Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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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.

No, really.

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.

Runners love heart rate training, but it is inaccurate and can be setting you up for failure. Here are 3 things to consider if you use a heart rate monitor.

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.

Sleep

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

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.

Caffeine

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

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.

Now:

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

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.

In fact, research has demonstrated that there is no predictable relationship between heart rate and lactate threshold.

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.

Try this:

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:

  1. Receiver not transmitting because too sweaty
  2. Receiver not transmitting because too cold
  3. Ran too close to another heart rate monitor
  4. Took off monitor and it still recorded readings in my pocket
  5. 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.

Now:

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.

A version of this post originally appeared at competitor.com

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41 Responses on “3 Reasons You Need to Ditch Heart Rate Training

  1. Hi,

    When I calculate my heart level with a formula 220 – age I get that my max is 176 but at my last marathon running full speed at the end of it my heart rate was 190. Is 190 my max heart rate?? Thanks

  2. Yes, good chance, since your heart kinda is able to beat at least 190 times a minute instead of 176. Don’t use 220 if you can help it. Either do a graded test or validated field tests that can give you a much better estimate.

  3. I have trained using a HRM for over 10 years. In that time my recorded maximum heart rate has only changed by about 2 beats per minute. This shows that the 220 – age formula is only a very rough guide.

  4. Am I missing something, Jeff, or do most of the factors discussed above also make pace an unreliable benchmarking for our training zones? For example, the same devices that give errors on heart rate are prone to errors on pace. Unless one lives in a pancake flat region, variations in elevation will affect speed significantly. A very slight following or head wind can take 5-10 seconds off our pace too, no? Wouldn’t using a combination of pace, HR and feel be a more reliable approach?

    • Yes, I agree. But, you can usually tell when something is off pace. You know when you’re on a hill or facing a tough tailwind. You don’t know when your HR watch is malfunctioning. In the end, it’s a matter of learning to monitor your own internal sense of pace and effort rather than relying on a watch. Think of all the elite runners and Olympians who ran for decades without HR monitors or GPS watches 🙂

      • Well, certainly in the UK, the distance runners of the 80s were far better than they are nowadays (that doesn’t include me, though…I’m faster nowadays 😉 ). I think you’re spot on recommending training to feel. However, training to pace, heart rate AND feel have as many drawbacks as each other. We have a saying in the UK, we “want our cake AND we want to eat it”. Essentially, this means why not train to HR AND pace AND feel? Enables us to triangulate for a more objective understanding of what is actually happening.

        Thanks for an informative blog, Jeff 🙂

  5. Thought-provoking article. How about this spin on the subject? Your ability to perform depends on your heart’s ability to pump oxygen to your muscle cells, and your ability to do this efficiently depends in large part on your HR. Your HR is negatively impacted by lack of sleep, stress, hard weather and dehydration, all of which you will want to watch if you want to perform at your peak. Your HR is positively impacted by coffee, which you may want to enjoy before training, but not to the point of decreasing your daily sleep. HR monitors can be useful, if imperfect, tools for measuring your performance, and as a tool, is best used together with pace and feel. If you use one, bear in mind how your HR can vary from day to day depending on bumps in the road. — Other side of the same coin?

  6. I confess to liking my HRM! That said, I find my HR during workouts drops a little for a given pace if I’m on a calorie deficit diet, even if any weight loss is only marginal. I wonder if it’s because my baseline metabolic rate has dropped in response to my reduced energy intake??

  7. Interesting article – after reading it I actually realized that I was doing your Runkeeper training program. I am fairly new to running and I am training for my first marathon. One of the reasons I started using a HR monitor was that while going through your program during the hotter parts of the summer I initially got discouraged as the fast runs were at a suggested at a pace that I was struggling keep up with. Being new to distance running I didn’t know what every run should “feel” like. After doing some research I started reading articles about how when it is hotter out you should scale back your pace a certain amount (every x degrees above y temp go 10-20 seconds per mile slower) because you heart rate beats faster in the heat. This is probably obvious to most people but like I said I am relatively new to this. Rather than giving up I just slowed down and started paying more attention to heart rate. Since using the monitor I’ve just shot for heart rate zones for hard / steady / easy runs rather than pace. I’ve actually been able to close the gap on the suggested paces significantly especially when I get a cooler morning here and there.

