My thoughts on heart rate training

Earlier this year, I did a podcast interview with a guy who pretty much blasted me because I don’t prescribe workouts based on heart rate. There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t that are simply my personal preference, but I wanted to also show what some of the research says to.

To start, I think I must make some clarifications before people get put off by this article. The first is that I’m not 100% anti heart rate, rather I’m pro treating methods as tools. This is the way I feel about everything from GPS devices, strength training, to the shoes you put on. If you put all your emphasis on one aspect you have no balance in your training. To me, heart rate training can certainly have a place in your HMM training- just not on your speed, strength, tempo, and possibly your long runs. I’ll explain why later. Ok so with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into some gooMonitoring your heart rated stuff.

It’s always hard determining the starting point for these discussions, but I think a good place to start is with how heart rate training is typically prescribed. The first thing you need to do is to determine your maximal heart rate. There are two ways to do this. The first is to do a maximal exercise test (a VO2max test). This will be the most accurate. The second is to use the old standby 220-age = HRmax. This is the easiest and most popular. From there, you take your resting heart rate. The ideal time to determine this is right when you get up in the morning. Lay in bed and see what it is by taking your pulse for 10 seconds and multiplying by 6. The average person should be in the 60-90 range. An endurance athlete can be anywhere from the 30’s to 60’s. Most of the time, though when this is taken it’s not when the person first wakes up, rather, it’s sitting with your personal trainer, or your doctor’s office, and after you’ve had a meeting and three cups of coffee- you see where I am going with this.

So anyway, you take your HRmax and subtract your HRrest from that. So, if I am 33 years old my theoretical HRmax is 187 minus my HRrest of 40, leaves me 137. Now, take that 137 and multiply it by the percentage of intensity you would like to workout at- say 70%. So, you have 137 x .7 = 95.9, 96 for practicality. To determine your exercise heart rate for that workout, simply add 96 to 40 (my HRrest) and you get an exercise HR of 136 for that day. This is the most accurate method, and yet I see too glaring sources of errors. The first is HRmax. Using my example, my theoretical HRmax is 187. I know for a fact that it is still in the 201-202 (was 205 in my early 20’s). Right there, we are talking about a difference of 14 beats! The second is the HRrest. There are two things I’d like to point out. The first, we touched on. The timing you take your resting heart rate. Caffeine, stress, sleep deprivation, etc all play a role. Are you getting an accurate number? The second is simply user error. If using a heart rate monitor to determine to your HRrest, then the number is probably accurate. However, if you use your fingers and your wrist, there’s always human error. If you miscount by one beat over 10 seconds, you are still 6 seconds off in total. The point is, that it’s not a stretch to be 15-20 beats off before you even get going. If you are going to use heart rate then making sure your starting point is accurate is crucial.


 Now that we’ve talked about the prescription of heart rate, I think it’s important to discuss the prescription of pace as a training tool. With HMM, pace is so important. Why? Because the entire system is based on a goal and/or race pace. In our system, Easy runs are based on an amount of time slower than goal marathon pace. Our tempo runs are based on that goal pace, with the strength being a set amount faster than that goal pace. To me, this is really important. I would say the majority of the people we coach have some time goal in mind. It may be a Boston Qualifier, a sub 2:30, a sub 4:00, an Olympic Trials qualifier, or something to that effect. To run the pace required to run that time goal now becomes incredibly important. If you can’t run those paces, then you can’t reach your goals, correct? What I mean, is at the end of the day, do you want to keep your heart rate at 75% or do you want to run the 8:00 minute/mile pace you need to run your Boston Qualifier? I’ll be honest, I haven’t heard too many people cry out in joy at the finish line, “Yes! I kept my heart rate under 150!”

Ok, being serious, if you are dead set on training with heart rate, that’s just fine. I think they can ultimately coexist (a pace and heart rate training relationship), and I’ll discuss that later. However, first let’s discuss some of the factors you should consider if you are training by hear rate solely.

