Should Runners Train by Heart Rate?

We were complaining about running again. All my miles lately felt hard, and I didn't know when I would ever run a fast race like I used to. My friend, a newbie runner with the goal of building her aerobic base, hated how slow she had to run. 

But I knew her to be fit—her first love is powerlifting after all—and so I started peppering her with questions. What pace was she at? How far was she going? Why did she feel she had to run so slow?

She said she was putting in hours of work—running at a 15-minute pace—because she knew that to reach the maximum benefits, she needed to keep her heart rate low. She'd purchased a heart rate monitor, and instead of measuring distance or pace, she ran for a preset number of minutes with her heart rate readings playing back in her ear. Sure, it was a pain and annoying to run that slow, but she knew she was making progress. 

I wish I could say the same. I was in the heavy weeks of marathon training, feeling zombie-like, and I wasn't sure if my work was paying off. I would do my workouts and run all the miles, but I felt grumpy. My speed work suffered. I wondered aloud if maybe I should try heart rate training, too--perhaps my method of staring at my watch wasn't working as efficiently as I once thought.  

Related: Run at the Right Intensity 

I started doing research. I learned that your running should correspond to a different heart rate depending on what you're trying to accomplish within your workout session. We've all looked at a training program and thought, hmm, what is tempo pace? How fast should I run that mile repeat? And perhaps most importantly, what pace should I be doing the majority of my miles?  

When you start running, coaches often tell you the best way to measure whether or not you're running too fast is by using the talk test. Can you talk? Good. But that doesn't work for people who don't have a regular training partner. And it doesn't work for people who, like me, end up racing random strangers in the park. It also doesn't work for the data-focused person who looks down at their watch and thinks, well that's just too dang slow.  

I thought heart rate training might offer a good solution. It would give me a specific number to hit and maintain—that's why I'd become so reliant on my pace in the first place. And the more I read, the more I realized the most precise way to measure effort might be through heart rate. 

I was ready to give it a try. 

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