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Maximise Your Heart Rate Monitor
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Maximise Your Heart Rate Monitor

Using your Heart Rate Monitor for running

Heart rate monitors are a fantastic training tool. Using them correctly can really improve your training sessions – they can encourage you to go a little quicker, give you targets and maybe more importantly, tell you to slow down! They’ll also tell you give you an indication of impending illness or if you’ve over-trained.

There will be times when you should aim to use it and others when we suggest just not turning it on, don’t become a slave to it, just enjoy the freedom of running.

The science bit

There is one simple scientific equation to always keep in mind:

Heart rate (HR) = Work rate (WR)

So, with this in mind, you can plan your training using your HRM. 

But, there are two things you need to do first:

  1. Work out your maximum heart rate 
  2. Understand target training zones

Your maximum

Everyone will have a different maximum heart rate. A physiologist and sub-4 minute miler friend of ours, Joe Dunbar, has a simple test to give us a good indication of our maximum.

After a warm-up, run as hard as you can for three minutes.

Jog for three minutes as a recovery, then, run another three minute effort - flat out! 

It’s a super-tough effort but as soon as that second three minute effort is over, you will need to check the HRM for your pulse rate. This will be your maximum heart rate.

Training Zones

These are the same for everyone as they are a percentage of your maximum.

  • 0-70% of maximum effort – easy to steady running
  • 70-80% of max effort – lactate threashold zone
  • 80-95% - high intensity zone
  • 95% - VO2 max
  • Above 95% is sprinting

Understanding the zones

There are two key points above that you may have heard of but may not quite understand – lactate threashold and VO2 max.

Lactate Threashold

The Lactate inflection point (LIP), is the exercise intensity at which the blood concentration of lactate and/or lactic acid begins to exponentially increase. It is often expressed as 85% of maximum heart rate or 75% of maximum oxygen intake.

Lactic acid is produced in your body and basically exists to protect you from working too hard – it slows you down. As a runner, you can train to increase this point where lactic acid kicks in allowing you to run safely at a faster pace, therefore, running faster times. Running interval sessions will increase your body’s ability to handle the onset of lactic acid.

VO2 Max

This is the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise, used as a way of measuring a person's individual aerobic capacity. It is the measure of aerobic fitness and indicates the maximum amount of oxygen that can be taken from circulating blood and used by active tissues for a specific period.

With regular training and an improvement in physical performance, your VO2 max will increase. That said, your VO2 max is not something you should really be concerned about, it’s something that will change in time. It can be good for bragging rights in the clubhouse but you’ll always be beaten by world class cross-country skiers! 

Using the zones

Now you know your max, you can apply using the zones to your training runs.

Use your watch to keep your easy runs, easy. This will be around 60-70% of your max. If you see your heart rate creeping in to a zone where you could find yourself running too quickly, slow down.

If you want to do a tempo run, work out what your pulse rate needs to be at 80% and run at that pace.

You may find your interval sessions start to edge up to 90% max or slightly higher at the end of the session which is fine.

Use the HRM to ensure you don’t overtrain

One of the most important benefits of using your HRM is ensuring that easy runs are easy. Go back to the equation – HR=WR – now apply it.

Run at 60% of your max, at whatever pace that may be. Remember, you are not running at a pace, you are running to your HR. This is sometimes hard to handle, i.e. your used to running easy at 8 min mile pace but your HR now determines that you are running 9 min mile pace. That is fine, it indicates that you are tired and you need to recover so forget about the pace.

Conversely, you may find that you are running quicker at the same HR. Don’t slow down! Just run at the HR – it shows you’re getting fitter.

Tiredness and Illness

Your HR might be increased because you had a hard session the day before, you haven’t quite recovered from the race on the weekend or indeed, you may be under the weather. Your HR gives you an early indicator of an illness so if elevated, slow it down.

It is also worth quickly checking your HR before you get out of bed. This may seem a little extreme but you will get an indication over a few days (all being well) of your normal resting HR. If for some reason one morning your HR is elevated from this resting norm, take it easy. You might be getting a common cold or fighting off an infection for example.

Listen to your HR. If you have a hard day planned but your HR is indicating that you haven’t recovered well enough from a previous run, don’t run hard that day. Ease it back or have a day off.

Slave to your rhythm

There will be times when you should aim to use it and others when we suggest just not turning it on. There will be times when you’ll want to just run how you feel and we’d encourage that. Running is enjoyable so don’t become a slave to your HRM.

The other time you may not want to use it is during a high intensity interval session. In real terms, you’re going to push yourself hard. Your HRM may provide some interest but it is what it is. You are pushing yourself well beyond your threashold level so just go for it.

Getting fit checkpoints

  • Your resting (in bed) HR is getting lower. This means that your heart stroke volume has increased (amount of blood pumped per beat) and your heart is stronger – again, good bragging rights!
  • General easy running pace has increased at the same HR
  • Repeat the same tempo run at threashold pace over a few weeks. Sticking to the same HR, you will find you’re running faster or have covered more ground (if say a set time tempo run).

Which HRM?

They can range from inexpensive to a small fortune, so think about what you really it for and just buy one that’ll meet your needs and no more. Check out our guide to the best HRM’s on the market.


HRM’s can be a fantastic training tool and for more information on why they're so good, see here. They don’t have to cost a fortune and there are many benefits to owning one. Learn the basics, use them wisely and watch the improvement. Above all, don’t forget to run to the beat!

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