Heart Rate Training Basics + Polar FT4 Review

I hadn’t worn my heart rate monitor for a while and here’s why: I can’t stand the feeling of constriction around my ribcage while I’m running. It’s why I buy my sports bras in sizes Medium – Large, even though I’m flat as a pancake. (WHY are Nike Pro bras SO tight around the ribcage?) Maybe I just have an unusually large bone structure, but I feel like I can’t breathe when I have things strapped to me. Regardless, while I find them extremely uncomfortable, I still appreciate heart rate monitors as incredibly useful training tools. They’re essential while cross-training (it is MUCH more difficult to get your heart rate up on an elliptical machine vs. while running) and they can help you gauge your run by effort over pace. This is important when you’re running in extreme weather conditions because your body may have to work a little harder to keep your usual training pace. Essentially, a heart rate monitor helps you somewhat objectively evaluate your aerobic fitness (if you’re running an 8:30 pace at an average HR of 150, where once you ran the same pace with a HR of 165, you’ve probably experienced an increase in aerobic fitness). A heart rate monitor is also a good reference for determining whether you should light a fire under your butt or cut yourself some slack and slow down on any given day. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether you’re actually tired or just being lazy, but the heart rate monitor (almost) never lies.

I follow the 180 Formula/Maffetone Method when it comes to heart rate training. Basically, the 180 Formula helps you determine your optimal aerobic training zone. In order to build stamina while reducing your risk of injury, you should run the majority of your miles in this zone. My 180 Method optimal heart rate is 151. The formula for finding yours is simple (with some exceptions): 180 – [your age].

I got inspired to start integrating some heart rate training into my running routine when I read this Runner’s World story about Larisa Dannis, a former recreational runner who ended up becoming the National 50-Mile Champion. Basically, this woman was a pretty good local 5K runner with a 22:42 PR before she decided to train for ultra distance events using the Maffetone Method. This training strategy not only helped her increase her speed (she ran the 50-Mile National Championship course at a 7:11 pace); it obviously also allowed her to become the very best endurance athlete in her field (she set the course PR by 37 minutes). Dannis’ story is so incredible because so many runners assume they will lose speed if they train for endurance with slower, longer runs, when, actually, the opposite is true.

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Case in point: I use frequent (weekly or bi-monthly) 5K races as enforced opportunities for speed work. If I haven’t raced for a few months, I’ll perform up to a minute slower at my next race. Over the summer, I took a couple months off from racing. My 5K time went from 21:28 in July to 22:43 in September, then back down to 21:28 in October. Since adopting the Maffetone Method in November, I’ve increased my average training pace from 7:30-8:30 to 8:30-9:30. I didn’t do any speed work or run any races from November to January. When I returned to race in January, I was able to easily run a 22:32 5K, which is a much better “comeback time” than I’m used to. Since November, I’ve focused on running fewer fast 3 mile training runs and many more “conversation pace” 8-10 mile runs. If anything, I’ve improved my speed through endurance training alone. Now that I’m racing again, I’m really excited to see where HR training can take me.

Dannis’ story is inspirational to me because I’m pretty sure I was born without a single fast twitch muscle fiber. I just don’t run fast. I’m not a sprinter. I can’t jump high. This was a huge problem for me when I was a skater, too. What I do know about myself is that I have the capacity for great endurance, both physically and mentally.

2015 is the year I really want to work on slowly increasing my aerobic base mileage. So I took my HR monitor out for a spin a few days ago to see how my body responded to different paces. This report is from a 4 mile conversation pace run with several hill sprints thrown into the mix. The results?

My ideal 180 Formula HR (151) is currently achieved with an 8:20-8:30 pace.

A “hard” effort (sprinting up hills at a 6:50 pace) yields a HR of 174 every time.

As for my gear, I train with the Polar FT4 Heart Rate Monitor. I like it, for the most part. It has a really nice display and it’s easy to switch back and forth between different data screens. However, I do not consider the watch’s calorie count at all when it comes to figuring out how much I need to adjust my intake to fuel any given run. If I ate according to this watch’s calorie count, I would starve to death. For instance, I always make sure to eat at least 100 calories for every mile run. This watch claims I only burn 250 calories over four miles of speed work. Whatever. The message I want to impart is: Please don’t rely on machines to tell you how much to eat. Listen to your body and eat intuitively.

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Questions for the Internets:

Do you wear a heart rate watch to train?

What’s the difference between your 5K/10K/marathon pace and your training pace?

Are you a sprinter or an endurance runner?

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