Heart rate training is simple right? You put the sensor on, turn on your watch and then go running and watch the numbers go up and down.

Just using a heart rate monitor, without taking any notice of it, will make you a faster runner – this is simply not true.

Heart rate used as a measure for effort in your easy runs was previously discussed in the article “How easy should your easy runs be?

This measure of effort can also be used when targeting faster high-intensity work, such as threshold runs, during race efforts and just generally to look at changes in your training over time.

However it’s not for everyone and some brilliant coaches, like British marathon record holder Steve Jones, doesn’t even like his athletes wear a watch, let alone a HR monitor.

How can it help?

One example, heart rate monitors can make sure that in each session you’re hitting the right effort level for that run. This is important to make sure you’re not compromising everything by doing easy runs too hard and hard runs too tired.

What are some of the common pitfalls?

Be aware of cardiac lag – this is where your HR (especially the one registering on your HR monitor screen) might not be indicative of the effort you’re putting in.

The heart doesn’t just jump from 0-180. It builds up and this lag time can have an impact on shorter intervals and at the start of longer reps as a runner can work too hard trying to get their heart rate up.

Equally, if your heart rate does start jumping up to 250, don’t immediately be terrified that it’s going to explode. Sometimes monitors can go a bit awry. This is often down to a bad connection between the sensor and the body, which works best when there is some sweat built up.

Thus in the winter months, the chest strap can take a bit of time to “warm up”, and sometimes you have to go to town on the sensor with your tongue.

Incorrect readings – If you are getting repeatedly bad readings then maybe it’s time for a new battery as the lower the battery the more likely you are to have problems with your HR strap. Remember also that you can wash the strap (after detaching the sensor), which might make wetting the sensor a little more pleasant.

Don’t over-rely on your watch – this is what Steve Jones is getting at. Sometimes it’s okay to go harder than your watch suggests, just to find out what you are capable of and not be afraid of a pre-defined limitation you’ve set on yourself with the 220 minus your age formula.

The 220 minus your age – it’s not always right. As an example, a fellow runner and I are of a similar age (he is a little bit quicker, but I can run for a stupidly long time to even this out), but there is quite a large difference in our maximum heart rates. His MHR is 184 and mine is 198, so he’s either secretly 36 years old and surprisingly I’m only 22, or it’s not the most accurate of measures.

It’s not a bad place to start, but a much more accurate way of doing this is to get to a lab with a treadmill for testing. Doing a lactate threshold or VO2 Max test can provide valuable information to structure your training in the future and also be a monitor of progress.

Last, but not least – don’t ignore your heart rate data if it is consistently different to what you expect. It could be innocent enough and just be the battery, or high levels of caffeine or even a result of a night on the Red Bulls. But it could also be a sign of fatigue and overtraining, which itself can serious. For more on overtraining read ‘Overtraining: Why it happens and what you can do‘.

In summary, don’t rely on your heart rate monitor, but don’t ignore it either. It can be a really useful tool in structuring training and monitoring progress, but sometimes you also just need to get out and run.