How do I use heart rate as guidance to run faster?
June 12, 2016 3:09 AM   Subscribe

I am a lifelong runner in my early 40s who’s having trouble getting to the next level. I have a pair of friends who are the same age as me, have been running as long as I have, and train about as much as I do, but they are much faster. One thing I’ve noticed from their Strava files is that they’re able to sustain a much higher HR for longer amounts of time than I can.

For example, for a PR half marathon on pace for a 1:40 finish (7:40/mi pace), my heart rate was in the low 150s. That did feel like quite an effort for me. My friends are running their halfs at heart rates in the low 170s for finishes at 1:30 or faster. I can barely sustain HRs at 170 for a mile. For a PR 10k with a 44:00 finish (7:04/mi pace), I was at a heart rate of low 160s.

My friends' heart rates and paces correspond roughly to mine, which is to say, if I could do 170 bpm for 26 miles, I would be finishing marathons in the 3:15 range like they do -- but my marathon PR is closer to 4:00.

What can I learn from this data? Do I just need to start training to sustain a higher heart rate and intensity for a longer amount of time?
posted by Borborygmus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I found a couple of calculators online that gives you an optimum HR range for races. You input your max HR and your resting HR, and it spits out ranges for 5K, 10K, HM and so forth

For the record, I'm in my early 30s, and have a maximum heart rate somewhere north of 200 and a resting heart rate of 60. My HR ranges for HM is between 172 to 177. I try to start the race with my HR in the 160ish for the first kms, then let it creep up to around 188 by the end of the race. My HM PB was set in a race where my average HR for was 173, so there's still some room for improvement, I think. I run 'easy' half marathons at an average HR of high 160s and I do not crack 180 by the end of the race.

In terms of training, the online calculators spit out training heart ranges for long runs, easy runs, tempo runs, etc. To use myself as an example, I run easy runs and long runs between 150 - 160, so **much** more slower than my Half Marathon race pace.

I run for fun, so I rarely do tempo runs or speed work. But if I do, my HR is about 180ish for tempo runs, and 190++ for speed work. In other words, 10K and 5K pace.

For your situation, It can just be that your maximum HR is much lower, and so you're running at an appropriate HR range for you (but lower than other people)? And you are running your easy runs way too fast? Your max HR does not really change with fitness. Or the other answer would be tthat you're not pushing yourself when racing?
posted by moiraine at 4:30 AM on June 12, 2016

This is a question that you should really ask of a coach, who can work with you to build a plan that will help you achieve your goals, which seem relatively achievable. I'm guessing that you probably just "go running" most or all of the time, without much structure other than the length of time that you go. If you add some structure, meaning higher intensity intervals, pace work, etc, you may see improvements relatively fast, since you already have a solid aerobic base.

On preview, moiraine's online calculators are probably a good place to start, though, most of these kinds of things are calibrated to people in their 20s so be real conscious of what is going on with your 40 year old body(says this 33 year old who keeps hurting himself because he keeps trying to do things that were easy when he was 23...). A coach with specific experience working with masters runners would be more cognizant that things take more time. Something else a few sessions with an actual coach might help you with is form and reducing wasted motion, which might easily net you a decent gain of speed with little extra effort.
posted by rockindata at 4:41 AM on June 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your friends may also feel terrible both during the run and for the rest of the day if they sustain the high heart rate for more than a few short intervals. Like this hurts, but I can push through. I don't see the point of being miserable.
posted by Kalmya at 5:05 AM on June 12, 2016

kind-of emphasising a few things from above: the idea isn't that you train your heart to beat faster. typically that's just person-to-person variation. instead you use a heart rate monitor to make sure you train at the right level. and you define "right level" as relative to your personal max heart rate (so the first thing to do is to find out what that is, by measuring it directly).
posted by andrewcooke at 5:07 AM on June 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been thinking about this and I don't think it's to "train the heart to beat faster" but to increase the strength(?) body/metabolism/respiration/system to not tire at a faster pace. I stopped my first attempt at running due to calf tension/pain but I was disappointed at my speed and I've been thinking that instead of a second try at "jogging" distance to begin running to try some sprinting to get the "bod" to learn that fast is important. (Along with biking and walking for general cardio.)

You're a serious runner so different than my start point, but I do think that changes like this are a long term project, not months but long and steady and involve all elements of diet, strength, stretch. Possibly something like a very very slow increase in running up hills very fast. I know that sentence reads a bit paradoxical but the body will change but it can't do it any faster than it can, and that's a long term project.

(I was a dancer who started late so I was aware of changes, it's maddening how long it takes and OMFGaging, but clearly from the amazing stories athletes over 30+++ it can always be molded)
posted by sammyo at 6:43 AM on June 12, 2016

Yes, the normal way to train yourself to run/swim/bike/etc faster is via interval training or so-called 'wind sprints' and the like.

The idea is that you (basically) habituate yourself to moving a that higher rate of speed, which generally corresponds to a higher level of effort and a higher heart rate, but doing it in short bursts with some rest in between. A fair part of the effect of this is that you are, exactly, training yourself what it feels like to exert at that higher heart rate level--something you never experience if you just go at a steady pace all the time.

