I’ve heard a lot of runners say that their Garmin came with a heart rate strap … but they’ve never used it. Maybe they’d like to. I personally use my HR strap a lot, and find it to be incredibly helpful, especially when it comes to racing. By running by heart rate (essentially, running by effort), it removes all the guesswork of what pace I should do for each training run, what to target for each race, if I can PR, and I don’t recall ever choking or bombing a race* when running by heart rate, especially once I had been doing it for awhile and felt confident with what heart rates I could aim for. I also finish every race feeling like I truly gave it my all, and if I didn’t PR, well, it just wasn’t my day. (Or I hadn’t been training hard enough.)

I also generally go into races with conservative goals, especially when the weather isn’t cooperating, so there’s that. 

The most helpful article I’ve read has been this one: RunnersWorld.com: How To Use A Heart Rate Monitor. It explains everything pretty clearly without a lot of sciencey mumbo-jumbo. After reading that article, to make it easy to calculate heart rates, I created this spreadsheet: Calculcate Your Heart Rate for Running/Training. You can also check out this calculator from RunnersWeb.com.

OK, so you know your target heart rates, or at least, what one article suggests … now what? Keep in mind, I am NOT an expert, not a coach, not a personal trainer, etc etc etc. But this is what I’ve noticed for me. And this is after monitoring my HR on every single run for over a year.

I tend to think of the heart rate zones on that chart as averages. And they are also suggestions. After tracking my heart rate during every run for awhile, and doing a variety of distances, paces and running in various conditions, I started to notice my own personal variations.

For most runners, the “easy/long” zone will feel really easy. Maybe too easy. But there is a reason they call long runs “LSD” – long slow distance. I will admit sometimes for my easy/long runs, I let my heart rate go a little bit above the suggested zone.

For the race zones, I definitely treat the zones as averages (of my overall HR during the duration of the race). With one exception. I find that the suggested HR for a 5K is generally where I should be at the very end. But I have to build up to that point. If I try to hit that HR as soon as possible after the start and hold it … I know I would vomit and/or choke. Maybe that’s just me, and other runners are able to maintain that effort. Or maybe I don’t do enough speedwork. (Probably.)

For the longer races, I find that I can build up to a HR higher than what that chart suggests during the last 1-3 miles. So again, these are averages – you’re starting every race in the easy zone, warming up, and then building up to the end, when you should leave whatever you have left on the course. So I’m generally only in their suggested zone for any give race during the early through middle miles, then build up above the zone for the end.

And this isn’t news, but the weather affects your effort. Running by heart rate can make it much easier to adjust come spring (if spring ever gets here) than just guessing and being disappionted that your usual pace feels so hard. 

Also, when I’m building back up after taking it easy (like, after a winter with multiple polar vortexes), I can’t just jump right back in and expect to do those heart rates for those durations. Especially not for races. I haven’t been wearing my HR strap lately because I’m building back up, so everything is “easy” or “easy-ish.” I don’t need a heart rate strap to tell me what the should feel like.

However, I personally feel that training and racing by heart rate is far more effective and efficient for me than just targeting the paces that I think I should do. Because that doesn’t take into account my current fitness level, and things like hydration, temperature, if I got a good night’s sleep and fueled properly, etc. Once I’m back in shape to start doing things like speedwork and actually racing races, I’ll have my trusty HR strap on. (Heh, strap on! Couldn’t let this post happen without slipping that in.) (Heh … slipping that … oh, nevermind.)

Also, for longer runs, be sure to put on some Body Glide between you and the HR strap.

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Sometimes it’s really humid and your training hasn’t been all that great … but you can overcompensate with your outfit. Photo by Mr Eri-thon

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First time I ever raced a mile, of course I ran by heart rate. 

More reading on this topic:

MarathonGuide.com: Heart Monitor Training
CoolRunning.com: The Power of Pace & Heart Rate Training
Competitor.com: Training with a Heart Rate Monitor
RunnersWorld.com: Heart Rate Training – Is It Right For You?  

Do you run by heart rate? Any other suggestions?