Optimal Heart Rates

I’ll start by answering directly a question asked of me recently: there is no such thing as an optimal heart rate for any running event. Heart rates do not relate to paces. There are many variations in heart rates (HR) due to both individual and environmental influences. See my previous entry on heart rates for more on this.

In fact, if you were to use heart rates to govern your marathon (or any other race for that matter) effort you would progressively run slower. The effect is known as cardiac drift. Despite an even effort, heart rates rise with the duration of the effort.

To illustrate this better let’s look at a real example. Let’s say your goal marathon time is 3:03 or about 7:00 per mile pace. The first question to answer is what heart rate is that? This of course is a question without an answer because of all the variables at work. It could be 145. It could be 135. It could be 155 or 165 depending on weather, nerves, medications, sleep status, training/overtraining/recovery status, etc.

The figures I am about to use are for illustration purposes to demonstrate this drift phenomenon. For argument sake let’s say you actually figure it out to be 145. You start out your marathon at that 145 and supposedly simultaneously you are at 7:00 per mile pace. By the time 10 miles passes your HR elevates to 150. Of course, to “stay on track” with your effort, you have to slow down slightly in order to keep your HR at 145. So now, you are at 7:05 per mile pace. By mile 20 your HR has elevated to 155 so you now back off to 7:15 per mile pace to get that pesky HR back to where you are supposed to have it – 145. And this of course is to be sure you don’t overdo it. In the end you can see that your goal of 3:03 will go by the wayside if you follow HR to govern your efforts.

The argument you will hear from HR training adherents is that they advocate “ranges of HR” not a specific HR so all those HR would fall within a zone and you wouldn’t slow yourself down. This may or may not be true depending on the individual. It may indeed cross zones. Furthermore, if your “zone” starts or ends (depending on how you look at it) at 153 and you hit 154 does that mean you have to slow down to get back under that threshold? How did that one beat per minute suddenly dictate that?

It is guess work. At what point is your HR too high? Too low?

Contrast that with 7:00 miles. It is specific. It is exact. It will lead you to your goal finish time. There is no guess work. And you will have trained at that “goal” pace so you will be able to handle it regardless of your HR.

By the way, at the end of the race when you want to kick it in do the HR advocates tell you to back off because your HR will go too high? No. Instead, it’s a matter of finishing as fast as possible. Isn’t it interesting when such an advocate wants results, they toss HR out the window?

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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 - trailrunningclub.com. 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 Running-Advice.com. 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.
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13 Responses to Optimal Heart Rates

  1. Chuck says:

    Seems this is an example of a tool gone amuck!
    HR is one indication of how things are going. Use it wisely to know your body
    and predict your bodies responses. It is your tool, not your master.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      True… but an inaccurate tool even in the best of circumstances. It simply is counterproductive for those who want to race to better times, places and beating people or courses.

      • Chuck says:

        Inaccurate tool in the even the best of circumstances?
        Really? Counterproductive for racing?
        Sounds like someone who is not proficient with the tool to me.

  2. Chuck says:

    this runner sounds like he knows how to use the tool- By tracking heart rates I’ve seen during specific workouts, I have reference points for over-training, under-training, the quality of my hard efforts, and recovery. I’d like to think that my ability to sense I’m doing just the right thing in training is infallible, but in reality it’s not. For example, sometimes when I have that euphoric feeling after a great race I feel indestructible. I know I’m supposed to do some easy recovery workouts, but what I really want is to keep that feeling going—so I hammer! Not smart. Fortunately, I’m wearing my HRM and I know I’m not supposed to go above a heart rate of XXX on recovery days. I back off so I don’t ‘leave’ my next fantastic race in training. At other times, I may be doing a hard tempo or time trial effort, but I just can’t get going. I look down at my HRM and it’s 10 beats too low for my relative perceived effort (RPE) level. In this case it usually means I’m over-trained and need a break.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Not even the science supports this for RACING. I am not addressing joggers and people trying to learn about getting in shape and learning about “effort”. And every single coach I know – including the elite I have interviewed who supposedly like HR to guide athletes say the same thing when it comes to racing – “they do not follow HR they race for place, time, person…”. Which of course completely flies in the face of supporting HR for racing. By the way, how many of the elite and Kenyans for instance use a HR monitor to figure out if they are doing the right thing? Yup, no Kenyans and few if any other elites. So this is not about being an outlier. It is about when and how to use a very inaccurate and novice oriented tool.

