How to Run with a Heart Rate Monitor

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? 

14 thoughts on “How to Run with a Heart Rate Monitor

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  1. this is spot on! I have referenced an earlier post you wrote about HR training as I’ve been working into that over the past few years. I’ve definitely seen big improvements recently when I got more strict (i.e. got a coach) around which HR to be in for which workouts. My coach also has us do periodic run tests (e.g. run a 5K or 20 minutes all out) where the speed is just one component; the other component is how our avg and max heart rates have changed over time. She also has us monitor the heart rate for the 60 seconds post race to see how quickly it will fall; this is also a measure of fitness.

    1. good tips. I’ve never really done a true heart rate test, other than during some speed workouts, I see just how high I can get my HR during my last interval. probably not the best way to determine my max HR though.

    2. Also, it is cool to see how over time, my pace goes down even when my HR stays the same. Although I haven’t been seeing this much lately, it’s been going in the other direction.

  2. My Garmin didn’t come with the HR Strap but overall I run by feel. Some days I feel good and others I just don’t so I think my pace on any given day reflects that. On occasion I surprise myself by running far faster than I felt like I was running. Although, this doesn’t entirely help if I want to go for a time at a race…

  3. I’ll have to read the RW article. I’ve been running and working out with my HR monitor for pretty much the last nine months. I use it mostly to see my calories burned for the day, but it is nice in long races to indicate when I am starting to fade – i.e. when I see my HR go up even though my pace is steady, I need to slow down. Lately, I’ve been getting some bad readings like when my HR goes way down at the end of a run. Maybe there is some slippage of the strap? 🙂

    1. Ah, good point. I think when I first tried using my HR strap, I was wearing it a little low. Now I basically shove it up under the bottom edge of my sports bra … I think for women it’s easier to get it in a consistent spot.

      1. There’s an advantage of wearing a sports bra! Maybe someday we can ditch the strap and the monitor will read our HR from our wrists. 🙂

      2. That would be cool. Although I think your pulse in your wrist is kind of weak – I know it’s weaker than your neck, which is probably weaker still than reading directly over your heart. So it might not be as accurate, but technology does do crazy things these days.

  4. I almost always run with my HR strap, and I’ve used a lot of the info from your previous post 🙂 I think it’s a really good way to gauge how I’m actually doing and if I can push myself a little harder.

    And I almost always overcompensate with my outfit. That’s the one part of a race that I always get right 🙂

  5. I am definitely one of those runners who has the Garmin heartrate monitor and wants to use it but doesn’t know where to begin! This post is SUPER helpful and the spreadsheet is great. I appreciate the tip about how while racing you might keep your heartrate lower at first, but then rise it above the range in the end. After my meltdown at my recent 5K PR attempt, I’m all about anything that will help achieve a negative split. Can’t wait to see what a difference it’ll make!

  6. This is a great post! I’ve had a heart rate strap for years but it’s still in the original wrapping. I actually went through my workout stuff this morning, found it, and threw it in my suitcase (traveling to Michigan this weekend). My goal is to figure out how to use it on the way there so that I can start playing around with it this summer.

  7. Thanks for this post. I have a Polar one that I can use with my Nike+ Sportswatch. However, I just need to replace the battery. I’ve never used the darn thing but somehow the battery is no good.

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