To Heart Rate, or Not to Heart Rate: That is the Question… 9-17-17

Suunto HR Strap
Sixty percent of the time, it works every time…

How beneficial can training by heart rate (HR) really be?

Shouldn’t you be training and/or racing by feel?

With all the ascents and descents in ultras, is it even worth it to train or race by HR?

Aren’t there a ton of other factors that impact HR, other than fitness?

Is it uncomfortable to wear that strap all day?

How bad is your tan line?


Angeles Crest 100 was my 25th ultra, and first race ever completed wearing a HR monitor. Granted, I’ve been training via HR for the past 18ish months, but have never strapped one on (nothing like a ridiculously dirty reference to start a post) for a race. Utilized as a tool to keep my effort level low in the first 30 miles of AC, I’ll likely be rocking a HR for most races moving forward. The data is glaringly objective, and yes there are a myriad variables that impact HR, but it provides an honest assessment of effort at any single point in time. Had I not used a HR monitor at AC, I would have undoubtedly pushed harder than necessary in the high country miles of the race. This tool provided the gut check I needed to dial it WAAAAY down, when I felt like my pace was relatively dialed.

This post is not meant, by any means, to sway your opinion on if you should or should not use a HR monitor in training, as it’s already a fact that you should (insert sarcasm emoji). Rather, I wanted to provide some details on how I’ve used this tool to help in training, racing and recovery.

HR data helps to better dial in my training plan

Tracking daily HR data, rather it be average HR for a recovery run, average HR for specific hill repeats, tempo run info, or a max threshold to use as a cap, this data provides useful info for properly gauging training effort and stimuli. Instead of “high effort,” we can get fairly granular with training (Stagecoach repeats between 160-165HR and low 12:00’s). Training by HR and time allows for more precise tuning within the workout. If my recovery has been shit, my HR is going to jump into the 170’s at a 12:00 repeat pace up Stagecoach. The increased HR during the workout can help to dial down effort to 12:10’s or even 12:20’s, while still providing enough stimuli to induce change. By only training off time, I’d be forced to push on some days higher or lower than needed, possibly lessening the impact of a workout.

HR data objectively measures gains in fitness

How do you measure fitness gains while training and racing ultras? This can be a difficult question to answer, as there are so many variables to account for in this crazy sport. In preparation for a road or track race, being able to run mile repeats significantly faster at the relatively same effort a month apart, can be a good indicator of an increase in fitness. Racing the exact same ultra from year-to-year with similar results could actually equate to a significant increase or decrease in fitness due to the myriad variables at play (changes in temperature, windy and/or wet conditions, a change in shoe choice with more or less grip, slight shifts in pacing, nutrition changes, lack or over hydration, etc.). When used to track gains in fitness, considering the variables between workouts/races are similar (sleep, weight, stress, etc.), a lower HR at the same pace is a fairly objective indicator of gaining fitness.

HR data supports adequate recovery

How do you know if you are adequately recovered in order to nail the next hard workout or upcoming race?

This is a very difficult question to answer, again because of the variables at play when training and/or racing ultras. To best guestimate my recovery from day-to-day, I ask myself these questions constantly:

  1. Are my recovery runs at or around a similar HR, based on terrain and pace from the previous several weeks, and do they feel very easy?
  2. Do I have any “niggles” or body issues that are not getting worse?
  3. Is my HR and effort during workouts at or below levels from previously similar workouts?
  4. Subjectively do I feel rested, not irritable and somewhat normal?

Without HR data to objectively define the difficulty of a workout or the “recovery” in a recovery run, this entire process is measured by feel. Without years of running experience and the understanding of the body that comes from this tenure, I need every tool in the kit to aid performance. Leaving my training up to subjectivity has helped me survive a few years of running, but it’s much more effective when partnered with objective data.

HR data can be an effective “yellow light”

From the very little field experience I have of using HR in a race, it has definitely served as a warning from lead footing it. Outside of AC, I did piggyback off Thomas’ HR data at the Sean Obrien 100k. We had been training together for over 5 months at the time, and knew undoubtedly that my HR was 10-15 bpm higher at nearly any pace, over any terrain. When Thomas’ HR crept up towards 150 on the first significant climb of the day, he let me know and I decided to downshift right alongside him. Feeling light and strong with a recent taper and the adrenaline surge of early race miles, having this warning of 160-165HR was important as I wouldn’t of let off the gas otherwise. From a previous blog, SOB turned out to be a good day based on our levels of fitness at the time.

HR Monitors
HR monitors… there’s are a ton of options to choose from

What HR monitor should I use?

Garmin, Suunto, Polar… oh my! There are both a variety of brands creating high quality HR monitors, and two main types of devices pulling the data (chest strap or wrist strap). As funky as it can feel to wear a HR chest strap at first, I’ve found the data to be more accurate in a variety of temperatures and throughout different effort levels.

Garmin was my “Go To” brand for nearly my first four years of ultrarunning, but when the battery in my Fenix 2 finally went kaput and wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10hrs of use, I decided to try a Suunto Ambit Peak 3. After figuring out the basic differences in configuration, I couldn’t be happier with this pick. Yes it’s a bit heavy, the satellite receiver is bulky and there are very few bells or whistles, but it’s everything I need in a GPS watch/HR monitor. This pulls GPS faster than a hummingbird on meth, and the HR data seems very accurate based on a side-by-side comparison of the Fenix 2. With an IPhone app that provides all relevant workout data needed, nearly 20hrs of battery life and a price point well below the Fenix 5 or Suunto Spartan, I’ve found my running tool for the foreseeable future.


What I’ve learned using a HR monitor

  • HR data is uncomfortably honest and difficult to stomach sometimes, when it says I’m working too hard
  • Training and racing by HR helps me to be more patient throughout a run
  • HR data confirms my fitness gains
  • HR is not a perfect training tool, but its a tool nonetheless to help improve

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