    I understand that all of those outside factors affect your heart rate but don’t all of the same factors affect the “feel” of a run? I know, for me, a run feels harder if it’s hot out, if I’m dehydrated or if I haven’t had a good night’s sleep. It seems to me that you can’t really use those as an argument against HR monitors being effective if they have the same effect on the feel of a run. I certainly wouldn’t say I 100% focus on my heart rate and I do pay attention to how I feel but I think it works well as a bench mark especially being new.

    I should mention, by the way, that I am really enjoying your training program and finding it super helpful!

  8. Jeff – If this is really how you feel about HR training, why do you put out a HR calculator? I have been using HR to determine the proper training zones and have found it to be very helpful. Your calculator has motivated me to push into the proper zone. Now it seems you want me to throw the calculator away? I’m somewhat confused.

    • Good question, Steve. Just because I think and feel a certain way about HR doesn’t mean that other runners aren’t still going to use that method. The HR calculator is available for those who do want to train by HR, despite my feelings about it. I think the calculator helps provide a resource for those runners.

      Also, don’t get me wrong, HR isn’t a bad thing. I just think some runners see it as the be-all-end-all when it comes to monitoring training. As I noted, there are a lot of variables to consider and one needs to be aware of these when using HR.

  9. Hi Jeff,

    I am curious about why my HR doesn’t reflect my level of perceived exertion. For example I run at what I think is a very easy pace and when I look at the HR data after the run it shows that I have been training too hard (tempo range). Hard running sends it through the roof! My resting HR is higher than average for my age.

    My question is, should I continue training according to perceived exertion, or should I pay more attention to my HR (and thus end up walking for most of my runs to keep my HR from escalating out of the “easy” range)?. I have been running for a few years and over that time my HR hasn’t changed much.

  10. I’ve got further reasons why I don’t trust HR training.

    Back in January after a 3-month layoff, I got my HR to max out at 189 while running a hilly 5K in around 23-mins. The following week I restarted doing tempo runs and my HR ended up at 181 on it. This week and now two minutes faster, my tempos are only getting up to 172.

    Three years ago when I was running 19-mins for 5K I couldn’t get my max HR over 167 and my tempo runs were topping out at 159.

    Going on pace and feel has been a lot more beneficial than twenty years of trying to use a heartrate monitor ever were.

    I’d say HR monitors are good for tracking the improvements across training and for ensuring you run your easy/recovery runs at appropriately easy levels of exertion.

    • Thanks for sharing Hugh, nice to see you agree with us, and your experience matches up to what we are trying to say. How have you learned to run by feel? As that is the hardest part for runners to understand, any tips?

      • You have to be willing to attend to your body’s signals – particularly breathing, but also how easy or hard you feel you’re working.

        I’d say a lot of people distract themselves with other stuff when they’re running whether that’s listening to music, talking to a friend, going as fast as they can or thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner.

        Like any learning you have to create a feedback loop – in this case between what’s actually happening and what your body feels like doing it. So you need some way of extracting hard data whether that’s by running on a track with a stopwatch, or using a GPS to log your runs.

        Say you go out on a 10-mile run and you’re intending to run 8-minute miles. The first mile you run 7min15, you note you’re too quick so you *deliberately* make an adjustment and slow your pace for the next one. Next mile you’re 8min20, need to speed up. As the miles go by, you get more accurate if you continue to focus on what your body is doing. Next time you go out, you might start out at 7min50 and not need to make as many adjustments.

        Or you could do a progression run on the track adding 5-secs per 400m and checking your results at the end of each lap. That small change in intensity really gets you focused on how much, or rather how little, extra effort is required to change the pace.

        It takes time and practice because you have to learn the different feelings for different paces – you’re not going to learn what running at 6-min/mile feels like from an 8-min/mile run. Add to that some people are more introspective and happy focusing inwards than others.

  11. i have never and would not advise anyone to use a heart rate monitor to train or race with . our bodies are monitors , they feed back all the info we need to progress with structured training . a monitor will not tell me if i am or anyone i coach is recovered sufficiently , especiall during anaerobic phases to hit another hard session . i we listen to a device rather than our body we would be in danger of over training and causing breakdowns resulting in poor performance levels .i constantly monitor the reactions to my self and those i coach at all phases of training and make adjustments to suit , those i coach are becoming better at listening to their bodies too and taking into account outside influences also rather than continually trying to hit a target .

