Should I Monitor My Heart Rate While Training?

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Yes, it is important to monitor your heart rate so that you have an objective measurement of how hard your body is working when you run. Being able to feel whether you’re going too fast, too slow, or just right is an important skill to have, especially on long training runs or in race conditions. A heart rate monitor acts as a personal trainer and is a really helpful tool to monitor the efficiency and progress of your performance.

When training for a marathon, half marathon or any long distance running event, monitoring your heart rate will keep you healthy and safe within your optimal training pace range, and insure that you don’t burn yourself out in the process. Body Sensing, one of the basic Chi-Skills mentioned in the ChiRunning Book, is a great tool for learning how to sense  precisely what your optimal training pace or race pace might be, and when you’re running too hard in your workouts.

What is Aerobic running?

Whenever you’re training with the goal in mind to run at higher speeds and/or for longer distances, it is crucial that you first build your aerobic capacity, the ability of your body to uptake oxygen into your bloodstream and transport that oxygen to your muscles. Aerobic running is done at a speed where your body can easily keep up with the oxygen requirements of your running. It’s generally considered a “conversational” pace, meaning that you could comfortably carry on a conversation with a running buddy while running. By training at this speed you can build a good aerobic base from scratch in about 12 weeks.

Here’s a basic training rule developed by Dr. Phillip Maffetone*, one of the most prominent training experts of our time: “To build a good aerobic base, you should train only aerobically. This means that during the base-building phase of your training no anaerobic workouts (including speed intervals, racing or weight training) should be done. Anaerobic exercise will jeopardize the efficient development of your aerobic base, so every workout should be run at an aerobic pace including your LSD run, your hilly runs, and any tempo runs or interval workouts.”

What is Anaerobic running?

Anaerobic running means you’re running hard enough that your lungs can’t keep up with the oxygen demands of your muscles. When you run out of oxygen in your muscles they won’t fire properly. It takes blood sugar (glycogen) to fuel your muscles, but it takes oxygen to burn glycogen. If that’s not there, your muscles will eventually cease to fire. When you run anaerobically you have difficulty speaking in complete, unbroken sentences. These workouts generally include sprinting, speed intervals, hill intervals, racing and plyometric exercises.

There are several reasons why anaerobic workouts can inhibit aerobic base building:

  • Anaerobic training can decrease the number of aerobic muscle fibers, sometimes significantly. This can happen in just a few short weeks of higher heart rate training.
  • The lactic acid produced during anaerobic training may inhibit the aerobic muscle enzymes necessary for building an aerobic base.
  • Anaerobic training raises your respiratory quotient. This means the percentage of energy derived from sugar increases and fat burning decreases. In time, this may force more anaerobic metabolism and less aerobic function.
  • Stress can also inhibit the aerobic system. Stress is nearly synonymous with anaerobic training. Excess stress raises cortisol levels, which ultimately increases insulin levels, inhibiting fat burning and increasing sugar usage. This promotes anaerobic metabolism and inhibits aerobic activity.


At what heart rate should I train?

Dr. Maffatone’s “180 Formula” establishes the best heart rate for building an aerobic base.

The 180 Formula

To find your maximum aerobic heart rate:

  1. Subtract your age from 180 (180 – age).
  2. Modify this number by selecting one of the following categories:
    • If you are recovering from a major illness, surgery or on any regular medication, subtract 10.
    • If you have not exercised before, or have been injured, regressing in your running,  often get colds, or you have allergies, subtract 5.
    • If you have been exercising for up to two years with no real problems and have not had colds or flu more than once or twice a year, subtract 0.
    • If you have been exercising for more than two years without any problems, making progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For example, if you are 30 years old and fit into category B: 180 – 30 = 150, and 150 – 5 = 145. This is your maximum aerobic heart rate. For efficient base building, you should train at or below this level throughout your base-building period (Phases I and II in the ChiRunning Marathon Training Program)

Using heart rate to monitor your conditioning level

An advantage of monitoring your heart rate is to be able to measure improvements over a period of time using the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) test which objectively measures your improvements in aerobic speed during base building. Aerobic speed means you can run faster at the same aerobic heart rate without the wear and tear on your body which often accompanies hard training.

The easiest way to monitor your heart rate is with a heart rate monitor. If you can beg, borrow or buy a heart rate monitor, do a monthly MAF test on a track. Following an easy warmup, run three to five miles at your maximum aerobic heart rate. Below is an actual example of a runner performing the MAF test at a heart rate of 150:

April May June July
Mile 1 8:21 8:11 7:57 7:44
Mile 2 8:27 8:18 8:05 7:52
Mile 3 8:38 8:26 8:10 7:59

If you’re training at your maximum aerobic heart rate the MAF test should show faster times as the weeks pass. If you add anaerobic work or racing to your aerobic base training phase, your progress will be slower or none at all.”

If you don’t have access to a heart rate monitor you can still do this training without one. Measure your pulse manually by pressing your fingertips on the side of your neck just below your jawbone. If you’d like to measure your pulse in the middle of a run or at the end of an interval, just stop and count your pulse for 15 seconds then multiply that number by four to get your heart beats per minute. If you stop for too long in the midst of a run, your heart rate will slow down and not give you an accurate reading of your true current heart rate.

I’ve heard many reports from runners who have run faster times in races from a 5K to a marathon training strictly aerobically and without doing any speed work. So, if you’re interested in running faster by easing up on the gas pedal, give it a try. When you can train at your maximum aerobic heart rate and take full advantage of using the ChiRunning focuses, you’ll see how easy it is to run at faster speeds without your body feeling an increase in effort … and I’m definitely not pulling your leg.

Train well,

*We’d like to acknowledge Dr. Phillip Maffetone for this information, as well as FootNotes and the RRCA.

Posted in Gear, Technique, Training

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