How Much Does Your Heart Rate Matter When Running?
There was a time when very few runners ever wore heart rate monitors. Not so anymore. On any given run, you’re bound to see folks wearing something around their chest or wrist to track their ticker. And some devices are so diminutive that most of us probably don’t even recognize them as heart-rate monitors.
Why have they become so popular? And are they really that useful? Let’s dig into why some runners swear by using heart rate monitors and explore the limitations so you can decide whether it’s a method you might want to try.
Why some runners swear by monitoring their heart rate
Wearing a heart rate monitor obviously tells you how fast your ticker is going, which can useful for gauging your effort. Most people target a certain percentage of their maximum heart rate, which will vary depending on the type of workout. But first you need to determine what your maximum heart rate actually is. You can do this with some very simple math.
The most common method for determining your max heart rate is to subtract your age from the number 220. Say, for example, you’re 30 years old. This would mean your maximum heart rate should be about 190 beats per minute. If you’re doing a workout intended to keep your effort at 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, you’d aim for 133 beats per minute.
The benefit of using a heart rate monitor during a hard workout is that you’ll know whether you’re pushing yourself fast enough to increase your VO2 max, your maximal oxygen uptake. Why would you want to do that? Improving this metric makes you a more efficient runner. That means you’ll be able to run at a faster pace for longer.
Research has demonstrated completing intervals at 90 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate is incredibly effective at improving your VO2 max. The only way to know for sure that you’re pushing yourself adequately is to track your heart rate. Just because the pace you’re running feels fast doesn’t mean it’s fast enough. You may find you have to adjust your speed to get in the right zone.
On the flip side, using a heart rate monitor can ensure you don’t go too fast on your easy runs. Some runners find they actually improve their performance by slowing things down during easier days. Runner’s World explains pacing yourself based on your heart rate allows you to reap the benefits of aerobic training without stressing your skeletal and muscular systems too much.
Why it isn’t always a reliable method
There are clearly some perks to training with a heart rate monitor, but you should know there are also limitations. There are tons of other factors besides running that can influence how fast or slow your heart is beating. Both air temperature and hydration can play a role. Studies have even shown that day-to-day fluctuations in heart rate are pretty common. How much caffeine you’ve consumed, how much you’ve been sleeping, and how stressed you also affect your heart rate.
These might seem like minor issues, but it can really throw things off when comparing workouts. Just think about how you might perform the same interval sequence after a few weeks have passed, expecting to see an improvement the second time. If the next session is on a super hot day when you’re exhausted from a sleepless night, your heart rate is likely going to be just as high at a much slower pace. That could be true even if you’re in substantially better shape.
How you can try it
It’s ultimately up to you whether you want to pursue heart rate training. If you want to give it a try, know you can opt for a chest strap or a wrist-worn device. There are a lot of opinions about which one is best, but it might not actually matter that much. So far, the research indicates both models are pretty accurate.
If you know you hate wearing something around your chest, you might want to start off with a tracker you can wear around your wrist. Many runners are used to donning a watch anyway, so it probably wouldn’t be much of a change. That said, there are a lot of chest-worn monitor devotees. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions.