Pacing yourself using heart rate zones

By | 05/04/2015

Every now and then some of my friends ask how I prepare for long distance races, so I decided to write a couple of posts about this. Note that I’m not a doctor, however, and I’m basing my training on a lot of secondary sources. Alas, treat this with care and consult your doctor if you have any more serious questions about health implications.

One of the most important aspects of preparing for long distance running is to pace yourself. You obviously won’t be able to sprint all the time, and if you’re constantly running in your anaerobic zone then you’re likely going over the top and will cause more harm than good in the long term. To avoid this, you should divide your training into different intensity levels. Since intensity can be directly related to your heart rate, then I like to call those intensity levels “heart rate zones”.

In order to utilizie those “heart rate zones” you need to know your maximum heart rate. You can estimate it using the old (220 – age) formula, or use an online calculator. The linked calculator, in hindsight, yielded pretty accurate results for myself [1]. My maximum heart rate is 193 beats per minute (short: bpm). From that I can calculate the following intensity levels:

Slow (70% – 75%): 135 – 144 bpm
Calm (75% – 80%): 144 – 154 bpm
Easy (80% – 85%): 154 – 164 bpm
Brisk (85% – 88%): 164 – 170 bpm
Fast (90% – 94%): 174 – 181 bpm

Don’t make the mistake and assume that easy is actually easy. In fact it’s very close to the anaerobic zone and feels rather strenuous. Most of my training happens within the calm and easy zones, as those two are ideal for improving both stamina as well as the processing of lactic acid in your muscles. The slow zone is great for recovery, fat burn and staying somewhat in shape. The fast zone is something I try to avoid unless I’m actually taking part in a race, though sometimes it’s good to touch it during Fartlek sessions, just to experience what it actually feels like. To control that you are within the calculated heart rate zones I recommend using a heart rate sensor. It does not need to be anything fancy – personally I’m using a Polar FT 60.

[1] the online calculator yielded a higher HRmax than the 220-age formula for me, and my heart rate monitor tends to agree with the calculated result. The calculation result might be 2-3 beats too low, if I trust my heart monitor’s measurements to be always accurate.

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