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment, as you can see, we also do not recommend using heart rate, and we are more interested in listening to what it is telling you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Hello,

    I have very weird question, hopefully I’ll get my answer from here…

    My heart beat is very high always in the morning, if I sit down its okey but when I’m staying it’s already over 100 and when I’m moving around very slowly it’s already over 120… BUT during the day like by 2-3pm it’s normal, even on my very fast walking it’s not going over 100,.. (Im using heart rate monitor)

    I have to do a medical assestmsnt after two months and need to start doing a props cardio to pass it,

    My question is, shall I do exercises in early morning or evening to get my morning heart rate down?

    Couse if I have the appointment for 10am then this is for sure I’m going to fail it.

    • Hi Sandra, I think you should not be concerned with passing your assessment, but should just be concerned with why your heart rate is a little higher. It would probably be best to check in with a physician, just to be sure, especially if it is making you anxious (which will raise it even more). Exercise in either the morning or evening is not going to affect it more than one another. Sorry we could not help, but this is a question for your physician!

  13. I have been trying to train with heart rate for about a year because it seemed that was the way to do it. Here’s my problem, though. According to the heart rate calculations, my recovery should be between 137 and 148 (resting HR 62, age 35), and my aerobic zones are around 150-161. On my runs, I try to go at what I feel is a pretty good pace (not an easy pace, but not all out), so I try to keep around an 8:30-9:00 pace even on longer runs. My heart rate stays around 140-147, but when I go all out for 1 minute, my hear rate won’t go over 153. I guess I have two problems. 1- I really struggle after about 5 miles at the recovery heart rate pace (137-148) and 2- I don’t know why my heart rate won’t get near my MHR. And no matter how long I’ve been running, I feel like my long distance runs have never gotten any better (maybe worse).

    • Hi Andy, thanks for reaching out. As you would have seen in this post, we actually do not recommend using heart rate to monitor your training, and your question further solidifies that it is not always accurate, and can actually be disheartening. It would be better for you to focus on the training itself, and getting in the right kind of workouts for what you are training for. We gave some suggestions in this post, but the best way for you to get advice would be to sign up for our newsletter, which you can do on this page. Hope this helps!

      • So I did my first two runs using the slow pace method. The first run was 4.5 miles, and it went pretty well. I did feel a lot less fatigued afterwards. Then I had my long run on Friday, which was to be 8 miles. I kept the first four miles at the 10:05-10:30 pace, which correlates to what I should have been doing for averaging a 25 minute 5K. I was doing good until 4 miles in, then felt like I hit a wall. The run just continually got worse, and I couldn’t keep going for more than a few minutes before having to walk. Not sure why this is, and if I should continue to train using this method as I have never experienced this during my normal runs. I had been averaging about 9:00-9:15/mile on a 10K, so this really baffles me. The only thing I can think of was that it was pretty hot, and maybe I got dehydrated even though I was drinking water during the run.

  14. I’m actually having a lot of success with training by heart rate as have others who’s training I’m familiar with (endurance athletes). I think it doesn’t work for some because they run too fast (zone 3) rather than in zone 2. Over the past 5 1/2 weeks, I have run between 130 and 135 bpm and my pace at that heart rate has gone from almost 15:00 to 12:30 per mile. Because I also do a smaller percentage of my mileage at faster paces (7:45-8:15), the improvement is likely some combination of the two, but I do notice that the faster paces are not requiring the high heart rates that they used to and that’s even with humidity involved at this time. This is an indication of in increase in the heart’s stroke volume. At first this was difficult because you have to swallow your pride and forget about being a fast runner. You want fast race times, not fast training times. This occasionally meant walking to keep the heart in the right zone. That is no longer an issue at 12:30 per mile. I personally think that eventually, a training program heavy on mostly fast running will result in a plateau.

    • Hi Richard, thanks for sharing your story. Good thoughts with why some people struggle, but sounds like you know your body and what works for it. You are right on about the pride issue, that is exactly what holds most people back, but we are glad you have realized what really matters! Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your running!

