Heart rate monitors seem like complicated devices that only advanced runners use, but that perception is far from the truth! Runners of all levels, especially new runners, can benefit from using a heart rate monitor to learn how to assess and control the intensity of a run.
Heart rate monitors come in multiple forms, but the most popular and reliable is the heart rate monitor with the chest strap. If you experience problems with chafing, be sure to use Vaseline or an anti-chafing balm (like Body Glide) where your skin and the strap come into contact.
When Are Heart Rate Monitors Useful?
A heart rate monitor will do exactly what the name suggests: monitor your heart rate during exercise. When you run, your heart rate increases as your heart works harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to working muscles.
You will get the most benefit from a heart rate monitor when you use it on an easy run. Easy runs are runs done at an intensity low enough that you can talk if you need to. These low intensity runs offer numerous benefits, including decreased risk of injury, less soreness, increased aerobic fitness, and more enjoyment.
Yet despite being called an easy run, maintaining a low intensity can be anything but easy for runners. Many new runners will start out at a moderate to hard effort, because that’s the effort that is most often associated with running. But not every run should be hard! Runs done at an easy, comfortable effort are what will build your fitness the most with the least risk of injury.
Using a heart rate monitor will help you control the intensity of a run and keep your easy runs truly at a low intensity. Using a formula (which you can find below), you will have an exact range of numbers for your target heart rate. By making sure you keep your heart rate within this zone, you will keep your run at the appropriate intensity. Easy running will be actually easy!
According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, new runners will benefit the most from heart rate training. Heart rate monitoring will help new runners more precisely and accurately train within the proper zone for each workout, especially easy runs. And since new runners should wait until they build an aerobic base before doing speed work, they can use heart rate monitors to control intensity on all of their runs and learn how to run at the appropriate perceived effort.
When are Heart Rate Monitors Less Useful?
Heart rate monitoring becomes more complicated and less practical on interval runs. Your heart rate doesn’t instantaneously jump up when you start running faster—it can take up to thirty seconds for your heart to settle into a new rhythm.
This means that heart rate monitors may be misleading when you do interval workouts, especially if you are doing shorter intervals. Your heart rate won’t reach the desired zone until partway through the hard interval, and then your heart rate may remain elevated throughout the recovery interval. If you are using a heart rate monitor during longer intervals, your heart rate will stabilize during both the hard and recovery intervals—just know that you will need to give it a few seconds to adjust each time you change your pace.
How to Understand Heart Rate Zones
What’s your maximum heart rate (MHR)? Age, your current fitness, resting heart rate, and other individual factors affect your max heart rate. However, most equations only factor in age, because of how varied the other factors are. There are many formulas out there for maximum heart rate, but research has found that the most accurate equation is 208 – (0.7xage) = MHR. So if you are 27 years old, your MHR is 189 beats per minute (BPM).
Once you know your maximum heart rate, you can determine your target heart rate for different types of workouts. As mentioned above, heart rate monitors are most useful for easy runs, which means most of the time that you use a heart rate monitor, you want to program it for the easy run zone of 65-75% of your max heart rate.
- Easy runs: 65-75% of MHR (123-142 for our 189 BPM runner)
- Tempo runs: 87-92% (164-173 for 189 BPM runner)
- Intervals: 95-100% (179-189 for 189 BPM runner
What Other Factors Can Affect Heart Rate?
Anything that can elevate your resting heart rate will affect your heart rate during exercise. If stress or anxiety causes your heart rate to increase at rest, then your heart rate will be proportionally increased during exercise. Hot weather and humidity can affect your heart rate, as can dehydration.
Anything that surprises or alarms you can spike your heart rate during exercise. For example, if you are running in the dark and a deer jumps into your path, your heart rate will increase but not reflect an increase in exertion.
With those factors considered, you may find it beneficial to use an additional metric such as perceived exertion when doing heart rate training. Use your heart rate monitor to target the right heart rate zone, but also assess how your breathing and perceived exertion during the run. Your easy run target heart rate should correspond with only slightly elevated breathing and the ability to carry on a conversation.
Whether you are a new runner who hopes to make running a habit or a more experienced runner looking to improve, heart rate monitors can help you achieve your goals. Heart rate monitors can teach you how to control your effort and run at an easy, comfortable pace—and whether you just want to run comfortably for 30 minutes or want to run faster in a race, running at an easy intensity will help you achieve those goals and stay injury free.
There are a slew of heart rate monitors that integrate with Runkeeper, which means you’ll also get audio cues during the run updating you on those stats. Check out the full list of compatible devices here. Better yet, if you complete this month’s 5K or 10K Challenge, you’ll access to an exclusive discount on the Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor in the Runkeeper Store—just look in your completion email for a specially discounted link.