  • Individual day-to-day variances: It has been shown in controlled environments a day to day variance in heart rate of 2-4 beats is fairly common. Through in other factors like stress, caffeine, time of day, rush hour traffic and all of sudden, your day to day variance is significant. Now, while most of the time you are exercising in a specific HR zone that will absorb small variances, it is something to be mindful of. Your day to day activities in all of your life will affect your heart rate for your run. You can’t separate those other things out.
  • Cardiac drift is a significant issue with any endurance training. It has been shown that up to a 15% increase in heart rate can occur after 60 minutes of moderate exercise. It’s not for certain what causes it completely, but dehydration is considered a big factor. The point is, your intensity isn’t changing but your heart rate is. So as you run and cardiac drift occurs, you are going to physically have to slow down to maintain the same heart rate, even though you are fine.
  • Hydration: If exercising in a dehydrated state, HR can be increased by as much as 7.5% above baseline. Bottom line, the more dehydrated you are, the less reliable a HR monitor will be at providing a measure of intensity.
  • Heat: This has been researched a lot and I think we all realize that heat will have an effect on our heart rate. Therefore, this increase in HR will overestimate exercise intensity. However, I will note that understanding your HR in this situation will guide you as to how stressed you are as a whole in a hot environment.
  • Cold is interesting because exercising in cold won’t do a whole lot to HR, but it does increase your VO2, which means that HR will then underestimate your intensity.

What this all means to me:

I look at the whole situation like this: Whether I am training by a pace guided system or a heart rate guided system, you are really taking an educated guess. However, with heart rate I have to take an extra step in the process. I am simply adding one more component that I need to measure- if you are training for a certain goal time. In either case, we are taking guesses at what are thresholds are. I guess I just feel that with HR, I am training at a rate that may be making more fit, but I’m not really certain as to what that intensity is going to be on a daily basis. I guess I feel that you are really just overthinking it with heart rate. Almost like you are placing a limit on what you are capable of.

I really do feel that if you think HR training is the way to go, then you need to know for sure what your HRmax is. You really should get it tested, and when you are doing that, get the HR ranges for your thresholds. I say that because 220 minus your age is ok when looking at a large sample of people, but its individual accuracy can be questioned. When I did my thesis, we looked at about 1500 subjects in a wellness center. We found that for healthy and fit individuals, the rate of decline in HRmax was far less than 1 beat per year of life. It was more like 0.5-0.6 beats per year. So, testing can eliminate some of the guess work. However, you really have to take my concerns to heart, regarding the points above. There really has to be almost a day to day evaluation of what a proper intensity/HR should be in order to maximize productivity. With that said, I think over time, it just loses its practicality for the average person.


Where I think thing like GPS and HR can coexist:

I realize I sound like I am anti heart rate. To some extent I am. Let’s be honest, you won’t find me prescribing anyone’s workouts by heart rate. However, if you want to use heart rate, here’s how I think you should do it.

  • Know your real numbers. Don’t use a silly equation. Get a maximal test, because you can learn A LOT from this test.
    1. You’ll not only learn your HRmax, but if your test is done by running faster and faster, not by climbing steeper and steeper, then:
    2. We can know what your heart rates AND your paces are for all the important thresholds.
  • Use all your tools, don’t focus on one. GPS watches are combined with HR monitors, which makes this easy. The best example is the marathon tempo run. If you want to run 8:00 minute miles, know what your heart rate tends to be at for those runs. If you start seeing that heart rate trend climbing then, take note of it. Are you feeling sick? Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s not. Use the tools you have at hand to know if you are training too hard. We’ve already shown that by relying on that one piece of data, you can have all kinds of variances. You have to be able to look at the whole picture.

Another little tidbit for you.

The main reason we use heart rate is to gauge intensity. The other is to monitor overtraining. Here’s a section from an article I will post below:

“…most studies involving HR responses in overreached athletes, have found marked decreases in maximal HR whilst the changes in HR during sub-maximal exercise are less clear. Sleeping HR has been shown to increase and this has been suggested as one of the indicators for overreaching. Although resting HR may also be affected (increased with overreaching) this measure is less reliable and can easily be disturbed by external forces.”

