Making the Case for Heart Rate Based "Running"

Rather than a strength or physical preparation coach, I've recently taken to calling myself a "systems analyst."  I didn't come up with the term - it's borrowed from Dr. Stuart McGill - and I don't have the huevos to say it at a social gathering.  But it's always fun to pretend in the land of the internet.

Analyzing systems captures how I approach movement, conditioning, strength, and goals. Breaking down large topics to biomechanics, biology, and how it's all one big system, is usually met with positive feedback (even if it comes with a few "Office Space" jokes). But what's the one topic that tends to meet the most resistance?  How to increase one's running ability, because it's counter to what most people think.  

Whether you're trying to increase your mileage, decrease your splits, or just trying to run faster, it all comes down to understanding the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems.  In order to get better at endurance and improve your mile times, we need to train your more efficient, but less powerful aerobic system. Too often, people inadvertently train their less efficient, more powerful anaerobic system instead.  How can you tell the difference?  By looking at your heart rate - an objective measure of how hard you're working.  

When your heart rate is lower, your aerobic system is going to be conducting the brunt of the work and you'll be less fatigued. And with a lower heart rate you'll be expending less energy and will last longer (in the short term and long term).

However, the usual scenario I encounter is when someone always runs at 140 bpm or more for an extended period of time (I've even had people tell me they "cruise" in the 170-180 bpm range!). Unfortunately, this is not going to improve running ability over the long term.

To be blunt, these people may see incremental gainz but they are running too fast for their aerobic system to create the adaptions it needs: increasing the size of their left ventricle and increasing stroke volume (the amount of blood that is pumped out of your heart); increasing mitochondria and aerobic enzymes; conditioning their body and brain to use as little energy as possible.

Instead, these people are usually sitting right at their anaerobic threshold which I like to compare to redlining a car's engine. By always teetering on the edge of what you're capable of, your body won't learn how to go slower and be more efficient. And while there is benefit in increasing your anaerobic threshold, there's not that much room for improvement.

This. Don't do this.

This. Don't do this.

But there's a ton of room for improvement in your aerobic energy system, something I've written about just a few times here, here, and here too.  To continue the car analogy, improving your aerobic system (read: running slower) is like giving you more cylinders in your engine.  So rather than going out to run with only 2-3 cylinders and not being very efficient, you'll have 4-5 and be less fatigued.

Still, there tends to be reluctance at running at a slower speed or even, dare I say, slowing down to a brisk walk. They tend to be:

  • "If I slow down, will I ever be able to run fast again?" The answer is yes.
  • "If I go by my heart rate, I won't be moving fast enough to qualify it as a run." That's OK! In fact, you'll be better for it.  And you CAN still call it a run..
  • "If I use my heart rate to guide my running pace, I may not be as advanced as I think I am." No one has explicitly said this one, but I can read between the lines. :)

The other reason to run at a lower heart rate is that it will actually help you recover.  And the more I learn about training, the more I've learned that recovery drives training - not the other way around.

With a lower heart rate approach, you'll end up lowering your resting heart rate and activating your parasympathetic "rest and digest" system. This helps you sleep and recover, and since you're not going to be as fatigued from having your heart rate so high, you'll also be ready for more frequent training.  Double win.

Including at least 1-2 days of this lower intensity approach is going to be a game changer for almost everyone. The higher intensity/running speeds will always be in your back pocket. But you'll be even faster when you need to use them.