Learning to Train with a Heart Rate Monitor

Recently, I’ve been using the Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) that came with my Garmin 405 (i.e. “G”); after almost two years of running with G, I’m finally realizing its full potential.

In retrospect, it would have been ideal to learn the benefits of training with an HRM before I tackled a plan that led me to 26.2 miles last winter. Yet, being stubborn and happy with my running thus far, I resisted. Admittedly, I already run with “gadgets” (Garmin watch & iPod); I wasn’t thrilled about adding to the list of technology I strap on just to go out and put one foot in front of the other.

Post-marathon running felt so open; I had nothing telling me how far or at what pace to do any of my runs. I found myself curious about that HRM strap – what could it really tell me? Was I missing something? Would it help? If I go for a bike ride, will it help me learn how hard I’m working at a different type of exercise?

Answers: a Lot, yes, Definitely, and as it turns out, my bike rides are working my heart!


Thus far, I have two theories: My HR “naturally” high (if that’s possible), or I have a very skewed perception of an “easy” run. On almost every outing, my HR jumps into the 170s and hangs out with 190-200 more often than not. But, contrary to what that should mean, rarely do I find myself gasping for air or wandering how in the world I’m going to physically keep going. Usually, 170-180 is my “just chugging along & starting to breathe hard” mode. So, what does it mean?!

I did my research; according to MarathonGuide.com, these are the benefits of training with an HRM and learning your personal Resting Heart Rates (RHR) and Maximum Heart Rates (MHR):

  • You can track your Cardiovascular Fitness – learn how to keep your Easy runs easy, and figure out when you’re physically able to push those hard workouts. “Measuring the work-rate of the heart is the most accurate method of how much benefit you are deriving from your workouts.” Using HR ranges, you can go into each workout (tempo run, easy run, speed intervals, Long runs, etc) with a guide that will help make sure you don’t overdo it or underestimate your ability.
  • You can prevent over-training. If every run, ride, swim, etc is done at 80%+ of your MHR, you may be overexerting your body. This range is using up your glycogen stores, damaging tissues, and opening your body to injury by repeatedly over-taxing the muscles. “Using a heart monitor to avoid stressing your body too much means that you will maximize the efficiency of your training, while minimizing the opportunity for injury.”
  • You can also prevent under-training. Calculating your MHR, RHR, and ranges in between gives you a “coach” of sorts – something that tells you that, while you may be tired/bored/distracted by some external factor, your heart can handle more than you’re giving it – “telling you to work harder”.

There are a number of ways to determine your MHR – RunnersWorld, MayoClinic, and MarathonGuide.com all provide options and formulas. However, the best option is to find it! For runners or bikers: choose a hill workout, and check your HR after a warmup and completing 3-4 hill repeats. Or, choose an interval workout and check your HR after 3-4 repeats of at least 400 meters. For me, so far the highest number I’ve seen is 200 – without intentionally getting there, and without mentally nothing “this could be my max HR”. I don’t think it is, I’ll be experimenting.

Don’t overdo it on this test! Do not injure yourself with the mentality “I can get higher”. Use this as a baseline.

You then use your MHR to determine ranges for other workouts. For example, according to Runner’s World, use your MHR’s 90-95% range for a 5K race:

  • Assuming my MHR is 200 – I would aim for a 5K race   keeps my HR between 180-190.


Last night I ran 5.7 miles in 50:35 – this is an average pace of 8:53 min/mile. Normally, I would say that’s an “easy” day pace for me. Last night, it was 80+ degrees, my legs felt sore (ST30 + biking), and I was pushing it. Most of my middle paces were 8:15, 8:20, 8:08 – but I had to walk up a certain hill for 0.3 mi in the 4th mile because there was just no way I could run it and still keep going. With the Connecticut Ave hill left in my loop, I chose to run/walk from there and finish out the 6.5 miles in 63 minutes.

My average HR? 168. Again, assuming my MHR is 200 (until I notice otherwise), this means I was running at 85%. Well, no wonder I got tired! I need to remind myself that I haven’t done “speed” work since before the marathon; I haven’t run consistently this month because now I have a bike, and I’ve been sick twice in the last four weeks. Maybe my “easy” pace is no longer 8:45-9:00; maybe, for now, I need to take it a little bit easier and listen to my body when it’s telling me what is/isn’t difficult. If you haven’t caught on, I”m a little stubborn, and this is a learning process.

Do you train with an HRM? Do you use ranges for certain workouts, or go by pace instead? Do you think your HRM accurately “measures” your effort during exercise?

I’m very interested in your thoughts, approaches, and experiences with this. I feel like there is a lot to learn from fellow runners, as well as reading, testing things out, and personal trials. Discuss!



Filed under about me, learning, new things!, running gear, training

17 responses to “Learning to Train with a Heart Rate Monitor

  1. ultrarunnergirl

    Fantastic post. I’ve just started using a hour monitor this year and figuring it all out. You really laid it out simply – I feel like my understanding jumped a level.

