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Pacing Tools: Heart Rate Monitors

I started because I wanted to help runners avoid the age-old problem of missing goals due to poor pacing. A Paceband and a sports watch, combined with the knowledge you have of your own body built up through hours of running are all you really need when starting out. However, as your running progresses you may find yourself getting a little more technical with your training, and want to start analysing data from your runs. If there is one piece of technology to reach out for, it has to be the heart rate monitor.

I was never a fan of carrying anything unnecessary on runs; water bottle, phones, chunky MP3 players all stayed at home, but since I was already wearing a sports watch to time my runs, a heart rate monitor was a natural progression.

Until this point I had been pacing myself on “feel” alone, but making the jump to a heart rate monitor enables the runner to measure pace, or in fact, effort, with much greater precision and with an easy to understand numeric output. Running at a consistent heart rate enables you to pace your race effort much more accurately. As you start to climb a hill you’ll see your heart rate rise, and can slow your pace accordingly to make sure that your overall effort remains consistent. Conversely, as you drop downhill and gravity lends a helping hand your heart rate will drop, showing you that you can squeeze a little more pace out of the legs to run an even effort.

Of course, it is not as simple as blindly following the numbers on a watch: you might be running an event with very long uphill sections, where you’ll need to push a little harder than your “average effort” so that you don’t fall too far behind on your Paceband later in the race. Or you might start to realise that as your race progresses and you start to tire, your running form and economy will suffer, and your heart rate will naturally increase a little. Using a heart rate monitor in training and racing can help you to get more in sync with your “engine”, and understand exactly what is going on in your body. The more you run with a heart rate monitor the more you’ll associate certain heart rates with certain efforts and paces, putting you more in tune with your body, and pacing yourself much more effectively.

Apart from pacing, I noticed other bonuses to using a heart rate monitor:

·        If you’ve gone out for a training run or race in a foul mood, or you’re just having a off day, it can cause pacing on “feel” alone to be inaccurate. Having a clear readout of your effort will let you know how hard you are really pushing.

·        Once you are in tune with your resting heart rate, you’ll be able to tell whether you’ve recovered from the tough 10 or 20 miler you did at the weekend, or should take another day or two to recover and avoid over training.

There are plenty of books on heart rate training and running available online. If you want to get technical then books like “Total Heart Rate Training” by Joe Friel, or “Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes are personal favourites, but can be too in-depth for beginners. You will also be well served by a lot of books from the late 90’s and early 00’s, when heart rate training really boomed: don’t be put off by the retro covers.

When it comes to choosing a Heart rate monitor, I would strongly advise staying away from devices such as the Fitbit which have been proven to sometimes give inaccurate data. My favourite brand has always been Polar: one of the pioneers of heart rate technology, who have consistently produced well thought out watches which most importantly give accurate, reliable, real time data. If you’re on a tight budget, then you might want to look at some of their simpler, earlier models, like the Polar FT1, which is easy to use, and available for as little as £30 online.

If you want to better understand your pacing, and take your training up a notch, give a heart rate monitor a try: it really can make you a better runner.