Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1

I’ve written before about the need to go faster if you want to get faster. And Part 2 of this post will be on heart rate training and going hard.

But today’s post is about the other end of the spectrum, the need to go easy, and how working with a heart rate monitor helps with that. Like my post for beginning cyclists who want to get faster this post isn’t aimed at those who already use a heart rate monitor for training or who are experienced athletes. It’s pitched at beginners who are curious about heart monitor training.

I’m a big fan of the No Meat Athlete, and I agree with him when he says: “If you’ve never measured your heart rate while you run, I can almost guarantee that your “Easy” pace isn’t easy enough.”

When you first start running, riding, rowing or whatever you pretty much have one pace, the pace you can run, row, ride at. And left to our own devices that natural pace is the one we tend to stick to. Changing up the pace is a great reason to get out there with other people. I actually have never really bothered with recovery rides. Bad cyclist? I’m not so sure. I commute often enough and ride often with people who are slower than me that I don’t worry about getting easy rides in. But running is another matter.

The Runner Academy has this to say about easy runs, “Of all the things runners find most difficult, performing an easy run is at the top of the list for most runners. If you don’t think this is true for you, it is even more likely this is the case. That’s right, easy runs are anything but easy. On it’s face this does not make sense, but failing to properly execute easy runs are often the culprit for injuries, poor performance in harder workout sessions, falling short of expectations on race day and not reaching your potential as a runner.”

One of the problems is that in order to know that the run is easy, you need evidence. Yes, you can chat with other people and run deliberately with a slower group than you usually do, but the best way to see that it’s actually easy for you is with a heart rate monitor.

I know there are some of us who think that weighing, measuring, and tracking suck the fun out of everything. And I agree there are times that the heart rate monitor strap can seem like one device too many. Tracy has blogged about mediated exercise versus intuitive exercise here.

So we all know that training programs typically have easy, hard. and moderate days in the mix. And even without a heart rate monitor I think we all have a good handle on “moderate” versus “hard” workouts. But “easy”? Not so much.

When you’re wearing a heart rate monitor that makes a noise when you’re outside the easy zone, it’s a truly humbling experience. I did it first with running some years ago. It was a shock to me that to keep my heart rate in the target zone I had jog so slowly that my walking pace was faster. Sometimes I just opted for walking. Later, as I got fitter, I could still run in the recovery zone. And it was a real eye opener for me to finally get to the stage where there were different possible running speeds for me.

Running slowly is apparently something elite runners do a lot. In Train Slower, Race Faster Matt Fitzgerald explains why: “Because they run a lot, and if they ran a lot and did most of their running at high intensities they would quickly burn out. But you can also turn this answer upside down and say that elite runners run slowly most of the time so that they can run a lot. Research has shown that average weekly running mileage is the best training predictor of racing performance in runners. The more we run, the faster we race. Keeping the pace slow most of the time enables runners to run more without burning out.”

On the bike, it was better, less humbling, though some coasting was involved. But still there were hills I couldn’t climb and stay in the “easy” zone.

In my post on why I recommend starting to ride a bike in the fall, I talked about how hard it was for “the fast guys” to ride with the slow  group in order to stay in the recovery zone.

I wrote: “My slow group of the faster cycling club in town even had some of the racer guys riding with us one fall. The racer guys were in strictly regimented training programs with coaches requiring them to submit speed, distance, and heart rate data and they were under orders to ride slow and keep their heart rates down in the off-season. Nothing like having a young man with the physique of a greyhound yell “ease up” to the chubby, middle aged woman at the front of the group. It warmed my heart and made me smile. For us, we were on a different agenda. We were finally fit and fast after a long summer of riding and the cooler weather made riding fast fun. “Suffer,” I thought about the young, fast racing guy though I did eventually slow down, just not right away.”

Heart rate training is tricky at both ends, the high and the low. See this article on heart rate training on the bike and the challenge of going easy.

“The problem with HR training is that it requires discipline. The bigger problem is that it demands even more humility. Last September, when I embarked on what I’d decided would be my final attempt to use an HR monitor properly, I was only a few weeks into my programme when I very nearly threw the towel in. I was doing a four-hour base-building session and trying to keep my HR between 121-131bpm when I heard whistling behind me. I glanced over my shoulder to see a bloke on an ancient Dawes touring bike complete with tatty old panniers coming past. Then I noticed the sandals…”

With me, it’s the 70 year old speed walkers in the park!


9 thoughts on “Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1

  1. Come run with me. I’ll keep you slow. My comfortable pace (at which I can speak and not gasp for air) is so slow that my normal casual walk is faster. But, I’m just getting started with running, so I’m okay with that.

  2. Thanks so much for this Sam! I sympathise completely. The past eight weeks I’ve been on strict instruction to stay between 142 and 158bpm – a very wide spread, my new coach noted with a raised eyebrow – and it’s incredibly hard outdoors (easier on the trainer, of course, but even then…). Partly that’s because the terrain in London (UK) is very mixed and the traffic makes steady pace a challenge, but I have even more trouble in the big nature park where I ride because it’s mostly traffic free. The humility thing is by far the hardest part, right up there with the voice in my head that (still!) says: if you’re not going hard you’re not getting anywhere. Learning to trust the counterintuitive nature of “easy” training is the real challenge here. And knowing that pain doesn’t really always equal gain. And remembering that endorphin rushes aren’t everything…

    1. If you’re going to want to use it on the bike and running then Garmin is a good choice. Garmin bike computer + running watch + heart rate monitor strap. Christmas is coming!

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