What this is all saying to me is:

  1. You won’t know if your HRmax is decreased unless you test again.
  2. That overtraining may or may not affect your exercising heart rate.
  3. That your resting HR may or may not be affected.
  4. This one is big: we are now finding out that overreaching (the precursor to overtraining) is indeed key to making improvements. You have to extend yourself beyond your comfort zone to make significant improvement. If you are always pulling your training back because of heart rate, you really end up putting a ceiling on your current capabilities.

To me what it all comes down to is that heart rate will give you data that we can learn without having to log an extra set of information. Does it provide useful information? Potentially, but more in terms of trends and not day to day numbers. If you use it, I’d use it as an add-on to monitor my paces and give me an idea if I am getting fit enough to race what I want to. Would I wear a monitor every day? No. I wouldn’t wear a GPS every day either. For those starting out, I get it. There’s a lot of unknown when you are just starting out. Are we too fast? What is too fast? Am I getting better? These are all very legitimate questions. Having something to measure and provide feedback is great. I just don’t want you to limit yourself and also not learn to listen to what your body is telling you.



  • Les Williams

    Great article, one question on cardiac drift: How much drift is considered to be a significant issue? I have always used a heart rate monitor for training and races (more to compare the data with previous runs), I hydrate well and there is always a gradual increase in my heart rate over time/distance with no change in pace or elevation, which I believe is normal.

    • LukeHansons

      Les, a great question and I wish I would have clarified my thoughts a little better on this. The info I saw was 15% after 60 minutes, but I don’t know if that continues to rise as time goes on, or if it balances out. As I mentioned, dehydration was definitely thought to be a factor. So, we can minimize it, but we all know that we are going to be dehydrated to some point over a 2-4 hour race. With that said, we know that we can lose about 3-4% of our body weight due to dehydration without a loss in performance. This all makes me think that cardiac drift would have to be quite severe, due to something like an extremely warm and humid day, in order to have a significant impact on performance.

      • Les Williams


  • Doug Duncan

    I heard the podcast in question and I actually felt you handle things quite well. Using a heart rate monitor can be great for finding out one’s heart rate and how it correlates to specific levels of perceived effort and pace. Once you’ve used one for awhile, you can really count on your experience with what you’ve learned and put it down for a while. At least that’s been my experience. It can also be helpful as a Remi der after a break in training. But once I personally dial in the correlation between my heart rate and the various aces I’m running, I find I don’t need the monitor everyday.

    • LukeHansons

      Boom! I think you nailed it on the head. It should merely be a guide. I do like the idea of a HR monitor being a way to keep the foot off the gas, especially if someone is on the verge of over training.

  • hamptonrunner

    Well done article. I personally like HR Training quite a lot, but feel that it is just one more piece of the puzzle. I think that the interviewer in the podcast suffered from the condition that “if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail,” and I’m sorry to see you go through that ambush. As someone who appreciates Lydiard especially, I agree that heart rate training is not needed. It is really a way for those who are poor at perceiving exertion to get bio-feedback and be safe. Once runners have RPE dialed in, it probably is just an extra data point.

    • LukeHansons

      Ha! It was fine. I think people realized that that guy just wanted to hear his own voice. Totally agree with your point. If people can use it to learn how RPE, pace, and associated heart rate are related early on, then over time you can still keep tracking these data points, but you don’t need to have constant external feedback. I think it makes it even more important for coaches, including myself, to make sure that we understand what’s truly happening and make sure we are educating our athletes.

  • esdoc

    Thanks for your thoughts on HR monitoring. I do use the HR data with your program, mainly to see from week to week how I am dealing with similarly-paced workouts (compare tempo run to tempo run, for example), and if there is a big deviation I can compare that to how I felt during the run, think about whether I am over-training, or if it’s just normal variation. From one race training prep to the next, months apart, I can also compare similar points in the training program and see if I am running faster while maintaining similar HRs from year to year sometimes. It doesn’t directly determine or change what I end up doing for the training, unless it indicates something else (over-training) that then may prompt me to make decisions.

