I have become a little obsessed with marathons over the last year. I ran my first one last October and have run 8 since, when I say run I really mean completed. Most have just been social endurance events, 26.2 miles of love and laughter, well tolerance and the odd hysterical cackle. Since my first at Beachy Head I have only properly run 2, Brighton and Halstead. At Brighton I finished just outside the 4:30 mark and at Halstead just inside. After mainly finishing in the 5 – 6 hour region these 2 felt like quite an achievement, but as a runner I am never satisfied. With a bit more effort I could go faster, I could get one of those infamous sub 4 marathons, and this is the target. I asked around about training techniques and came across the notion of Heart Rate monitor training. A large amount of distance runners assured me that this would certainly help.
The theory behind Heart Rate training from what I can work out is that your body has 2 sources of energy. When you’re doing intensive exercise like running hard you burn glycogen which is actually stored in the muscles ready for use. When you run out of glycogen you hit the infamous wall and everything gets so much harder. The other source of energy, is the fat your body has stored, this is first of all converted to glycogen and then sent to your muscles and used. This process happens more efficiently while you re doing less work, as measured by your heart rate, and this is where the heart rate monitor comes in. Remember you are not dealing with a natural scientist here so I may have got the details a little fuzzy. The important thing is that if you want to be able to run long distances efficiently you must train your body to burn more of your fat than glycogen so you run out of steam as late as possible.
The first question which should spring into any right thinking persons brain is how do I know the amount of effort I need to put in to stay in the ‘fat burning’ zone, what should my heart rate be if I want to continue converting fat to glycogen? This is where it all gets a little more complicated and we need to do some running and some maths.
The first thing I was instructed to find in all the literature was my maximum heart rate. So I went out and threw mud at a couple of particularly aggressive dogs, stood outside a kebab shop at 3 in the morning throwing chips at drunk people, and smeared myself in honey to run round a wasps nest. Actually while all of those may have raised my heart rate what I needed was something a bit more controlled, so I asked one of the coaches at my running club and followed his advice. I went out for a tempo run, then at about 4 miles I upped my pace to threshold for about half a mile before sprinting as fast as my poor little legs would go for 10 seconds. I thought my chest was going to explode from my chest like an alien baby. Getting home and checking my monitored rate you could quite clearly see where I had sprinted, and where my HR had peaked at 188 beats a minute.
The next part of this mission involved taking my resting Heart Rate and doing a clever bit of maths. Resting heart rates are a bit easier to find. For starters I had recently been given a medical where they checked my rate 3 times, it came out at 39 bpm and they thought their machine was broken. After I had been lying on the sofa for an hour doing nothing my rate was about 45 bpm so I used that as my most recent example, and then performed my calculation to find my Heart Rate Reserve, from which I would learn my Heart Rate Zones. I simply take my resting heart rate from my maximum rate, in my case this is
HRR = 188 – 45 or 143
Now there are 5 heart rate zones which have different training uses, but the one that I was interested in was zone 2, this is the one that helps to improve endurance and make your body more efficient at burning fat and processing glycogen for longer periods. This zone corresponds to between 60 – 70 % of your HRR plus your resting Heart Rate so in my case it works out as follows.
(143 x 60%)+45 = 131 – (143 x 70%)+45 = 145
To stay in the ideal zone for improving my bodies ability to run faster for longer I need to keep my Heart in zone 2 or between 131 – 145 bpm. After I had done all this research and calculating I discovered that my Garmin would have done it all for me. Oh well at least I learned something.
Now for the big question, has it helped? To be honest I was warned that it would take a long time to see results, and I have only been training in this way for about 3 months. I only ever use the HR monitor when I am doing long slow runs and I still do some speed training and tempo work. I have noticed a couple of things though. I am getting quicker with the same HR up to about the 10 mile mark. I have a 6 mile route I have used to check my progress against and I have taken over 30secs a mile off my pace round this route. That’s a minimum of 13 minutes off a marathon time if it can be sustained. After 10 miles my HR goes up so the real key is to train in this fashion with runs longer than 10 miles. I have actually run 2 marathons with the HR monitor on, you can read about them here, and run a few 15 and 18 mile training routes. My problem is that down my way there are a lot of hills so it is difficult to know how that translates into pace gain on the flat. The other thing to consider is that this may all fall apart when I actually run a marathon for time, but next week I am leaving the monitor at home and racing the Thames Meander marathon. Then we can see if this has been the start of a major improvement in my marathon times or another runners training myth.