    • I guess the main takeaway from this article is that people need to learn to run EASY, and you don’t need a heart rate monitor for that. I used a HRM for awhile as well. I found I enjoyed running more once I ditched it and learned how to run by FEEL and not some number that a watch spits out at me. Some days an easy run may be at 155 and other days it may be 135. Neither is wrong and your not going to drop dead if you run easy with a slightly higher HR. However, you might not make as many gains as you could if you limit yourself to a particular heart rate range all the timeThere are way too many factors that can affect your heart rate, as the article states. I applaud your efforts though, don’t misunderstand my comment.

      Listen to your body, not a piece of equipment.

      • Hi Phil, right on! Love those wise words at the end! You are right with what we were trying to convey in this article, and we have covered listening to your body and easy running in many articles since, especially as so many runners struggle with it. Thanks for sharing your insights, and your body will thank you for listening to it.

  15. A elevated HR is your body telling you something no matter the cause of it. This is a great tool to keep from over training. Without one you run the risk of injury unless you are absolutely 100% in tune with your body. I doubt most are. Only once in a great while I get a unreliable spike in HR and all I do is quickly adjust the strap.

    • Hi Brian, thanks for reaching out. If you have found the heart rate method works for you, then by all means continue to use it. We just wanted to alert runners to alternative methods of listening to their body to ensure recovery.

  16. I used to think HR monitors were critical for training to ensure my HR was elevated enough to benefit from the workout. I still find this incredibly valuable for stationary biking etc. I think they are a good tool for beginning runners to monitor their system,methought agree when more advanced and experienced you can listen to your body’s feedback, breathing level of intensity etc. I ditched them for running until recently when I bought an in the wrist optical HR monitor. I like to review my zones, time in zones and especial recently have used it to pull back on my pace on long training runs. Today I put in 12 miles and focused on a pace that kept me in mid 150 to 160 with a target of mid 150s, turns out for me that’s a 10 min pace. Interestingly when I ran the Crim last month I had a similar pace at 9:50 pace with avg HR @ 168. I’m thinking pulling back is actually getting me a same or better pace with less stress on the system. Will see how it goes over time.

    • Hi Bryan, thanks for reaching out. Great points you made in your comment, that is great that you are listening to what your body is telling you and you are finding it is working for you. Will be interested to hear how you get on. Is there anything we can help you with?

  17. Good afternoon. I am 46 years old and have been what I think has been pretty good shape my entire life. However, I get disgusted reading and seeing people with heart rates at 135-150 running at 5-6 mph when my heart rate is 170s. I don’t understand. A guy who outweighs me by 50 pounds running at 8mph on a treadmill heart rate was measured at 159. If I were to do that mine would probably be in the 190s. Folks, I would like to learn how to jog 1.5 miles in 15 minutes while keeping my heart rate around 150. I cringe when using an electronic device because the readings are always high. Yet, when I lay down at nght for bed my resting heart rate has been measures at 54bpm. Somebody please help me figure something out.

    • Hi David, unfortunately, that would be a question that is best suited to your doctor. As we mentioned in this post, we do not pay too much attention to heart rate, and instead encourage runners to use other things including how they feel. If you have been feeling good, then we recommend you continue to do what you are as it is working. Do not become worried about what others are doing. If you feel strong, keep up what works! You may enjoy this article for a few more tips on training as you move further into the masters category. Hope this helps! http://runnersconnect.net/masters-running/mastering-being-a-master/

  18. I’m trying a HRM for the first time and am in the camp that using any tool can be beneficial, but only if you use it correctly and understand it’s limitations. The first thing I realized is that the calculation for MHR (220-age), or MAHR(180-age) would not be correct for me or probably most people. I found a simple test run online (with disclaimers about Drs. and such) with a warm up, a 3 minute maximum effort, a 2 minute recovery, and another 3 minute maximum effort. Somewhere near the end of the second 3 minutes you should be close to MHR. Zones or a MAHR based on this number seems to match pacing by feel pretty well. I intend to use the HRM to keep my easy and long runs from creeping up into faster territory. I guess I’d rather hear caveats for using the HRM as a training tool, than flat out advising against it because it can easily be misused or misunderstood. Thanks.

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