  2. I wear my HRM a lot, but not all the time. A few things I’ve learned:
    1) my avg HR when running has decreased from around 175 to 165 over the past year, which I believe means my endurance has increased 🙂
    2) my HR increases in the cold weather – which is odd because I’ve read it does the opposite for most people
    3) treadmills are very very wrong when calculating calories! it’s frustrating that people can leave a treadmill thinking they’ve burned 400+ calories on a 30 min run
    4) I lovvve wearing it for intervals! it has helped me so much in that I can see when I need to push myself and when I need to rest

    Great post!

  3. Heather, I am glad to see you beginning to use your watch to it’s full potential. I have the Garmin 205 model, I really wish I had a heart rate monitor. I would love to train using HR zones – I am a big fan of Joel Friel, he has a great book out (which I have in hopes of one day getting a watch with a HR monitor) called Total Heart Rate Training.

    I think you would see a dramatic difference in your race results if you started training using zones. You do tend to go out and just run, pushing it a lot of time. (That is not a criticism, just a fact. You know I love you and would not be negative towards you.) I just think that if you go and push things again and again and again it starts to work against you after a while.

    I definitely feel that HR measurements are probably some of the most accurate readings and feedback you will get concerning your running which is why I would love to get my hands on an HRM. Good luck – I think you should test it out this summer and see what happens. 2-3 months of experimentation might be totally worth it.

  4. So interesting! I’ve resisted my Garmin’s HRM for the same reasons you did, but this makes me curious about what mine would show. We used heart rates fairly often on my high school swim team—not sure why I hadn’t thought it would help me as a grown-up runner, too!

  5. I *just* got an HRM last week … I have the Garmin 205 which doesn’t support it, but just picked up the Adidas miCoach. Love my gadgets! (This will eventually replace the Nike+ since that has been so unreliable for me anyway)

    I did an assessment run first, and then took it out for my half marathon on Sunday. It’ll be interesting to compare with my normal training runs and speed work. It read a lot higher than I expected (though I was working hard –nearly five-minute PR on a hilly course!)

  6. I’ve been thinking about using a HRM for some time now (Like you, mine came with my Garmin 405 and was quickly shoved in a drawer) because I feel like I may be in the “overexert/over train” category. I also think that keeping track of your HR is the best way to make the most out of your workouts. Right now I just measure my workouts by pace, but I’m going to look for my HRM as soon as I press ‘Submit’.. really!

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  8. Lacey

    oh my gosh my head is spinning. and i’m looking at my own unused HRM in horror. lol. i should use it… i am in the exact same boat you were in tho,… just have never used it so of course the first time will be the hardest. i just need to TRY it already and figure it out. your tests on yourself are super interesting!!!!!!!!!! goes to show pace doesn’t mean a whole lot all the time. gahh.

  9. Elizabeth

    “or I have a very skewed perception of an “easy” run”

    You? No way…

    That said, I hear you on the stubborn thing. I have to remind myself to actually listen to my body on a regular basis.

  10. My Garmin 305 came w/ a HRM and I used it at first, but haven’t in such a long time. I know I would benefit from using it so I’d know when I was really working my body hard. I kind of tend to run at one pace regardless of how far I run, and that probably needs to change…

  11. Really interesting post! I do not have an HRM, but have thought about getting one. Been hesitant because I feel like I know when I’m working hard and when I could go harder, and kind of base it on breathing and sweat. I have heard the treadmill is not correct too. I think it would be great to learn how your HR reacts to different exercises, even just daily activities too!

  12. I have one and use it, but have no idea what any of the data means. I look at it and say things like, “look! new max HR!” or “wow, look at the little mountain made out of the chart!” I’m sure that tracking this better would make my workouts better. Hmmm..

  13. This is something I have never done… no real interest at this point, though I may explore it in the future.

    Sounds like you are learning a lot and that’s awesome!

  14. Liz

    I used to train with a heart rate monitor back in the day, but I find it a pain to wear at every workout now. I prefer to wear them on hard/endurance workouts to make sure I’m not killing myself.
    I used to have a reebok heart rate monitor (relatively cheap) that I know did not work all the time because sometimes it would drop down to zero or shoot up to 220 out of the blue! But the Garmin seems to be accurate so far.
    I think they are a great tool for people who are trying to lose weight and don’t want to overestimate calorie counts for exercise, which is a common problem.

  15. Yeah, I rarely wear my heart rate monitor, but I keep thinking “I should start doing that someday soon.” It’s obviously useful to really know how hard the body is working to keep up a certain pace. Some days one workout is significantly harder than it would be any other day.

  16. Indeed i do train with a HRM… i dont use it other than to make sure it gets to 80% of my max inorder to get my fitness bonus at work. my work tracks it and we must exercise atleast 5 hours a week- minimum of 3. the more you exercise the more money you get. basically i get paid to run! WIN!!!!! i love my HRM and will never ever run w/out it!

  17. I didn’t buy a hrm w/my garmin, but I’m thinking about it. I probably push too hard on some of my easier runs. very interesting stuff, for sure.

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