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Why I Stopped Training With Heart Rate

Read Time - 4 minutes

How I use heart rate training now as more of a suggestive guide and how you can benefit from it.

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Heart rate (HR) training is great for monitoring what’s going on from a zoomed out objective point of view. I’ve found in my experience and through my discovery process (science-backed evidence, my own experience, and talking with experts around me) that it’s not so great for knowing precisely what stimulus and stress you are putting on your body to see the gains you might be wanting.

What is Heart Rate Training

As stated in Runner’s world and Heather Irvine, “Heart-rate training uses your heart rate or beats per minute (bpm) as a guide for intensity. Instead of training at a specific pace, you use a heart-rate monitor to train your cardiorespiratory system to work at a specific effort for a set amount of time.” 

Age-based formulas, the Maffetone Method, and even going out and doing a max heart rate test are the best ways to determine your heart rate zones. You then go out and train in those zones. Depending on your objectives and your fitness level, it’s that simple. 

Why it didn’t work for me

While I did this type of HR training and mainly the Maffetone Method for about 5 years I started realizing a pattern. I wasn’t actually getting faster at the really fast stuff because I wasn’t training hard enough. I’m the first person to say that most people train too hard, but I actually wasn’t training hard enough on my hard days to provoke a response and stress my system which in turn, breaks it down and builds it up so I can be [Daft Punk Vocoder Voice] harder, better, stronger, and… faster. [/Daft Punk Vocoder Voice]

The inaccuracy for high-intensity quick sessions with heart rate has been spoken about many times so I won’t beat that dead horse. Heart rate lags. Facts. For example, if you were to climb stairs really fast for 20 seconds and watch your heart rate or even have your finger on your pulse (near impossible to execute in practice), you would see your heart rate is pretty low. It’s not until about 20–45 seconds after your effort that your heart rate starts climbing and then keeps climbing for some time after before dropping down.

The problem with this is that you might have gone too hard for too long or not hard enough. I’ve found running pace, cycling power, or even the subjective perceived rate of exertion (PRE) to give an immediate analysis of your input. While not perfect, they serve to give you a better idea of what’s happening exactly at the moment. Bonus points — if you are are super obsessive like me, an average of your immediate input like average pace and average power for that interval
 
With heart rate training a slew of other variables can influence your heart rate readings. I’ve always had major troubles with many of the brands of Heart rate monitor (HRM) straps. Some issues are but not limited to;

  • Poor Signal
  • Fitment — Too tight or too loose HRM
  • Low Battery
  • Signal Interference
  • Caffeine Stimulation Interference
  • Excitability (race day/time trial/hard session anxiety/jitters)
  • Biological abnormalities in your hr readings (rare, but it’s a thing and I think I might be in this camp)

The Old HR Training Story Is One-Sided

Heart rate like most things in training is just one character in a very complex feature film. It’s analogous to looking at your car’s coolant temperature (does anyone care about this anymore?). It’s more like, “Oh… my car is running hot, I should look to adjust it but I really don’t know what else to do with this except maybe… stop?!”

I use heart rate now as a soft guide to set a limit on my easy days and not push myself harder than I need to. If I go over for a few seconds a few times on a run or ride, I’m not stressed. But If I’m pinned 10–15 bpms over for 5 minute, then I know to back it way down.

The same is true for my quality interval sessions. I rarely look at it during the actual interval but once the interval is done and I’m recovering is when the magic happens. For some interval sessions, I want to make sure I’m 100% recovered to do the same thing over again without fatigue. 

The main objective with HR is knowing how my body responds to the stimulus and stress I’m putting on it at that given time.

“To run at a certain speed, you need to move at that certain speed” couldn’t be closer to the truth. To get faster you have to run fast. And with heart rate training having so many variables, as it’s the delayed effect on your body makes it hard to gauge. It is much easier to just see the input and what you are doing (pace/power).

So how should you use it?

Watson’s Bay Ferry, Sydney, Australia

If you are starting out, heart rate training combined with pace/power is great. It lets you know that at certain paces, your HR is around where it should be. Watching your HR stay the same and your pace get faster is AWESOME and is the building blocks of aerobic base training. The Maffetone Method is a great starting place for this.

If you are more advanced, I’d highly suggest looking to use it more like me, and as a guide rather than a gauge.

This is just my opinion based on my discovery process so I’d love to hear your opinion on this by commenting below or hitting me up on FB or Instagram.

  • How do you use heart rate? 
  • Have you found it helpful in racing? 
  • Is your heart rate monitor accurate?

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More from Heather Irvine & her awesome VEGETARIAN COOKBOOK