Pace or Heart Rate The Great Debate

The great debate – what is more useful in training: your pace or your pulse/heart rate (HR)? Proponents of each feel equally strong. Leaving subjectivity and economics aside; what does science say?

Regarding Heart Rates

  • The heart is a muscle which gets stronger, larger and improves efficiency with conditioning. (i.e. HR lowers and volume of blood pumped per beat increases)
  • Exertion raises HR and generally more exertion means higher HR to certain limits.
  • HRs have some correlation to other physiologic changes in our bodies. (i.e. lactate threshold)
  • HR may indicate the need for rest if resting HR is elevated in the morning
  • Maximum HR is derived from multiple formulas that are estimates and that vary by 10 or more beats per minute.
  • Individual maximum HR can be reasonably established in a controlled laboratory setting with qualified scientists.
  • HR lag is the effect of HR rising after an effort is completed. (i.e. During fast interval training, your HR will continue to rise after you stop.)
  • HR drift is the effect of HR to slowly rise over longer periods of exercise time with constant physical output. (i.e. HR tends to rise even though you’re maintaining your goal pace in a marathon.)
  • HRs vary greatly between individuals. (i.e. All physically fit 20 year old males don’t have the same resting, maximum or workout HR.)
  • Individual differences affect HR. (i.e. gender, hormones, medications, hydration, sleep status, stress, body position – even upright to aerobar positions on a bike)
  • HR is affected by medications and drugs. (i.e. beta-blockers)
  • HR is affected by the environment. (i.e. humidity, temperature, elevation.)
  • HR is an indirect measurement of exercise intensity.

Regarding Pace

  • All races are timed and are from a starting point to an ending point.
  • The first one to the finish – wins. (Ok, some exceptions for handicapped races, age graded races, etc.)
  • In order to run a specific time for a specific distance a runner should do training at that pace. (This is neuro-muscular specificity. Muscles will function best in the way they are trained.)
  • In order to run fast, you must train fast. (This also is neuro-muscular specificity. Run slow to race slow. Run fast to race fast.) Pace is a direct measurement of intensity.

Some other research tidbits from the experts (exercise physiologists):

  • Subjective rating (1-10 scale) of effort in a workout was more accurate than HR in correlating to pace in at least one study.
  • HR ranges are prescribed to guide training efforts in which pace is secondary. (i.e. 70-85% of MAX HR = aerobic range)
  • A given HR has little to no correlation to pace. (i.e. A 7:00 mile does not equate to a given HR.)
  • HR monitors are often recommended for novice runners in order to learn “effort” levels to avoid over training. (i.e. use as a biofeedback device)
  • HR monitors vary in accuracy and need to be calibrated.

A Couple Final Points

I have had triathletes tell me they could have run faster but they listened to their “coach” who told them to keep their HR within a specific range. The result was a disappointing outing. I have had a number of HR monitor wearers relate to me how much HR varies from day-to-day and run-to-run, despite feeling fine. The fact is if you follow the “ranges” rigidly you will run distance races progressively slower. And finally, a college coach and HR use advocate told me that for one workout, he has his runners go out to a half-way keeping their HRs at 140 then turn around and return in 18:00. Why he didn’t use a HR to guide the effort on the way back? Because he wanted them to run at a fast “pace” to get used to racing and running hard for the last half of the race. Pace again is the critical factor not HR.
If you run to improve your times, regardless of the distance or pace, HR is simply too inaccurate to guide us. So when it comes to heart rate monitors, the research verdict is in – save your money, buy another couple pair of shoes instead. On the other hand, if you like numbers, you can afford it and it motivates you; go for it.

In the end, I know of no race that evaluates HR (MAX, average or recovery) to determine the winner; to determine your personal record; or to break records. Until research can support otherwise, neuromuscular specific training, not HR is the ticket!


Yes, I own and use a HR monitor! But, I dont let it dictate what I’m doing. I do what I’m supposed to and look at the numbers later. They amuse me. 


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
This entry was posted in Running, Training Effectiveness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Pace or Heart Rate The Great Debate

  1. Pingback: Optimal Heart Rates « The Runner’s World According to Dean

  2. Miles Bason says:

    Does distance effect heart rate in any way?

  3. I think the follow-up entry on this topic will answer your question:
    If not, elaborate a little more on what you’re looking for and I’ll try to answer.
    Coach Dean

  4. Daktari says:

    Excellent discussion. There was a question over on the forum at Runner’s World about pacing by heart rate that has generated some lively discussion. I just posted a link to this article. Can you provide any citations from the research literature?

  5. Much of the information comes directly from HR training supporters websites, HR monitor manufacturers and the like. Just read their information and it is rife with “ranges” and “training zones” and caveats about maximum heart rates. As well there are debates within HR advocates about which formula to use to generate their numbers. As for a single source of information which is very scientific – go to Running Research News. Owen Anderson PhD has done superb work of consolidating research from around the world.