      When a “tool” references “ranges” for efforts… it is already errant. 7:00/mile is specific both for racing and neuromuscular training. It is not a range. And it gets you exactly what you want for a finishing time. Period.

      HR does indeed vary by fatigue, medications, distance run, elevation, humidity, etc. You are right. Therefore it may indeed rise. The problem is that if you are indeed training to run a race to finish in a specific time then it does not do that because no HR can be pegged to a time/pace. Never has. Never will. Time/pace is the most accurate and scientific way to train.

      And yes, I am very versed in HR training and the research it is based in. That is why I have gone to neuromuscular specific training for runners who race – and beginners can use the HR to start with to begin to learn biofeedback – which HR helps with… as a tool.

  3. Chuck says:

    And a 7 min mile split is errant as well, because as an athlete, I want to train to be my best; not for a certain time. Training for a time is just a tool as well. If I train for 7min miles, even though that is not right for my body that day or week, then my training lacked efficiency and effectiveness. Training more efficiently may have given me 6:54 miles on race day; far better than an arbitrary time goal would have led to running for that race. Understanding how to use HR, split times, and other tools in the box is the key to training your best. All the tools have strengths and limitations that must be managed by a good runner and coach. HR is just one of them. Novice Coaches may lean too heavy on one tool or not have the skills to fully use another.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    Though you make one good point.. time also is a tool.. the major oversight is one of accuracy and racing. If you wish to finish 5k in 18:45 it MUST be run doing 6:00/mile. Period. It is just math. But, there is not such thing for anyone under any conditions that a HR of 143 or 155 or 120 gets you to your goal of 18:45. This is not a debatable issue it is simply science and math. And that would be true if you are just trying to “finish” in 18:45 or racing to 18:45. That is the point. I completely agree and work diligently with runners NOT to run even by time if indeed you are “competing” race to your limits and do NOT be limited by HR, time, splits, even effort! Go for it!

    • Chris says:

      Coach Dean,
      I have receintly been conflicted by this debate and am intrigued by your discussions. One thing I have not seen is the reference to the science behind HR. Physiology states that your body reacts very differently to different HR’s. For instance staying within your Aerobic HR range, your body burns fat for energy and leaves the glycogen stores alone. It is believed that by training in this range you can train your body to be more and more efficient at transporting oxygen to and carbon dioxide away from the working muscles. Also, certain HR ranges engage your body’s Anaerobic response. The body looks to it’s glycogen stores for energy, therefore producing lactic acid. By carefully training in this zone, it is believed that you can train your body to better deal with lactic acid for a longer period of time and therefore delay the onset of reaching your lactic acid threshold. A person has a limited amount of glycogen stored in the muscle and when running longer races such as Marathons it is important not to get into those energy stores to early in the race. Once they are used up, you hit the wall, hit the wall to early and your race is over. By training your body to be more efficient at using fat stores for energy and delaying the onset of reaching one’s lactic acid threshold, can be greatly benificial in race conditions. This is only possible when HR Training. At the same time I wonder if I am capable of running faster if I train by running faster? Maybe a healthy mix of both?

      • Dean Hebert says:

        Chris,
        Good points and you have the general idea. But, here are some thing to think about. #1 the correlations with HR-pace-race times-aerobic fat burning-etc. are NOT direct and are highly variable. There are certainly some general tendencies but no more can be said than that. The problem is in applying SPECIFIC HR numbers. Therefore HR itself is not a strong indicator of anaerobic/aerobic capacity. You could think of this example – in a 100 meter sprint which is anaerobic – your HR never rises to a maxHR. You would think if you are going at 100% of your speed that it would automatically equal your max HR too. Not so. And, when talking aerobic aspects, cardiac drift is the phenomenon of HRs rising progressively over time (in a race) even when effort is kept constant.

