Exploring Heart Rate Training
Hi Striders - Amelia here - this newsletter’s article is about my 1-year experiment and in general experience with low heart rate training. A smidge about me - I’ve been recreationally running since my senior year of college in 2006 and completed my first half marathon in 2008. For those of you who may not know me, I’ve been a Strider since 2013, I’m a past President, VP, Treasurer and RRCA Certified Coach and I am currently sitting as an At-Large member. I have completed two full marathons - one in 5:59 and another in 5:32 - so decent, but by no means as fast as some others. I’ve also completed eight triathlons (five Olympics) and 20+ half marathons. When I joined Striders in 2013, I was also dabbling in the DC Triathlon Club’s New Triathlete Program, which is where I first heard about heart rate training.
I’ve been relatively lucky that for most of the past 14 years I’ve run injury-free. After my first full marathon in 2013, however, I did have aches on one side of my body, of which I learned I have a slight (~3 millimeter give or take) hip imbalance and I have periodically visited a chiropractor since then for adjustments. This injury came back with a vengeance in the summer of 2019 and I had to take a month+ off running. Silly me had fallen off the regular chiropractic visits, and I felt all sorts of messed up. One of the things being injured does allow you to do, however, is research.
Have you ever heard of Low Heart Rate Training? MAF? The Phil Maffetone Method? In 2014 I read portions of the Triathlete’s Training Bible which has plans where you “run in Zone 2.” I upgraded to a Garmin Watch with Heart Rate chest strap in 2016 and the Garmin Full Potential training plans in Garmin Connect start with “Run in Z2, easy, 35 minutes.”
If you’ve ever looked at this, the way I did, and thought, BUT MY ZONE 2 IS A WALK! I hope you enjoy this post and consider trying what I tried, even if in the end it didn’t quite work out for me, it works for a lot of folks.
So to back track a bit more on my history, I began running in earnest in 2008 and until mid-2019, shall I say, I “just ran.” I never did a walk-to-run program. I tried walk/run intervals a handful of times, but for the most part I just ran and tried to keep up with a group if I was with one. I joined my first running club when I moved to DC in 2011 and I joined Striders in 2013 when I moved to Alexandria, and until 2019 my long-term average was always a decent 11:30 min/mi. When I got my HR monitor in 2016, I’m not sure how, but I decided staying at/under 165bpm felt OK. So that’s what I did.
So, a little bit around Heart Rate Zones. Have you ever seen those in Garmin or elsewhere in running literature? For the most part there are 5 zones pre-determined by age (the 220-minus-age formula). While this is standard across industry, it’s not always right for everyone. I’m still not sure how or why I decided staying at/around 165bpm felt ok, other than I was able to keep up with people. I’m definitely that past club President who would host a group run, and someone would show up and say let’s run slow, and I’d roll my eyes because their “slow” was a 9 min/mi pace. Something that for me, to quote my beloved comic The Oatmeal, is definitely coked out orangutang pace.
It just so happens that I had quit going to the chiropractor for that hip imbalance because things felt fine. Flash forward a year and half, and my hips were screaming for an adjustment, which knocked me out of running for most of the summer of 2019. So, I decided to do some research, especially after attending Dr. Mark Cucuzella’s Adult Running Camp in West Virginia, and I finally stumbled across the MAF Method. The MAF Method calls for a single heart rate, not zones, and his formula, while not well known, has worked for 30-40 years on professional athletes (ie Mark Allen, 6x Ironman Champion). His formula calls for 180-minus-age, which for me means I should be keeping my heart rate below 145, 20 beats lower than I had been running at. I came to this realization that the way I had been running, at least since I got the monitor, and probably before, was anaerobic, which causes stress, burns glucose (which leads to a ‘bonk’ for those of you who have experienced that) does not burn body fat and creates cortisol and inflammation. Yuck! In September 2019 I finally did a VO2 Max test for the first time and that finalized my thoughts on trying on this “stuff.” (Side note, I’ve also been dabbling with a high fat low carb diet since late 2018).
Unfortunately, a year later I was hoping to have some fancy charts and this amazing story about how I went from an 11:30 min/mile (standard pace) to a 14:30 min/mile (standard to have to majorly slow down for a couple months when you start MAF) to qualifying for Boston.
In the end my pace never really changed. But what did change, however, was the amount of miles I put in without injury. In an average year I’d be good to hit 400 miles. Once, I hit 700 miles in 2015, when I was training for and completed the Marine Corps Marathon.
My mileage last year, even after missing over a month due to injury and having to come-back from said injury? 586 miles. So far this year with more than two months to go I’m at 514 miles. I’m in a mentally weird place with my "running", on one hand I’m ecstatic that I’m running so far distance-wise, especially given this year with COVID. In March of this year I was scheduled to complete the DC Rock n Roll Half Marathon for my 9th consecutive year. Yes, the race was cancelled, but I completed it anyway (Half Marathon #21). As the summer went on its merry way, I completed another 16-week training plan as set by Garmin. Up until August 19 my Half Marathon in West Virginia, directed by Dr. Mark Cucuzella, was still on for October. But 2020 is what it is, and that small race was cancelled as well. But, I still completed it (Half Marathon #22). Each race took me exactly around 3 ½ hours – a far cry from my early 2018 PR of 2:19 in the Bahamas.
So, I’m still learning, and enjoying it. Since early October 2020 I’ve been wearing my heart rate monitor just to record the data and not stick to a distinct training plan. We’ll see where I go from here. I keep telling myself by not running at a high heart rate not only am I un-doing years of anaerobic burnt out damage, but I’m also building my aerobic system for the first time in a decade+ of running. I may be slow, but I’m still amazed at how many miles I’ve run so far this year as I honestly didn’t check until writing this article.
If you have any questions about low heart rate training, here are some of my best links. I highly recommend it, but keep in mind if you choose this path, you must stick with 100% of the time and it will take time and heck, you may not even get the results you want (ie speed). I’ve read a lot posts where people start and don’t see progress in a month or two and quit. I’m still hovering around that 14:00 min/mile, which I know is turtle pace to so, SO many Striders I follow on Strava. But, if you want to work on that endurance engine and run more than you’ve ever run without getting burnt out or injured, it’s worth a shot.
Books: "The Endurance Handbook" by Phil Maffetone & "80/20 Running" by Matt Fitzgerald (audiobook available with Fairfax County Library)
Written by fellow Strilder Amelia Baldree-Nicholls
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