    HR is just another data set, not a magic indicator. I agree that it is no better than using pace as the foundation for training….and as you said, no one will hand out awards for “Lowest HR” at the finish line.

  • Ton Weijters

    First of all my excuses for
    the language errors in this reaction; I’m not a native speaker of your
    language. With the Berlin 2015 marathon as the target (September 27) I’m searching
    for the right training program with the Hanson’s method as a very attractive
    candidate (supported by a clear and well written basic book). However, reading
    the book I was surprised that a possible use of heart rate information is
    nowhere mentioned in the book. A search on the internet brings me to your “Training
    talk” web side and the article “My thoughts on heart rate training. I totally
    agree with you about many remarks. For instance, the first thing you
    need to do is to determine your correct heart rate figures. I also agree that you
    have to consider a number of factors that can influence the relation between
    your running speed and your heart rate. However, I don’t agree that this is
    always a disadvantage. Let me
    illustrate my argumentation with “heat factor” as mentioned in your article: “Heat: This has been researched a lot and I think we
    all realize that heat will have an effect on our heart rate. Therefore, this
    increase in HR will overestimate exercise intensity. However, I will note that
    understanding your HR in this situation will guide you as to how stressed you
    are as a whole in a hot environment.” Let we assume that our target training time is 7:00 m
    / mile, the corresponding heart rate (Hr) is 154 strokes/min, but it is very
    hot day with a high humanity. During running at the 7:00 tempo your Hr can easily
    increase to 160 or more meaning that the intensity of your effort is much
    higher than intended. In my opinion it makes sense to run that day with a Hr of
    about 154 because the intensity of your effort is corresponding with the effort
    you have to deliver under more normal circumstances. The same counts in my
    opinion if you have the bad circumstances predicted for your marathon day. If
    you planned a 3:30 time with a corresponding Hr going for instance from 145 for
    the first miles increasing to 155 for the last miles it does not make sense to
    keep your 3:30 planning but keeping the given Hr’s make sense. I think you can
    really benefit from careful combing of speed and Hr information.

  • Pingback: Updated thoughts on heart rate – Hansons Coaching Services()

  • Richard Gilbert

    Pretty myopic approach to belittling HR training by taking a biased approached masked as explaining both sides of it. But the problem is, your explanation of HR training is pretty off and not accurate. As an Ironman athlete, I can tell you that HR training is the standard because when it comes to pure endurance sports you have to be able to ‘spread’ your energy evenly across the prescribed miles or else pay for it later. Compared to an Ironman, running a marathon is not very endurance … though it is an endurance sport. HR training has its place and maybe that should have been the approach instead of the way you wrote the article. Base training in the offseason is when you really need to follow your heart. The heart is the measure of exactly how you are doing ‘that’ day.

    But I digress. The proper way to get your zones is not by taking your resting heart rate test or by doing a VO2 max test (though you can do it that way if you want). The best way for the normal every day person is to go do a good warm up then run all out for 30 minutes. Take the average over that 30 minutes then use that as your LT Threshold. Then there are percentages you can take from that to set up your zones. You run in these zones all the time whether you realize it or not. These zones also equate to paces, but depending on how much rest you have or how recovered you are (your form), the pace will vary. What doesn’t vary is your HR. It is the standard for you for every day as a snapshot of you for that day and only that day. Many things will affect your HR (and your pace) like heat, wind, hills, sleep, recovery,fueling, hydrating and so on … and the way to see how you are handling it is your HR.

    The point is, the article is slanted and I am not sure why. HR training has its place and should be used. One great way to use HR is to understand what you are truly capable of when setting goals for marathon paces. Another great time for HR training, as mentioned before, is in the offseason when laying your endurance base. I even think your long slow runs are the perfect time to pay attention to your long slow runs. When the training plan says ‘easy’, watching your HR is a great way to define ‘easy’. But the real point I am making is that it is all the samething. Whether you are running your 4x400s at 5k pace or 4x400s in Z4 … your body doesn’t care. It is the same workout but the spreadsheet just has different labels on it.

    • The title of the blog start with “My Thoughts…” So, pretty sure I am not approaching as an unbiased explanation.