The Heart Doesn't Lie

Ever wish you had the instruction manual for your body? Once I took exercise physiology in undergrad, my running life changed forever. The classroom was filled with about 60 other students, who mostly cared to not be there, but there were two students there who had a bit in common with me. First of all, this was not our first rodeo. Julie and Mike, much like myself were 'back in school' a second time, and we had pretty good reason to pay close attention: forthcoming applications to Physical Therapy school. Second, we were all endurance athletes, and knew that "exercise physiology" had the cheat-codes for better races. 

My name is Dr. Allan Buccola. I am a Physical Therapist and owner of Impetus Physical Therapy in Greensboro, NC. This post is about one of my favorite topics in exercise physiology, one that totally changed my running in 2012, allowing me to train smarter, not harder, and accomplish three big race goals in a single year...even with a newborn in the house. Heart rate training! As a disclaimer, please be aware that this post is intended to serve as education only, and not as medical or professional advice in any way. I have not examined you personally and cannot make personal recommendations for activity. 

heart rate takes training to the next level 

I talk to endurance athletes all the time. Runners, Cyclists, Triathletes... you name it. One of the questions that I always ask when diving into training habits is whether they do any heart-rate training. The response is almost always no, with responses that would make you think they're talking about flossing: they know how important it is, they've thought about it, but they just haven't committed to giving it a shot. 

Since the boom of GPS technology and websites like, most of my friends have become little data junkies, obsessed with paces and distances to the hundredth decimal place. I know many who hold their pace tightly as if an identity, and demand that each run be in multiples of 1.00 miles only. 

All of these idiosyncrasies, I can totally relate to, but at a certain point, ones training must progress. It might be a promotion, a new baby, or just a long plateau since the last PR, but most of us get to a point where "running more" just isn't cutting it. This is where HR training becomes the snipers rifle of training tools.

Continuing development as a runner means training multiple metabolic systems, and if you don't use a HR monitor to target your training, you're definitely not running your fastest PRs. Here are three reasons HR training will give you better data...and results. 

Pace and Effort are not Synonymous 

Most of us hit the pavement with the mentality that more is better, right? More runs per week, more miles per run, and more sweat. This strategy has limitations, including injury, burn-out, and plateau. Progressing your fitness with advances in training volume is a necessary strategy, but in isolation, it's also a fool's obsession with injury. I'm here to tell you that it's time to start training smarter, not harder. 

I've never met a dedicated runner/cyclist who didn't train 'hard enough.' Many put too much emphasis on pace as a marker of effort and progress. Pace is a simple two-dimensional concept that is defined by a relationship between distance and time, but its a terrible way to measure effort, because of some inconsistencies. Effort, or how hard someone is working, is another vital component to training but is usually though of in terms of how hard we're breathing or how much we're sweating. Really, the best way to measure physiological effort is via heart rate (HR). 

HR trumps pace in measuring effort because when we talk about endurance sports, we're think about improving strength, speed, and economy, but moreover we're talking about cardiovascular adaptation. In exercise, the cardiovascular system rules all other systems from neurological to endocrine, and HR gives direct information on how hard the heart is working. As temperature increases, as hydration decreases, as fatigue settles in, the ability of the cardiovascular system to function at its most efficient rate changes, which is why 'pace' is not always a consistent measure of effort...but HR is. 

If a runner is determined to hit their goal pace at every training run, without respect to the exertion being put forth by the heart, the risk of injury or even heart damage begins to increase. Runners who are serious about dialing in specific training tools are using HR training to develop all systems better and smarter. After all, your pace gets easier as training progresses, so it's important to use HR to maintain consistent workout efforts in order to avoid plateau. 

differentiate easy and hard workouts

In the development of multiple metabolic systems, there are important reasons to integrate long-slow-distance, speed work, tempos, sprints, and intervals. Some novice runners reading this post, may not be familiar with these terms, but for those of you who are, ask yourself if you really understand the purpose of these workouts. How do you really know how slow or how fast these workouts should be? The answer has little to do with pace and much to do with HR. 

Long-slow-distance is crucial for the development of mitochondrial density and capillary proliferation. Tempo runs are crucial for improving ones lactate threshold, and high intensity intervals are the easiest way to develop VO2 max, but if you aren't doing these workouts at the right HR, you might be wasting your time. Decades of research has shown how performing these workouts at the correct metabolic intensity sets the stage for ideal hormone secretion for development of these systems.

If you consistently go out and run your long-runs too fast, with disregard to your HR, you may not be developing your oxidative muscle fibers as you should be. All of these classic workouts are intended to be performed at a very specific metabolic rate, but if you aren't using HR training, your simply guessing. 

Cardiovascular Fitness means Wellness

There is a fine line between cardiovascular fitness and wellness. As runners, the last ten years of cardiac research has been confusing and discouraging. Data revealing how excessive mileage and running intensity may damage the heart has been difficult to digest. Many of us run with passion, but also with a resting comfort that we are doing something good for out health. 

Recent evidence suggests that there is an upper limit to volume + intensity in the training world. Cardiovascular fitness may continue to increase as a system, but cardiac tissue begins to accumulate micro-trauma and scar tissue, just like any other muscle. My point is this: if research says that ideal lactate threshold runs should be run at 85-90% of maximal HR, and that running at greater intensities is no more beneficial, than why run harder when it increases injury risk? 

I think far too often, it is easy to over exert ourselves and even though we feel powerful and dedicated, we run the risk of unnecessary stresses on multiple body systems. It's far too easy to get inside of our own head, or the runner's next to us, and neglect the available data. That data can allow us to train smarter: to target each workout and avoid the stresses that have limited utility. 

When I work with runners at my practice, this will always come up, because keeping runners injury free is about more than just shoes, hydration, and training programs. There is too much available, underutilized research that can help athletes train smarter, longer, and safer. I plan on doing my best to bring as much of it as possible to every athlete out there. Injury prevention and human performance must be intimately connected for everyone who wants to be stronger, faster, and more resilient. Contact me for the most detailed running wellness evaluation there is, and lets start making strides! 


Keep moving! 


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