Training by heart rate instead of pace during a sultry summer — Duh!

16 Oct
Posing with Barb before part of her 50K run at Jubilee College State Park near Peoria, Illinois. This is one of my last training runs before the 2013 Des Moines Marathon.

Posing with Barb before part of her 50K run at Jubilee College State Park near Peoria, Illinois. This is one of my last training runs before the 2013 Des Moines Marathon.

In early September, I wrote a post about training in the heat and humidity. The summer’s heat was dragging on, and my training pace was dragging, too.

What effect did these conditions have on training pace? According to a couple of articles I referenced, high heat and humidity should be expected to add up to 3 minutes per mile to your training pace. Here’s my earlier post.

The question I couldn’t answer at that time, however, was: Would the slower training pace have a negative impact on my race results?

According to this article in Runner’s World, the tough climactic conditions still can translate to good results when the weather moderates. Using an example of a specific pace and a specific heart rate, author Susan Paul wrote:

A large part of training is related to the heart rates achieved during training. Even though your training pace has slowed down, your heart rate will still remain in the 120 bpm range and possibly be even higher because of the adverse weather. Your body becomes conditioned to that heart rate range regardless of the actual run pace. When the weather cools down, and you run at that heart rate, you will find you are able to run your 9:40 pace and probably even a bit faster after slogging through tough conditions!

It was like a light bulb turning on for me. It was both an “aha” moment and a “duh” moment.

I’ve done some training by heart rate, but because of technical difficulties with my heart rate strap, I tired of that method. But I listen to the Endurance Planet podcast on training runs nearly every week (great podcast, highly recommended), and Dr. Phil Maffetone’s training method is a frequent topic on the podcast.

In a nutshell, Maffetone says subtract your age from 180 to find your optimal heart rate for training. Consistently train at this aerobically appropriate heart rate — no matter the weather or the hills or whatever — and you can expect to see an improvement in your training pace over time. If you don’t, there are other stresses that are depressing your results.

But the key to this method of training is to maintain a steady heart rate. Nearly every week, podcast hosts Tawnee Prazak and Tim “Lucho” Waggoner are asked if the optimum training heart rate can be adjusted — because of the time of day or the nutrition consumed or because the questioner is a well-trained athlete. As Maffetone himself indicated on the podcast one day, if you allow variations in the heart rate, you aren’t training by that method.

Even though I haven’t been training by heart rate, that variation in heart rate due to the stress of heat and humidity resonated with me. Any attempt to maintain a specific pace was going to result in an increase in heart rate that was going to be hard to maintain. But if I allowed my pace to slow so I could maintain a certain heart rate (or a certain level of perceived exertion), I would maintain a steady level of training.

So my pace decreased with the harsh conditions. Will my race results suffer? Susan Paul says “not necessarily so.”

I guess I’ll find out when I run the Des Moines Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 20. A number of other factors may impact my race results — the temperature that day, my race day nutrition, pacing, et cetera — but I do feel better about my summer training.

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