The heart of the matter

I recently was included in a tweet from a friend looking for advice (by the way, if you’re reading this and we’re not yet connected on twitter please do look me up: @simon_freeman)

Any running friends use a heart monitor (polar?)? if not how do u tell wen u r at optimum?

I thought about this for a while and realised that 140 characters would never be enough to offer any meaningful advice, so I thought I’d write a little blog post and share my thoughts that way.

Never mind the monitor

I must admit that I haven’t seen the chest strap for my heart rate monitor for a few months. I’m sure it is in a bag with some kit that should have been washed quite a while ago. But me neglecting my heart rate monitor (HRM) is something that has been developing for a while. When I bought my first HRM I was obsessive about it, making sure that I had it for every run – easy runs, steady runs, sessions and races. I had to know my heart rate for every step I took.

After a while I decided that I wouldn’t wear my chest strap in races. I reasoned that in a race you don’t need to know how fast your heart is beating, you just need to know how fast your body is moving towards the finish line.

Then this year I discovered on one run that my heart rate had not been recorded. I guessed the battery in the chest strap needed replacing – I was right – and when I looked back on my downloaded run stats, I found out that the battery had run out several weeks before! Quite simply I had stopped caring about my heart rate.

What to do instead of measuring heart rate

I think that your heart rate can be an extremely useful way of gauging effort. But it is not the only way to measure effort and I think that too often a number can be a limiting factor whereas a feeling can be more flexible. Allow me to explain…

I have started to work on understanding how different sessions should feel. My coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, is a great proponent of running by feel. There are effort levels that runners should work within. For me they are pretty much as follows:

  • easy or recovery running – this is a pace at which I can hold a conversation
  • steady running – this is quicker than easy or recovery runs, but still very comfotable and talking is possible
  • tempo running – I usually think about this as half-marathon paced stuff where the pace is quicker still but still manageable (well, for 13.1 miles at least)
  • threshold running – this is controlled discomfort where I can manage 3 to 4 word sentences whilst running
  • faster running – anything quicker than threshold which is 5km-type pace where a grunt is about all I can manage rather than talking!

That is it really. I have a training programme where I run at different paces and I try to make sure I am in the right zone by feeling it. A good example might be tempo running – if I am doing a session which includes that pace I check that I can utter a few words whilst running and imagine that I have to keep the pace going for 10 miles. If neither of those are possible then I’m going too fast.

Return to the tweet

So back to the tweet. I think that heart rate monitors can be useful for measuring development – if you run an identical route at the same pace some time apart and your heart rate on the later run is lower, then you are fitter and you have progressed. But you could also feel the difference which would also denote development.

I would say that it is more valuable to learn what the zones feel like. That way when you are racing, you know how hard you can push because you know what it feels like to run that hard and you know how long you can sustain that pace. Once you have hardwired the feeling of different paces in to your running, you won’t run the risk of being limited by a heart rate and you can race like a real runner!

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