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Article - 18 August 2011

Heart Rate Training 101 for Novice Runners.

Q&A article written for Runner's World:-

Q. Why should I use a heart rate monitor when I run?

A. Heart rate is a bodily response to physical exertion. With each beat of the heart, oxygen molecules contained in the blood are pumped to working muscles. The harder we run, the more oxygen our working muscles need and so the quicker our heart beats in an attempt to supply that extra oxygen rich blood. This makes heart rate monitoring a really useful tool for runners when it comes to guiding training or racing intensity. The first step is to find your maximum heart rate. Simply run easy for 15 minutes, hard for a further 5 minutes, now run as hard as possible for another minute and aim to go to your absolute limit. The highest number recorded by your monitor should be your maximum heart rate. You can now calculate your training 'zones'. These will give you a very simple, yet quite sophisticated means of squeezing more out of your available training time. Three basic training zones could be as follows:

Low Intensity             60%-80% of maximum heart rate.

Moderate Intensity      80%-90% of maximum heart rate.

High Intensity             90%-100% of maximum heart rate.

Depending on the type of running you want to do, ie 5k, 10k, Marathons, your training could be organised around these three zones in such a way as to encourage optimal training adaptations specific to your chosen event or preferred running distance.

Q. What does training in different heart rate zones do for you?

A. Training in the low intensity zone may feel very easy, and so it should. Time spent here really helps to develop a strong cardiovascular system improving the body's ability to get oxygen to and waste products away from working muscles. It also encourages the use of fat as a fuel source. Generally speaking 80% of your running time and all your long runs should be spent in this zone. Moderate intensity running would include tempo and threshold running. Running in this zone puts a far greater emphasis on stored carbohydrate as the predominant source of fuel as opposed to fat, and it is also quite physically and mentally taxing to maintain for any length of time. The latest research also shows that training at moderate intensities may give the least return for the effort you put in and so only 5-10% of training time need be allocated to this zone. High intensity training can only really be maintained for a few minutes at a time and is usually done in the form of intervals. It really is best done once you have reached a good level of conditioning and have put in the miles at lower heart rate intensities. At that point it becomes an excellent means of developing out and out running speed. Although it is worth pointing out that because heart rate tends to lag behind effort, you may only see your heart rate move into this zone towards the end of an interval. This is normal and is the reason why some runners prefer to look over their downloaded heart rate data following a high intensity session rather than during it.

Q. What kind of session can I use my new gadget for?

A. By far the biggest training mistake most runners make, whether novice or experienced, is to run too fast during their long, slow runs. This is where using a heart rate monitor really comes into its own. It ensures that you keep a lid on the effort rather than letting ego or a running partner dictate the session.  Long runs should be carried out at between 60-75% of maximum heart rate if they are to be effective. Overtime you will find that you are able to run more quickly for the same heart rate – a sure sign of improved fitness. The key is to let the monitor be your guide rather than taskmaster. For example, there is no point in slowing to a crawl when running up a hill just because the monitor tells you to, just aim to stay within the zone most of the time. You will soon learn to associate the changing sensations of effort with different heart rates which also means you are well on the way to being able to 'listen' to your body – the hallmark of every good athlete.

Q. What should I look for in a monitor?

A. A heart rate monitor that 'only' monitors heart rate is actually quite difficult to find these days. You are more likely to come across gadgets which include an array of functionality and this can often be well worth having. But let's start with the basics: Aside from aesthetics, ideally you want to have the ability to set different heart rate zones and then to hear a 'beep' when you stray into a different zone. This ensures that, for example, when you set out for a tempo training run in your appropriate heart rate range, then that is what you do. Additionally, a lap counter is also a valuable tool for sessions which may involve training in two or more zones during the same session such as in an out and back run. The ability to download the data post workout, either to a desktop or web based software programme, is a great way of keeping track of progress and learning to understand what sort of training works for you. If you have more cash to spend, then a monitor which also includes GPS functionality can be an extremely sophisticated way of analysing your training and racing as it also allows the factoring in of running pace and gradient. If you are or become really serious about your running, then it is good to know that data produced by off-the-shelf equipment allied to a well kept training diary recording food intake, sleep quality and how you generally feel, can give you practically as much insight into your body's functioning as is available to Olympic athletes. Now surely that is worth having?

Q. What is Cardiac Drift?

A. If you have been using a monitor for a while you may have noticed that sometimes your heart rate increases throughout a session even though you are holding a constant pace or effort level. The most common reason for this is down to something often referred to as 'cardiac drift'. This is typically due to dehydration and occurs when the volume of blood in our system drops due to the sweat response and the fluid is not then being replaced. As a result, less blood gets pumped around the body with each heart beat. Then, because our exercising muscles are being asked to maintain their work rate, the heart has to beat more quickly in order to provide the same amount of blood as before, hence a gradually rising heart rate for the same level of exertion. If you experience this it is not a cause for concern but make sure that you take some fluids on and if necessary slow your pace to allow your heart rate to fall back into the target zone. Research has shown that factors such as dehydration, heat, altitude, the time of day and even biological variation can influence exercising heart rate by anything up to 20%. Certainly most deviations from your 'normal' heart rate response to exercise will be for good reason. As you become more experienced with using a monitor you will learn to appreciate that heart rate responds to training, racing and the environment in a highly individual manner and can give you a real insight into your general wellbeing. Like the saying goes, 'listen to your heart'.

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