Update: Heart Rate-Based Training

Heart rate

Yesterday’s 90 minute barefoot treadmill run marked the end of week 12 of my 16 week training program for the Sarasota Half Marathon, which takes place on March 17.. The training’s gone well, so I’d like to offer an update. First, though, a little backstory of why I’m following a heart rate-based program.

The logic, as outlined in Benson and Connolly’s book Heart Rate Training, which I’ve mentioned previously, is, once you think about it, blindingly simple. HR training is the most user-specific training available to the ordinary (and elite, for that matter) athlete. It relies on your cardio-vascular system, which means that it reflects your overall state of stress 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. More to the point for training purposes, it offers immediate and consistent feedback about your stress level, intensity level, and your rate of adaptation to the training process. That means that, rather than relying on a pre-determined set of data for my training, it’s all been done on the basis on ongoing, daily, and very personal data. It’s all about me, and nobody else.

Before I started the program, I did a treadmill-based test to determine my maximum heart rate, which turned out to be 163 bpm. Every morning of the program I’ve determined my resting heart rate, which is between 43 and 46 bpm, depending on the day. (To do the latter, I use a nifty little program on my Android smartphone called Instant Heart Rate.) I track all of my workout, and the associated data re resting heart rate, weight, blood pressure, and length and quality of sleep with SportTracks. That gives me a comprehensive and easily-accessed reference library of how the training’s going. Of course, my trusty Garmin 210 is the backbone of the whole system, as it’s what shows me what my heart rate is.

Buikding endurance – and speed – following a heart rate-based program takes time. Not just weeks, but sometimes months. I’m fortunate in that I’ve built a strong aerobic base over the past year. I’ve also worked on speed in my previous training programs for various races and distances. But this HR-based program has made an enormous difference. It’s different from the others.

Here’s one graphic example of how that difference manifests itself. It’s not my data, but an image I downloaded via a Google search, and include here because illustrates very nicely a couple of points I want to make.

HR versus speed

The top graph shows the runner’s heart rate for a certain distance, in which she kept to a pre-determined heart rate. The lower graph shows the same distance and time, but with the runner following a pre-determined pace. Going for pace resulted in peaks and valleys of heart rate, which resulted, as one would expect, in feelings of fatigue. That inevitably affected her endurance, and would, in the longer run, mean less endurance and a lower running economy. Running to heart rate, on the other hand, mean that she adjusted her pace to keep at the pre-determined heart rate, and so conserved her energy levels, her power, and her strength.

Endurance isn’t everything, of course. That’s why, as part of my training program, I’ve included interval and tempo runs as well as the endurance-focused sessions. Such an ongoing heart rate-based program increases the size of the body’s capillaries and develops mitochondria, so that strength, endurance, and speed are all enhanced.

It’s all been good.

What’s the bottom line? Following this heart rate-based training program has 1/ built up my endurance, 2/ lessened my fatigue levels, and 3/ made me quicker. As an instance of the latter, consider the following: my current PB for the 16K distance (1:35:18, a pace of 5:57) was set in June 2008, at the Toronto 10 Miler. Yesterday, I ran 15.8K in 1:30, for a pace of 5:41. Yesterday, I was cruising, not racing. I wasn’t pushing hard, and I had plenty in the tank at the end of the run. Is it any wonder I’ve become a fan of heart rate-based training?



  1. Hi Alan, found your article when researching heartrate based training… Very nice!
    I had bought a basic HR monitor when I started running in mid 2006 – the Polar RS100, long before gps was reliable and affordable – to stay in my comfort zone without having the slightest clue of the benefits of HR based training.

    After two seasons of pace based training (FIRST) and a nagging Achilles injury due to improper footwear (I continued to run in my traditional trainers after having successfully transitioned to fore-/ midfoot running with my VFFs) I did prepare for my first ultra by running by feel – which was still much too fast (but at least free of injury).

    Just now I’m returning to a HR based training approach, hence the research. I have listened to Phil Maffetone on the TRN podcast and it all made perfect sense. So there I am running with my trusted Polar HR monitor + my iphone to get the best of both worlds.

