Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Guest Blog: Have a Heart ... Rate Monitor

I love firsts ... from the most emotional moments in life like my first kiss, my first dance with my husband and the first step I watched my sons and daughter take; to lighter firsts like my first job, my first 3-mile run, my first blog post and today ... my first guest blog post!

It should come as no surprise that today's guest blogger is my husband Matt. We've been in this together since our running began in Jan. 2011. I've made no secret of the fact that our new shared, healthy lifestyle has re-energized our marriage in more ways than either he or I could have imagined. While I take the lead on our whole-food, plant-based diet, Matt takes the lead on all aspects of our physical training. It's the perfect partnership.

Matt has been fully engaged in better understanding "heart rate training" and how we can leverage it to further our accomplishments in running. We encourage those of you who have trained using a heart rate monitor to share your experiences below. And, of course, if you have questions, ask away in the "comments" section below or drop us an e-mail at breakingfour@gmail.com.

And with that, here's Matt ... 

Matt on his 42nd birthday -- leaner
than at any other time in his adult life.
He makes aging look easy, doesn't he?

Kellie and I started running consistently in January 2011. We ran our first half marathon four months later. To prepare for it, we read several online training plans, following a fairly generic “beginners” version, which had us running a set amount of miles each week. We started modestly, running 10 miles per week and progressed to 25-30 miles per week. We did this 3-4 times a week.

We completed a long run every weekend, our first of which began with 5 miles. We increased our long runs by two miles each week up through race week. We didn’t pay attention to pace. For us, it was about endurance and building up the miles. For example, sometimes we’d run a 3-miler at a 10:00 pace, other days we’d run the same mileage at an 8:00 pace. Our long runs ranged between a 9:30 - 10:30 pace. There was no rhyme or reason. We simply ran as fast as we could muster each time out.

We’ve done OK with this approach. We missed breaking 2:00 hours by two minutes for our second half marathon in Sept. 2011. We completed our fifth half in Sept. 2012.

Recently, I read Finding Ultra by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll. He’s a guy who had an "Aha” moment (as Kellie calls it) on the eve of his 40th birthday when he recognized he had trouble walking up the stairs. In a moment, he decided to turn his life around.

Roll had been a recovering addict who had begun looking to food for comfort and self-medication. Following this transformational moment, Roll’s wife -- a vegetarian -- urged him to start a plant-based diet. He did this and also resumed swimming -- a sport he excelled at in college. He eventually incorporated running and biking into his daily exercise routine, logging many training miles and building endurance.

When he decided to tackle an Iron Man race, he sought guidance from a trainer, who told Roll that his training was haphazard and ineffective. He encouraged Roll to incorporate a heart rate monitor into his runs and to begin training at his “aerobic” heart rate for long runs. At this point, many of you may be as confused as I was. But don’t worry -- I dug much deeper and will explain this more clearly.

Training at lower heart rates (60-70% of maximum) for more strenuous activities, such as long runs, keeps our bodies in the “aerobic zone” where our bodies burn mostly fat.

Training higher than this rate means our bodies are in the “anaerobic zone.” This zone is preferred for exercises like running sprints or shorter miles because at this level our bodies burn short-term energy reserves, with only about 15 percent of energy coming from fat. Consequently, we should only do anaerobic exercise for short intervals. (Though, our bodies will recover in a few minutes, so we can repeat the exercise several times during a single workout.)

By training in the “aerobic zone,” we actually train our bodies to burn fat. Why is this good?

For starters, it’s a great way to lose excess weight. Also, being able to run using fat as our main energy source means we can train for longer periods of time (i.e., more than one hour) without requiring “re-fueling.” Essentially, training at this lower heart rate allows us to build a stronger base, which means we’ll eventually be able to run farther and faster at the same heart rate. Conversely, endurance training in the “anaerobic zone” weakens our bodies, leaving us prone to injuries and making recovery more difficult.

When Roll started training for long runs at his “aerobic zone," he was shocked by how slow he had to run in order to stay within his targeted heart rate zone. Heck, he had been running 2-3 hour training runs by this point. He thought to himself, “How can I ever run faster by running slower?” But, that’s exactly what happens. By training in this way, Roll built a strong base and went from running a 10:00 pace at that heart rate to running a 7:00 pace at the same heart rate within several months.

The short is, Kellie and I will purchase heart rate monitors and begin training in this “aerobic” heart rate zone. Our general game plan is to do this from now until the end of February, at which point we’ll be about 8-weeks from our New Jersey Half Marathon. We’ll continue to run our long runs at this heart rate zone and also begin incorporating tempo runs (race pace runs between 3 and 5 miles) and intervals (faster paced half miles with slower jogs in between the faster segments).

I’ll track and share our progress with all of you every other week or so (I’m an engineer and, therefore, pretty vigilant about this stuff). I’m confident this new, more structured training approach will elevate our running to a whole new level.


  1. Anonymous12/18/2012

    Hey Kellie and Matt, this is my first visit to your blog! This looks great! I been through several heart rate monitors. What I'd find (not surprisingly) was that I would max out my heart rate during my exercise routines (whether it was running, cycling, spinning, etc). I also found that the aerobic zone was surprising low, if I would walk briskly up a decently steep hill, I'd hit the anaerobic zone. I didn't have the patience to keep using the HRM, but have read something very similar to what you posted. I am curious to hear about your experiences with HRM training. - Larry

  2. Great job Matt! Couple of questions...can you do this walking to build up to running or just start running at a slower pace? Also, how do you determine your aerobic zone?

  3. Larry – We’ll give it a go for couple of months and hopefully we see progress. We’ll be running either way, so the downside is pretty low. I'm really though hoping we follow in what others have said - i.e. it starts out with you having to go frustratingly slow, but eventually you do reap the benefits.

    Keri – Yes, this is appropriate for walking as well. In fact, for many people they will start off having to walk a decent amount (if not entirely) to stay within the aerobic zone.

    The aerobic zone can be determined by either a metabolic cart (device that analyzes your breath as you exercise at varying intensities to determine what composition of fat vs. carbs your body is burning) … or a simple calculation. I’ll show you how to do the simple calculation.

    Step 1 - Calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR). For woman, it’s: MHR = 209 – (.9 x age). For men, it’s: MHR = 214 – (.8 x age)
    Step 2 – Determine your resting heart rate (RHR). Just take your pulse when you first wake up in the morning.
    Step 3 – Calculate you working heart rate (WHR). WHR = MHR – RHR
    Step 4 – Calculate the aerobic zone. The lower end of the aerobic zone is: Lower = RHR + (.6 x WHR). The upper end of your aerobic zone is: Upper = RHR + (.7 x WHR).

    I know it sounds complicated, but it’s not. I’ll do myself as an example.

    Step 1 – MHR = 214 - (.8 x 43) = 179.6
    Step 2 – RHR = 50 (give or take)
    Step 3 – WHR = 179.6 – 50 = 129.6
    Step 4 – Lower = 50 + (.6 x 129.6) = 127.8. Upper = 50 + (.7 x 129.6) = 140.72

    So, I should keep my heart rate between 128 and 140, targeting about 135.

    And BTW - most gym equipment these days have built in heart rate monitoring capability. I don't think it's tremendously accurate though.

  4. Thanks so much! My lower is 152 and upper is 164 so I should aim for 158? That seems high doesn't it?