In my experience, doing some interval work a few times a week has a pretty dramatic effect in upping your overall base speed. Couple of articles: 1, 2.

Getting a coach to help you design a specific workout plan for your specific goals is a good idea. In addition to intervals, there are a whole spectrum of things runners do to work towards improving their time at a specific event. Doing these things--like training to a specific level, then tapering off in a certain way leading up to race day--can make a pretty big difference in results, even given the same general fitness and training level.

I your a lifelong runner you probably know all this better than I do, but it's still worth thinking about. There may be ways to tweak your specific training plan to get more out of it, without necessarily spending more time or running more miles.

My own particular interest is bicycle riding/racing, and it is well known there that many people who put in many miles and are very, very fit are also just not fast. The general explanation for that is that they always ride slow (presumably because they prefer it) and so they have trained themselves to ride slow. If you want to ride fast, you have to train fast. Thus, intervals and--for bicyclists--things like motor pacing and riding with a peloton of faster riders. When you train, you are not just training your muscles and overall general cardiovascular conditioning, but also your entire nervous system, energy delivery systems etc.

If your nervous system is trained to 'know' that a 4 hour marathon pace is the right pace for you because that is what you have trained at, then that is certainly what you'll revert to in a real race. Everything about it will 'feel' right, including the amount of exertion and heartrate.

"It doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster" is a famous quote, and though I generally ride about 1/2 the speed of the guy who said it, I can vouch for its truth in the spectrum of my own physical conditioning. At times my basic speed has been 10-12 mph and other times, more like 18-20 mph and literally, they both feel about the same. How you go faster is by training faster--your whole body, nervous system, etc.

Contrariwise, the differences you see may simply be (at least to a degree) the differences in physiology etc that make one person faster than another regardless of training regimen.
posted by flug at 8:18 AM on June 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh and I just wanted to add, when I have gotten fitter, I find that I can run faster at a particular heart rate. When I was training for a marathon and running twice my usual weekly mileage of easy runs, my pace per mile dropped by 1:30 at the same heart rate (150-160 bpm).
posted by moiraine at 10:16 AM on June 12, 2016

Your fundamental point may be sound, but be aware that comparing HR with others is a fool's errand and people, even at the same fitness level, can really vary a lot - an awful lot - in heart rate.

What are you using to track your HR now? An optical tracker on wrist or a strap? Straps are much more accurate. Are you doing any interval training currently? That's the key to boosting speed. Have you look at any online training programs built specifically to increase speed over a certain distance? There's tonnes, and they will work.

Additionally, you can sign up for online running coaches, many of whom are professionals and will put together a good program for you. What you want is totally achievable. Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 4:47 PM on June 12, 2016

Heart rate by itself is practically meaningless, especially since maximum HR varies enormously from person to person. What matters are four things:

(1) The amount of oxygen your cardiovascular system can deliver to your muscles. This involves the amount of oxygenated blood your heart can pump, which is HR times stroke volume: the amount of blood pumped with each heartbeat. As athletes train, their hearts tend to enlarge (up to a limit), specifically the left ventricle, so their HR tends to drop for a given effort. But it also involves the amount of oxygen that can get from the blood and be used in the muscles, which depends on developing new capillaries in your running muscles.

(2) The amount of oxygen your muscles can use once it's delivered there. This involves building more and larger mitochondria in your muscles, and improving your abilities to clear lactate and to recruit motor units while running (using more muscle fibers, which reduces the fatigue on each one).

(3) Your speed at VO2max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use per minute per kg of body weight. It's not the maximum itself that matters, but your speed at the maximum; good training can improve both.

(4) Your running economy: how much energy it takes to run a given pace. Other things being equal, some runners just use less energy (per kg) to run at the same pace.

To simplify a bit, training addresses #1 with long, slow runs at an easy pace, as in you should be able to carry on a conversation without straining. It addresses #2 with tempo runs, which Jack Daniels describes as 20 minutes of running at the fastest pace you could sustain for an hour (after warming up, of course), or intervals totaling 30 minutes at that pace. It addresses #3 with faster intervals of 2-4 minutes with short rests between them, and #4 with much faster intervals of up to 2 minutes with relatively long rests.

Training with a HRM is most useful in ensuring that your slow runs are slow enough, and your fast runs are fast enough. Exactly what that means depends on the coach, though. I would suggest reading Jack Daniels, Daniels' Training Formula, for a traditional view; Pete Pfitzinger and Philip Latter, Faster Road Racing, for a variant; and Philip Maffetone, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing for a program that emphasizes much more training at low intensity than the others.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:12 AM on June 13, 2016

I just came to add some anecdata to the notion that heart rate varies a lot from person to person. I'm also in my early 40s, and recently ran a 37-minute 10k. My max heart rate is 170. Following your logic above, if I could sustain 170 bpm for 26 miles, I would break the marathon world record.

On the other hand, I have a friend in his mid-50s who routinely hits 190 bpm or higher.
posted by partylarry at 11:25 AM on June 13, 2016

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