        Your statement “For instance staying within your Aerobic HR range, your body burns fat for energy and leaves the glycogen stores alone.” Is not completely accurate. Even late in marathons the majority of your energy comes from carbs not fats. Start-to-finish carbs are the #1 source of energy. Carbs can also be ingested along the way and carbs are “burned” faster than waiting for fats to breakdown into a usable source. Don’t get me wrong – you still want to train your body to use whatever fat it can break down! But, a well designed running program would do that in do course if you follow the right paces – regardless of HR.

        Also lactic acid (lactate) though a byproduct is not a bad thing – it is an energy source which you can train to use more effectively. It is not the cause of slowing down or as once thought – the aches and pains we get after hard runs. And the optimal way to train your body to use that lactate for energy is through high intensity work (such as interval training) to teach the body to suck it up and use it. (Read Dr. Owen Anderson’s “Lactate Liftoff” for a fantastic detailed scientific view of this.) After reading this book you can’t help but walk away with a clear understanding on all this very confusing and interrelated stuff.

        To further complicate this whole thing about low intensity fat-burning HR last year I read an interesting research article from Great Britain on distance runners in a specific endurance race in which they found almost across the board that the former supposed range for fat-burning (45-65% max HR depending on the source) in fact ended up exceeding 65%! That means that the LOWEST or SLOWEST you could go is 65% of max HR for optimal fat burning. Now whether this one study is representative or others are is not the point. The point is that HR is just that variable AND individual that it is unreliable – in general.

        There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever, you will run faster by running faster. It is neuromuscular specific. Period. I have never met someone who raced slower when they trained faster within a well designed program. Never.
        And a practical finding which supports everything stated above include that overall training pace (Note – not HR.) is the key indicator of race results (times) not miles run (this was even at the elite level).

        When you combine the basic research results with practical findings the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of training by pace instead of HR at this time.

  5. Zsolt Kovacs says:

    Dan, you’re a bit ignorant about the HR methods. One question if you’re advocating pace and you want your runner to run 7.00 mile pace. How would he know the pace he is running is 7.00/mile? By effort you would say. Now what if that guy is fatigued or now recovered, ill or whatever you mentioned for the HR drift he will FEEL more effort for the same pace, in other words he will run slower because of the perceived effort. This is one thing. The other how in hell you would be able to conserve your energy in a 100k ultra without HR? I am not an elite runner but I developed a pretty good understanding of my body to relate between HR and pace. Pls notice the term I am using AND. Not OR. Nobody is telling you to back off in a race if your HR increases but it gives you a good understanding of what you are doing and what you can do especially in a hilly environment and a long course. And yes, EPOC is scientifically demonstrated. One more question? What is the equivalent of a 7.00 mile pace on hills?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      First be careful about casting dispersions. I am well versed in HR training and that is in fact why I cannot advocate it.
      To answer your questions – how you know you are running at any pace is by looking at your watch and mile markers. How do you know your HR? By looking at your HR monitor. So the point isn’t how you know it. The point is does it get you to be the best runner you can possibly be and is it directly related to outcomes. HR is not directly related (HRs are not what are measured at the end of a race) but time is. Every race I know of determines winners, WRs or PRs by a time over a distance or on a course.
      You’re right about being ill etc adversely affecting how you feel. It greatly impacts HR! But, even if you feel lousy for all the reason you said, a 7:00 mile hasn’t changed and if you want to run a specific time for a race then whether you feel good or bad you have to do that pace. You are not slower because of perceived effort, you have to increase your effort to maintain the pace given those circumstances.
      Beginning runners can use HR as a gauge to learn about effort. That is the one use they have that is quite good. Once you want to improve and race, etc. HR is simply less relevant and not as effective.
      Your comment “Nobody is telling you to back off in a race if your HR increases” serves my point also. If THAT is true then in fact it is NOT an good determinant of what you are doing. As an HR advocates it means that you DO follow it but then again you DON’T follow it. Why? Because it doesn’t make you race better it actually holds you back.
      100k? No different. What time are you aiming for? You better have trained at that pace. By having trained right you will use your pace to “conserve” your energy.
      Hills? Same goes for HR as pace – HR is going to go up unless you back off and if you intend keeping the same pace you have to push up hill. However, that is seldom advocated for anyone other than a tactical move because it is physiologically poor use of energy. On any hilly course you will run slower. Period. Not HR and not pace will be the same. However, given the same course run a couple times, then you aren’t measuring HR you are still measuring time and pace to determine if you ran “better” than the past. No one sits around chatting about how they maintained their HR at 146 on an uphill.
      So, the bottom line is that you are better off with pace/time not HR in all but the beginner scenario.
      Anecdotally: Funny, I just had a runner call me yesterday. Bryan ran with me for part of a year and ran a sub-2 hour HM. He left for another club that promotes HR training. One and a half years later he now runs 2:08 and 2:13 for the HM. He said he is coming back. He gets it now.

