What is The Theory Behind Low Heart-Rate Running?

by | May 16, 2022 | Technical Articles

The urge to make every run feel like ‘hard work’ is adopted by a lot of runners. You may already know that, in order to be faster and fitter, 80% of your running should actually be easy. But most runners, equipped with this knowledge, still don’t train easy enough.

The method of low heart-rate running has been around for decades, and there’s now substantial evidence for why most of the top endurance athletes train this way.

So let’s break it down and set you on your way to improving your endurance, speed, and total running performance!

What is low heart-rate training?

Low heart-rate (HR) training is the concept and method of training, of undertaking the majority of your training at an easy HR zone – which, like all principles, varies between individuals. This method, when performed correctly, will help to improve aerobic fitness without overtraining and therefore injury, especially among runners.

It was a method pioneered by Phil Maffetone, a running coach and clinician, who has worked with a variety of athletes, from Mark Allen who is a six-time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon Champion, to helping thousands of weekend warriors to achieve their goals.

Why will low heart-rate training benefit your running?

There are a number of benefits to using low HR training, and there have been numerous studies that show the effectiveness of this training method. If you take one thing away from reading this article, let it be this:

Run slow to get fast

But let’s look at it in more detail…

Increasing aerobic capacity

Creating a solid aerobic base for training is key to athletes ‘going long’, as well as those aiming to get fitter. Low HR training will help increase your aerobic capacity so that you can run faster for longer, easier. A study by Stephen Seiler in 2010 [1], supported the concept that endurance runners should be doing 80% of their training at a low intensity. When combined with fewer highly intensive bouts of training, this proved complimentary to their running performance including their aerobic capacity and body’s learning and acceptance of the levels of stress it could be under.

Helping prevent over-training

If using this method of training, you will be able to maintain your training mileage without any minor injuries. Furthermore, you’ll help prevent yourself from getting ill – another important, but often forgotten, result of overtraining.

Increased speed

You will be able to run at your race pace with a much lower heart rate, leading to new speeds being unlocked for your threshold and higher HR zones. One study [2] found that, in a group of endurance runners, the magnitude of the improvement in running performance was significantly greater for those that completed a relatively large percentage of

low-intensity training, than those that completed mostly moderate to high-intensity training.

Burning fat

If you have goals of weight loss, don’t feel like you need to do everything at high intensities! Low HR runs can help burn your fat for fuel, due to the methods in which your body uses fuel stores to power your activities.

What could your low heart-rate training look like?

Often when runners take up this method of training, they still don’t run easy enough. So when you start training by HR, you might require a bit of a shift in your mindset. No longer rely or judge yourself on pace – whilst building the base, this isn’t important.

Ensure that there are enough miles in your chosen training plan that will help you to reach your goal; if you’re training for the Windsor Half Marathon, you’ll need to do more miles than if you’re training for the Windsor Women’s 10k, but that doesn’t mean you need to be running any ‘harder’.

At first, you need a lot of patience, as you’ll find that your HR will keep creeping up above your max ‘easy run’ HR value. The best advice we can give you? Just stick at it! When it creeps up on your easy run, just walk for a bit. After a few weeks of practice, you’ll find that you can sit at that HR value for your whole run without needing to walk to keep it down. After a few more weeks you’ll find that your easy runs at that HR feel exactly the same, but you’re actually running faster. Consistency is key with this method!

Using HR as a metric

Determining your HR zone is quite simple using the Maffetone formula; 180 minus your age. Maffetone deems this as your ‘easy run’ HR. For example, if you are 35, you would calculate 180-35 to be 145, and should therefore run your easy runs at 145bmp.

Using a heart rate monitor (HRM) is the easiest way to measure your HR. These devices are often affordable and accessible, making them a great tool to have in your kitbag.

However, there are a few cons to these devices. There is much speculation and discussion on the accuracy of HRMs. A study in 2019 [3] which has been supported by others since, suggested that wristwatches that measure your HR from your wrist are less accurate than a chest strap HRM. There is also a suggestion that upper arm HRMs produce an even more accurate measurement of your HR, although there are minimal studies to support this currently.

Either way, HR is flawed by one single factor: its changes are delayed. For example, if you’re running along trying to keep your HR below 150bpm and observe it rises to 160, you should slow down to a walk. However, you’ll notice that your HR doesn’t reduce straight away – in some cases, it might even keep increasing!

It could therefore be suggested that using HR as a metric for easy runs is ideal, but less so for interval training, where time or distance would be of more use.

A method used by many, low heart-rate training is definitely one to try this spring, ready for your summer races! Follow us on social media and let us know how you get on!

References

[1] Seiler, S. (2010). What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform5(3), 276-291.

[2] Esteve-Lanao, J., Foster, C., Seiler, S., & Lucia, A. (2007). Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research21(3), 943-949.

[3] Pasadyn, S. R., Soudan, M., Gillinov, M., Houghtaling, P., Phelan, D., Gillinov, N., … & Desai, M. Y. (2019). Accuracy of commercially available heart rate monitors in athletes: a prospective study. Cardiovascular diagnosis and therapy9(4), 379.