Tag Archives: Heart Rate

LifeBEAM Smart Hat review

As a triathlete and runner who utilizes heart rate based periodization training, I was very interested in reviewing the LifeBEAM Smart Hat.  As workouts are prescribed based on training zones, athletes need a reliable source of gathering heart rate data during the session.  For years I used a Garmin chest strap, which is generally considered to be the best measure of heart rate data.  However, the downside of a chest strap is that it can chafe the skin, causing redness, soreness, pain, and broken skin.  Fortunately for those of us who battle with chafing, products with optical sensors are becoming increasingly popular and there is a fair variety to choose from.  The downside of optical sensors has always been their tendency to be inaccurate at times, when compared to a chest strap.  Dips, surges in heart rate, and high or low readings tend to happen occasionally, which can be frustrating when the numbers don’t match your rate of perceived exertion.

Enter the LifeBEAM Smart Hat.  It comes in a nice carrying case with a charging cord.  You can choose a white or black hat.  One size fits all, with a Velcro strap for adjusting.


There is a small electronic unit that plugs into the hat and tucks neatly into a small pocket on the back side of the hat.  The electronic unit is to be removed when washing.  The optical sensor is built into the hat, and rests above the brim, on the forehead.


The charging cord plugs into the electronic unit.  Tuck it into the pocket (it stays closed with a thin Velcro strip) so that the power button (small circle on the unit) aligns with the power icon on the back of the hat.


Put the hat on, adjust, press the power button (it will beep, and a blue light will flash through the clear circle next to the power icon) and pair with your watch or smartphone app via Bluetooth 4.0 or ANT+.

I found the hat paired easily with my Garmin 920xt.  It was comfortable to wear and I did not notice the presence of the electronic unit, much to my surprise.  The hat also easily fit my head, which can be an issue for me with Velcro straps.  I liked the feel, and the gray stripe around the edge adds some reflectivity.

I wore the hat, paired to the Garmin 920xt, on a free run which included one stop and some varied terrain. I also wore a Garmin 110, which was paired with a Garmin heart rate strap, for comparison.

Here is the data from the hat paired with the 920xt.


Here is the data from the strap paired with the 110.


I was pleasantly surprised that the Smart Hat was in line with the readings from the chest strap. The biggest deviation I saw during the run was only three beats, and most of the time they were the same, or within one or two beats of eachother.  I took the hat on multiple runs and had good accuracy every time (even in the rain). The advertised battery life is 17 hours, which I found to be accurate as well.  The hat has an auto shut off feature, so when you’re done with the run, you can just take it off and be on your way.

I would recommend this product for anyone looking for accurate heart rate data in an easy to use optical sensor.  The Smart Hat will pair with most watches and smartphone apps (full list here http://support.life-beam.com/hc/en-us/articles/200832681) and provides heart rate, cadence, calories and steps.  This makes it quite versatile for the fitness enthusiast at any level of experience.  The price point does at first seem high at $99.  However, considering a premium chest strap alone can run $69, considering all this hat can do, I find it well worth the price tag.

You can buy the LifeBEAM hat at their Website or intermittently at the Amazon link below. Buying from either of these links will help the site out with a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Review: MIO Alpha 2

For the past 6 months I have been dabbling in the new world of heart rate training thanks to the input from my good friend Eric here at Hampton Runner. At first I was using a standard Garmin chest strap with my 910xt and Fenix 2. It performed great except for the fact that I would chafe on my upper stomach where the sensors would rest on my skin. It became so bad I began to not wear my chest strap anymore to allow the scabs to heal, in turn making me run harder than I should have resulting in overuse injuries. I was in search of a remedy and Eric offered the new Mio Alpha 2. If you are in the market for a new heart rate monitor hopefully my thoughts below will point you in the right direction towards your new investment.


The Mio Alpha 2 is Mio’s newest, top-of-the-line wrist mounted heart rate monitor. The watch utilizes electro-optical cells on the underside of the face to detect your pulse. It is worn just like a regular watch and with it’s light 53 gram weight it feels very sleek and minimalist. The size is smaller than my Fenix2 and 910xt while being about the same as my wife’s Garmin Forerunner 15.


