3 Reasons You Need to Ditch Heart Rate Training
Saying that heart rate training is popular is putting it mildly.
You might be reading this article as you are looking for the best way to monitor heart rate while running or even a heart rate training running plan.
Thanks to running magazines and the companies that sell running gadgets, runners feel like they need a heart rate monitor to train for running, and without it, they are at a disadvantage to the rest of the running world.
The potential benefits of training with a heart rate monitor have been so ubiquitously espoused in running magazines that many runners feel it’s an absolute necessity to train by heart rate.
Here’s the deal:
Heart rate monitors can keep you in the right training zones, prevent overtraining, and help monitor progress.
But, did you consider this:
Training using a heart rate monitor may be holding you back from reaching your potential.
In my experience as a coach and athlete, training by heart rate is less accurate and more problematic than training by pace and feel unless you are a very experienced runner.
Therefore, I don’t recommend it to the athletes I coach.
Today I am going to give you three reasons why I do not recommend heart rate monitor training, and then give you the best ways you can improve your running without using heart rate.
5 Reasons Your Heart Rate Does Not Match Running Effort
Perhaps the biggest limitation to heart rate training is that many changes in your heart rate do not correlate to your fitness level.
Sleep, stress, and dehydration can all raise or lower heart rate on any given day.
As normal people with jobs, families, and otherwise busy lives, these outside variables are common and can have a drastic affect on your heart rate readings meaning that your heart rate does not fit within the training zones.
Many studies have concluded that a lack of sleep, a reality that many runners are plagued with, will elevate your heart rate 5-10 beats per minute (bpm).
While this may not seem like a big change, coupled with the other factors below, a lack of sleep could cause you to train at heart rate levels that are below your optimal training zones.
Which is not going to help you train correctly to reach your race goals.
Did you know?
You naturally have a lower heart rate in the morning than you do at night.
And that doesn’t even take this into account:
Your heart rate can vary by 2-4 bpm from one day to the next without any changes to fitness or fatigue!
Therefore, you need to adjust your heart rate to accommodate for the time of day you’ll be attacking the roads and factor in daily variability.
Stress has the same affect on your heart rate as a lack of sleep.
One study in particular showed that workplace stress raised heart rates by 4-6 bpm.
This is an important statistic for runners who train after work.
Did you ever consider that ego depletion could be affecting your workouts?
More than you realize!
Unlike sleep, an exact measurement of your stress level, and therefore the exact increase in your heart rate, is difficult to determine.
While running is a great way to reduce the effects of stress, the elevated heart rates you experience while in a stressful state will change the heart rates at which you should be running.
As runners with busy lives, caffeine often becomes the fuel that runs our day – for better or worse.
Although we found that there are 9 true benefits for runners to take caffeine, especially for performance enhancement and recovery after workouts, there are some downsides.
Studies have shown that caffeine elevates heart rate for up to 24 hours after ingestion.
Like stress, it is difficult to measure the exact change in heart rate you’ll experience when consuming caffeine because we all react individually to its effects.
Runners who are accustomed to caffeine will be less affected than those who only drink the occasional cup.
Weather also has a dramatic influence on heart rate.
During hot days, your heart rate will increase as your body works to cool itself down.
In hot and humid conditions, blood is sent to the skin to aid in the cooling process.
This means there is less available blood and oxygen for your working muscles.
What does that mean for your body?
Your heart has to work harder to maintain the same pace and effort during your run.
Heart rate will decrease (or more accurately underestimate the intensity of exercise) in response to training in cold environments.
Researchers posit that training in cold temperatures results in an increase in stroke volume and thus a higher V02max, which will lower the perceived effort and reduce your heart rate.
Dehydration has a profound affect on heart rate.
In one study, researchers found that cyclists who exercised in a dehydrated state exhibited heart rate readings that were 5-7.5% higher than normal.
Like the above factors, training in a dehydrated state can drastically influence your heart rate training zones.
What’s the bottom line?
While each of these factors in itself isn’t cause to throw your heart rate monitor out the window, when you combine their effects, you can easily be exercising outside your target heart rate zones on any given day.
Likewise, the exact measurement of your stress levels, caffeine intake, and heart rate variability can be difficult to pinpoint, leaving you guessing at your actual heart rate levels.
Which kind of defeats the purpose, right?
Heart Rate Training Zones are Often Wrong
Another inherent drawback to heart rate training is how difficult it is to establish you max heart rate and accurate training zones.
Although we do have a calculator to help you find your max heart rate, the problem is that heart rate calculators are based on an average.
What if you’re not average?
Not only that, but is maximum heart rate really the best predictor of training zones?
How to find the correct heart rate training zones
In order to establish proper training zones, an athlete must first determine their maximum heart rate (MHR).
Unfortunately, a majority of runners use simple heart rate formulas:
Does 220 minus age ring a bell?
Unfortunately, this has a high degree of error.
To get an accurate measure of your maximum heart rate, you should partake in a graded exercise test, but locating a facility that can accommodate this type of testing isn’t easily found.
It gets worse:
Graded exercise test isn’t going to be appropriate for a beginner runner who can’t handle such a stressful workout.
Therefore, many runners who control their effort by heart rate may be doomed from the start by using faulty max heart rates.
Training zones and correlation with lactate levels
Training with a heart rate monitor requires adherence to a specific set of heart rate zones, each of which is designed to work you to a particular exercise intensity.
Unfortunately, maximum heart rate is not the ideal way to measure the bodies response to exercise.
So what should you use instead?
Blood lactate levels are more accurate.
Lactate threshold tends to occur at around 90% of maximum heart rate in well-trained runners, but it can occur at 50% of maximum heart rate for beginners.
What’s the bottom line?
Your optimal training zones could be far outside what traditional heart rate training advocates suggest.
Faulty Readings and Heart Rate Monitors Not Working
While I have been rather scientific thus far, perhaps my biggest frustration in regards to heart rate monitor training is the unreliable data.
From a training and coaching standpoint, I am not willing to make my training decisions based on devices that barely work half of the time.
Conduct a quick poll of your running friends about issues they have had with their monitor or GPS watch over the last month and you’ll get more crazy malfunctioning stories than I could list in this article.
Here are some of the ones I have experienced:
- Receiver not transmitting because too sweaty
- Receiver not transmitting because too cold
- Ran too close to another heart rate monitor
- Took off monitor and it still recorded readings in my pocket
- Watch said my heart rate was 250 bpm
……and numerous other stories I won’t list here.
By now you probably have guessed:
Heart rate monitors are often inaccurate.
As a coach and a runner myself, If I am going to rely on the data I am receiving to make the best decisions about training,
I need to be confident that it’s correct at least 95% of the time.
Otherwise, I may be making training decisions based on irrelevant and inaccurate information.
This doesn’t mean I never use heart rate or think it’s a terrible idea all together.
Simply speaking, I don’t trust it and would rather develop a runner’s more fine-tuned internal sense of effort and pace.
If you use a heart rate monitor currently, you don’t have to stop – just keep these three caveats in mind.
If you are still confused, we have a separate article for deciding whether heart rate monitor training is for you.