    Now I am wondering if I should get a Polar H7 HR sensor which connects to both my phone and my wrist monitor. I would sure like to see the data but I’m unsure whether this will provide any more information than when on the run as by now I am fairly good at even pacing by watching my HR. What’s your experience? I can imagine the data is *nice to have* but do you think it’s a *must have*?

    I have been interested in SportTracks.mobi but haven’t signed up since I don’t own a compatible HR belt (yet). Polar’s polarpersonaltrainer.com does give some basic information (training load) when I manually enter a workout’s avg and max hr but that’ about it. Does SportTracks supply interval information (length, duration, pace, cadence, hr)?

    I’m also re-reading Joe Friel’s book on the matter and found it to be very valuable in terms of putting together an annual training plan (although it is clearly aimed at competitve athletes) – this may be of interest for you, too:

    I hope your training is going well! Thx for a brief reply!
    Best from Berlin

    1. Thanks for the tip re Friel’s book. Yes, I think SportTracks will give you the data you want. I too have recently taken up HR -based training again. I’m going to use it for my upcoming 8 Hour ultra (January 3). I use a Garmin Forerunner 210 to track my HR. I find it very helpful to see my HR as I run, as I can easily and quickly adjust my pace as needed. In the end, HR-based running seems to me to be a data-based version of “run by feel.” Best wishes for your training!

      1. Hi Alan, thx for your reply. I read up on SportTracks and will it give it a try when I get a compatible HR belt (which will stream all data to iSmoothrun and from there to SportTracks). I ran 21k today and it sure would be interesting to see how much time I spent in each zone.
        Don’t expect too much from Friel’s book, it is somewhat dated (2006). He suggests doing a 30-minute test to find your individual lactate threshold (LT) which serves as the basis of the corresponding HR training zones. Makes much more sense than the general age-based formulae for calculating HR max.
        Best to you! P

      2. Benson and Connolly’s “Heart Rate Training,” (2011), which I have used successfully, also suggests a track-based test to determine MHR, rather than the usual formulae. Much better, in my opinion.

  2. Dear Alan
    I am so glad to have read your last post; I have been reading around the subject following a post on another blog. Your last paragraph is the clincher though. “Yesterday, I was cruising, not racing.” and going faster.
    I am excited, as the method you have followed (Benson and Connolly) and results obtained appear to mimic those of Colin Seymour (http://barefootrunner.co.uk/does-maf-training-work) he has followed Prof. Maffetone.
    For me, having two unrelated people, Colin and yourself obtain improvements following a HRM based concept is all the convincing I need.
    I have started to follow the principle as laid down by Prof. Maffetone, with the realisation that my base aerobic capacity is woefully poor. Too much time previously spent running like a wasp on acid. Running slow and keeping to a low HR is utterly soul destroying as I keep pinging the upper limit. Clearly, I was happier burning sugar than fat for fuel.
    Another related post from Colin. http://barefootrunner.co.uk/2012-in-summary
    Thus far I have not read Benson and Connolly but would be interesting how their ideas compare to Maffetone. Given the seemingly similar results.

    I will like wise be posting on Colins site and linking to here.
    All the best for 2013

    1. I’m delighted that you found my post helpful, Jason. And pleased no end that Colin’s experience is similar to mine. Heart rate based training is, I think, what I’ve been looking for, so I’m going to keep at it, beyond my three spring races. I have a feeling it will serve me well for my October marathon, as it will build on the strengths I have, and smooth out some of the issues I’ve faced in past marathons. Good to hear from you again, my friend, and best wishes for the coming year.

    1. When I first got my Garmin, I thought it would the real time data that would be most useful. (I bought it only a few days before the Scotiabank Marathon, and it was, indeed, a useful tool for tracking my pace.) But I soon found that it was the post-run analysis that intrigued me more. The SportTracks app has enhanced that approach. I’m afraid that I’ve become (for the time being, anyway) a real data junkie! 🙂

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