The soft rubber straps have enough “give” in them to wear the watch at the proper tension to receive an accurate heart rate reading without cutting off circulation. The instructions for the proper reading of heart rate is to wear the sensor 1”-3” above your wrist bone. (I had some runs with mismatched HR readings from my Garmin strap but once I moved the watch up my arm a little bit, my readings became more parallel to each other.)
The watch utilizes Bluetooth Smart 4.0 to connect to popular apps such as Strava or RunKeeper or BTLE enabled watches offered by Suunto, Polar, TomTom or Timex. This is all fine and dandy except for the fact that I wanted to connect the watch to my Garmin Fenix2 instead of my ANT+ HR strap (Garmin only supports Ant+). I also hate carrying my cell phone on runs so my ability to connect the Mio to an app for a run was almost never. In the end, I downloaded the free MioGo app to automatically download my HR. Then after the workout I had to look at my file on Garmin Connect to see when and where my HR spiked. In other words I was using two apps instead of one like would prefer.
Setting up the watch is easy. The watch itself has two buttons: the left controls the mode and settings while the right button acts as the HR sensor turn-on as well as the timer start/pause/stop. By holding the left button you can adjust your individual weight, height and HR zones on the watch itself, or you can do what I did and go on the MioGo app on your Smartphone to adjust the settings there. The ability to customize the display such as LED heart rate zone flashes or timer displays is a great feature as well. Holding down the right button will activate the HR sensor and usually after 10-30 seconds your pulse will be read. The watch is now ready for activity.


To start an activity, simply press the right button to start the timer or chronograph. The built-in accelerometers will measure your pace, calories burned and distance although side-by-side to my Fenix2 the totals were off. To stop and save the workout, simply press and hold the right button. When you open your MioGo app, it will automatically sync your workout displaying your average heart rate, max heart rate, pace, distance as well as a HR graph:


The Alpha 2 has a rechargeable lithium-poly battery giving the user about 20-24 hours of continuous heart rate monitoring, or up to 3 months without the sensor on. It comes with a USB magnetic charger that charges the watch quickly.


The Mio’s built-in accelerometer that tracks the pace, speed, distance and calories is fairly accurate as well. In the dense foliage of on the East Coast trails, my Garmin Fenix 2 will often read a quarter mile short (or more) of the true distance of the trail. But, surprisingly, with the Mio Alpha 2, the accuracy was within a couple hundred yards on average. What makes this even more weird is when trail running my stride varies greatly when coming into technical sections (i.e. shortened, faster steps) than when I run on flat, flowy singletrack sections but yet the distances were pretty close to true. Running on the roads were just as accurate as well. There were many times that I wore my Mio over my Garmin because I knew the GPS signal would make my pace so far off from the truth and mentally hinder my performance.


The Mio Alpha 2 is a great tool for those who hate wearing the standard chest straps. The readings of heart rate were accurate on most occasions and the accelerometer was actually more reliable than good ol’ GPS in the dirt and trees. However, I really missed having ANT+ connectivity.

Another issue that arouse was the location the watch had to be on my wrist to get an accurate reading. On some days it needed to be higher up the wrist than other days and different extreme temperatures made the sensor not read the pulse correctly. On some occasions I had my HR read 20-30 BPM below my Garmin during a run. Sure these were freak occurrences but must be noted.

But the overall experience with the Mio Alpha 2 was good because the comfort of no chest strap outweighs the fact that I had to manually look at two different workout files at once to compare and contrast workout results. Besides the two issues stated above, I think Mio made a good watch that is accurate with your heart rate, pretty accurate with distance, minimalist in it’s design. It has solid ease of use, is comfortable to wear, but I do wish it has both Bluetooth and ANT+ capabilities.

The Mio Alpha 2 can be purchased at Mio for $30 off until August 31, 2015 – http://www.mioglobal.com/save-30-alpha2.htm

Review: Mio Fuse

What is it?  The Mio Fuse is an activity tracker and heart rate monitor.  It is a pretty nifty little device.  As an activity tracker, you can set goals, monitor your heart rate, and keep track of steps, calories and distance.  It will show you, via the app, how many steps you have taken, and how many you need to reach your goal. The heart rate monitor is an optical sensor.  Meaning it shines a little light on your skin and the sensor pick up heart rate.

