Getting started with your heart-rate monitor

If you’ve treated yourself to a new running watch recently, the chances are it came with a heart-rate monitor. Whether an optical reader on the watch itself, or a strap worn around the chest, the heart-rate monitor is often a rarely used feature. But with a little investment of time, it can become one of the most useful gadgets you own. As heart-rate is a measure of exercise intensity, understanding it and using it can have real training benefits for runners of all abilities and experience. It can help you train at the right intensity for each session so that you recover well and can get the most from future training. Here is how you can get started.

An optical heart rate sensor

Feel how you run

Before you even put your heart-rate monitor on, spend some time developing your awareness of how you feel when running.  How do you feel when going long and slow? Are you out of breath or can you talk normally? What about if you run at a slightly harder pace? How do you feel when you are working at the hardest effort you can? Building up a picture of how your body feels at different effort levels is key to successful running whether you ever measure your heart-rate in numbers or not. The more you are aware, the better. When you start using your heart-rate monitor, you’ll be able to use the figures to back up what your body is telling you, rather than relying on the technology itself. A self-aware runner is what you should aspire to be!

Learn to feel how you run - at different effort levels and in different conditions

Work out your start and end points

In order to get the most from measuring your heart-rate, you’ll need to establish some baselines. Firstly, you’ll need to know what your resting heart-rate is. This is how many times per minute your heart beats when your body has been at rest, so is best measured first thing in the morning. Do it  before you get out of bed. Wearing your monitor overnight and looking as soon as you wake up works well. At the other end of the spectrum, you also need to know your maximum heart-rate; how many beats per minute your heart makes when your body is working as hard as it possibly can. Ask Google and you will find many formulae for working this out, but these are often no more than a rough guide. It is more effective to find out your actual rate through some hard activity. One way is to do a thorough warm up, then run as hard as you possibly can for three minutes. Jog or walk for two minutes as recovery, and then run as hard as you can for another three minutes before cooling down. Your maximum heart-rate will be the highest reading that you get during the second hard run.

Get in the zone

Once you’ve got your resting and maximum heart-rates worked out, you can think about what happens in between. If you use an app such as Garmin or Strava, you’ll see that heart rate training and data is often divided into five zones, something like this:

Training zone: Percentage of maximum heart rate: Example for a runner with max HR of 180
Zone 1 – recovery / easy running 60-64 108 - 115
Zone 2 – endurance / base running 65-74 116 - 133
Zone 3 -  tempo pace running 75-84 134 - 151
Zone 4 – race pace running 85-94 152 - 169
Zone 5 – maximum effort / sprinting 95-100 170 +

Once you’ve worked your figures out, it’s time to see how they relate to your actual running. Over a few weeks, try a variety of runs – some slower and easier, some hard and fast, and some in the middle. Think first about how you feel and then take a look at what your heart-rate monitor tells you. If your easy run feels really easy, what does the monitor say? Does it confirm you are within the right zone? Does it suggest you are running too hard? What about at a deliberately hard effort? Is your heart rate within the suggested zone, or are you perhaps not running hard enough?

There's a wealth of guidance out there on calculating heart rate zones

Learn what’s normal for you

Once you’ve developed a really good awareness of how you feel when you run, and what your heart monitor tells you, you’ll create a picture of what’s normal for you. When running feels really easy, you’ll have a pretty good idea what kind of figure your heart-rate monitor will show. If you’re racing for a 5K PB, again you’ll know what range of beats per minute to expect to see. It takes time, but your heart-rate monitor will become a check for you. It will confirm, or otherwise, what you already know.

Learn what your heart rate normally looks like


There are, however, several things to be aware of as you get to know your body, and your heart-rate monitor, well:

  • Heart-rate is very personal to you, so you need to rely on the information you have for you and you alone. Your running friend may have vastly different figures to you, and that training plan you’ve found online might do too, so be focused. Use what you know about you, not someone else
  • The sensors on a monitor are not always accurate, especially optical wrist ones. Sometimes just having the strap too tight or being extra sweaty can result in figures that are far from your normal. Look out for these and learn to recognise when they happen. Sometimes you’ll just know it’s not you, it’s the monitor!
  • Heart-rate is dependent on many variants and can fluctuate a lot. Age, gender, fitness levels, medication, hormones and even the weather can cause a change in how fast your heart beats. Learn what’s normal for you, and if sometimes your figures are out, ask yourself why this might be
  • Prior training, and lack of recovery from it, can have a big impact on how fast your heart beats. If you’ve not fully recovered from your previous run, your heart might not be able to work fast enough to do the next session you’ve planned. Look out for low figures when exercising and feeling sluggish; they’re a sign you need to rest or take it very easy. Likewise, a higher than normal resting heart-rate in the morning is a sign that all is not well
Use it

Once you’re aware of how you feel running at different effort levels and how the figures from your heart-rate monitor relate, use it. Experiment with training plans based on heart-rate or effort rather than pace, using your knowledge to keep broadly within the right training zones. If you wake up feeling out of sorts, use what you know to decide whether you should be running at all. Whatever you do, though, don’t become a slave to your watch. Go first with how you feel and use the data as a back-up if you need to - you'll enjoy your running much more that way.