Heart Rate Monitor

When To Best Use A Heart Rate Monitor

Ready, steady, go...and don't forget to push the buttons.

I purchased my first (polar) heart rate monitor back in 1998 to prepare for my first marathon in Berlin and was as proud as one could be as a distance runner. That small little blue watch soon became my best training partner. It would be dismissed as my friend if it spat out the wrong numbers during kilometre repeats or a tempo run.

But there ain't tricking a watch full of advanced technology!

And hasn't it developed even more this past decade!

If anything you're an outsider these days - especially amongst endurance athletes - if you're not wearing such a monitor on your wrist. Polar certainly is the most well-known brand (in Europe).

Many books have been written on the right use of heart rate monitors.

This article isn't going into scientific details. It'll explain in an easy-to-understand way the most important facts on the smart use of your high-tech training partner in the sport of ultrarunning.

Instead of becoming somewhat dependent on tracking down every run in detail learn how to use it sensibly aiming to define and develop your running pace.

Find out the two staple training sessions where it most matters to track down the numbers and heart beat averages.

In ultrarunning, many athletes use the Forerunner 405 launched by Garmin not long ago which is known to have a reliable navigation system (GlobalPositioningSystem). Its integrated pace calculator might help you during long events such as 12/24-hour-runs and any other competitions where adequate pacing plays an important role.

Years ago, I used my heart rate monitor for every run and noticed that I had become dependent on it. I felt alarmed by every heart beat higher than to what I had set the watch to. I would eventually turn off the bleep function promising myself to only look at the display occasionally.

That didn't help trying to get confidence in my running pace without the heart rate monitor.

I have seen this amongst many athletes and people that work out on cross-trainers, steppers and on treadmills in gyms. They literally freak out when they are not training in their presumed zone and think there's something wrong with them. They depend on these high-tech training tools as to abuse them as full-time training partners.

For some athletes, obsessing over calories burnt during and after training starts to become the focus as opposed to keeping an eye on the truth and meaningfulness of your workout.

The pure enjoyment of the particular training session is blown, too. Not to mention the passion for the sport that can be spoiled in the process.

On a good day, you might silently thank your monitor for showing you the 'right' running pace on that particular day. On bad days, you'd favour to throw the watch into the nearest bin.

While in some sports, running calculators and pacers serve as a good guideline to get started and ease into a workout routine, ultrarunners are better off using heart rate monitors sparingly.

When should I keep an eye on my heart rate?

First, let's have a look at some factors that must be considered when talking about the purpose and meaningful use of your monitor:

  • The amount of sleep you've had over several days can influence the heart rate positively or negatively
  • Especially before a hard or very long run getting enough sleep over the course of a few days prior to the workout is crucial; aim for an average of 7-8 hours of sleep per night
  • An occasional glass of wine or beer is okay for the pure enjoyment of alcohol; overstepping the limit can definetely have a reverse effect on the resting pulse even if you might not be fully aware of this
  • Stress and severe lack of sleep, i.e.less than six hours a night, in any shape or form over longer periods of time can weaken you mentally and physically

  • By all the factors mentioned above fatigue is indicated by a higher resting pulse and must be taken as a serious sign of overtraining and/or an infection/illness

Now, due to these facts and with the knowledge that we as ultrarunners naturally and through conditioning have a good feeling for our bodies the heart rate monitor should be used on days of recovery and during interval training.


Because you'll only get faster during the days or - in some cases weeks - of recovery. This means to learn and condition yourself repeatedly to run at an easy pace to the extent of really enjoying a nice jog during a recovery week.

This means to either setting your heart rate monitor to recovery zone and making sure you really are going slow. Or simply keeping an eye on the running pace with the pace calculator. This can range between 6:00 min/km -7:30 min/km depending on your current level as an ultra athlete.

Here, keeping an eye on your heart rate while running clearly serves as a helpful tool guiding you to keep an easy pace and develop a feeling for a moderate pace.

Now, during more intense workouts such as interval trainings the heart rate monitor is ideal to help you tracking your progress over time.

I started to wear my running watch regularly on the treadmill while running hills or cross-overs. After three weeks of more intense running and tracking my heart rates I would slow down and ease into seven days of easy running to full rest when needed.

Over the course of about two months I was able to still run the same pace for an interval but the average heart rate had decreased by ten beats! That was a clear proof of an improvement in my fitness and endurance. Find out now which specific interval you can do to reap similar benefits:

  • 10 mins. warm-up
  • 2 mins. @ 11.0 @ 0% incline on a treadmill
  • 2 mins. @ 11.0 @ 0.5%
  • 2 mins. @ 11.0 @ 1.0%
  • 2 mins. @ 11.0 @ 1.5%
  • 2 mins. @ 11.0 @ 2.0%
  • ...continue up to 5.5%
  • 6 mins. @ 9.0 @ 0%

Repeat 2-3 times. Increase or lower the speed accordingly. Speed in this example is km/h. Track your heart rate after each main set and after recovery.

Sprinkle this interval into your training routine every two weeks and notice your progress.

So, for us ultrarunners there is no need to go crazy about pace calculators and obsess over numbers.

Most importantly, we're running for the pure enjoyment and because we feel passionate about going out for long runs and participating in ultra distance races.

Your heart rate monitor is definetely a wise and helpful training tool. Every once in a while, focus on the simplicity of a nice (long) run and leave your heart rate monitor at home.

You can read a full review of one of the more advanced monitoring devices called the Garmin Forerunner 305.

Use it to your advantage when needs must.

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