My interest in the Mio Fuse is primarily as a heart rate monitor.  As an athlete and coach who trains with heart rate based periodization, heart rate is an important piece of information.  Each athlete has their own individual heart rate zones.  No two people are alike.  Using a standard formula for everyone does not produce individual zones and is not useful for training (and in fact could be detrimental, as too much time in the wrong zone, or too high a zone can lead to burnout and injury).  I want to run in specific zones in my own training, and when I write workouts for athletes, they are assigned zones based on the intent of the workout (endurance, tempo, or recovery for example).  As a woman prone to chafing, I have some serious issues with the Garmin heart rate strap.  For me, it causes painful chafing under the sensor (for other people it can cause chafing anywhere under the strap itself).  Its not possible to put anti-chafe under the sensors, as that interferes with the signal.  The Fuse seemed to be the solution to this problem and I was excited to give it a try.

The Fuse comes in two sizes, depending on the size of your wrist.  I chose the small size and as you can see, even while wearing the Fuse high on the wrist (more on placement later), I have enough extra band.  The Fuse has 3 buttons, or touch points.  The two on the side scroll through time, calories, steps, distance and goal.  It will also display your heart rate.  The midde touch point is for finding your heart rate and starting, pausing, and ending an activity.  The Fuse finds heart rate pretty quickly.  Touch the middle point, it will say “find” then wait for heart rate to pop up.  To start a workout, touch the same point again.  It will read “go” as the timer starts.  Touch it again to pause, then hold it down, when paused, to end an and save an activity.



Pairing the Fuse with the Garmin was easy.   Put the Fuse on and find your heart rate.  Then set your watch to scan for the heart rate device.  It pairs quickly, and since the first pairing,  Garmin finds it right away (no scanning again required).  Heart rate will then show on your Garmin/watch screen.  The Fuse does not have an “always on” screen, which I would like, but I imagine this is a battery life issue.  You can customize your zones in the app (which “talks” to the Fuse via Bluetooth) and the Fuse will vibrate for a split second to let you know when you have changed zones.  It will display heart rate at that point, so in that way you can see on the display when you putting out too much heart rate effort, or not enough, and stay in your proper zones.

The first run I did with the Fuse, I experienced long dips (into the low 100s when I should have been in the high 140s), and conversely, spikes into the high 170s/180s when I should have been high 140s/low 150s).  This happened after about 3 miles of perfect heart rate numbers (compared to rate of perceived exertion, which I know quite well, having been a heart rate based athlete going on 5 years now).  This was disappointing.  I then did a run wearing two Garmin watches (910xt and 110).  The 110 was paired to the strap and the 910xt was paired to the Fuse.  Here are the results.  You can see the Garmin strap (top in both examples) is accurate, whereas the Fuse has dips and long surges.



I called Mio and left a message (there is an option for a call back, but if you just let customer service ring it will put you to voicemail).  Surprisingly I received a call back in a few minutes.  The rep made a couple suggestions.  One, put the Fuse on your wrist, with a little room on the strap. Then “snug” it up your wrist about 3-4 inches.  Let the strap conform to you, instead of putting it on tight.  The Fuse is meant to be worn high on the wrist, as it needs enough surface area to get an accurate reading.   Being female with small wrists, I need to wear it on the high side to get accuracy.  He also suggested wearing it on the inside on the wrist, although I did not find that in practice to be accurate.  The last suggestion was to wear it for a few minutes before pairing to the Garmin and starting a workout. On my next run, I did as suggested and the Fuse was accurate.  The take-away – wrist placement is key for accuracy.  I find I have to wear it high and a touch off center.  It does sometimes slip down and needs to be gently nudged back into proper position.  After wearing it for a few more runs, if it is place in the right spot, it is highly accurate.  When it deviates (either error in putting it on or it slides around), that is when the dips and spikes occur.

The Fuse will record distance a bit low.  For example, an 11.2 mile run on the Garmin read as 9.69 miles on the Fuse. The Garmin had another at 11.01 mi. with the Fuse reading 8.92 mi.  But not always.  A different time, Garmin had 10.22 mi. to the Fuse at 10.8 mi., and my 10k (with mile warm up) came up as Garmin 7.34 mi. and Fuse 7.35 mi.  Again, not a big deal for a runner using the Fuse paired with a GPS watch.