  6. nschave says:

    This arguement seems moot. For instance, there are many watches these days that can monitor and provide feedback with the relative accuracy that one would need. It can map your route, show elevation, total time, total mileage, heart rate, pace/mi, splits etc. Unless you are training for a marathon on a track, a reliable gps watch is a must for getting accurate route distances (unless you pre-measure your routes with a measuring wheel) and therefore accurate pace. You can record how you felt, the weather, alignment of the stars, whatever. You can compare heart rate vs pace vs subjective body feedback in relation to distance and elevation covered. Why not learn how these three (pace, heart rate, body feedback) interact with each other? Everyone can choose their prefered tool to guide themselves but why omit other tools for comparison and confirmation of results? Forget Kenyans and elite athletes or anyone else who trains full-time as a job in this discussion. Last time I checked the results of any major race, this group constituted the top 1% of the racing field. Why wouldn’t the majority of racers (novices, average, and advanced runners) benefit from all three metrics in order to interpret their training progress more holistically? I might run a tempo pace today by time, recover by heart rate tomorrow, run a tempo by heart rate later in the week, etc. Or run all by one indicator (time, heart rate, effort) The point is by monitoring both(subjective body feedback monitoring is a given) you always have the results to compare. How did my two tempo’s compare, time vs time, heart rate vs heart rate, time correlated with heart rate, etc? Maybe you’ll notice a pattern (compensate for cardiac drift?) or maybe you’ll confirm Dean’s idea that a heart rate is so sporadic, nonlinear, uncorrelated, etc., that it tells you nothing. I’m sure a doctor would agree heart rate is irrelevant to fitness? and you’ll probably won’t pick up on a pattern (heart rate zones, pace?) that you can use to improve performance? It’s like arguing training by time vs distance. Most people would forget splitting hairs and suggest some of both in general, leaving the final ratio to base training on up to the runner who must at some point take control of their training and choose the correct pace, distance, weekly mileage, recovery, heart rate, etc. To say heart rate is irrelevant and pace is king seems like one is cutting themselves short. If I put you and Roy Benson in the same room and you wrote a book I would probably read it with delight as it would cover a great spectrum of training tips, advice, minutia, etc. I look forward to my signed copy.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Thank you for your quite thoughtful and balanced post. Nicely done.
      I have just a couple comments in response.
      We cannot and should not just somehow ignore how elite runners train. That is where we learn how best to train. We do not have to be elite to train better based on what they do (and science) as models to follow.
      As for holistic multiple measures – this is good for some runners. By far, in my 30 plus years of coaching all levels of runners, most runners are far less effective in their training when following different strategies. And newer runners simply do not have the knowledge of how to deal with disparate information. Having one scientifically sound approach with standards is easier to convey, teach, learn, follow.

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