Marathon Training Week 14: Heart Rate Training and Monitoring

by Karl Gruber

A key that can help you run a great marathon is finding a good way to gauge your level of cardiovascular fitness. You can gain clarity on your physical progress as the weeks and months of training go by. While there are many tools to measure your fitness level and progress, one of the best is using a heart rate monitor (HRM).

Here is an easy example of how using a HRM can show cardiovascular improvement. Say you run 6 miles, every day, at a 9:30 minute mile pace. Your HRM tells you that your average heart rate is 155 beats per minute with your maximum being 182. If you stay consistent, after a week or two, you will notice that your HRM is now reporting that your average HR is 145 and your maximum is 172. This is solid verification that your heart has grown stronger from the daily increased stress of running 6 miles, causing your blood to flow more freely and efficiently to all of your working muscles.

How to Calculate Your Heart Rate:

During running, your heart rate rises and falls in a very predictable manner. Because of this, you can use it as a gauge for different levels of running intensity. There are two formulas to figure your heart rate while running. The first is the classic formula of subtracting your age from 220 to find your maximum heart rate. A 32-year-old's max heart rate would be 188 beats per minute. The second formula, the Karvonen Method, determines your average running heart rate. This is determined by subtracting your resting heart rate from your max heart rate. If the 32-year-old runner's resting pulse is 60, subtract that from 188 to get a 128 average training heart rate.

Heart Rate Zones

If you want to improve your performance, you have to increase your effort above your average training heart rate and into the aerobic zone. The aerobic zone represents a harder running effort at 70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate. For the 32-year-old, his aerobic heart rate zone would be 188 (max) x .70 = 132 and 188 x .80 = 150. This runner's average aerobic heart rate range stays between 132 to 150 beats per minute.

One very important aspect to pay attention to when using a HRM is that everyone’s physiological response is different, so only use these formulas as a generalized way to find what heart rate and heart zones are appropriate for you. Finding these can vary based on your size, effort, age, current fitness level and gender. I know from personal experience that, because of years of distance running, my aerobic heart rate range does not accurately reflect the range according to my age. Once you start using a HRM for a couple weeks, you will find the heart rate range that is right for you.  

Alan Culpepper, the 1999 10,000 Meter Champion and University of Colorado track and cross-country star, gives us a word of caution about using a HRM, “It is nice to use a heart rate monitor in your training, but don’t become a slave to it.” This is wise advice because if you are not careful you can let your HRM dictate the way you run and thus, it becomes a hindrance to your running performance. I actually stopped wearing my HRM when I am racing. I no longer say to myself, “oh, I can’t go above 170 bpm! That’s too much for me!” There’s a reason it’s called a race! By the time you get to your race, all of the necessary work should be in the bank so you can go out and push your limits physically.

Heart rate monitors can improve your performance as a runner and for your upcoming marathon.

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