Welcome to the final heart rate training diary – the culmination of my effort to break my half marathon PB by using the heart rate monitor on my wearable devices to change the way I train.
If you're joining at the end of this series, I've spent 12 weeks following a training plan by Greg Whyte, Olympian, trainer to elite athletes and Fitbit ambassador, scrapping speed-based training to focus on bpms, which should make training more efficient and effective.
Essential reading: Best running watches
I set an ambitious target to run a 1:45 half marathon by the end of the 12 weeks. After 1:51 in week 9, I ran Royal Parks Half Marathon and managed 1:46 – something I didn't genuinely believe I'd achieve, even on the day. With the added factor of running through the field, I'm confident in calling my training a success.
So what have I learned about heart rate training that I can pass on? Why should you give it a try and how do you go about it?
1. Spend time finding your levels
One of the first hurdles to heart rate training is finding your levels, and that takes time. See week 1 to find out how to do it. You need to find the sweet spot of your lactate threshold bpm – the point where you can run and run, while still having a conversation.
This will take multiple runs and you need to make sure you don't start your heart rate monitor until you're 10 minutes into your run. If you do, the lower HR at the beginning will skew the data with lower averages. Make sure you run for over 30 mins for a better idea.
2. Heart rate is personal
One thing that always troubled me when training is how high my heart rate was. Is it because I'm a poor runner that I run a half marathon at 180bpm, while others don't get above 160bpm? Well, I asked Greg Whyte and he had this to say:
"It demonstrates beautifully the individuality of heart rate. I have worked with 2:10 marathon runners with a max hart rate of 165 and worked with another with a max heart rate of 220. The differences are similar between elite and average populations as well."
3. Check for overtraining
My achievements via heart rate training are for all to see, but the truth is I trained hard, and I would have made gains whether I watched by heart rate or my speed. But there's one comment I can make on this: half way through the schedule I was struggling to keep up.
"You get immediate feedback on how you're going because it's such a great global measure and it's exactly the thing to do. If the quality goes, you're better off stopping, recovering and keep the quality," Greg told me.
Had I been training by speed I would have just kept hitting targets and suffering, but by looking at heart rate, I could see my speed plummet at the same effort. That told me to take a break. This is one of the few times I've trained injury free and that's no coincidence.
4. Heat is a nightmare
The training plan started in mid-summer, straight in the middle of a heat wave – and I struggled. So I asked Greg Whyte about the effect of heat on training:
"A one degree change in core temperature can be 10bpm higher. On hot days your core temperature rises and while we're good at regulating it can be around 10bpm difference. It's a challenge for everyone," he said.
5. Intervals rule but heart rate is tough
At least one of my sessions per week was interval based, and these are the secret to really unlocking your speed. But I found using heart rate to be really tough here. Firstly, a lot of sensors lag, and I found it distracting checking the bpm while hitting peak output, and downright motivation killing when you realise the sensor has crapped out. I never really got to grips with HR during intervals – I had better success managing sessions by speed.
That said, it's good to check your interval bpm peaks after. If you're finding that you're not hitting the heights of 190 in your intervals, you can hold yourself to account.
6. Look for patterns and benchmark
Unlike running to speed, heart rate is all about benchmarking and patterns. Greg set up sessions every six weeks (MISO cycles) to compare speed at similar heart rates to check how performance was improving. Make sure you do the same, but save it for every six weeks – that's how long it takes your body to adapt. Also, look for patterns. Do you run better after certain foods? Training by heart rate keeps your effort constant and lets you see the true effect of your strategy.
7. It all changes on race day
One mystery of my experience was how my heart beat higher on race day, and it caught me off guard on my first half marathon. But Greg confirmed it's normal, and explained why:
"When you taper you tend to run at a faster velocity, so that heart rate tends to rise slighty. And then there's psychology. You're under stress, pressure and excitement, which leads to adrenaline which drives heart rate upwards. But you can see a 5bpm increase and that's not unusual at all."