I also used the Fuse on the bike for trainer rides.  The weather hasn’t been conducive to outdoor riding so I have tested it indoors only.  The accuracy is 100% on the bike, most likely because your arms are in a more fixed position than when running.  The accuracy is the same whether the ride is recovery (low HR), endurance (Zone 2) or tempo and intervals (pushing into Zone 4 and beyond).  This is very encouraging and the Fuse getting very sweaty did not affect accuracy.  Again it paired easily with Trainer Road via Ant+.


The Fuse was a pleasant surprise on the swim.  Unfortunately, the Garmin 910xt does not have an available heart rate data field under the swim function.  So there was no way to to pair it for a swim, and no way to get a heart rate graph from Garmin Connect.  I wore the Fuse by itself in the pool.  It stayed in place pretty well, and the heart rate readings were accurate as compared to perceived exertion.  The distance is not correct, but that doesn’t really matter, as athletes are typically following a written swim workout.  One swim I did was 2500 yards, it recorded .91 miles.  The next at 2600 yards recorded .89 miles.  Not quite right, but again, not an issue.


The Fuse needs to be synced via Bluetooth to the Mio app on your smartphone.   Cloud/web capability is currently in the testing phase (according to Mio).  Implementation with 3rd parties such as Garmin require business agreements and such.  This is good news, as hopefully a few months down the road (from publication of this review) there will be a way to export Fuse data.  It has a limited amount of storage, and if you don’t sync it frequently it won’t be able to record an activity.  This is no problem, syncing is fast and easy.  The app is easy to use.  You can set up your profile and customize heart rate zones, or set daily goals.  All very straightforward.  Where the app lacks currently, for me, is data analysis.  Select an activity (it asks you to confirm, you can choose from running, road biking, walking, mountain biking, climbing, swimming, rowing and hiking) and click on it.  Then you can see the stats (avg HR, time, distance, calories, most frequent zone, time, speed and pace) but for Android users, no heart rate graph.  It is shown only on the iOS app.   According to Mio they are testing this and it should be available for update for Android in the upcoming weeks (from publication of this review). A heart rate graph will be very nice to see, particularly for the swims (as there is no heart rate data field option on the Garmin 910xt, you can pair Mio to the 920xt in open water swim mode, not as a data field but it will show up in analysis on Connect). It sounds like Mio is very aware of what consumers want in terms of functionality and data analysis, and are in the process of making that happen.

All told, I am impressed with the Fuse and would recommend it to any athlete who is interested in an alternative to the chest strap, or to any active person interested in activity tracking.

Compatibility of the Mio Fuse to other devices and apps can be found on its product page. It can be purchased directly from Mio or at Amazon with the affiliate link below:
Save 20% on Mio heart rate monitor watches with promo code Mio-Bucks at checkout! Valid through 3/31/15 11:59PM

Review: Mio VELO

Heart rate is an important part of training for many athletes. It is an invaluable governor using biofeedback to keep them from trying to do too much at a time. Until recently, this training was accomplished using a strap worn around the chest. For many however, this strap was both inconvenient and aggravating. Worse, it causes chafing for some. As an alternative, optical heart rate monitors that can be worn around the wrist were created. Sadly, these are notoriously inaccurate. That is until Mio Global came onto the market first with the LINK, and now the VELO.

I received a Mio VELO and have really tried to put it though its paces. Surprisingly, it has met the challenge with aplomb.



The Mio VELO has a very comfortable silicone band. It is very easy to forget you are wearing it. It wraps around the wrist, through a buckle and has some posts to hold it in the band. This system works very well keeping it in place, but with winter clothing, you can sometimes accidentally unsnap the posts as you pull sleeves up and down. That can be a slight nuisance when it happens, but with the two part fastening system, you will still be getting a solid heart rate reading.


Paired with a GPS Watch

I first wanted to pair it with a watch and compare the results to my Garmin setup of a 920XT with the HRM Run heart rate monitor. I used a Polar M400 and had no trouble pairing the VELO at all. I then ran several times and the results lined up. Here is an example 10 mile run with surges with the Polar results on the top and the Garmin on the bottom.


The figures are very much in line with one another. If you look at the actual graphs below in the same order, you will see that the tracking was very close. There was a slight drop early with the Polar/VELO combo (about 1 minute in), but that often happens even with chest straps. Overall, I am happy with the results.


