running Speed: Human Variability and The Importance of Both Cadence and Stride Length. Pete and Alex are both incredible sources of information for the science of running. Definitely visit their sites and check out their books.
The problem comes in when you change too much too quickly. It is likely that you didn’t work up to your current fitness level overnight. You have been conditioning your body over a long period of time to withstand the stress you are placing on it. Imagine if you told someone to get off of the couch and run 20+ miles next week and they have never run before? That would be irresponsible. They need to build up gradually. If you go full out and change your form radically, you are asking to get some new injuries. First, it is very likely that you will suffer calf pain if you are shifting to the front of your foot. You are also at high risk for Plantar Fasciitis and Peronial tendonitis.
The first of these, Plantar Fasciitis is an absolute nightmare. You will know you have it if you have a pain under your foot anywhere from the heel forward along the arch. This will likely be worse when you wake up. This is because your fascia starts to contract and heal overnight only to be re-injured in the morning when it is stretched out again. The condition can persist for months because the fascia on the bottom of the foot has very poor circulation and thus doesn’t get the blood flow needed to heal. Often, the best approach is to strengthen the affected area as it is out of balance with other parts of your feet and weaker.
NOTE: This link is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.
For those who are experiencing Plantar Fasciitis, this Elgin Archxerciser device has been very helpful for both my wife and myself.
She actually made fun of me for purchasing it saying that it was a ridiculous contraption (I’ve been known to fall for “As Seen On TV”), but found herself using it. It really does a good job of strengthening the underside of our feet. and we saw results within days.
One remedy that should be practiced when the Plantar Fasciitis flares up is the water bottle roll. Get a standard 16 oz bottle of water and freeze it. Roll it under the affected foot for about 10-15 minutes daily.
Another great exercise for foot strengthening can also be done without buying anything. That is foot towel crunches as shown in the YouTube video on the right. This involves laying a towel on a non-carpeted floor and scrunching your toes in to pull the towel ends to your foot. A version of this can be done just by scrunching your feet in your shoes throughout the day.
Another beneficial treatment for Plantar Fasciitis is believe it or not, working your calves with a foam roller. It may seem odd that that would help an injury under your foot, but remember it is all connected as part of your kinetic chain.
The bottom line to running and changing your stride is to consider first if you need to at all. And if you do determine that it can be beneficial, do so gradually and don’t change too many things at once. The simple act of just increasing your cadence will have the result of decreasing your stride length and can give you many of the results you may seek.
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