Henjo Hoeksma
Henjo Hoeksma

How to properly train for running based on my heartrate?

One of my goals this year is to run a marathon distance. My ultimate goal for this year is to run an ultra distance of at least 50km. 

While building up my training schedule and researching lots of materials I have come to conclude I should be training based on my heartrate more than speed (pace) or distance alone.

When focussing on running longer distances speed is less and less relevant. It will be more relevant to be able to continue your effort, to endure the length of the run. Training based on heart rate will help you achieve just that: building endurance.

Running injuries

Some people say injuries are a part of the running sport. This is - factually - correct. However, I have started running with the goal of improving my health. I reckon most people who practice whatever kind of workout activity have health as one of their primary goals in mind. Especially the ones above 40 

I had to stop running years ago due to a knee injury. 

I dumped my running shoes in the trash believing running just wasn't for me. I recovered, went slow, was diligent in my approach but my injury kept coming back. Lot's of runners - or former runners - will know what I mean. At the end I was just fed up with it and reluctantly decided to forget about running altogether.

When my physiotherapist told me it was fine for me to run, if I kept some rules in mind, I was thrilled and anxious if it would work out... It is a time in my life where I want to focus on health, not injuries...

I firmly believe it should be possible to be a runner without having to cope with recurring injuries. And so, my research has begun... (while I keep getting those km's and fresh air in!).

My research on how to train rightly led me to heart rate training. 

But first...

Why running? Why not something else?

To me running is one of the easiest ways to exercise. I don't have to travel to a location, I can go long or short depending on the time frame. Also I am not bound to some form of membership. Some might find that helpful to motivate them to go exercise, but for me that's just rubbish: if I cannot motivate myself internally external motivation will eventually not help me in the long run.

I also love to go outdoors. Working at a desk whole days every raid of sunshine and fresh air is more than welcome to me. Especially when looking at the main objective: health.

Training for health and endurance

In my research I learned that most injuries come from going too fast, either in speed or in too much distance too soon. Running has an impact on your body and with everything: it takes time to adapt. Your muscles, joint and ligaments need time to adjust to be able to cope well with the impact of the exercise.

But not only that: also your heart. Condition is something entirely different than strength or speed. And for a long and healthy running career we need some of all. And speed is probably the one we often favor most out of our ego.

Triggered by our friends on Strava or our own thoughts it's easy to think we are too slow and try to pick up the pace. Or your goal for a race is set a little too high and leaping you into a wrong modus operandi in your training sessions.

So training your heart to become better at providing oxygen to your muscles is maybe the core of proper training. At least that's what I have come to believe.

Training your heart will lead to better endurance and will benefit your speed as well. Like I see coming back in the research again and again: "you have to slow down to go fast".

But how do you train properly taking your heart rate into account?

That question is keeping me busy at the moment a lot. And to be honest: I completely have not found the answer!

There are lots of articles about the subject. And not all - as with every thing these days - are in agreement.

I have found that the 2 most methods out there are seemingly incompatible for me. First of there is the MAF method, MAF standing for Maximum Aerobic Function. Developed by dr. Phil Maffaton. And there is Jason Friel's method used a lot in the triathlete and endurance world which has a lot of zones based on percentages of your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate. The latter meaning as much as the point where your body can no longer get rid off the acids and you will starting to get those heavy and burning muscles.


For me, these methods render the aerobic zones (the heart rate where you are building up condition and endurance) completely different. 

For example when using the MAF method I would come to a maximum heart rate of 126.

This is calculated as follows: 180 - age (44)  =  136. Now if you have been running consistently 4 times per week without injury you can plus 10. If you have been sick or had a cold more than once last year subtract 10 bpm. Leaving me with 1116 - 126 as best zone to train in.

When using Jason Friel's method I would have to determine my LTHR either in a lab (which will be most precise) or by running 30 minutes in a pace as fast as possible as consistent as possible. The average heart rate of the last 20 minutes will give my LTHR. In my case around 178.

Then a whole lot of percentage stuff takes place to determine the different zones rendering for me the two most interesting ones: Zone 1 up to 150, Zone 2 151 - 159. In this method the second one is called the aerobic zone.

Now - this leaves me puzzled.

Both aerobic zones are figuratively spoken miles apart... Leaving me with the question how to properly fit this into my training...

There is more to say about the details of the methods used and I do not mean to be complete here. Lot's of good articles about either method can be found easily if you would like to know more.

My current short term strategy

Upcoming week I have one race scheduled, my first one ever. 

This week is my recovery week and I will be running less km's at a low heart rate. So I will try out the MAF this week (although looking at the last couple of weeks I think it will be more walking than running!).

I think I have to treat the methods a bit different from each other. MAF as being the ultimate desirable situation but since my overall condition is too much off, these numbers are probably far out of sync with each other.

I will have to revise my plan no matter what in the coming weeks, so any input is appreciated!