    As another anecdotal point: Just yesterday a runner who is training with another coach (an HR advocate) complained about how hard it was to keep slowing down over her long run (15 miles) because her HR drifted upward (one of the phenomenons) along the way. She didn’t feel like slowing down and KNEW she lost time in the end and did NOT maintain her goal pace. Aside from frustration – her question
    was “how will I ever get to run the full marathon at my goal pace if I don’t get to run it in training?” Duh!!! Exactly.

  6. Pingback: HR Training – More Responses « The Running World According to Dean

  7. Dave Smith says:

    I have noticed that during light long distance running, about 5 miles in woods and fields with the dog, my running pace and heart rate seem to be about the same. I strongly suspect that during this exercise, there is a tendency for both to synchronize, and that this is the normal state durinf steady exercise.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Thanks for dropping by. At very slow paces (which most often happen when running with pets) you are right you may see far less variation especially at a modest distance of 5 miles. But, all the science still applies go further or faster, or have “time” goals and HR goes out the window.

  8. groubas says:

    I usually run my easy/recovery runs with a HRM and my HR ceiling is capped. That’s is how I make sure the run is easy. It is very easy to let out competitive instincts take over and make every run a mini race. I have found that temperature affects my running pace a lot and HR rate makes it easier to keep my effort level steady while outside temperatures fluctuate. The results of the HRM have always been very consistent and the readings reliable.

    When running harder workouts I am less constrained by HR.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      One use of HR that might work sometimes for some people. Good that it keeps you in check. One of the aspects I engrain in all my runners is the discipline of when to run hard and when not to – controlling those competitive instincts is important otherwise you are right – it’ll lead to overtraining or even injury. That is an important aspect of mental game training that many runners overlook – restraint.

      • groubas says:

        Another good way to use a HRM is for measuring recovery between intervals/repeats. Instead of going purely on how I feel I can measure the recovery more accurately and the watch can be set to beep as soon as my HR hits a specific number on the way down.

        Still another useful thing might be taking your resting heart rate to see if you are overtrained. But that can be done without a monitor too.

      • groubas says:

        Sorry, of course you are correct. I meant repeats only. I have never run intervals while waiting on my HR to drop.

  9. Dean Hebert says:

    Actually using it for interval training is extremely inaccurate. HR is unimportant when racing ( and for which interval training is getting you ready for) HR should not be used for this purpose. If you do, your rest intervals will be too long as that is the physiology – increased prolonged work yields progressively higher HR. That does NOT mean you should extend your rest. That in fact would yield watered down interval workouts. No go on that one.

    Resting MORNING full resting HR is one indicator for overtraining.

  10. Dean Hebert says:

    You should not use HR in doing for the determining the rest or work periods of any of these workouts: repeats, intervals, Fartlek, hill repeats, etc. Use a watch and keep your periods of work and rest systematically determined.

    • Dave Smith says:

      I joined this board with an observation, that when I ‘run’, gentle jog actually, with my dog, i notice that on the occaisions I need to stop whilr the dog attends to nature, I become aware that my heart rate approximates to my running pace rate. This make me wonder if I am subconsiously synchronizing, as, of course, if the ‘airborn’ phase of running coincides with the heart intaking venous blood, then the deep veins in the calf muscles are effectively ‘supercharging’ the heart.

      • Dean Hebert says:

        Dave – though interesting I know of no science behind either HR and pacing nor of airborne phase versus ground contact phase synchrony with the heart.

  11. SwimBikeJog says:

    I trained for an Ironman with specific HR targets and ran a very comfortable marathon at exactly that HR. As a point, it was a spectacularly slow marathon, but I sure felt good running it. Right until I saw my time. I started training with pace oriented training and using HR as a curiosity rather than an evaluation of effort. In no word of a lie, my IM marathon was still slow, but it was under 4 hours, to my first HR based effort of just over 5. I didn’t learn to run fast. I didn’t learn to hurt. I didn’t learn any feedback from my body with regards to strong efforts over a long race. When I got in any jeopardy, I stared at my HR monitor to answer all of my woes. I have since tossed it in the drawer and just run. Surprisingly enough, my 5K, 10K, 21 and 42K times in triathlons have all dropped. I base this on a few things. I am more fit, due to more years of training. No question. But I do training runs at my target pace based on my open 5K race times. This works for me. I just wanted to share. My run workouts are WAY harder, but my race results demonstrate that the work pays off. Thanks for the articles.

  12. Josh Fields says:

    This is very interesting, and I would not be surprised if you are right. I do have a question though.

    I am running my first marathon. I initially set a goal of 4:00, as I hadn’t run regularly in 5 years, and was about 50lbs overweight. Since then I’ve dropped all 50 lbs, and am running very quickly. I ran a 10k today in 44:05, and could have gone faster had I not been stuck at the back of the pack on congested streets for the first mile.

    Clearly, I don’t have much racing experience at this distance. My 10k time, according to pace/race/equivalent websites (if they’re reliable, I don’t know) equate this with a 3:20’s marathon.

    I’m frankly a little worried about starting out at a pace that fast and running out of juice on the marathon since I haven’t run one before. On the other hand, I don’t want to glue myself to the 4 hour pace and think I never gave it my all.

