How I’m gauging my heart-rate zones without a heart-rate monitor

We are currently hunkered down, sheltering from #hellastorm! Where we live, it’s just been some rain and some wind, although we had a giant front come through a few minutes ago which was actually quite impressive. I think San Francisco and other areas of the Bay Area have had it much worse. The Dude’s school has closed so we’re sat in bed with the iPad for a bit. And what else to do during a massive storm than blog??? 

Earlier this week, I had an email from a lady who is also doing 80/20 training. She asked me how I gauged my different heart rate zones, bearing in mind that I don’t use a heart-rate monitor. As I was writing back, I realised this might be an interesting subject for a post, so I thought I’d talk through it here. Many of you are much cleverer and more science-y than I am, so I’d welcome your thoughts.

This was the gist of what I wrote.

The caveats

  • I am not an expert. I’m not very scientific. Some of the science sections of the book had me bewildered. I could translate it into two different languages but I didn’t understand bits of it.
  • I think Matt Fitzgerald would have a fit if he looked at my training and heard me claim to be using 80/20. I’m not sticking exactly to his plan for a couple of reasons.
This is Matt Fitzgerald running as far away from my 80/20 claims as possible
This is Matt Fitzgerald running as far away from my 80/20 claims as possible

How I’ve tried to incorporate the principles of  80/20 into my running.

  • I’ve used the 3rd plan for the half-marathon – the ‘advanced’ one.
  • As you know, I’ve had a crazy couple of months and so I’ve not yet started doing doubles or any cross-training that are called for in that plan. I’m hoping to start doing both very soon.
  • I’ve upped my running days to 5/week instead of 3 or 4/week. This has resulted in about a 10% increase in my mileage. More would be better, I know, but life is busy and I don’t have time to add more. I think the additional mileage/running days has been good for me.
  • I’ve had at least two rest days/week. That 3rd plan calls for just one rest day/fortnight but I know my legs and my spirit wouldn’t handle that very well.
  •  I’ve plotted my mileage carefully and done my best to keep an 80/20 balance of slower/faster miles. Sometimes I’m slightly over, sometimes slightly under but I aim to get as close as possible.
  • However, I have never worn a heart-rate monitor. Ever.

How have I determined my different heart-rate zones?

I would be the first to admit it’s been guesswork. However, there has been some method in my madness. In my head, it’s a bit like driving a car – different gears, if that makes sense. I feel like, for every heart rate zone, I ramp up a gear.

Z1 – I had three weeks where I ran super slowly. My legs were very tired and I let them run as slowly as they wanted. However, I’d start slowly and then realise that I was still ‘making an effort’ so I ran slower still until it was genuinely very easy. That turned out to be about 11.25 pace, which was humbling. I rarely run that slowly now, but that would be Zone 1 for me.

Z2 –  I’ve been running slowly for two months now and that easy pace is now about 10.30. Whilst I’m running, I imagine that my friends are running with me. Can I chat to them? Could I hold a conversation and run at this speed comfortably? When I stop at red lights, am I (at all) breathless? That’s kind of been my gauge for the slower paces.

In the Zone (Z2)
In the Zone (Z2)

Z3 – For me, zone 3 has been where I pick the pace up but am not pushing it and could still chat fairly comfortably. That has turned out to be about 9.20 – 9.40 pace for me.

Z4 – Zone 4 has been where I’m running pretty fast. Because of my heart, I rarely sprint – zone 5 – so I try to run as fast as I can at a sustainable pace. This would be tempo pace or 10k race pace, that kind of thing. That’s turned out to be anything from 8.15 – 8.40.

Z5 ? – When I do intervals, I sometimes look down on the fast sections and see 7.50 pace sometimes (which is very exciting for me) but that’s for a very short period of time and I don’t do that very often as I want to train wisely as regards  my heart.

For me, the big thing about gauging easy pace was literally imagining my friends running next to me and thinking about whether I could hold a proper conversation with them as we ran along. And also the red light thing was important – am I at all out of breath or not? Those questions have been my  constant guide.

I definitely think a heart-rate monitor would have been wise. It’s prescribed in the book after all, and it would definitely keep my training more true and honest. In the future, I may well get a Mio and sense-check my zones, but I’m fairly happy with the mental zoning I’ve described above.

We will see, come February, how well it’s worked.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Grace says:

    If you drop enough hints maybe there will be a Mio in your Christmas stocking? 🙂 I think that given your medical history a heart-rate monitor would be a useful investment for you anyway!

    1. Cathryn says:

      Not a bad idea…hohoho…off to drop some hints.

  2. Jen says:

    In my experience, your zones/definitions seem like they’d work about 90% of the time. What I’ve noticed from using a HRM over the last 4 months is that sometimes my perception is off — either when I’m mentally or psychologically feeling good and I perceive my effort to be low (when in fact my HR is too high for an easy run), or when I’m feeling worn down, so I feel justified in running super slowly (but my HR is actually pretty low and I should pick up the pace to get into the aerobic zone). Then there’s the issue of how truly honest are you being with yourself when you get constant pace feedback from your Garmin. (I mean the generic “you” and not “you” specifically.) It’s just human nature, I think, to look at the pace and have a reaction or judgement. The nice thing about HRM’s is that they don’t make judgments, they just report a number that is an exact physiological state. Anyway, it’s not the end of the world to be wrong about these things or if you never get a HRM, but I wouldn’t discount the 80/20 plan if it doesn’t work for you, because you’re not exactly following the plan as stated. (Does that sound mean? That’s not my intention… sorry if it does!)

  3. Cathryn says:

    No, I totally get what you’re saying. Before I endorse/condemn it, I need to actually follow it.

  4. padraigjapan says:

    I use a Mio Link which syncs to my Garmin Forerunner 220 (which I think I saw in one of your blogs) by Bluetooth. It is pretty cool.Training by heart rate is important but it is also important feedback in a marathon. If you start out at a pace that you think that you should be able to handle but you HR is way high, you know early on that you will have trouble in the second half of the race and you need to slow down. Believe me, I have been there.

    1. Cathryn says:

      I’m starting to think that a Mio may need to sneak its way into my stocking!!

  5. dlubi says:

    Last year was the first year I started using a HRM more consistently, and it was interesting! I only raced with it a few times, but it did actually help me run a PR at the Oakland Half Marathon. I was told by my coach to run at a particular heart rate (gave me a specific beats per minute goal) for the first 8 miles and then run by feel the remaining miles. I had no idea how it would go and remember chatting with Jen before the race – we were both curious about this experiment. For me, this technique worked really well, and I was able to maintain the same heart rate to the end and finished feeling strong. The interesting end result was my fastest half marathon to date! Granted I was being much more consistent with training in general, but that training was not specific to this race. I still failed somewhat at the nutrition thing, but the heart rate pacing seemed to work for me in terms of keeping my body moving at a consistent effort throughout the race.

    That being said, I don’t always run/race with an HRM. I think it is incredibly valuable to be able to also gauge your zones without technology because sometimes technology fails (have had this happen) or you may race longer than those device batteries last. 🙂

    Maybe try both out – test the HRM once you feel like you are gauging your zones consistently and then you’ll have the numbers corresponding with each zone in case you ever want to race by HR as well. Or calculate your zones with the HRM and then go out and run each and see how they feel. I agree with Jen that so many other factors play into pace on any given day. The nice thing about the HRM is that it gives you a more objective look at your effort, which can be really helpful.

    Keep up the great work! Looking forward to reading about your upcoming PR!

  6. Cathryn says:

    Thanks for your lovely and helpful comment! I think a Mio might need to go on my list!

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