Training – Heart rate training

The great Kenyan distance runner John Ngugi had his own unique training theory. He said that when he felt like going fast, he did; and when he didn't feel like it, he didn't.


The great Kenyan distance runner John Ngugi had his own unique training theory. He said that when he felt like going fast, he did; and when he didn’t feel like it, he didn’t.


Though Ngugi’s strategy clearly worked for him – he won a record four straight World Cross Country titles – for the rest of us mere mortals it can be a dangerous method. Going out and ‘seeing how you feel’ is not only a rather haphazard approach to training, it can also lead to making the same mistakes session after session, year after year. You might think the biggest problem would be the temptation to slacken off.

In fact, the exact opposite may be true. ‘The biggest problem I see with amateur athletes in all endurance events is that they don’t establish aerobic endurance before moving on to speedwork,’ says Joe Friel, author of a string of training books and coach to national champions and Olympians. ‘They want to go too fast too quickly.’

A little fitness can be a dangerous thing – if you simply go with how you feel, you may be tempted to do speed sessions when you should be doing base work. For Friel, the best method of reining in this natural need for speed and ensuring a more measured, but ultimately more rewarding, approach is to structure your programme using heart rate as a guide to intensity. With the help of expert Joe Beer, this article looks at the best way to do that.

In general heartrate is an excellent guide to intensity

Why heart rate?

Why use heart rate (HR) as a guide? Two reasons. Number one: because it’s accurate. Simply stated, it works like this: exercising requires energy, which is gained by burning oxygen in the muscles; the oxygen is carried to the muscles in the blood; the faster the heart pumps the more oxygen is transported. Therefore, the harder you exercise, the faster the heart pumps. ‘In general HR is an excellent guide to intensity,’ says Beer. ‘There is really only one factor you need to watch out for and that’s heat. In excessively hot conditions, HR is likely to be higher whatever the intensity. In this case you may have to rely more on perceived exertion, but given the UK limate, HR should be fine the majority of the time!’

The second reason is that HR is easy to measure. You can pick up a monitor from companies like Polar for as little as £40 (see our test starting on page 96). A simple strap around the bottom of the rib cage will give you an accurate reading on the accompanying digital watch.

Find your maximum heart rate

The next step is to measure your maximum heart rate as this will be used as a guide for intensity in all training sessions. The best way is to get it done professionally (see trainsmart. com or but you can also get a pretty accurate reading using the following method. Cycle nice and easily for five minutes at a HR just below 100. Then build at 20 watts every minute (or 1mph if you are using a cycle computer) until you are unable to ride and are totally exhausted. When you can feel your limit approaching, sprint flat-out to get the last dregs of effort and the last few beats. That last reading is your max. ‘You really need to give it your all,’ says Beer. ‘It helps to have a friend present who can take readings and shout at you. It should feel like your last effort on this earth. If you don’t see Elvis and St Peter and hear lots of harps you haven’t tried hard enough!’ This is tough, so if you have not been training regularly or have any fitness concerns at all, get a check over by your GP first.

How you can use your heart rate

With this info you can start to structure your programme to ensure you are running at the right intensity. But before we look at a specific schedule, let’s just be sure what gains occur at different training intensities. Then you can see how HR can be used to achieve this.

The main purpose of training is to improve the body’s system for delivering oxygen to the muscles – the more oxygen that gets delivered, the faster and further you can go.

So the first way we can boost our exercise capacity is to improve our facility for getting oxygen out of the lungs, into the blood and around the body as quickly and in as large quantities as possible. This is achieved primarily through speed training, which teaches the heart to pump the blood faster and at greater volumes. The problem is, speed training, as we all know, is extremely tiring and too much of it can lead to over- training. So you need to use it sparingly and in the period leading up to the competition phase. If you try to train at speed all year round, you’ll probably be burnt out by Christmas. ‘You need to look at it as the icing on the cake,’ says Beer. ‘First you need to make the cake itself.’

To make the cake you need a lot of riding at lower intensity, which will be easier to cope with and is also absolutely vital to the final part of the oxygen transportation process. Once the oxygen is in the blood, the next stage is to carry it to the muscles. Muscle fibres are surrounded by blood capillaries and the more capillaries that wrap themselves around those fibres, the faster the oxygen can get in. Riding at lower intensities for longer distances recruits more and more oxygen to the muscles of these fibres, facilitating greater oxygen transport and meaning that you can go faster and further.

Using your HR as a guide you can ensure that base training is slow enough to allow you to recruit more and more fibres. For example, data from elite athletes suggests that the majority of work during base training should be done at 55-80% of max HR. If you’ve never trained this way previously, 55% of max HR may feel like a ludicrously slow pace, but it should allow you to go far enough to recruit muscle fibres and capillaries that you would never normally have touched.

HR can also be used to check your aerobic level of fitness. For Friel, a good guide to knowing when you have recruited about all the muscle fibres you can is to cycle for a long time at a comfortable pace, say 75% of max HR. As long as the pace stays constant, so should your HR. If it drifts upwards throughout the ride, then you’re not aerobically fit yet and should continue base training a little longer.


There are also more specific HR tests that can be used to measure your progress during base training. Beer recommends the RAMP test (see which takes account of your performance at all different levels of HR, so you can see how these improve.