Paired with Android

The next test I wanted to conduct was pairing the Mio VELO with a smartphone. I started with Android for this purpose. Over the course of a couple weeks, I ran with both RunKeeper and MapMyRun. I had no trouble connecting the VELO and it work well in both apps as seen below:


Paired with Windows Phone

I wanted to keep testing the VELO with different devices and next paired it with Windows Phone and the app Track Runner. The results were interesting. The mapping and pace were both disasters in the app, but the heart rate looked good.



Pairing with bike speed and cadence

One of the really interesting additions to the VELO is the ability to bridge Ant+ speed and cadence sensors over Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE). This is a very welcome feature. It allows you to turn your smart phone into a bike computer. All you need is the Mio VELO and a handlebar mount like the one below from Amazon.

It is really easy to set up the VELO for Ant+ sensors. Open the Mio Go app on your iPhone or Android device. Select one of the bike profiles and add your speed and cadence sensor. You may want to hold the bike up and crank the pedal with one hand to get the devices to register. Interestingly, when I added my separate Garmin speed and cadence sensors, they were picked you as Bike 2, but they registered fine.


Once you have added the speed and cadence sensors to the app, it updates the Mio VELO and as far as your smartphone knows, you have bluetooth speed and cadence sensors. It’s really quite clever. They also worked very well when I tried them working out. Both Strava and MapMyRide had no trouble picking them up in the apps.


It also worked really well on my trainer with MapMyRide. It even showed that you will have a zero speed and cadence for a while when you forget to stop recording a ride when finished (operator error).


I was able to track speed, cadence, and heart rate in one shot. Just like it was a bike computer. I even was using the VELO to feed my heart rate into my Garmin Edge 500 bike computer at the same time. The VELO does an outstanding job of broadcasting signals.


For an athlete who is tracking runs with a smartphone and wants to add in heart rate training and/or speed and cadence information from a bike; or for an athlete who can’t stand wearing chest straps, I think the VELO is an outstanding product at a reasonable price. It is very comfortable and does a great job of pairing with devices. I even was surprised to suddenly see a heart rate reading appear on a Polar Loop that I was also testing during a run. It picked up the signal from the Mio VELO with no interaction from me at all. You can find the VELO on Amazon or Mio Global with my affiliate links below. You can also find out technical information and a compatibility list for the VELO on its product page.
Save 20% on Mio heart rate monitor watches with promo code Mio-Bucks at checkout! Valid through 3/31/15 11:59PM

Perceived Exertion, Talk Tests, and Running Naked

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.

A good source to learn a bit more about perceived exertion is in PRS Fit – Train with the Coaches Episode 68: Effort Based Training..The run/walk method put out by Coach Jeff Kline.


Heartrate Training & Head Spinning

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.

Anaerobic exercise is the equivalent of an overdrive. It is used in short intense efforts. This training is used for developing running form and speed. It is often neglected by distance runners, but critical for development as explained by Steve Magness in HS training: Neuromuscular and speed work and Matt Fitzgerald in Anaerobic Development Is Key To Running Speed.

Jeff Gaudette of Runners Connect wrote on the subject in the article Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training. He also has written The Science of “Bonking” and Glycogen Depletion.

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.

One place to look for setting the actual zones is Joe Friel’s Quick Guide to Setting Zones. Some combine zones 5a – 5c into 5 figuring everything above 100% is 5.

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.

In the meantime, if you want to hear an excellent podcast that gives a good view of how to use heart-rate training, please check out Endurance Planet’s ATC: Lucho’s Guide To Heart Rate Training, Improve VO2max in 7 Sessions, Causes and Remedies for Groin Pain, Common First-Timer Ironman Mistakes, Mighty Mitochondria, and More (Not a pithy title, but an excellent show).

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:


NOTE: The above link is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

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:

Wahoo Blue HR Heart Rate Monitor for iPhone and Android


NOTE: The above link is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

If you want to track heart rate and collect pace statistics as well, this is a great entry level choice:

Garmin Forerunner 15 Large, Black/Blue


NOTE: The above link is an affiliate link and I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

All links mentioned on this page are affiliate links for which I will get a small commission but add no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!