Jan 17, 2018

Heart Rate 101

How to start using heart-rate data to improve your running

Many fitness devices now include built-in heart rate monitors, which means a great number of runners have access to this data for the first time. While it’s interesting to see your BPM as you run, without context the information is useless. This article provides you with context, transforming a novelty into a powerful training tool. 

Here are some popular ways to utilize heart rate data in running:

Basic Usage

The primary way that runners use heart rate is to establish training zones based on their current fitness level, and then to closely follow training plans that were designed around those zones. But if you're not currently following a plan, you can still use your heart rate monitor every time you exercise.

A male runner on a trail with a heart rate graphic overlay

Your heart rate monitor can be used to make sure you're getting a beneficial workout. If you have a tendency to go too easy or too hard, your monitor can tell you when you're in the sweet spot to get a good aerobic workout. This is done by first determining your Max Heart Rate (MHR) which is covered in the next section, and then maintaining specific ranges of it during workouts.

Essentially, if you're working out below 50% of your MHR, you're going too easy. If you're over 85%, you're going too hard. Use these ranges to hit different intensities:

  • Moderate: 50 to 70% of MHR
  • Intense: 70 to 85% of MHR

Max Heart Rate

The idea behind MHR is simple: you determine the maximum number of beats-per-minute your heart is capable of producing while running, and you use that number as a training guideline. There’s a common misconception that if you exceed your MHR, your heart will explode. Thankfully, this is not the case. It’s simply a guideline.

For decades, an oversimplified method was used to determine MHR, which was to subtract your age from 220. It was so easy you didn’t have to get off the couch to figure it out. The problem is that there are many different types of people, and applying a single formula to determine everyone's MHR produced too many inaccurate results. 

It was so easy you didn’t have to get off the couch to figure it out.

A far more accurate way to determine your MHR is explained in this section of our How to Set Your Heart Rate Zones post. When you have your MHR, be sure to add it to the Training Options section of your SportTracks profile, and edit your heart rate zones based on the following:

  • Zone 1 = Up to 60% of MHR
  • Zone 2 = 60 to 75% of MHR
  • Zone 3 = 75 to 85% of MHR
  • Zone 4 = 85 to 95% of MHR
  • Zone 5 = 95% of MHR and above

If you're already relatively fit, your MHR likely wont change once you've determined it. And, because it's a theoretical limit, it's possible to occasionally exceed your MHR.

Lactate Threshold Heart Rate

Your heart's job is to pump blood throughout your body, and your blood clears away waste, one of which is lactic acid. Both tasks are being carried out constantly, but when you exercise, your body doesn't rid itself of lactic acid as effectively. As your workout intensity increases, you reach a point where your blood can't remove the lactic acid quickly enough. When lactic acid accumulates, you slow down.

Of all of the training methods described in this article, LTHR is often considered the most effective.

The purpose of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is to determine the point at which your body produces more lactic acid than it can remove, and to create training zones based on this threshold. When you train to increase your LTHR, you will be able to run faster for longer periods of time, making you a more competitive runner — all based on feedback from your heart rate monitor.

Determining your LTHR requires a strenuous 40+ minute workout. When you preform this test, be sure that the intensity won't disrupt your current training plan (if you're following one). It's also important to be able to maintain a consistent pace for 30 minutes without slowing down. You should test your LTHR every 6 weeks, so your training zones remain up-to-date.

Of all of the training methods described in this article, LTHR is often considered the most effective. You can learn how to test your LTHR in our Determine Your Lactate Threshold post, and learn how to set your LTHR zones in this section of our How to Set Your Heart Rate Zones post.

We hope this article has been helpful. Properly using this kind of technology is an excellent way to stay healthy and achieve all of your fitness goals!