    WOULD heart rate be useful at all for a guideline for a beginning marathoner like myself? It’s imprecise, I know, and could result in errors in pacing either over or under. I certainly wouldn’t glue myself to a certain heart rate, that’s silly. In the last few miles, I’m sure 90% is fine.. in the beginning, something tells me no.

    What are your thoughts? I haven’t raced in a long time, and never longer than 5k until just recently.

    • Josh Fields says:

      I’ll also add, it’s a pretty hilly marathon, which compounds the issues for a beginner. My legs are strong; I’m not worried about that. Just the pacing.

      • Dean Hebert says:

        Some people think that I am 100% against HR training. And that is not true if they read carefully what I’ve covered in the research and application. For a novice runner it may indeed be instructional and guide efforts for someone who isn’t aware of pacing and capabilities. Which brings me to your situation. Congrats on the 44 in your 10k… well done. The calculators are extrapolations of various sorts and NOT perfect. They assume certain things: flat course, perfect day, perfect pacing, AND most importantly that the runner has done adequate training for that other event – in this case the marathon. Running a 4:00 mile predicts running a 2:05 marathon… but how many four-minute milers can run that in the marathon? A good 5k or 10k means you are in shape for a 5k or 10k not a marathon. And merely because someone has completed some web downloaded 16 week program does not mean the runner is ready to manifest their predictive times.

        So to your questions: If you haven’t trained with HR this is not the time to introduce it.
        Go by pace. But if you have never trained at the right paces it will be difficult to stay on paces. In other words if all your goal paced runs were at 9:00s for you to suddenly to 8:00s (sub-3:30 marathon) will be highly unlikely. It doesn’t have to do with your potential it has to do with how you have trained to run the marathon.
        Start conservative. I recommend someone in your situation (with so many unknowns) to run @ 9:00 (3:54 marathon or so) until 13-15 miles. If you feel fresh at that time, then pick it up to maybe 8:30s if you are rocking it @ 20 then drop the pace and see how fast you can do the last miles. Worst case is that you end up finishing in your CURRENT stated goal pace AND feel like you could have run even faster… GREAT!
        Now you are primed for your next marathon.
        If you need help with getting down to that sub-3:30 range…. drop me a line!
        Good luck!

      • Josh Fields says:

        Thanks for the advice! It was definitely my gut feeling to go with. I have been training with HR, but primarily looking at it afterwards… certainly not abandoning pace to stick with HR. I am training with a partner, and our long runs have all been around 9:45 pace (and we don’t feel beat afterwards), along with tempo runs around 8:00 pace, some speedwork, etc. Our “race pace” runs were very difficult to keep on pace; we ended up averaging close to 8:45 for most of htem, instead of 9:00. So I feel fairly confident in the training we have done; at this point, we’ve done everything but the last 10k of a marathon in training, and felt pretty good afterwards. I think your advice is on point to be conservative at the beginning!

        Thanks again! This is just the beginning for both of us. What I love about training for my first… every week I go out and do the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it feels great. And the next week, I do something harder!

  13. George says:

    I live in a mountainous area where I need a heart rate monitor with GPS device for pace and distance. Running by feel seems impossible as this would result in too fast or too slow a pace for a specific training purpose. Unless you want to walk part of the course, heart rate training is unfeasible here. Just the other day I was passed by a girl walking at a moderate pace, and that makes me uncomfortable. Another observation of mine was that after having switched to heart rate training, the distance became progressively shorter, although the heart rate and the course were the same. In my opinion, training by pace is the way to go. Tomorrow, after having tried heart rate training for two weeks, I am going to go back to training by pace.

  14. David Busby says:

    While running on a treadmil Oct 1st of 2015 i had a Widow maker heart attack, thankfuly two ladies did CPR and shocked me back with an AED. This weekend i will run my first half marathon since then, i never run without my heart monitor, so it depends on your fitness and what you want to accomplish. i just love running and keep my heart rate at 85% at age 56 speed is not that big a deal, living is.

  15. Isbiten says:

    So pacing > HR.

    Maybe (well probably) I haven’t read it carefully enough but when I’m out with the road bike (hope it’s the correct term) pacing feels like very little to go on since there are SOOO many variables. Wind speed and direction, uphill, downhill and so forth.

    I’m definitely not an expert nor total beginner but I just don’t know how measuring pace alone would give me something to go for other than the average for the whole round. Maybe people who are more experienced can take all these factors into consideration and will know at what pace they can do for certain variables.

    Maybe this is simply for running or maybe I just don’t understand it, if so you have to excuse me. Trying to figure out if it’s worth buying a more advanced cycling computer or to just go for the 30ish USD ones (Im in Sweden) that measure current speed, trip counter, current distance, total distance and use my HR monitor (RS400, old one for running) until I feel comfortable?

    Thanks in advance

    • Dean Hebert says:

      You are right – there are so many variables and it’s the same for running. In the end, you went “X” far in “Y” time. It will always be in the context of that day – heat, wind, elevation changes, drafting for bikes. The best indicator for cycling to me seems to be a power output ergometer. The amount of power you put out should be at a certain goal level – knowing that those other variables will always affect the final distance/time thing. So for cycling I say go with power monitoring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s